Category Archives: Arts

Zellij (Moroccan tile work), zouaq (painted wood), carved plaster and wood, ceramics, monumental architecture, and more…

Erg Chebbi and Drumming

Jim, Lilly, and Ruby arrived for a week’s visit at the end of March.  Standard fare: Michlifen, Fès, Walïlï, Azrou–and then we took off for a couple of days down by Erg Chebbi.  We left Ifrane in the snow…

and a few hours later, we were on the edge of the Tafilalt oasis. (I was the only one cold-blooded enough to need a coat!)_DSC0872

Jim got to have a wild experience driving across the hamada on the “Berber highway” (no photos, alas), and then it was the traditional tea before we got on the camels.
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To try to deepen the experience a little, I had booked two drumming lessons with Bakkar: one for the afternoon we arrived, one for the next day, when we rode out of the desert.

We rode into the “deep desert camp” in order to have our first lesson there.
IMG_2079 IMG_2075I think it was the first time I saw rain in the desert._DSC1020We were so into the drumming we evidently missed a beautiful sunset.  So many precious things; so little time.  Still, we enjoyed a nice candlelit dinner in the tent, out of the wind and the rain.
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The day before we arrived, there was an immense sandstorm that built up a massive new dune.  Luckily for us, we had a quiet night, and a quiet dawn.
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The girls were pretty happy out there.
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They also invented a new sport–skipping down the dunes–that they eventually called “donkeying.”  Zoë’s most dramatic moment was the face plant.
_DSC1135 _DSC1137Pick yourself up, dust yourself off, get on a camel again…

After riding back to the edge of the dunes, we spent another hour or so concentrating on those drumming rhythms.
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Bakkar was very patient; Ruby was especially focused.  In the end, he presented her with a drum to take with her.  A very generous gesture: Morocco at its best.
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Then we drove a few hundred meters to the Dunes d’Or to rest and recuperate.  This gave us time to luxuriate in the extravagant beauty of the sand (warning: Zoë does not fully share my fascination–and perhaps you won’t either…)

its patternsIMG_2153 IMG_2128and its inhabitants.IMG_2140We also had one more opportunity to watch the sun rise over the dunes.

And to finetune donkeying skills.

Zoë insisted I would love it, so I tried to follow the girls’ lead, but the sand was a little too hard and too level.
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So instead, we tried barreling over the top of a dune into the softer sand below:
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OK, I confess: that was pretty fun.

A Day of Storytelling at ALIF Riad

SONY DSCJess Stephens and Alice Barnsdale helped arrange a “day of storytelling” at the ALIF riad near the Batha square.  ALIF (Arabic language institute in Fès) let us use the gorgeous riad free of charge.  I used some Fulbright funds and Alice got her sister-in-law to produce and serve a traditional Fassi couscous for Friday lunch, plus tea and cookies in both the morning and the afternoon.
I borrowed Al Akhawayn tripods from Charles (rough but better than nothing), and we tried to set up four interview stations around the courtyard of the riad.

Cameras varied in quality, as did the Darija capabilities of the volunteers.  (Hearing my voice on the videos afterwards, I’m repulsed:  “ugly American” and “infantile” are the words that come to mind.)  The Fès university students were held up, arriving only after lunch, which meant that the early story sessions were a little choppy–and Alice was pressed into listening for most of the morning.  The birds drowned out some of our speakers, and in the afternoon, there were competing voices.  Not ideal audio conditions.  But the storytellers themselves were amazing, as were their stories!

Here’s a quick roll call.

Si Mohamed, master-braider: maker of Schlueh (Berber) finery.Screen Shot 2014-05-07 at 5.23.10 PM

Abbas, master woodworker and the last carpenter in Carpenter’s Square.

Zin Abidin, master plaster-carver.
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Hajj, blgha (men’s slipper) maker.  A master of the craft for 70 years.
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Driss, his son Nouredine and nephew Azdeen, master ironmongers (knife and scissor-sharpeners; tool-creators)
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Mohamed Féris, a coppersmith in Seffarine Place
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Abdelkader, master dyer in one of the two remaining shops that work with sabra (vegetable silk) and other raw material.
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Plus a group of six carpet-knotters from the Ensemble Artisanal, who did not want to be photographed on that particular day.

