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From the experiences and the mind of Cara Ghassemian.

(Copyright 2024, AIMTours. All rights reserved).

A big Juniper vessel and a little, smiling, Juniper vessel. Lahcen Amzil and his grandson Elias.

You may already know that the five-pointed green star on the red Moroccan flag represents the five pillars of Islam, which in descending order of significance are faith, prayer, charity, fasting and the haj (the pilgrimage to Mecca).

This day was to encompass all of these, at least metaphorically, but the focus of this parable is on charity, or put more simply: giving.

The Moroccan flag


The story begins

As I wanted to develop an artisan trail focused on the gorges area of the Boumalne Dades, I arranged to spend a couple of days with Anir to meet artisans there.

Anir’s father had been a nomad until the age of 18, and after completing his physics degree, Anir, who had come to resist the Arabanisation of his identity, decided to return to his Amazigh roots by running a tour business, that concentrates on the Amazigh culture and its close ties to nature. Meanwhile six or so of his siblings live in France. Only one sibling, a sister who has epilepsy, remains with him in the Boumalne Dades, and is in the care of their aged parents.

It was Anir who suggested that he and I visit the juniper tribe in his region.

We drove 30 minutes from Boumalne Dades and took a right turn at a fork in the road. There was a sign at that corner, pointing in the direction of our journey, that bore the word  “Ikniouen” , which means “twins” in the local Amazigh dialect. I took note of the sign because I have identical twin nephews. It was interesting how the signage also pointed towards what I was to learn later that same day.

We arrived at the village of the Juniper people in Ait Marsite. Like Anir, they identify as Amazigh (or more traditionally, “Berber”). Each artisan had his own modest workshop, while they awaited the completion of the government building to showcase their skill in one shared space. At the entrance to Lahcen’s workshop, as the small crowd of a grandfather, an uncle or two and assorted ragamuffin children gathered around me, I opened my notebook and started asking some questions, with Anir translating for me.

What I learned is that juniper woodworking started over 100 years ago with two brothers (This was when I wondered if they were the twins referred to by the road sign pointing in this direction). They had between them, six sons.

Even now there are only two family names in the village. One is the Amazigh version of “ironworker” or “ironmonger” (“Amzil”) and one is the Arab(icised) version of the same concept (“Hedadi”). Up to present times, including while I was there, people bring their metal tools to be sharpened by the locals. Metal tools are also intrinsic to the juniper woodwork.

Burnished copper colour everywhere. Moroccans seem often to wear the palette of their work. This is another artisan of the Juniper tribe, who was keen to showcase his work.


According to Anir at least, you can’t cultivate juniper. It just never works. It is only available wild in nature. The tribe has to venture much further afield to locate juniper than in days past, and today cutting down juniper trees is prohibited. Local artisans, however, are permitted and indeed encouraged by the government to cut branches and work on these. For branches to be useful for making the copper-embellished mugs and water vessels, they need to be a certain size. Be assured that if you buy their standard size mug (which reminds me of a German beer stein in dimensions), the wood that has been used is at least 100 to 200 years old and the trees from which that wood has been obtained, probably existed long before the artisanal skill itself.

Juniper Tree growing in Morocco

No glue is used in the making and once you have such vessels you need to put liquid in them at least once a week to keep the joinery leak-free. The artisans do not treat the wood, and the juniper smell is wonderful. The wood also completely repels insects and in fact the craft produces a by-product. The juniper woodworking process eventuates in a black liquid that is sometimes used to decorate items such as cool water pots, that might otherwise be an inviting place for a scorpion or poisonous snake to nestle in the hot summer months. Like insects, such animals cannot bear the smell of this liquid.

Lahcen making my coffee cups. He sat in that position for hours without moving to stretch his back once.

They need a lot of help these people with a simple village lifestyle. Although there is now a local primary school, Lahcen aged 28, along with his colleagues, is illiterate. He was so kind. As you will read in more detail further on, he didn’t want to charge me much for the little copper-embellished juniper coffee cups and spoons that I spent most of the day watching him make for me in his workshop. Or for the saucers that one of his uncles made.

There was also a young boy of about 12 (clearly mentally young for his age) who kept us both company, by staying close to the workshop entrance. This boy asked me every now and again for “bon bons” – and turned out to be Lahcen’s youngest brother. Elias, Lahcen’s mainly barefoot, pre-school son, also spent most of the day with Dad. Much more interesting than being at home with his mother and baby sister!

