PART III. FROM TORONTO TO MARRAKESH: CHRONICLE OF A MOROCCAN RUG BUYING VOYAGE

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PART III. FROM TORONTO TO MARRAKESH: CHRONICLE OF A MOROCCAN RUG BUYING VOYAGE

On August 30, Repertoart sent their new correspondent John lancaster from Canada to Marrakesh, Morocco on a rug buying trip. Over the following 4 weeks repertoart will be publishing his findings from the cities and souks of Morocco.

THE ROAD TO MARRAKECH

Marrakesh was seriously hot. Amost every day was at least 43 degrees, cloudy and very humid. Moroccans open their conversations with weather woes, not too dissimilar to Canadians in the cold of winter. It had been exhausting choosing the Moroccan rugs from adibs store and I was so desperate to get to the coast to a cooler climate. We had to leave and adib was happy to take us.

One thing i need to say here is in all our travels through Morocco one thing has stood out to us more than anything - how amazing it is that something so distant, something so universally opposed could work so utterly well together. I speak of course of the sublime way Moroccan rugs fit in with modern western design. This place is so utterly remote from what we are used to in the west, but isnt it astonishing how well they work together. I mean take this collection of vintage Moroccan rugs by East Unique, (we met them in their Marrakech store and they helped us immeasurably), they show perfectly with their in-situ pics how to blend the timeless Moroccan rug with modern western interior design. Colorful azilals offset a white brand new kitchen, a 50 year old Beni Ourain finishes a modern beautiful penthouse apartment. They fit together like fingers in a glove.

And so the plains outside of Marrakesh are dry and desolate, only occasionally punctuated by towns and palm oases. There are scrubby argan trees along the side of the highway, whose kernels are harvested to make oil for food and beauty products. Goats like to eat the nuts straight from the source, and climb the trees to the get them. Goatherds are happy to take a few dirhams from tourists for photos. There are a few cities, the most notable being Chichaoua, famous for its eponymous monochromatic red rugs. Mustafa and I stop in Chichaoua for fried chicken and so I can make several withdrawals from an ATM to settle a deal we had made in Marrakesh for wedding blankets. I am surprised that my bank in Canada allows this. I give Mustafa his 8000 dirhams. Buddy is fed and Daddy is rich.

We arrive in Sidi Kaouki, a small seaside town 13 kilometers from Essaouira. The air is cooler, and the villa that Mustafa has rented is comfortable and clean. There are a few restaurants, guests houses and surf shops along the coast, and surfers—both Moroccan and tourists—bob just past the breakers. Groups of Moroccan boys play soccer on the beach and guides snooze against their idle camels. I observe all this from the patio of our villa. The heat and hustle of Marrakesh has exhausted me, and I'm content to sit in a comfortable chair and look at the Atlantic ocean, grateful that I am not in a carpet shop. Mustafa gets bored and disappears with the Logan while I return inside in search of English satellite TV channels . I find a children's movie and nod off for a little. 

The sunset view from our villa in Sidi Kaouki.

The sunset view from our villa in Sidi Kaouki.

Mustafa returns with cold beer, white wine, two tagines, and a greasy paper bag of fried shrimp and calamari. The mood has lifted. We have been spending too much time with each other— especially because we don't know each other that well—and the latent transactional character of our relationship has made the vibe a little terse and awkward at times. We eat and drink on the patio and talk about our families. Mustafa has two little girls who live in Germany and he misses them greatly. They are homeschooled and live on an organic farm with his German wife, and come to Marrakesh only a few times a year. Mustafa hustles hard to make money to support them, and he never stops working. Even as we eat he conducts business on his phone, which, like mine, has as many pictures of rugs as it does of his children.

Moroccan pouffes 

Takeaway, Moroccan style. No disposable dishes here—we returned the clay tagines the next day.

Takeaway, Moroccan style. No disposable dishes here—we returned the clay tagines the next day.

The next day we drive to Essaouira. By now, I am used to Mustafa's driving and it doesn't phase me as he accelerates to 120 kilometers an hour in blind curves on a narrow road. I scoff at the gas light. The air feels wonderful and I am excited to go to Essaouira, a very relaxed city by Moroccan standards. We walk by the main harbor where the fishing boats are docked. Stray cats and gulls compete for fish remnants and fishermen bring in the day's catch. We stroll through the main square on our way to get soup at Mustafa's friend's restaurant. Along the way Mustafa upbraids a man for mistreating a donkey, admonishes some kids for getting too close to us while they're playing soccer, and gives money to every single beggar we see. Like in Marrakesh, Mustafa knows everyone; it is impossible to walk more than a few meters before he stops to greet friends with the double cheek kiss and longer-than-casual conversations. We eat soup, buy some argan oil, and go to Patisserie Driss for coffee and pain au chocolat before we return to our patio, satellite TV, and swimming pool in Sidi Kaouki. The respite has been welcome, but there is still much work to do in Marrakesh, and Mustafa and I are getting antsy.

