Katharina Grüneisl, University of Nottingham
In July 2017, the Tunis governorate launched a campaign of unprecedented scale against informal markets. Massive police deployments—timed to coincide with the Eid festivities when many vendors had left Tunisia’s capital city to visit their families—rapidly dismantled the dense street markets that had come to characterize the central city. The demolition of informally built market infrastructures, the confiscation of merchandise, and the arrest of vendors was branded a “clean-up campaign” by the then-governor of Tunis Omar Mansour. In prominent media appearances, he blamed the sprawling trading landscapes for propagating “anarchy” and “chaos” and portrayed the markets’ removal and subsequent relocation as a precondition for a return to law and order.
The trade in imported second-hand clothes, shoes, and diverse used objects—referred to in Tunisia with the umbrella term fripe (French term for “used clothing”)—played a prominent role in the appropriation of public space and thus became one of the central targets of the governorate’s clearance campaign. Especially since the 2011 revolution, when a reconfiguration of local governing relations enabled a surge in informal building activities, fripe markets had expanded rapidly across the capital city. A vernacular Tunisian word creation, fripisation, thus gained traction, capturing the fripetrade’s capacity to take over and transform urban space. Rue du Liban, a formerly residential street in central Tunis, turned into one of the most spectacular sites of fripisation over the past decade. As one of its long-standing inhabitants put it, “we step out and no longer know our street because the fripe trade has taken over everything, even our windowsills, entrance, and staircase.” The governorate’s 2017 campaign thus sought to reverse this process, first through the clearance of Rue du Liban’s fripe market and then through the relocation of displaced vendors to an adjacent parking lot.
In examining this top-down attempt at market relocation, this paper posits Tunis fripe marketplaces as sites that crystallize multiple and at times competing agencies in the production of urban order. Based on ethnographic fieldwork in the Rue du Liban market between October 2017 and February 2018, as well as on interviews with local police agents, the municipal market authority, and the Tunis governorate, this research is part of a more extensive, ethnographic research project on the Tunisian fripe economy undertaken from 2017 to 2020. As places of circulation and exchange in which space is scarce and access to it becomes a condition for livelihood-making, markets demonstrate how everyday urban politics emanate from, and become articulated through, divergent mechanisms of spatial organization.
The first and second sections of the paper situate contemporary policies of countering fripisation in genealogies of governing urban marketplaces in Tunis. It shows first how spatial enclosure and fixity have dominated representations of “orderly markets” since colonial times, producing a fictitious dichotomy between “souk” and “marché.” Second, it explores how the fripe trade eschewed static market forms, turning its evolving market landscape into a site of periodic contention. The third and fourth section then turn to Rue du Liban, examining the governorate’s clearance campaign as a spectacular performance of state power that disrupted multiple other routinized forms of order-making. To comprehend the resistance to and eventual failure of market relocation, the paper investigates the intricate temporal and spatial ordering mechanisms that enabled the functioning of Rue du Liban as a fripe market before government intervention. By zooming in on market processes at the micro-scale, this analysis exposes the incompatibility of a politics of permanent settlement with the fripe trade’s dependency on keeping space open to multiple kinds of movement and circulation and deliberates what wider implications this has for urban politics.
- Souk and Marché: Genealogies of Distinction Between Orderly and Disorderly Market Forms
Urban marketplaces—as dense intersections of human and material circulations—juxtapose diverse agencies and interests in the organization and distribution of space as a scarce, and thus highly contested, resource. To assert fiscal and political control over marketplaces, both the colonial authorities and post-independence governments in Tunisia sought to impose fixed spatial parameters on markets, thus framing non-enclosed or sprawling trading spaces as transgressive. This translated into differentiations between souk and marché—or disorderly and orderly market forms—that reverberate in the contemporary governance of urban marketplaces in Tunis.
The Arabic term souk is derived from the verb “to go towards” or “drive,” testifying to the emblematic role of markets as radiating centers of movement. Consequently, the souk was often framed as an ungovernable site, representing a rural-urban interface that centralizes flows of merchandise, people, and information. Attempts to establish fixed spatial delimitations for marketplaces were thus at the heart of the Ottoman tanzimat modernization reforms in the late nineteenth century. Policies of market enclosure and regulation were subsequently systematized by the French colonial authorities. In the capital city, the colonial authorities incorporated the construction of urban marketplaces—modelled after French covered market infrastructures and thus called marchés—into their project of European city building. Mirroring a “colonial urban order that was segregationist and dualist,” the Tunis medina and its suburbs, or faubourgs in French, with sprawling, open-air souks were now juxtaposed to the newly planned European districts that featured enclosed marchés. The new central market of Tunis, completed in 1891, became the epitome of the modern market, complete with an office for sanitary control and tax inspection. The model of the covered marché was subsequently replicated across the European districts while new decrees formalizing health and safety regulations for fresh food markets in 1904 legitimized the forced enclosure of the remaining open-air souks in the city center. Simultaneously, legal provisions first formalized in 1884 banned colportage (hawking) from all public spaces and streets were now regulated as mono-functional spaces for mobility.