Lahcen’s work was wonderfully executed, despite Lahcen’s crossed eyes. He kindly invited us home for lunch with his pretty and smiling wife Aicha, his son Elias and Elias’s baby sister Sara. They had no electricity due to poverty, and not yet a door on the toilet that was adjacent to their front door. Anir had said “They don’t have the money yet for a door, but no one will walk past while you are using it”. (!!)

To me it looked like the chooks were lined up in prayer. The more prosaic explanation is that the chooks were escaping the brunt of the midday sun by sheltering under some juniper timber that is raised from the ground to avoid the disintegrating forces of nature that would otherwise beset it, if left to lie on the ground.


Waiting for lunch I sang “Frere Jacques” to Sara as I rocked her and sprayed some of my rose water on her and Elias, which they clearly found unusual but not at all unpleasant. Elias caressed his little sister and she seemed happiest when she could see her brother. This made me think that in the privacy of their little family unit, there was kindness and affection.

Lunch was a lamb tagine which we ate using bread, no cutlery. At one point I was trying to take some lamb, but I kept lifting the entire piece of lamb for all of us in my little piece of bread. Thankfully Anir intervened to assist me.  We were sitting on a colourful Moroccan carpet, around the little meal table, in their “salon”, I suppose you could call it. It was the sole piece of furniture in the room. During the meal Anir asked Aicha if she knew where Australia was. Aicha said in Berber that she didn’t even know where Boumalne Dades was, which made us all laugh.

A little Juniper tree girl I met on the way to Lahcen and Aicha’s home. She is “ALWAYS DREAMING” according to her t-shirt and with big shoes to fill, clearly. She is pointing downwards as though to say “My land. My roots”.

After lunch it was back to the workshop, a continuation of the mint tea, biscuits and nuts of the morning as I sat in a seat provided by Anir from his camping trips, watching Lahcen oh so diligently at work. There was also traditional sugar in large slabs – not at all crystalline as we are accustomed to and a few of the local men who came in and out of the workshop through the day, showed me how to break it using the edge of my tea glass rather than the base of it. Being educated in these little refinements in such situations is somehow moving because I feel there is a link between it and human dignity. 

I seemed to be the only one concerned about the time being consumed, but then I relaxed and went with the flow. If Anir and Lahcen weren’t worried, why should I be? It was God’s will. Anir was off, talking to neighbouring artisans, but I stayed with Lahcen. I felt at rest there, watching him work, so skilled and so patient, making something for me.

One funny thing: Lahcen seemed to have phonetically learned to say “Give it to me” in English. It was quite funny because he would give me the cup he was making, to check, for example, if I liked the shape of the handle. I would gesture my comment and then he would say something that led me to ask myself “Did he just say ‘Give it to me’?” I always did give what he had handed to me back to him in response and he always took it and he said it more than once with the same kind of associated interaction, so my interpretation was correct. But it wasn’t clear – he said it like one word and sort of mumbled it. It was rather interesting and intriguing.

Youssef, another artisan, brought me in a copper bracelet with my name and a few flower motifs engraved on it, as a gift. Anir had shown him what letters in the Roman alphabet to use, from his little set of stamps. Lahcen also made me one as a gift with the name of my friend’s fiancée, Maryam, with the same assistance from Anir. 

Anir had to explain the concept of a saucer to Lahcen and to the uncle of Lahcen who was to make them and how a saucer is used as a rest for a spoon or for a biscuit. I showed some photos of coffee cups with saucers so they got the idea. The saucers came back from his uncle’s workshop in two different sizes, but I didn’t mind – that is artisanal!

At the end of the day, I wanted to pay 500 dirhams (roughly $A80), but Lahcen rejected it as being far too much and told Anir that he couldn’t accept. I felt so touched in that moment. I was determined he have it. I removed 100 dirhams from his hand and followed his wife Aicha into the yard of another dwelling, where I saw that she was visiting other, similarly exotic and colourfully-clad ladies, languidly reclining on carpets – and handed the money to her, as we exchanged smiles.

I took my items and wondered what Customs in Australia would say about them. When the time came, I declared them as “untreated juniper wood from Morocco” to Customs, and they simply waved me through without checking my bags.

It is a sensory experience to drink my coffee in them and in the morning when I open my kitchen cabinet containing all my cups, the juniper scent immediately wafts out and reminds me of this special day.


Ismail, wood carver

Upon returning to Boumalne Dades very late in the afternoon, we visited another wood artisan, Ismail, who makes amazing, carved items of furniture as well as decorative items, from assorted types of wood. Many of the local auberges display his beautiful doors and cabinetry and he also exports. He has exhibited twice in France and the Moroccan government is quick to give him a visa to travel.