The amount of footage to be watched, translated, edited, subtitled, and so forth is truly daunting–but the stories and the storytellers were so inspiring that I must and will find a way to make this all happen.  Insh’allah.

Wandering through “the happy valley”

The gite was beautiful,
as were the surroundings,
P1020954 P1020961and we were a little slow to get started the next morning.

Ahmed arrived with a mule for Jeremy to ride,
and we set off,
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past irrigation gates, sheep grazing around an oven built into the ground,

shepherds with their sheep,
P1020985 P1020987or riding off into the far distance,
houses with fruit trees blooming like a puff of smoke from an invisible chimney,
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children playing, women washing clothes,
chicken on rooftops that look like fields,
baby burros and bee boxes,
spring blooms,
and who knows what all else?

James asked if he could photograph a bunch of boys we met along the road, and then he showed them the photo and a video as well.  When we saw that they had an old board with Qur’anic verses written on both sides–just as we had seen in the Nejjarine fondouq in Fès–we asked if they would read it to us, and they did!

Here’s the link to the video on Vimeo:
Boys reciting the Qur’an

Brahim and Ahmed wanted to stop for lunch at about 11:30, but we had just had breakfast at 9, so we wanted to push on.  Later, when we stopped for lunch, we understood the timing better: they had brought the ubiquitous pressure-cooker and tea kettle and proceeded to make first tea and then a bit of a feast while we lay about.
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All very imperial luxury: we didn’t quite know what to do with ourselves.  Then Ahmed needed to go off to the souq across the river,
so we set off with Brahim to climb up to one of the ribats on the mountain-tops through the valley. But first there was quite a lengthy walk back along the valley floor, over the creek, past the sheep, the drying laundry, the stork…
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The ribat was still occupied by a single elderly guardian, set up as a quasi-museum as to how life there used to be lived.
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The central living space included a gas stove with the necessary kettle, a kerosene lamp, food basket, an old couscousier…
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plus a hand mill, with a water-bag and some long underwear hanging from the wall.P1030048 P1030051
The “rooms” were a little claustrophobic, to say the least, but the corridor seemed to wind around forever, and you could climb this “ladder”

and find yourself on the roof looking over the amazing valley.P1030061



Brahim took a picture for us, then Jeremy wanted to take a photo of Brahim…P1030063P1030071SONY DSC

On the way out, Jeremy experimented with what it would feel like to be on guard duty, sleeping by the door.

Then we climbed back down the mountain to meet up with Ahmed and the mule
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and take the long walk back along the valley floor to the gite.

It’s a little hard to see in the photos, but these depressions in the rock are dinosaur footprints (Jeremy’s crouching in one footprint).SONY DSC P1030096I like the way the dinosaurs seem to have stepped off the rock into thin air.

We also passed some women spinning, using something like a drop spindle without the drop–a spindle spun on the ground.
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When they saw how fascinated I was (and we tried to explain that I spin with a wheel but can’t work a drop spindle), they let me take a video of the process (screenshot above).

The evening light was quite magical, even if we were tired.SONY DSC SONY DSCJeremy was drooping, so I got up on the mule and he fell asleep leaning back against me, but he woke up in time for a triumphal return to the gite, leading the mule himself.

And after all this, Brahim fixed us tea and supper and a warm fire.  Such an extravagant experience, all around.
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We got to Marrakesh in time to take in the Djemma el Fnaa by night, with the Koutoubia presiding in the background.
This time, we let Jeremy stay up late so we could all wander by the food stalls, looking (on my behalf) for a halqa, a story circle.
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When we spotted something hopeful–a group of men standing close around a man with arcane objects–we sent James over for a closer look.
Of course it was impossible to grasp the meaning of what was being said…

