Halima’s house in Bejaad is modest and tiny; we gingerly walk up the narrow staircase into her small living room and on into her workspace where she has carefully cleared out an area for our visit.

As we make our way up the stone stairs into her humble abode, her lively children run up and down the stairs around us. The street below is busy and bustling with little ones playing, neighbors chatting, and curious by-standers gazing at us, wondering whom we were.

Halima is a master weaver in rural Bejaad, Central Morocco. She is the head contact for a small but mighty group of female weavers in this quiet town; known for its beautiful, unique rugs. For female weavers here and all over Morocco, these carpets symbolize a tiny slice of independence.

Just as importantly, though, Halima is Mushmina co-founder Heather O’Neill’s loyal friend. Their friendship has evolved from Heather’s starting days in Morocco as a galvanized, determined Peace Corps Volunteer almost 15 years ago. She has also been Heather’s most trusted rug weaver and much-needed informal ‘consultant’ ever since.

 

Halima, whose infectious smile lights up a room and whose eyes twinkle with clever humor and intelligence, is an example of the strength and inspiration of the small but Herculean business of the Mushmina sisters, Heather and Katie.

Halima’s calm temperament and warmth radiates from her when she hugs me and welcomes us into her home.

Halima has not had it easy, however. As a woman, mother and wife in a tiny traditional Moroccan working-class town, it is often seen as taboo for a woman to be earning a salary. Finding a balance is difficult. Maintaining a busy home, where most women still wash laundry by hand and toil in front of teensy gas stoves for hours, as well as caring for her three young children, takes up most of her time.

Halima’s work ethic is unmatchable; her energy and vigor are unstoppable; her motivation is ceaseless. She has something inside her that is different-she takes initiative with her trade. She wants more for herself. She demands better for her children.

Halima’s heartwarming story is a fascinating one. An incredible woman who never had the opportunity to go to school as an uncle suddenly passed away and she was sent to care for the family, Halima speaks no French; typical of most rural Moroccan people. Luckily for me, Heather flawlessly translates Halima’s heartfelt story for us from Darija, the local language.

And then there is her actual physical weaving. Halima, like most Moroccan weavers (most are female, as it’s an ideal trade handed down from mother to daughter), has the family loom in her cramped kitchen. The lighting is dim and the elements can be brutal; summers are stifling hot and winters are brutally frigid. Heating and cooling systems are unthinkably too expensive.

Luckily, Halima is still young and her eyes and hands haven’t failed her. But she weaves at night after her incredibly long work hours at home are finished. Inevitably, the day will come. Her mother sadly had to give up weaving because it was too hard on her vision.

Weavers depend on their knowing hands for their work; these are their tools. Halima’s hands are her lifeline; soft and calloused from years of physical toiling at her basic wooden loom. Her loom, a simple wooden structure with two beaten-up, rudimentary cans placed precariously on either side as well as a spoon tied right in the middle for balance, is the heart of her income.

The ancestral wooden looms on which these women weave, amazingly, have not changed over the years. Although electrical looms exist, they are not used as a result of cost and maintenance.

 

While we talk and work and she shows us her gorgeous weaving, her children periodically come in and out of the room, asking questions, scrambling all over her. She handles them like a pro; not skipping a beat in continuing our work and caring for them.

We watch her as she weaves rhythmically, mesmorized.

Halima’s talent is quite magical. As Moroccan weavers do, their trade is innately in them-she doesn’t use any conventional tools. Halima uses her hands and her arms to measure the rugs. The rest, is almost divination-all of the stunning symbols that make the Bejaddi rugs so famous throughout Morocco and beyond, come from within Halima. Her patterns are so exact, so perfect, such excellent quality, one might think that they are factory-produced. This is a real, pure, raw gift.

Astonishingly, weavers work with their textiles facing outward from the loom; the women have to essentially do everything backwards. It is intricate, difficult work. When I ask Halima where she finds her inspiration, she tells me that her revelations come to her in various ways. It can be as simple as the outline of a grain. Or the peaks of the majestic Atlas Mountains. Nature and agricultural motifs are often woven into Moroccan textiles. Each region has its own trademark patterns.

 

We got a sneak peak of creative director, Katie working closely with Halima on designs that will later be sewn into Mushmina’s trademark handbags.

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As the afternoon wanes and the evening appears out of nowhere, we stop our work for a tea. The pocket-sized room, all of a sudden, is cold. We fill ourselves with minty, heavily sweetened Moroccan tea, cakes and toasty flat bread. And when our bellies are satisfied and our hearts are warmed, we hit the road. Feeling grateful to have been enlightened by this incredible woman. And to have shared a little bit of her world.