Such colonial-era policies produced juxtaposed urban market forms, captured in a new lexical differentiation between souk and marché. This dichotomy first mirrored a broader system of “differential regulations” for European and native districts under French colonial rule and then came to describe separate categories of governing that outlasted independence. Consequently, modernization efforts in the capital during the 1960s initiated a process of dé-soukalisation that aimed to eradicate sprawling, open-air markets. Weekly souks were now framed as “archaic forms of trade lacking spatial order and unable to contribute to economic progress.” This led to attempts to first completely prohibit and then severely restrict the parameters of weekly souks on the capital’s peripheries (ibid). Meanwhile, the colonial-era model of the covered municipal marché was replicated, both in new urban areas of Tunis and through the forced enclosure of remaining open-air marketplaces.
In reality, post-independence policies of dé-soukalisation had limited success: while weekly souks retained their importance in supplying a majority of urban dwellers with fresh produce, covered marchés often remained underutilized because traders refused to pay occupancy taxes or relocated back to the open street to capture passenger traffic. Nevertheless, the normative distinction between backward and modern—or sprawling and enclosed—market forms produced separate categories of governing that cast some market landscapes as inherently transgressive to urban order.
- The Fripisation of the City as a Problem of Urban Governance
As trading in second-hand clothes was long considered a socially marginal activity, it remained confined to the outskirts or interstices of urban markets in Tunis. Excluded from planned urban marketplaces, fripe traders were thus forced to make space for themselves in the city through processes of appropriation, unauthorized construction and the gradual adaptation of infrastructures designed for other purposes. This resulted in the emergence of an evolving fripe market landscape that consistently transgressed the ideal type dichotomy between souk and marché and posed a challenge to urban governance by eschewing fixity.
The fripe trade’s origins as itinerant barter trade and, thereafter, its reputation as an income-earning niche for poor rural migrants explains why it was never considered worthy of being accommodated in planned urban marketplaces. In colonial-era Tunis, ruba fikia (second-hand clothes) were collected and resold by door-to-door traders, who were described as a nuisance by the colonial authorities from the early twentieth century. With the onset of fripe imports to Tunisia—first war-time surplus materials from the Second World War and then civilian used garments from the United States during the 1960s—rural migrants with little other opportunities on the urban labor market began to establish themselves in the trade. In the absence of permanent trading spaces, these migrants built on existing clan-based solidarities to collectively appropriate land to construct the first fripe marketplaces. Most prominently, the fripe traders succeeded in establishing marketplaces at the heart of the urban renewal project in the Hafsia district of the Tunis medina (Fig. 1) and at the center of the newly built housing estate Cité Ibn Khaldoun.
Fig. 1 Fripe traders permanently occupied a large open terrain in the Hafsia in 1970. (Abdelkafi 2017: 79)
In addition to the construction of such specialized trading places, fripe traders soon occupied the fringes of most inner-city marchés and came to appropriate ever-larger trading areas in the weekly souks of Tunis. By the early 1970s, fripetraders already accounted for over 30 percent of the overall number of traders in certain weekly souks on the capital’s peripheries. In conjunction with the six-fold growth of global second-hand clothing exports between 1980 and 1995, fripe imports increased exponentially in Tunisia and resulted in a further expansion of trading landscapes in the capital. In addition, a new legal framework adopted in 1995 exempted the fripe from import taxes, on the condition of recycling at least 20 percent and re-exporting at least 30 percent of total imports. This law transformed Tunisia from a simple end destination of fripe imports to a sorting and re-distribution hub on the global second-hand market, with 50 sorting factories operating by the end of the 1990s. The professionalization of fripe sorting also transformed the local market, as the availability of differentiated product types and price categories resulted in a rapid specialization of marketplaces. High-end fripe markets offering exclusively fripe de luxe (luxury fripe) now emerged in wealthy residential areas, attracting a middle- and upper-middle-class clientele that would not have bought from the fripe beforehand. In Menzah VIII, an expensive residential area in the north of the capital city, fripe traders took over the covered municipal marché—originally built as a fresh food market—and transformed it into a popular shopping destination for second-hand designer brands.