The next morning, we had breakfast at the Café des Épices, overlooking the Rabia Qdima: a great spot for people-watching.
Little clusters of people, washing up against carts or stalls, deep in conversation:
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People moving through, on pressing business.
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People hard at work.  The henna station was particularly fascinating:
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And then there was the fashion shoot taking place in the midst of everything:
But no one seemed to take much notice:
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After breakfast, we tried to take in some of the Marrakesh Biennale.  A few of the exhibits were particularly interesting from a human geography / storytelling perspective.  “Shadow of the Smokeless Fire” combined a series of paintings with “soundscape” of voices murmuring story fragments (also posted on the wall in three languages):

Still more ambitious: a project that bussed participants from Marrakesh into surrounding mountain villages to make art with the residents of those villages.  Children painting rocks; groups gathering rubbish such as plastic bags (rubbish) to sew into blankets and clothing.  This project had already finished by the time we reached Marrakesh: photos of the project were posted.  It looked fabulous: I would have loved a chance to participate.   SONY DSC

When the children’s eyes started to glaze over, we went to visit our friend Hassan the woodcarver, with a shop around the corner from the Qubba.

He gave us all some tea (teapot, glasses, and stools all summoned up from multiple surrounding shops), and then he and a friend? neighbor? brother? dressed Jeremy up ready for the Sahara:

We had a late lunch on the run, and then headed out of the medina to find the spanking new Café Clock Marrakesh.  They were still painting!  In the afternoon Zoë had an oud lesson, in which she learned an Andalusian scale, an Arabic scale (with quarter tones beyond half-point of the Western sharp/flat), and two songs.  She thought she wanted me learning as well, but she left me in the dust within about 15 minutes.


Then, just before supper: storytelling, alternating between a traditional storyteller (haqayat, I think the term is) working in Darija and his young apprentices, telling traditional stories in English.  I loved both, even though I only caught a fraction of the Darija: the performance element was such fun to watch.

Jeremy got restless, so James took him off for a wander, and they discovered an argan oil shop where Jeremy was allowed to grind his own argan nuts!  What fun!
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Then, after the storytelling, and during dinner (with our friend Ellen from Amsterdam), Jeremy chatted up Sara, one of the storytellers, at the bar.
And before she left, Sara came and brought Jeremy her Skype address!  If this is Jem’s life at seven years old, how are we ever going to survive adolescence?

Tamnougalt; or, The road to Marrakesh


People kept telling us that the southern route from Erfoud to Ouarzazate or Marrakesh was much slower than the northern route (don’t trust Googlemap times in Morocco!), but we’d been on that stretch from Tinghir through Kelaâ M’Gouna and Skoura too many times, so we decided to test out the alternative for ourselves.
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The road was fine to start with, lulling us into a false sense of speed.  Then we hit kilometer upon kilometer of potholes.  But the landscape was so stark and compelling, we almost didn’t mind.
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Ruined ksour on a cliff above a palmerie; solitary figures walking or riding through a barren landscape–almost too stereotypically Moroccan–but very striking.
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We had decided to break the journey in Tamnougalt, just shy of Agdz, at Chez Yacob.  Yacob himself turned out to be a major highlight of the journey (see next post): fluent in English, a long-ago collector of traditional tales (back in 1992), a superb and delightful host, and a key figure in a nightly jam session of traditional music.

We arrived mid-afternoon and started with a tour of the still-inhabited mellah of Tamnagoult.  Texture, texture, texture: surfaces were rich and evocative everywhere we turned.  From the carefully detailed brick mantel over the entryway…
SONY DSCto the stark simplicity of corridor walls, the nearly crumbling pisé construction of an inner courtyard or the arch of that entry…
to the eloquent surfaces of daily objects,
or the architectural imagination that turns a brief glance into a (re)framing of the sky.
IMG_1538 IMG_1519Because the mellah is still inhabited, there were signs of daily life: water bottles, mouths covered with lace to keep with water clean, and people working on the roof.
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One courtyard seemed to feature more Andalusian style arches; another had lower arches and presumably ceilings:
At the chef’s room, where local court cases would be heard, the walls were tadelakt, burnished with egg whites, and the ceiling was in Berber style:
J was intrigued by the traditional lock, all made from wood:
P1020618 P1020621 There was a small museum, with examples of a pisé construction frame (with tampers),SONY DSC
and other items, like wooden supports for donkey saddlebags, a large-scale mortar and pestle,  a “treasure chest” that delighted Jeremy, and a rather gruesome goat-skin used for making butter (someone would swing it back and forth to churn the cream into butter).