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PART II. FROM TORONTO TO MARRAKESH: CHRONICLE OF A MOROCCAN RUG BUYING VOYAGE

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PART II. FROM TORONTO TO MARRAKESH: CHRONICLE OF A MOROCCAN RUG BUYING VOYAGE

On August 30, Mellah sent senior correspondent John Honeyman from Toronto, Canada to Marrakesh, Morocco on a rug buying trip. Over the next 4 weeks Mellah will be publishing his dispatches from the cities and souks of Morocco. See below for Part 2 or click here for part 1.

MEDINA

Medinas in Moroccan cities are walled medieval labyrinths. Outside of the main roads they are free of cars, but that is not to say there are without traffic. Two-stroke motorbikes whine as they spew exhaust and stain the ramparts with smudges of black. Donkeys bray and shit and toil under their burdens. Skinny men pull overloaded rickshaws. Overweight tourists in large groups get in the way of it all. The souks of the medina are commercial centers, where shops line either side of the street and vendors call out to tourists in a dozen languages. But the medina is not only a place to shop, it is also a place where things are made. Metalwork, leather tanning, basket weaving, wool dying... the medinas are what a pre-globalized—or even industrialized—world looks like. Moroccan medinas are mainly authentic, but, like all things—especially authentic things—they must be viewed with a skeptical eye.

Taking a taxi outside the Marrakesh medina. On the way to the rug shop.

Mustafa and I are ripping through the medina on a motorbike. After having driven with him in a car, it does not surprise me how he handles a bike: dangerously, and with little regard for himself, his passenger, or anyone else on the road. We are on our way to his cousin's carpet shop. It's a large four story building, that, like many buildings in the medina, looks nondescript on the outside. It is a Marrakshi pink slab of concrete with no outward facing windows or exterior architectural details. There are men in djellabas outside the modest doorway who gossip, smoke, and drink mint tea. Inside, a courtyard ascends to a glassed-in roof, where a mighty stained glass chandelier hangs from a twenty foot chain. The floors are tiled with zelliges, and the walls are sheathed with suspended rugs. Sheafs of folded carpets cover every available area of the floor. Palms, flowers and more carpets deck the roof, their colors fading and radiating under the midday sun. A mosque stands tall in the foreground, the Atlas mountains hazily looking on from behind it. I later learn there are 18,000 carpets in this store.

Big stack of Beni Ourain Berber rugs, some headed to Toronto, Canada.

Big stack of Beni Ourain Berber rugs, some headed to Toronto, Canada.

I am introduced to Choukri, the fifth-generation owner of the shop. He looks like a cross between Dick Cheney and Suge Knight, but he is friendly and has an endearing laugh that begins life as a chuckle before metamorphosing into staccato squeals. We sit down on a divan to a tray of mint tea and make small talk for a few minutes. He has two boys at the University of Ottawa. He chose Ottawa, he tells me, because of its boring reputation—he didn't want them partying too hard at a university in Montreal. Choukri is a wealthy man, and a devoted dad, but he is far from a liberal. He is a devout Muslim who often leaves our meetings for prayers at the mosque. He treats his staff kindly and runs his business professionally. He asks me if I am ready to look at some rugs. I am ready.

Choukri has four m'taalams showing me the rugs. M'taalams are the men who pull out the rugs the salesman has chosen to show the customer. The rugs are heavy and stacked high. The men are strong and perform their task with stoicism and grace. One tiny, wiry man named Hafid wears a t-shirt that says "Love what you do." I take a picture of him smiling in the sun and post it to Instagram. We start with new rugs. The vintage Berber rugs, although artistically superior to the contemporary ones, do not come in many sizes. The looms were narrow and the houses long and skinny, so the rugs are not any wider than six feet. Choukri makes modern rugs of any size in a weaving collective outside of Marrakesh in both classic and contemporary styles. They are good quality and attractive, but aesthetically banal. I choose several of these new ones in runner and room size, both rarities in the authentic vintage rugs. The m'taalams fold up my selection and bring out the vintage pieces. Choukri gauges my appreciation as the men roll out the solemn and ponderous Beni Ourains, the shimmering red Rehamnas, the crude, hamfisted Boujaads, the jagged Zaianes, the jolie laide Boucherouites... they have the beauty of things imperfect, impermanent, and incomplete. Choukri has chosen well.

