Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Journey on a Magic (Berber) Carpet

I know very little about Berber carpets. Do you? Well, I know a bit more now that I have been in a very rural part of Morocco (referred to as the 'Bled') and spent a day with an amazing Berber family, related to our family friend, Mohammed.  Mohammed has been a friend for 7 years and my sister, Luarena, has been up to his country family before, about 4 years ago.  Then, they had no electricity or running water.
They got electricity about a year ago and, of course, the first thing they did was buy a television! The running water is still not there but they have a lovely well with fresh water.  They also cook on open fires and made us some delicious pancakes served up with honey and butter. 

The drive up was long and arduous.  We stopped along the way for lunch in a small, clean cafe and then headed up higher and higher, round twisting and turning bends with long drops on one side. It was beautiful but you wouldn't want to be afraid of heights.  Along the way, we saw more and more Argane trees, which produce the wonderful,  health giving Argane Oil, now becoming more widely known outside of Morocco.  On several occasions, we saw goats in the Argane trees, munching on the spiny branches. They also use the tree as shade in the hot afternoon.

  As we approached the destination, we came across one of Mohammed's relations, Yusuf, who was there with a horse and cart to take us further. We were running really late so we decided to carry on driving. Later on, we realised it would probably have been faster in the horse and cart, in the river and then through the fields.

The road got narrower and narrower. The walls closed in. Those walls looked like the ones you see in the west of Ireland only of lighter stone. They criss-crossed the landscape and, in fields which were clearly meant for farming and planting, you could see hundreds of those rocks dotted about. I wondered aloud that it made sense that they still dug the fields with a cow and old fashioned plough as a modern machine would be broken up in no time. Here and there were what looked like small cairns of rocks and Mohammed told us these marked the boundaries within the fields of various families' crops.

Driving through the narrow lane, I thought for sure the car would not make it but Moroccan drivers are nothing if not intrepid. Eventually, we were driving through a field, twisting and turning to avoid those rocks and we made it to the compound of this wonderful family.

The welcome was like nothing I've ever experienced before.  Because Luarena had been there before, she was welcomed like a long lost relative and because we were her sisters, we were welcomed the same way. In Morocco, when you are a friend or family member who is not seen often, they kiss you countless times on each cheek. When I say countless, I mean just that - between 20 and 50 kisses on each cheek!  Between all the mothers, daughters and grandmothers, we were practically kissed to death. It was so warm and welcoming you couldn't help feel like you were now an honorary family member.

That's Arkia, 88, on the left.

The matriarch of them all is Arkia, who is 88 and Mohammed's aunt. Mohammed's father and Arkia are siblings and come from a family where their father had four wives so there were something like 29 children!  Arkia still cooks, works on the farm, weaves and does all the things that the other, much younger, women do there. 

They served us up a chicken couscous, made with polenta and the soured milk which they love but we all found a bit hard to deal with.  We ate our fill and then talked with them all about their lives and they showed us around the adjoining houses and outbuildings.  

More and more people arrived, more kissing and welcomes. We were shown the new foal, the new calf, the goat pen with thorny branches from the Argane trees on top of the walls to keep both predators out and the goats in.  We were shown the hens, cockerels and the baby chicks and were given at least a dozen eggs when we left, safely stowed in a big bag of cornmeal.  We thought perhaps they thought we'd never seen animals before as we ooh-ed an aah-ed on each new revelation and took photos of everything.

We showed them photos of Ireland and they were as fascinated with them as we were with their lives. Then tea and pancakes were served, having been made by the new mother with her small baby, Farid, strapped on  her back, squatting in front of the open fire.

Eventually, we brought up the subject of carpets. Jacquie and I wanted a carpet for our living room. We'd been living with a bare floor for months.  They showed us new and gaudy things first and then we spotted some old carpets on the floor and indicated our interest. They clearly thought we were crazy and when we offered to pay, they thought we were even crazier and wanted to give them to us. I am glad we insisted on paying for them as the carpets turned out to be far more interesting than we realised at the time.  

Part of Arkia's amazing carpet

Finally, after picking three rugs that were mostly woven in cottons and between 20 and 50 years old, we found the piece de resistance when we spotted one the matriach, Arkia, had made. It is 10 feet by 5 feet, at least, and of the most amazing colours and design. It's almost Navajo in colour and pattern.  It's made of wool and at least 60 years old. Turns out to be worth between €800 - €1000!! The others are not so valuable but are lovely, with intricate patterns and designs. I bought one for my bedroom that is made with tassles from old clothes all over in a colourful pattern.

Close of of the rag rug made from old clothes
We eventually left as it was getting dark and it was starting to rain. As we made our way back down the precarious mountains in the pitch dark, the heavens opened in torrents. Proper tropical rain. Luckily, they have painted the roads properly so we could see, just about, the middle and the edges. 
The whole rug.

On our way to the car in Essaouira we got completely drenched and drove home soaked to the skin. Walking back to our house in Taghazout at 2am, we got drenched again and had to take hot showers when we got in to warm back up. Most unusual weather for that time of year. It made the trip all the more adventurous.

It was, without doubt, the highlight of my visit to Morocco and a great ending to what had been an awful start. 

If you're interested to know more about Berber rugs, here is a great website with lots of information on the tribes and areas and the various styles: The View From Fez. We're planning another trip over to buy more carpets and perhaps sell them over here. If you're interested, let me know.
One of the cotton antique carpets


  1. What a wonderful memory I have of our visit and you have written it with such great detail and colour. It was my second visit up the mountains to visit these lovely people but twice as nice with you and jscquie xx

  2. Hi I'm looking for your contact info for a book review/post?
    Can you email me at EdenLiterary at gmail dot com



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