Many of the hallways were dark, but that made them feel all the more atmospheric, at least in the short term:

And the detailing of the windows at and near the exit was quite extraordinary.    If you look closely, you can see a little hand at the top of the window on the right.

Our guide had his own collection of historical items: grindstones, oil lamps, sandals, platters, and so on–plus photos of the old community and of films that were made here:

After our tour of the mellah, we went wandering in the lovely palmerie.
I was struck by the wealth (a wealth of water, coming from the river visible in the top half of the photo) that meant pomegranates could be left unharvested, P1020636 P1020638with the result that songbirds were feasting, and filling the air with their song.

Spring crops seemed to include peas and wild asparagus.
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Fields of forage were also full of wildflowers, the air was scented with fruit blossoms, and the fresh leaves, especially of the fig, were incredibly green.
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In the hour before dinner, I stayed with the children while James wandered up to the old kasbah, passing women and children and donkeys all carrying food and supplies back home.
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As promised, the kasbah was an empty shell, but impressive nonetheless.
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The palm-tree lintels seem to have been dug out for re-use, except in the long hallway where they’re still doing important structural work.
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Overall, an interesting, but slightly spooky place, in which to watch the night come on.P1020690 P1020697

Celebrating international women’s day in Fès

We were about to head south for another travel adventure, but we decided to hold off for a day so that Zoë and I could take part in a jewelry-making workshop Jess Stephens was holding both to celebrate the international day of women and to support the Exposé Artisanal project.  SONY DSCJames and Jeremy went for their own wander around the medina, while Zoë and I followed Jess through the medina’s highways and byways, looking for found art. My favorite area was the haberdashery (British word): the part of the medina filled with thread and trim and buttons.

What more could one ask?


As Moroccan shopkeepers are wont to tell you, it’s a feast for the eyes!

The jewelry workshop itself was lots of fun: when Camilla arrived, she was willing to take on the rather large necklace and ear-rings I produced:
It takes a certain amount of flair to carry that off.

James and Jeremy, meanwhile, had been feasting their eyes in different ways, visiting with a nice man in a repair/restoration shop,
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chatting with the bucket maker on the Talaa Kbira,P1020482

and eventually, in Jeremy’s case, joining in the workshop.

Meknes and monuments: the mausoleum of Moulay Ismail

John keeps reminding us of the difference between the visual restraint of Alawite style as opposed to the decorative intensity of the Marinids, embraced and extended by the Saadian dynasty.  Remember that the Alawite dynasty came north out of the Tafilalt, where we saw some of that visual restraint at work.  Basing their power in their descent from Muhammed, the Alawites eschewed exuberant design in order to insist (as Muhammed insisted) on simplicity.

This doorway into the courtyard of Moulay Ismail’s mausoleum certainly reminds me of the Qsar Al-Fidha down in Rissani:

The courtyard itself is similarly restrained, with only a zellij floor and a small strip of zellij along the bottom of the walls.

The calligraphy here is one of the Alawi mottos:
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Al Aali Allah: God is very high (or superior).  The other two include the Baraka Muhammed added to the Bou Inania
and “Al Afia” which means “Pardon” in fusHa, but “fire” in Darija.  (It’s written abundantly within the mausoleum, to ambiguous effect.)

But here in the courtyard, one might say we find functionality in place of decoration: a fountain for ablutions, a sundial for timekeeping:


But let’s face it, you can only take restraint so far, especially when we’re talking about the final resting place of the man who (rather brutally) shaped the Maghreb into a modern nation.
The tomb itself, in a prayer space, is only visible from a distance for non-Muslims, but the antechamber is gloriously wrought:

The details are extravagantly beautiful:

And it’s hard to imagine a more intricately painted ceiling:

Apologies for the very blurry picture of one of the two grandfather clocks sent from Louis XV to Moulay Ismail.
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The story that comes with them goes like this: Louis XV offered his sister to Moulay Ismail as as one of his wives; when the sister was informed, she said there was no way she would go to Morocco.  In her place, Louis XV sent these two clocks, with a note saying that they would be more constant than his sister would have been.