By the late 2000s, the fripe trade had thus morphed into a ubiquitous and differentiated commercial landscape, spanning weekly souks on the urban outskirts, numerous permanent marketplaces in the inner city, as well as clusters of boutiques and street markets. While some fripe trading places had been consolidated over decades, others remained in flux. The capacity of the fripe trade to continuously occupy new urban spaces and infrastructures, as well as its defiance of spatial containment, periodically constituted it as a “problem” of urban governance. Particularly in the aftermath of the 2011 revolution, when an unchecked increase in fripe imports further spurred on the proliferation of fripe trading, fripisationthus came to be framed as a challenge to urban order, by local government and residents alike. A citizens’ initiative called Winouetrottoir (meaning “where is the sidewalk”) for example launched a vociferous campaign against the spread of informal vending, identifying fripe traders as key culprits for what they considered to be “a descent into anarchy” and “a process of rapid urban degradation.” Such negative representations must be understood in continuity with post-independence urban policies destined to contain processes of soukalisation in the inner city and complaints about the boumendalisation of the Tunis medina from the 1990s onwards, alluding to the rapid spread of trade in cheap made-in-China commodities.  As one of the most spectacular sites of fripisation over the past decade, Rue du Liban was thus a prominent site for government intervention in 2017, allowing the governor to stage a symbolic return to order through market clearance and subsequent containment in an enclosed site.
- Enacting State Power in Rue du Liban, or the Failed Attempt to Contain Fripisation
By autumn 2017, Rue du Liban had turned into a densely occupied market street that had acquired a city-wide reputation for its exquisite and rapidly changing offer of diverse fripe products—from second-hand sneakers to accessories and kitchen utensils, baby clothes, toys, work uniforms, and women’s underwear. The market street consisted of permanent fripe shops (located in former garages, workshops, or food stores), metal vending stalls with stable positions, and diverse handcarts and ephemeral stall structures that formed temporary market extensions, particularly during weekends. (Fig. 2). The governorate’s clearance campaign, which targeted the stalls occupying Rue du Liban’s roadsides and sidewalks, was intended primarily to reclaim the symbolic monopoly over the production of spatial order. However, the subsequent relocation attempt of the displaced fripe traders to an adjacent parking lot (Fig. 2) rapidly exposed competing agendas in reordering the marketplace, including amongst local government entities.
Fig. 2. The fripe market in Rue du Liban before the clearance and the adjacent market relocation site. (Grüneisl 2023)
The violent clearance of fripe market stalls in Rue du Liban occurred without prior warning on a sunny Saturday morning in October 2017 when the fripe market was in full swing. It took not only the fripe traders by surprise, but also the local police agents and employees of the municipality who were responsible for the market’s day-to-day governance but had received no prior notification. Instead, the Tunis governorate relied on external police units for the execution of the “clean-up.” In line with previous clearance operations, it ordered the destruction and confiscation of all merchandise and materials belonging to nassaba (street vendors), while leaving the adjacent fripe shops in Rue du Liban undisturbed. In the aftermath of the campaign, police vans were permanently stationed at the street’s intersections to prevent the displaced fripe traders’ return.
The governorate subsequently tasked members of the Municipal Market Authority with overseeing the relocation of the displaced traders to an adjacent parking lot that was to be transformed into an orderly marketplace. While the governor of Tunis had publicly advertised his “comprehensive relocation scheme,” the employees of the market authority found that no precise plans had been elaborated, let alone discussed with the fripe traders. Following the example of previous relocation projects, municipal employees thus began to draw up standardized plans for a new fripe market within the concrete walls of the parking lot. Homogenous vending plots were to be allotted to the displaced traders through a number system and a grid-like arrangement of identical stall spaces was to guarantee the market’s internal order. However, due to a lack of any extra budget for the relocation, the municipal authority only commissioned one model stall space that was then to be reconstructed independently by each relocated trader. In addition, the governorate ordered the municipal employees to levy fees for a batenda (license) from every relocated fripe trader.