I am back every day for a week. Selecting through even a small percentage of 18,000 rugs takes time, and Choukri and the m'taalams are patient. Every day we eat lunch together, Choukri, the m'taalams, the salesmen, and me. Lunch is prepared by a happy woman in a hijab. We sit on rugs around a large tagine in a hidden room upstairs and eat with hollowed out pieces of bread. On Friday we eat couscous. Aziz, the boss of the m'tallams, speaks French and tells me he wishes to move to Canada. I show them the picture of Hafid on Instagram. They laugh and say he is famous in Canada. Choukri translates "Love what you do" to Arabic—this gets an ironic laugh from the m'taalams. Choukri and I work out the final selection, the price, the repairs necessary, and the shipping. We shake hands, close the deal, and the men get to work right away rolling and packaging the Moroccan rugs to ship to Toronto.

Hafid the mt'aalam offering some solid life advice.

Hafid the mt'aalam offering some solid life advice.

In next week's installment of FROM TORONTO TO MARRAKESH: CHRONICLE OF A MOROCCAN RUG BUYING VOYAGE, John Honeyman enjoys a seaside sojourn in Essaouria.

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FROM TORONTO TO MARRAKESH: CHRONICLE OF A MOROCCAN RUG BUYING VOYAGE

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FROM TORONTO TO MARRAKESH: CHRONICLE OF A MOROCCAN RUG BUYING VOYAGE

 

On August 30, Mellah sent senior correspondent John Honeyman from Toronto, Canada to Marrakesh, Morocco on a rug buying trip. Over the next 4 weeks Mellah will be publishing his dispatches from the cities and souks of Morocco. See below for Part 1.

MUSTAFA

Mustafa and I are driving down the new toll highway from Casablanca airport to Marrakesh at 140 kilometers an hour. Mustafa chain-smokes Marlboro Reds, and he steers with his knees. We are in a shaking Dacia Logan—a Moroccan assembled piece of machinery from the Romanian subsidiary of Renault, that, in the words of former Renault CEO Louis Schweitzer, was designed to be “modern, reliable and affordable—everything else is negotiable.” We go as fast as a Dacia Logan goes.

A Dacia Logan in all its utilitarian glory

A Dacia Logan in all its utilitarian glory

Mustafa had offered to pick me up the airport. My flight from Montreal arrives at 7:00am, so that means he must leave Marrakesh before 5:00am to meet my flight on time. I had tried to decline his offer and take the train instead, but he insisted. By the time I clear customs, immigration and a long wait for my luggage, it is 9:00am. He has been waiting. He greets me with an embrace and a kiss on each cheek, and carries my suitcase to the car.

I do not know Mustafa very well. He’s a vendor who owns a small shop in the Marrakesh medina who my wife and business partner Mir and I met on the last day of our first buying trip, back in January. Mir, who has a superior eye to mine, was attracted to the herringbone patterned, lamb's wool pom-pom blankets that hung in his front window. We were worn down from battling hustlers and tough negotiations on that trip, so we were quick to warm to Mustafa’s laid-back and trustworthy vibe. The blankets sold well, so we re-ordered a few times over Whatsapp, the lingua franca of modern traders.

Mustafa is a Moroccan, but he is also a German. After he graduated from the American school in Marrakesh, he moved to Berlin to study linguistics. This was in early 1990, just a few months after the fall of the Berlin Wall and the reunification of Germany. He lived there for 26 years before moving back to Marrakesh to be closer to his mother.  His two brothers died unexpectedly within a year of each other and he did not want her to be alone. 

Mustafa’s apartment in the modern, European part of Marrakesh is cluttered but clean. Black and white ethnographic portraits of tattooed Berber women wearing jewelry are hanging on one wall. On another, a framed and yellowed front page of the Chicago Tribune. The headlines from that day seem historically unimportant, but I never ask Mustafa of the artifact's significance. Above the newspaper, there is a print of a John Lennon painting and a stiff artist’s jacket with Pollock-like tendrils of color. The second bedroom is full of antique tribal rugs, capes, dresses, and wooden doors stacked high. Mustafa is a true scholar of his Berber heritage, and, like all scholars, is obsessed. Before I have even put my bags down he begins explaining the pieces in his living room. His accent when he speaks English affirms the years in Germany—the effect is rather like a film about Berber rugs narrated by Werner Herzog, in which Werner Herzog will try sell you the rugs at the end.

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In next week's installment of FROM TORONTO TO MARRAKESH: CHRONICLE OF A MOROCCAN RUG BUYING VOYAGE, John Honeyman delves deep into the old city of Marrakesh.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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