Yet even in the midst of all this grandeur, there are designs that conduce to calm and simplicity:

I love that green!  And I’m not the only one…

Meknes and monuments: the (other) Bou Inania

It feels as if we’ve only just returned from the Tafilalt, but John Shoup is taking a group of students to do field exercises in Meknes, and he’s agreed to let us tag along again: he’ll show us some of the monuments in Meknes while the students are busy with their exercises.

It’s a drizzly day, and the hour-long bus ride seems a little subdued.  We pass fields with these odd-looking structures.


When we first arrived, I asked someone about the long strips of piled stone: were these stone farms, I wondered?  Did construction companies come and gather a strip of stones at a time for building purposes?    No, no!  It’s busla! (Onions.)  The area between Ifrane and Meknes is a big onion-growing area, and these strips are a storage technology.  The stones keep the onions off the ground and away from (at least some) moisture.    Within the curve of the stone, you place a layer of straw, then a pile of onions, then more straw, and finally plastic to keep the rain off.  Insh’allah, the onions will keep through the winter, to furnish the souqs and the hungry people around Morocco.

The students are being sent out in groups of 3-5 people (with at least one good Arabic speaker in the group) to try to identify which parts of Meknes are successful neighborhoods.  At lunch, one group shows us their photos: a friendly woman invited them into her house (hugs all around) and introduced them to some of her neighbors.  The students are thrilled with their experience.  This is one of the reasons John likes Meknes: the town is both smaller and friendlier than Fez, and people welcome his students and their endeavors.

The entry into Meknes does not give that impression, however: Moulay Ismail (1672–1727), who made Meknes his capital city in order to snub the uppity Fassis, invested heavily in stone as a demonstration of state power.  Driving into the center of the city, we took the path diplomats would have followed, along two kilometers of a walled corridor that would have been lined with thousands of soldiers.  Passing through a tunnel, we arrive at the mashwar or the fore-court of Moulay Ismail’s (second) Dar el Makhzen palace, where those diplomats would have been received.


The courtyard may seem large, but the “Pavilion of Diplomats” in the upper left corner is small enough to administer a snub: you’re not worth my full attention.  In fact, John tells us that Lalla Aouda, wife to Moulay Ismail, was an unusually active member of her husband’s government, and often met visiting dignitaries in her husband’s place.  In the macho culture of early modern Europe and Morocco, that too might have seemed a snub to foreign diplomats.

The small structures emerging from the courtyard provide ventilation for the vast storage chambers underneath.  These were used to store grain and other food.  Two years ago, John was present when workmen were installing chains to go along with the more intriguing story that these chambers were a dungeon.  “No truth in that story,” notes John.  “The chains are only two years old.”


We cross Lalla Aouda square, with the minaret of the Lalla Aouda mosque in the background (photo Eric Ross).

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This is the forecourt of what was once Dar Lakbira (the Big House), Moulay Ismail’s first palace–of the three he built.  As Eric notes on his blog,

“Over the course of his reign [Moulay Ismail] built three successive palaces, and surrounded these with multiple ramparts that enclosed an area more than ten times larger than the pre-existing city of Meknes, still largely confined within the Almohad walls. The palace-city included neighborhoods for civil servants and the army (largely slaves), vast storage facilities, stables, reservoirs, flocks, fields and gardens. So large was Moulay Ismail’s imperial city that within its walls, today, we find: the current Royal Palace (the second to be built by Moulay Ismail), dense urban neighborhoods (some old, others new), a military academy, a horticultural institute, a track for horse races and other outdoor sports facilities, a golf course, a university campus, as well as monuments open to the public.”