There is a lot in this image. We have the modern and traditional versions of woman’s labour in the form of the kitchen sink and in the engraving being held by Ismail of a woman with the bundle of twigs or vegetation on her back. Ismail told me it was his ode to the courage of women and I felt intrigued that he converted suffering, labour and burden into something courageous. It was Sisyphean and another example of how the simplicity of the artisan meets the highest levels of the most sophisticated culture.

His mother has carpets to sell but doesn’t really do it as a business. Except for henna, she does use powder colouring agents (as do many in Morocco) and she has no made-up stories to tell you about the meanings of her designs. They just are her, an expression of her, and that is that. Her rugs are offered at set prices (no negotiation). She is a sensitive, simple grandma, not a businesswoman.

She continued to chat to me in Berber while Anir and her son went to buy my bus ticket for Erfoud the next day. In the cool of the late evening I checked out their family animal stall of chooks and sheep. It reminded me of the one I saw once at Ait Ben Haddou, as an example of how in traditional houses, human beings and livestock coexist under the same roof. A remnant perhaps, of a time when Man was less estranged from his ecological niche and thus less beset by melancholy. She smiled so benevolently as she fed the animal life-forces under her charge. She had also given la luce as we say in italiano, to thirteen souls, her children (9 girls and 4 boys), and Ismail said to me that there were more than 30 children who called him uncle. Her granddaughter of 12 called Malak (“Angel” in Darija), Ismail’s daughter, translated for her and me from Amazigh to French to Amazigh. We thus managed to have some conversation, while Grandma nursed Malak’s baby sister Farah (“Joy” in Darija), in the cool of the evening in the garden, as we waited for Anir and Ismail to return and for dinner to be ready.

I personally feel that there are two major forces in this life: Eros, the life force, the creative force and Thanatos the destructive drive. Here, in this home, I had a strong sense of the Eros of Life and this made me feel at peace. Ismail’s art showed a love and reverence for the Feminine and this was likewise calming. 

We ate dinner with the family at 10pm in the garden, not far from the animals. Ismail’s mother and eldest sister (who was visiting from Rabat) did not eat with us, as they were waiting for the family patriarch (Ismail’s father) to return from the mosque having recited the last prayers of the day, so they could share the evening meal with him.

After dinner, Anir drove me back to my dar.

It was a tiring day and also somehow surrealistic and beautiful and pure.

This is what Ismail’s wood carving in the earlier image, depicts. Note how they use a waterway as a thoroughfare. This is also where women come to wash their clothes; even if they have a washing machine, they like the communal feeling of washing in the stream with other ladies. This photo is of the Boumalne Dades but somewhat different to the dry, desertique village of the Juniper people.



Next day I had to catch my bus with locals from the Boumalne Dades to Erfoud, the gateway to the desert. As I prepared to find the bus around midday, a stranger approached me and tried to wrest my suitcase from me. After initially forcefully resisting, to the point of it becoming a bit of a tussle, he said about five words to me in English/French: “I bus own”, “guide” and something else, I think it was a name that I recognised was the bus company name that appeared on my ticket. That made me realise that Anir had asked this man to look out for me, to make sure I got the bus and that he was the man from whom Anir had bought my ticket the evening before. I changed to being cooperative (became a believer you could say!) and followed this stranger as he carried my luggage. I was soon sitting in the shade in front of his agency shopfront, waiting for my bus to pull-up in the hot, searingly bright and dusty parking area before me.  In this strong light men walked past, in turbans and in brightly coloured traditional clothes, leading donkeys.

I thought to myself as I sipped on my bottle of water, that I had brought for the long drive to the desert: “Sometimes my life is really like a film set from one of those Indiana Jones movies”.


If you’d like to visit any of these artisans let us know before your tour start date. I hope your driver won’t be expecting commissions from these artisans – the Juniper people are so poor and Ismail and his mother resist paying them. Something to keep in mind. 



*** Also you might consider asking us about visiting the ornately-decorated, silver dagger workshop at Kelat M’Gouna in the Roses Valley nearby.

Every Amazigh man, including Anir’s father, carried a silver dagger until the French banned this during the time of the Protectorate.

This prohibition has continued to the present day.

Even now though, in far off and isolated places, such as lonely mountain tops, you will find modest versions, sheathed in a simple animal horn scabbard, for sale amongst various items. It makes you wonder about the bearers and their lives, from an earlier time in Morocco’s history. ***


Apple from Paradise – Ismail’s woodwork.


Published June 2024


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