While the governorate had thus successfully captured media attention with its clean-up campaign—producing symbolic images of a return to “order”—the municipal employees openly expressed their frustration at being confronted with an impossible relocation task. The fripe traders felt betrayed by the authorities’ violent attack and lack of negotiation, and therefore they categorically refused to move to the relocation site. While none of the fripe traders openly admitted responsibility, they likely hired or cooperated with the bandiya (thugs) who broke into the relocation site to vandalize the model stall space and infrastructure set up by the market authority. When the external police units were deployed elsewhere in December 2017, previously existing agreements between local police and fripe traders fell back into place, allowing for a gradual return of the market stalls to Rue du Liban. Meanwhile, the new marketplace soon turned into a waste disposal site for the fripe traders (Fig. 3) and the governorate lost interest in the relocation scheme, allowing the municipal market authority to quietly shelve the project.
Fig. 3. After several break-ins, the relocation site became a disposal ground for unsold fripe merchandise. (Grüneisl 2017)
The governorate’s clearance campaign and plans for top-down market reordering relied on a depiction of Rue du Liban as fawdhawi (chaotic) and thus on the complete negation of the fripe market’s existing internal structure and ordering mechanisms. However, both municipal employees and local police agents had in fact routinely participated in co-producing a form of order in the Rue du Liban fripe market over the preceding decade and were thus familiar with the complex processes and negotiations that underpinned the marketplaces’ evolving forms. They hence recognized the relocation project’s incompatibility with the market’s day-to-day functioning from the outset and only ever engaged half-heartedly in its implementation. In addition, these local state actors had earned regular rent from the booming fripe market through informal taxation and the patrolling of the market’s shifting boundaries. This further disincentivized participating in what they recognized to be a disruption of the market’s functioning mechanisms, for the sole purpose of delivering on the governorate’s abstract promises of “order.”
- The Spatio-Temporal Order of the Fripe Market: Enabling Movement and Circulation
The relocation plan for the Rue du Liban fripe market followed the standard recipe for creating an orderly market: first, the enclosure of trading activities in a confined site away from the open street and second, the establishment of a standardized, internal partitioning with identical vending positions for each trader. This section examines how the specific market processes that constitute Rue du Liban as a functioning fripe market in fact depend on an intricate—albeit largely illegible—spatial and temporal order that was upset through the clearance and permanently threatened by the relocation project. It does so in three parts: first, it examines the strict temporal and spatial order upon which day-to-day coordination between different fripe traders in the street is premised; second, it shows how particular patterns of spatial occupation in the street help stabilize market hierarchies; and, finally, it demonstrates how the market’s boundaries function not as fixed and impermeable spatial barriers, but as relational constructs that evolve and adapt to movement over time.
First, the clearance campaign targeted exclusively the stalls of traders occupying the street space, or what the authorities pejoratively referred to as “intissab al-fawdhawi” (chaotic standing), thus failing to recognize the intricate connections between permanent fripe shops and vending stalls in Rue du Liban (Fig. 4). In fact, stable working agreements between shop owners and nassaba or street vendors (at times verging on non-formalized employment relations) enable the resale of the permanent shops’ unsold fripe merchandise in the street stalls for a share of profits. This accelerates the turnover of fripe merchandise in the market and allows traders to multiply “bale openings,” the moments when new merchandise from the sorting factories is first disclosed to customers. As the temporalities of valuation of the fripe are short-lived, with peak value attained only in the moment of bale opening and a rapid, subsequent devaluation through repeated sorting and exposure to sun and humidity, such temporal coordination is crucial. The traders of Rue du Liban thus attribute the market’s success to the synchronization of new fripe deliveries, bale openings, and the handover of leftovers for resale. These temporal arrangements in turn hinge on particular patterns of spatial occupation. The plan to permanently separate the nassaba from the fripe shops through market relocation therefore threatened to upend the mechanism of synchronized, two-fold circulation that accounts for the exceptional success and popularity of the Rue du Liban fripe market.
Fig. 4. Fripe shops and nassaba stalls occupy opposite sides of the road in Rue du Liban’s middle section. (Grüneisl 2018)
Second, the internal reordering of the market through the attribution of numbered vending plots on the basis of a lottery system disregarded the subtle hierarchies and coordination mechanisms that had created specific spatial occupations in Rue du Liban. While the authorities perceived the fripe market as fawdhawi (chaotic), most nassaba had in fact long consolidated their vending positions, with their initials inscribed on the concrete walls behind them. Resale agreements between shop owners and stall vendors not only determine the positioning of stalls during the day, but also define in which fripe shop the stalls and merchandise are stored overnight (Fig. 5), transforming the fripe boutiques temporarily into what has been referred to as “magasin-entrepôts” (shop-warehouses). Moreover, tacit hierarchies among different nassaba determine where they operate in relation to shifting market boundaries. This, for instance, distinguishes the fripiers (fripe traders) working within the market from marginal resellers—often simply referred to as zwawila (poor people) whose trading activities are strictly limited to the narrow sidewalks along the tram lines on the market’s fringes. Finally, profit-sharing agreements with employees of the mo‘atamadiya (district administration) and local police units in the form of unofficial “tax collection” have further stabilized the vendors’ occupations of public space over time.