The Bab Mansour (also known as the Victorious Gate) connects the old medina to the palace-city of Moulay Ismail.  The gate is named for its architect, El-Mansour, who played on Almohad design patterns and used marble columns from the Roman ruins of Volubilis (Oualilia or Walïlï).  Moulay Ismail supposedly inspected the gate upon its completion and asked El-Mansour if he could have done better.  El-Mansour felt obliged to answer yes–and in frustration, Moulay Ismail chopped off his head.  The only problem with this story is that the gate was apparently completed five years after Moulay Ismail’s death.  In any case, the glory of its architecture is addressed not to foreigners entering the city, but to the inhabitants of the city itself, when they turn toward their king.  The gate is now a gallery which one enters through a side door, creating an uncanny tension between grandeur and indirection.

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John leads us first to the Bou Inania medersa.  This, like its larger namesake in Fez, was built under the Marinid dynasty (built 1331-1351).  I’m struck by the way the lower level of the building, lined with zellij and cedar screens, gives the effect of being underwater, or a watery reflection, as if the main level of the building started half a story above ground.


The zellij here is truly remarkable, with all the sophisticated complexity of the Andalusian style:

John tells us to find the center of the pattern (here, the black eight-pointed star) and count the number of layers of decoration radiating out from that center.  I count nine layers out to the light blue stars, for what it’s worth.  But notice too the excruciatingly small black and white tiled circles around the outside of the pattern.  I’m very taken with the multitude of shapes and play of colors here.

In other places, the zellij is quieter, more subtle, in a way that seems sophisticated to me:
Shadow patterns within patterns.

The plaster work also strikes me as quite phenomenal.  Is it easier to follow, or am I getting better at seeing the grid?

I like the integration of calligraphy and biomorphism here:

And the stark geometry of the medallion, surrounded by biomorphic design here:

And what about rosettes intersecting with other rosettes here?

John tells us a little about the work of the medersas, an intermediate level of Islamic schooling.  Students would have begun their educations in kuttabs or msids, schools often attached to a mosque or a zawiya.  Such schools would teach the beginning elements of Arabic speaking and writing, along with memorization of early (shorter) surahs.  More talented and motivated students would arrive at medersas, and their goal would be mastery of the Qur’an in its entirety.  Students would also study astrology, astronomy, and law.  Astrology was linked to the human body and its health; astronomy was important for Islamic practices, ranging from certainty about when to perform the five daily prayers to advance warning about the timing of holy days.

In studying law, the student’s job was to memorize not only the primary texts of the law or sharia, but also all subsequent discussions of the primary text within the tradition.  This education would conclude with an oral exam in which each student would be presented with a hypothetical legal case and asked to solve it by quoting from memory (word for word) both the main source of law in this area plus all subsequent texts on the subject, along with an account of how the student would apply these texts.  Students who passed this test would be awarded an Ijazah and given a robe and a turban–the origin of graduation robes and mortarboards in the West, where educational systems lagged behind this level of medieval Islamic development.

At Independence, 30% of the Moroccan population was educated (could read and write) and almost 100% of those educated people came from these medersas.  The medersas were closed in the 1960s, to be replaced by public schools.  The fact that the Bou Inania no longer functions as a school or a religious center means that we can climb the stairs to look at the student dormitories.


This room might have housed two older boys: windows became available as you moved up in the hierarchy.  Larger rooms would have housed four boys.  There would never have been much space to spare.  Yet you would have been fed, and housed, given one new set of clothing each year, plus enough freedom from other tasks in order to dedicate yourself to mastering the Qur’an and its applications to law, life, and theology.  Medersas and their students were funded by wealthy merchants or craft guilds for the honor they brought to the city.  Still, everyone knew boys would be boys: the doors to these rooms lock from the outside, and there were common accounts of students slipping away from the medersa over the rooftops and trying to sneak back in again late at night.


We climb up to the roof ourselves to look at the renovated minaret.  In 2010, the minaret of the nearby Bab Berdieyinne Mosque collapsed during Friday prayers, killing 41 people and injuring many others.   The king ordered that minaret rebuilt to historical specifications and other minarets inspected and renovated to prevent further damages.

