Athene’s Moroccan Journey
Chefchaouen is situated on the edge of the Rif Mountains – about an hour and half by car from Tangiers. It is best known for its stunning blue lime washed buildings which appear to cling, barnacled to the side of the mountains.
Chefchaouen still has the respectful air of an unspoilt but proud small Moroccan hill town. Morocco has embraced Tourism, and placed its traditions for all to experience.
The hotel I stayed in is called Dar Gabriel and is just inside the main gate of the ancient walled Medina- a few yards up in the first alleyway on the right – passing as you go – a shoe repairer, a hardware stall – a pancake maker and a little bookshop. Dar Gabriel is a beautifully restored old riad and abley managed with full Morrocan delicious cuisine by Ben Saleem. Dar Gabriel opened its doors to the public in the spring of last year and is owned by Kit and Penny Hogg, who live in Spain, and by Gavin and Vina Hogg, who live in wales and run Penpont estate.
My passion for world textiles, and desire to learn all I can about the people who make them, made Chefchaouen a very special place. Even before you have gone through the ancient Medina Gate, you will see a weavery, with three young male weavers, working on brightly coloured ‘silk’ throws (as they call it – though it is a yarn made from cactus – so I learnt). In my short visit to Chefchaouen, I decided to start a blog for the hotel, on what I had learnt about the Textiles that are so readily available to see, being made and offered for sale in this town. I guess I should start with carpets.
Carpets are for sale everywhere you go. There are many different types, mainly depending on the area that they are made, and it is a challenge on your first visit to try and spot a middle Atlas carpet from a Rif carpet, but if your are interested enough you will soon be able to tell the difference in design and colour. The carpet sellers will be sure to fill you in with all the information you may like to know, especially if you decide to buy one of their carpets! Firstly I may state the obvious – these are carpets, not kelims which are a different form of weaving. Morrocan carpets, are traditionally made solely by the women, using a simple upright loom, and are knotted and hammered down with a simple comb. It is incredibly hard and demanding physical and dexterous work. The quality of these carpets, is in the tightness and closeness of the knots, the elaboration of the border design, and the straightness and tightness of the edge of the carpet, and the quality of the bind stitching at the edge. I wondered if there were well known female carpet makers, whose work commanded a collector’s price, though I learnt that mostly the women send their carpets, to a collective organisation to sell for them in the bigger towns, such as Fez. Sadly I did not see any of these women making carpets. Traditionally it is the Berber women up in the mountains who make these carpets, and therefore not so easily accessible – and by tradition reluctant to receive visitors.
The traditional colours of Chefchaouen carpets are predominately sky blue and peach pink, though there are many other colour combinations included with these. Baba ,the principal carpet seller of Chefchaouen will be delighted to help you. He has hundreds of carpets, stacked to the ceiling in his showroom which in itself is a fascinating place to see. ………… at the hotel Ben Saleem will show you where Baba is to be found, only 5 mins walk from the hotel. The carpets command a good price and so they should. I wonder how much goes directly to the women who makethese beautiful works of art. If you are thinking of buying a carpet be prepared to allow plenty of time and enjoy the whole experience. It is a sort of ritual which begins with several rounds of Moroccan mint tea, the seller will want to show you a wide range of carpets in his shop, each one is dramatically unfurled at your feet with great flourish for your approval or dimissal! Get ready to barter furiously as it all part of the game.
Apart from carpets, there are many lighter weight throws, and cloth made on the horizontal loom, which is the domain of the male weavers, often involving two men working one loom. This method of weaving makes the cloth of the Jalalbas – the long hooded robes that most of the people of Morocco wear. There are many different types of Jalaba as there are carpets, but in Chefchaouen you will still see some of the women wearing beautiful peach coloured jalabas made from lambs’ wool. There is a street at the lower end of the Medina, which is devoted to stalls selling nothing but Jalabas’ cloth. Well worth a visit to see the many different types of design and cloth available.
There is a small Museum in the centre of the Medina, where you can see some of the old Chefchaouen weavings, along with the beautiful heavily embroidered wedding belts, that the brides would wear at their weddings. Chefchaouen was particularly famous for these.
Everywhere you walk through the narrow streets of the Medina you are aware of craftmen still working in the same time honoured way of their fathers. Much has remained unchanged, but for how long I wonder? You can hear the clatter of the looms at work as you pass below a window- take a glimpse at a tiny stall, where a cobbler is repairing shoes; pass by men in the streets, making braidings for the jalabas, or down at the river, washing raw sheepskins; or make a visit to the saddler making donkeys saddles.
On a Thursday there is the Souk, – the weekly market – when all the farmers, the men and the women come down from the hills, and sell their produce. Everything is on offer from just a few springs of coriander to the stalls selling exotic incenses. Many of the women are dressed in traditional red and white aprons. At the lower end of the souk you will find a busy market, where women rummage through piles of old clothes and shoes. Looking closer it becomes only too familiar – heaps of Western style clothing – our casts offs and our old shoes, will soon replace the elegant traditional dress of the cotton striped apron worn over morrocan trousers, tucked into pink socks and shoes!