What’s it like entering this world of rug dealers as a 29 year old American born female with the last name that connotes more German heritage that anything closely resembling Middle Eastern origin…interesting. Thankfully I had my aunt by my side who was gracious enough to explain the difference between a sumac and an oushak quietly. Having spent the last 30 years selling rugs, my aunt Fran recently made it her mission to travel to various parts of the world exploring the geography, culture and people where these rugs are made. Previous to Morocco, Fran visited India and Turkey where she accumulated firsthand knowledge of how rugs were made in these various counties. so when Fran first asked me if I would like to accompany her to Morocco I jumped at the chance and in early April, two American women set off for this most western country in northern African.
Right from the start, our friends and family told us not go do due to recent current events but their fear did not get the best of us. Our first stop was the capital city of Rabat due to the fact that one of Fran’s former employees at her rug shop now lived in Sale, a city boarding Rabat. We spent the next two days exploring all cultural aspects of Morocco. We eat tagine, drank sweet green tea, made our first trip to their souk, explore their food market and marveled at the prices. But more than anything we encountered a people that wanted to show off their country and treat us with the upmost hospitality. After two days in Rabat, we took a five hour train to Marrakesh and that is really where our adventure began. I should let you know at this point that my university studies centered on Middle Eastern History and I went on to pursue a graduate degree in Islamic Art at the University of Massachusetts. I dabbled in Arabic (albeit Egyptian colloquial) and some French so I felt “confident” in our ability to communicate at least essential information.
Marrakesh is basically divided into two parts, an old fortified city where the central souks are located and the modern neighborhood called Gueliz that has a very French European feel to it. We told ourselves we wanted an authentic experience and therefore booked a riad (a traditional Moroccan house) right in the heart of the Median. This riad was a beautifully restored merchant house renovated by an English couple. Daily it offered us a tall glass of fresh orange juice, spectacular views of the Atlas Mountains on the roof top terrace, and best of all a local guide who offered to help us navigate the textile souks later that afternoon.
We knew that the Marrekesh souks were famed throughout the world and for a first timer it can be quiet shocking-but it is full of energy, all-consuming, rich and leads to a surprise at every corner. Thankfully we were led by our guide directly to the Souk Zrabia – the carpet market. Here we found simple designs woven on fabrics that tell stories about the nomadic life of the some 38 Berber tribes. The price of these carpets varies depending on the intricacy of the designs, the size of the carpet – and your nationality. But we had the advantage, these salesmen knew we were there to buy and quickly began setting up shop. Their wives brought us cups of mint tea and we went to work nodding or shaking our heads at each new rug they pulled out for us.
Due to of the varied climates and cultures ranging from the Atlas Mountains to the Sahara desert, we were shown both shaggy high pile rugs and thin almost blanket like carpets. From the start we fell in love with what Moroccans call Boucherite rag rugs which are made from old fabrics. These weavers incorporated whatever clothing was on hand so we found rugs that to use hot pinks or neon yellows and gave the pieces a highly modern feel. Similar in color to the Boucherite rugs, we were also introduced to Azilal carpets. These rugs were saturated in widely abstract patters displaying mostly diamond motifs set against white backgrounds. And finally we were shown Beni Ourain carpets, most familiar to American. Woven from long strands of wool from a special breed of Berber sheep, we were told Beni Ourain carpets were originally created as bedding for the tribes inhabited the Atlas Mountains which is why the pile on these rugs is so high.
Our four days ended quickly and we were left with an experience that is hard to put into words, however as the Balti proverb that inspired the book Three Cups of Tea goes, “One cup of tea, you are a stranger. Second cup of tea, you are a friend. Third cup of tea, you become family,”