James likes the beldi (traditional) tile of the rooftop.

We ask John the meaning of the three golden balls mounted on the top of many minarets in Morocco.  He tells us the traditional story: the chief wife of a sultan in Marrakesh is supposed to have broken her Ramadan fast with 3 pomegranate seeds; in remorse, she had all her gold jewelry melted down and made into three “seeds” to be mounted on the Koutoubia minaret in Marrakesh, to the glory of Allah.
Time to leave and wander the medina for a while.  SONY DSC
Look familiar?  Think of the Attarine in Fez…

Women’s weaving collective at Tarmilat

On the southern back road out of Ifrane, heading toward Azrou, there’s a kind of squatter’s community on the open ground to the right of the road.  This town is known as Tarmilat; it’s  home to a group of shepherds.  The original families came to this area some 50-60 years ago, right around independence.  Probably they looked after sheep for the French, or perhaps for wealthy Moroccans collaborating with the French.

Now there are some 50 families living here, in houses built from stone, roofed with large tin cans that have been cut open and flattened.
The contrast with the royal palace, whose entrance is across the road, a little ways back, is striking.
Karen Smith, Christian pastor at Al Akhawayn University (AUI), has brought a group of AUI affiliated folks–mostly students, a few faculty–out to Tarmilat to purchase rugs and bags and share a meal with the women weavers.

Half a dozen years ago, a group of high school students, working with an AUI-affiliated organization called Hand in Hand wanted to raise money to help the people of Tarmilat.  Karen, a member of Hand in Hand, insisted that they begin by meeting the women and finding out what the women themselves needed and wanted.  What they wanted most was to form themselves into a weaving cooperative, even though only a few had weaving skills.

Karen remembers driving one of the women and her baby up to Tangier to learn from a successful cooperative there about how to form such an organization.  Imazighen women don’t diaper their babies–something Karen hadn’t yet learned–so she had no sheets or towels to protect or clean the car or the mother.  “It was an experience!”

The Tarmilat weaving cooperative has been very successful, leading to other changes in the community.  To begin with, none of the women could read or keep track of numbers, so there was one man serving as treasurer for the collective.  “One man and twenty eight women: that was never going to last!” says Karen.  (Someone else told me later that the treasurer was accused of stealing the women’s money.)  Perhaps as a result of this experience, the women were very concerned that their children go to school.  But the nearest school was in Ifrane itself, some five kilometres away down a road not safe for pedestrians.

The community started trying to build more permanent structures, claiming Karen had told them this was necessary for their cooperative (not true).  These structures were impermissible and had to be taken down.  But when it came to a school, the women pulled every string they had access to: the biggest string was Hand in Hand, with the governor’s wife on board.  Wala! (Voilà!) The community now has a cement school and even a mosque–but the homes remain stone-and-recycled-can structures.

SONY DSC IMG_0907Inside most of the buildings, it’s dark and a little smokey–but the home-made bread, butter, and tea is delicious.  In the right-hand photo above, the blue-and-white thing in the upper right corner is a “churn” for making butter: it’s a kind of swing in which the cream is pushed back and forth to make it slosh around until it solidifies.  This cooking hut is warm with the fire, so many of us crowd in briefly to get out of the chilly wind.  To our right is one of the community’s looms, with a rug in process:

Our family buys two “lap rugs” (thick and small) against the coming winter, plus one small rug for the kitchen.  Each piece has a tag describing the weaver, in English geared toward the AUI community:
SONY DSC SONY DSCIto, pictured here, was one of the founders of the cooperative, and a major force in pushing for the school.  One day, a Moroccan friend came to tell Karen that Ito had died, since everyone knows that Karen has been closely involved in the Tarmilat community.  Karen and Fatima drove out to Tarmilat to attend something like a funeral.  They sat around with a group of women mourning Ito and they all told stories about her, describing how they had known her.  The next day, someone from Tarmilat came to town to tell Karen that in fact Ito was alive and well–it was a different Ito, from the same family, who had died.  Now there are jokes about Karen having attended Ito’s funeral prematurely.