-By Tara Fraiture, Mushmina blogger

www.mushmina.com

 

 

 

 

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Ahmed Ghezawe journeyed three long hours from rural Bejaad, Central Morocco to his destination of Rabat. His goal was the second annual rug exposition of Morocco; a massive white tent, held in the capital, with hundreds of stands, vendors, visitors, and of course, rugs as far as the eye could see.

It is, though, so much more than rugs. These textiles have a story. Each piece is carefully made by a strong woman. Often, under difficult conditions-tiny spaces, no electricity, frigid rooms in the cold winter, sweltering spaces in the heat of the summer. But still, these hearty weavers persist. Their calloused fingers and hands work tirelessly and rhythmically in motion, day after day, week after week, month after month.

In this gargantuan Bedouin-style tent, rows and rows of rugs-wool, cotton, silk, chenille. Colossal rugs and miniature ones. Gorgeous wool shags and tightly-knit kilims. Naturally-dyed throws and brightly colored patterned carpets.

The mecca of Moroccan rugs; all the way from Chefchaouen in heavily-Spanish influenced northern Morocco down to Marrakech and beyond into the High Atlas region of the south. Distinctly different, vibrant rugs from this incredibly unique country. The people of Morocco reflect this diversity. And their art; these rugs represent this fascinating range of singularity in its people.

Along with Ahmed on this trek came Zohra, one of the committed weavers of ‘Association Beni Zemmour’; a women’s co-op of talented rug makers aptly named after the famous rug-weaving region around the holy town of Bejaad.

The dedicated pair brought with them a van filled with carefully hand-woven rugs. And hearts brimming with hope. Their main goal was to find influential contacts with whom they could find networking opportunities. If they could possibly sell some of their beautiful rugs at the same time, it would be an added bonus.

Most of the stands at the rug expo were women’s co-ops; a rare opportunity for women to showcase their group work and trade in a typically traditional country where it is often seen as taboo for women to work. It is a unique chance for women to work towards a sliver of independence and empowerment.

For Ahmed in his role as mentor to these female weavers, his journey started many years before and is forever linked to ours at Mushmina. Ahmed was Heather O’Neill’s counterpart (or professional mentor and government-assigned aid) years before when Heather was a Peace Corps Volunteer….in Bejaad, Morocco.

Heather describes Ahmed back then, “He started from scratch with the women’s rug-weaving co-op. But he had a vision from the start. He was committed and hard-working. But most of all, he believed in the women and their ability to grow professionally. It’s not often that one finds a male leader like this in Morocco.”

She continues, “I was so fortunate to be mentored by Ahmed. He was an incredible teacher to me. But what he has done with the co-op is so much more than me. He has taken it from a room with no electricity to a large showroom, where visitors come and see the women working. He facilitates professional training sessions. He supports these women’s families by helping their sons receive certification courses in electricity and plumbing classes. These are young people who would not normally have the opportunity to learn a trade.”

This partnership between Heather and Ahmed was recognizably meant to be. A professional collaboration that has lasted for years and is based on respect, a vision for the future, and the hopes of others.

When I had the good fortune to meet Ahmed, it was very clear that both he and Zohra care deeply about Heather. Ironically, I barely speak Darija (the local language in Bejaad) and Ahmed’s French is quite basic. (Zohra speaks no French at all.) So we reverted to animated hand gestures, quite a bit of smiling, and much laughter. I find, funny enough, that these are the most heart-felt interviews.

It is quite rare, to be honest, to find a Moroccan man so incredibly invested in the professional growth of rural Moroccan women and their trade. Ahmed is a trailblazer himself; breaking down barriers of traditional cultural norms.

Ahmed kept touching his heart when he talked about Heather. He described working with her with such fondness that it was as if he were describing his own daughter. He told me how devoted Heather was to her job. How she would go into every house and get to know every neighbor and every woman with whom she worked. She was special, he explained to me. These relationships took time.

Relationships and family are incredibly essential to Moroccans. And perfectly apropos, Ahmed showed up at the rug exposition with his 5-year old grandson, Yahya. Moroccans are so deeply connected to their families. It didn’t seem at all odd that the entire time I was sitting with Ahmed and Zohra, Yahya was running circles around us; clambering joyfully all over his grandfather. Ahmed wasn’t bothered at all. Work and family. So closely connected.

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It’s superbly fitting that in explaining his work to me, Ahmed wrapped up our chat with this gem, “The association is made up of seven women. Six ladies. And then me.” And then he laughed. A long, hearty, self-depricating chuckle. Zohra giggled as I burst out laughing.

I left the rug expo, a few more rugs in tow, satisfied and happy. And now as I gaze upon these brightly colored pieces of art proudly laid on my tile floors, I know a little more of their story. And the women who carefully created them. And I am determined to know more.

 

-By Tara Fraiture, Mushmina blogger

 

 

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