Fig. 5. The nassaba pack up their merchandise to store it in the fripe shops overnight. (Grüneisl 2018
Third, the relocation to an enclosed parking lot contradicted the fripe traders’ reliance on the open street to ensure the uninterrupted circulation of goods and people. As one of the fripe vendors explains, “our customers in Rue du Liban are mainly commuters, they look and buy while walking, so we need to catch them on the way.” The fripe traders thus insist that the market’s relocation to a walled enclosure—not visible from the street—would translate into a loss of vital commuter traffic. In addition, the nassaba consider any physical and visual barrier between them and the street as a key impediment to their sales practices, as it deprives them of their capacity to flexibly adapt to shifting densities and movement. Most fripe traders with permanent stalls in fact collaborate with vendors who resell fripe on so-called berwitas (handcarts) and are able to rapidly adjust their positioning. Especially when the market gets so congested that commuters bypass Rue du Liban, these mobile vendors position themselves at the intersections, expanding the fripe market boundaries outwards. The plan to confine the market and to separate it from the main commuter route thus signaled the loss of one of the market’s key competitive advantages that had spurred the process of fripisation in the first place.
A close-up analysis of the day-to-day processes that constitute Rue du Liban as a successful fripe market highlight their incompatibility with the static and abstract market form the governorate’s relocation plan sought to impose. On the one hand, the top-down intervention upended intricate mechanisms of temporal coordination amongst fripe traders, which depend on strict market hierarchies and a stable partition of space that reflects these. On the other hand, the market’s permanent enclosure clashed with the fripe market’s reliance on market boundaries that remain negotiable as intangible relational constructs that are thus able to adapt to and accommodate diverse forms of movement and circulation.
In Tunis, as in other cities in the Middle East and North Africa, urban marketplaces represent privileged sites for both the contestation and the symbolic enactment of state power. This became particularly apparent in the aftermath of the 2011 revolutions, when sprawling street markets turned into an emblem for the erosion of governmental control, but also triggered repressive state intervention in cities across the region. In Tunis, the fripe’s evolving trading landscapes eschewed the policies of containment and fixity that were associated with “orderly” market forms, presenting the rapid fripisation of urban space as a central problem of urban governance.
Contemporary attempts to contain fripisation must be situated in genealogies of governing urban marketplaces through the imposition of static spatial forms and enclosures in Tunis. Marketplaces, as dense intersections of flows of people, goods, and money within which access to space is contested, repeatedly frustrated such efforts of top-down order-making. This is so because, first, markets bring to the fore multiple agencies in the production of “spatial order.” Specific market processes depend on intricate forms of temporal and spatial order that typically remain illegible to outsiders and are thus portrayed as chaotic or anarchic. By exposing how particular economic processes depend on, and in turn constitute, distinct spatial forms, analysis of market processes foregrounds how everyday social and economic practices co-produce a plurality of urban orders. Second, as this exploration of fripe markets has emphasized, the functioning of any given urban space as a ‘marketplace’ depends on patterns of spatial organization that keep it open to diverse forms of movement and circulation, and thus allow for adaptation and change over time. This directly contradicts dominant approaches to governing urban marketplaces as static spatial containers, defined by their confines and material infrastructures rather than by the multiple circulations that underpin their operation as sites of exchange.
Marketplaces therefore constitute a vantage point from which to analyze the divergent agencies of space-making that articulate different forms of urban politics in the present-day city. The participation in the organization of urban space—even through seemingly mundane, quotidian practices like fripe vending—is thus here considered as a political act that articulates claims to shared urban resources. Especially at this time of escalating socio-economic crisis in Tunisia, the capacity to access urban space and to transform it into trading grounds becomes an ever-more important and contested source of livelihood-making. At times, marketplaces thus turn into sites of complex negotiation—between state and non-state actors, or formal and informal market participants—that can allow plural agencies of space-making to coexist and complement one another. At other times, marketplaces articulate conflicts over what becomes legible as urban order and who can be recognized as a legitimate participant in its production. From incremental political acts of subversion through the production of new market forms to moments of outright confrontation between different ordering mechanisms, marketplaces thus foreground the analysis of diverging modes of spatial production as an entry point for engaging with urban politics.
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