Aisha is one of the wealthier members of the Tarmilat community, as this tag notes: her husband has a hired hand; her grown son works for the city and owns a truck.

Fatima, by contrast, is the second wife of a elderly deaf man whose first wife is disabled.  I can’t help but wonder about the internal dynamics of this family structure–or what Fatima’s earlier circumstances were, that made it sufficiently appealing to accept a marriage that seems mostly a formalization of caregiving responsibilities.  I love the simplicity of her rug.

As it gets dark, we gather inside Ito’s house, with a dim bulb powered by a solar panel bought with proceeds from the cooperative, and the community serves us a f’tur-style dinner: bread and msemmen and hard-boiled eggs and harira soup.  There’s a new baby in the community: a baby born to two 15-year-olds who were married last year.  Julie Reimer tells of attending the wedding and becoming the official photographer because she was the only one with a camera.  When she came back to the community to share the photographs later, the mother of the bride was (mildly) offended because Julie had not taken any pictures of her.  “She was wearing a bathrobe,” Julie explains, “so I thought maybe I shouldn’t take a picture.  Turns out, it was her very best bathrobe.”

I asked Karen if we could arrange for Zoe and me to have weaving lessons.  “Probably.  There was a student from Haverford who came and stayed at Tarmilat for three months a few years back (part of an anthropology thesis) and she learned to weave.  The gendarmes were not at all happy about it, though.”  Maybe once our Darija improves…

The mothers are not the only entrepreneurs here: the boys of the community build sleds out of old wooden pallets and (sometimes broken) skis.  When it snows, the boys stick their sleds in the drifts by the side of the road and hire them out to tourists who have come to see the snow.
James makes friends with some of the boys by video-taping their play and then showing them the results:

These hills are full of small communities like Tarmilat, though Tarmilat with its school and its mosque and its solar panels now ranks among the most prosperous.  What would extend the (relative) success of Tarmilat to other communities in the Middle Atlas?IMG_7930
(photo by AUI student)




It’s a little hard to believe that something like this:
fj4WAjGD-M5AtA37jkX3Y_VWdtNE1AgjMjoqiIwS4xwstarts out something like this:

Or, to be more accurate, it starts as a bit of mud, which is shaped into a tile and glazed; those glazed tiles then have patterns sketched upon them and a maalem or master craftsman cuts the tiles precisely into tiny khatams, safts, and related shapes. 

The last day of the Art of Islamic Pattern study tour, we visit a zellij workshop.  The maalem or zellij master sits cross-legged on the floor all day, chipping the tiles into shape.

He set up a chair for us neophytes, though, insisting that it was too difficult for us even to attempt to chip a tile from a cross-legged position.SONY DSC

The chisel is heavier than you might think, and some coaching is in order:SONY DSC

It turns out that the crucial factor is the angle between the chisel, the tile, and the thin metal surface on which the tile rests.

Adam, a sculptor, says that this is a little like splitting stone: get the angle right, and a single blow on a huge block of stone will split it down to the floor.

Pages from a long-ago magazine article are posted on the walls of the workshop, showing various steps of the process:

Once everyone who’s interested has had a chance to try cutting the zellij, we go downstairs to the room where the zellij are actually assembled.

Sometimes, a frame is used…

But clearly, some of the designs are created freehand:

Notice that the patterns are constructed face down, with the colors obscured.  Imagine getting a color wrong in a split-second of distraction and discovering the mistake only at a much later moment of truth.

James arrives with Zoe and Jeremy just as we are about to make our own little tiles, so I let the children take over my piece:

Once the pieces are arranged in the appropriate order, a temporary wooden frame is placed around them to hold them close together.  Then some grouting powder is sprinkled over them…

and water is flicked onto that grouting powder with a paintbrush.  What fun!

Then comes the plaster, rapidly applied by one of the apprentices of the workshop:

While the plaster is drying, Jeremy tries out other patterns as the maalem (master) rapidly creates a few additional shapes for other people’s patterns.

Finally, voila: the finished tile.

Now we just have to extend that pattern a hundred-fold or so to arrive at a small fountain design…