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The times they are indeed a-changing – and while Morocco retains, and in fact reveres a lot of its ancient skills and artistic traditions, it is not exempt from the cultural dilution and pollution of contemporary living. The youth, like many of their contemporaries in Africa, dream of a life with more freedom and opportunities in Europe – so tantalisingly close, yet a world away. However – on the flip side – and there usually is a flip side to these debates – recently these skills and traditional crafts have been getting the recognition and support they deserve from both the world market, and importantly, from a younger generation of Moroccans. Breathing new life into many of these ancient skills, young Moroccan designers are re-discovering and re-interpreting methods and motifs from their history.
The contribution of your Tourism to turning the tide on the dissipation of beautiful old Morocco
Alongside this, tourists and travellers also have an integral part to play in ensuring the ongoing visibility of a “disappearing Morocco”. Increasingly these crafts are made for, and kept alive by, the tourist market. Joining one of our Disappearing Morocco tours in September and October this year (links below) will help you make the shift from observing to engagement. We will take you to that corner of the souk, lit by a single lightbulb, where a highly skilled artisan is quietly practising his art, easily missed away from the mainstream of the medina.
(Clients can also check out our information about Fez artisans on our “Client Resources” page on our website, here.)
So much about discovering Morocco is about engaging and understanding. About discovering the details as you hear the cry of “balak” and need to dash out of the way of a passing donkey! Take your time, have a conversation, and just maybe a glass of mint tea will be forthcoming – look a little closer at those crafts instead of seeing them merely as a backdrop for the next selfie.
Understanding the process and the skill involved in all these things, whether it’s those homemade biscuits to snack on, or which carpet(s) you have space for in your suitcase, means that you start understanding their worth. It is about acknowledging their material value. So often people step warily into a shop or studio in Morocco, having been told to haggle, bargain for basement prices, or not to be “ripped off”. These conversations rarely take the time and skill of the artisan into consideration. A young Berber girl is not going to be interested in taking up the age-old tradition of weaving beautiful carpets if she sees her mother and the women in her village working hard and long hours at the loom, yet still coming home with barely enough money to put food on the table. As tourists and visitors, we need learn about the skills and seek out the traders and (real) co-operatives that do indeed ask a fair price of the purchaser and pay a fair price to the artisan. We at Aussies In Morocco Tours™ can help you with this by giving you suggestions for quality artisans and honest traders and by arranging honest local guides who know what we want for you. Of course, “s… happens” in this imperfect world and also sometimes things get lost in communication, but we do everything we can in this regard with your interests at heart.
The crafts and skills of Morocco tend to be both tribal and regionally specific, which makes it easy to miss them if you don’t know where to go or indeed, what you are looking for. The green Tamegroute pottery for example is only made by a handful of people in a particular area in the south – an area where the local earth gives the pottery its trademark colour in the firing process. We take you here on our Disappearing Morocco Tours, the details of which are here and here. The more common blue and white pottery is a trademark of Fez, while the women in the Rif mountains have a distinctive style of making clay vessels all of their own.
With carpets being high on the Moroccan shopping list, it is interesting to find out a little more about the weaves, colours and patterns that each tribe or region references. The black and white Beni Ourain carpets – now copied by every high street homeware manufacturer – are made by the tribe of the same name in the High Atlas Mountains. The trademark monochromatic design is rooted in the practicality of the wool that was available to these nomadic weavers. Traditions do however shift and change, and these changes should also be embraced. With the expense of wool and the visible excess of old clothes and waste cloth, women in the mountain villages started weaving the colourful Boucherouite or rag rugs that are now so sought after by interior designers – a practical response to a contemporary problem using ancient skills to produce something beautiful and broaden the cultural vocabulary.
Moving from the handmade to the spoken word, the tradition of oral storytelling, Al Halqa, is one facet of a disappearing Morocco with a happy ending. The storyteller always had a central role in the smoke-filled evening on the Jemaa el fna in Marrakech, as young and old would gather around in circles to listen to a rich tapestry of tales. Over the years the storytellers grew older, and the crowds smaller. As people recognised that this rich oral history would soon be lost, something was done about it and the tradition of Al Halqa is now an art form that has been given World Heritage Status in Morocco. As a tourist, the best place to experience this tradition is at Café Clock – first started in in Fez and now with a Clock in Marrakech, it is a wonderful example of how both the enthusiasm of youth and the support of tourism have helped to re-invigorate an ancient tradition. Aussies In Morocco Tours™ can also arrange for a private story telling for our group tours.
It is not just about the crafts; looking more broadly at a shifting society to ensure that the supermarkets don’t indeed replace the souks might mean stepping outside of our comfort zone, making small everyday gestures. Buy that mint tea or orange juice from a small vendor instead of a commercially made drink in a supermarket; take time to stop by that roadside café and have a fresh homemade tagine – yes you can get fast food from international chains, and you can get fabulous four-star food from more international names, but ultimately that is not really supporting the framework that makes Morocco stand out from the crowd. While the supermarket culture is undeniably alive and well in the cities, so too is the more rural market culture which remains a vital thread of the cultural weft of Morocco. Each village or area has a market day – in some areas the market town is named after the day of the week that market takes place. These markets are not for the faint hearted, and a vegetarian might want to stick to the olive and spice side of the souk, but there is no doubt that you will be able to buy everything there including the kitchen sink as well as finding a plumber to install it. From handmade hessian donkey saddles to plastic buckets to fencing poles; it is an open-air mall with choices to challenge both the senses and your sense of direction. One wrong turn and you might find yourself bidding for a goat! Aussies in Morocco Tours™ gives you these kinds of opportunities in both our group and private tours, for example at Ourika outside Marrakech or on the drives between major cities and other locales.
Some final thoughts on authenticity and value
It is all about seeking out the authentic to ensure that this ‘disappearing Morocco’ retains its value and its visibility. It is too easy for visitors to spend a few days in Marrakesh, sipping cocktails on well-designed rooftops (although there is a time and place for both a cocktail and a well-designed rooftop we do believe!) with a shop-till-you-drop mentality in the medina for kaftans and carpets, finally heading home having “done Morocco”. We at AIMT™ actually don’t particularly actively seek “shop till you drop” potential visitors to Morocco. We hope that our clients will support artisans of course, in a discerning, kind way that adds value for all concerned including of course for our clients. Our disappearing Morocco tour is about scratching that surface and discovering what truly makes Morocco special – its people and their traditions.
Published June 2022