Silver Strands -The Metalsmith

(written February 2018)

The rain starts to plop with intensity as we make our way into the ancient medina of Meknes, North-Central Morocco. Heather and I are on our way to see Cherif, master metalsmith, faithful collaborator and dear friend of Mushmina for almost ten years.

We duck into a tiny café to grab lunch on the deserted main square before heading into the narrow cobble stoned paths of the old medina. Mostly, we are trying to warm up from the frigid cold that has enveloped the country and seems to be chasing us on our travels. The inside of the restaurant looks welcomingly warm but it turns out, perhaps just a half-degree cozier than the seemingly glacial outside. In fact, we can see our ice-cold breath puff out as we speak; not very comforting from inside a restaurant.

We decide the best thing to order is ‘harira’ a staple soup here. I liken it to a Moroccan minestrone soup-tomato based with chick peas, lentils, pasta, parsley, fresh herbs and a hint of Moroccan spices. It’s piping hot and perfect. We warm our faces over the steam and laugh at ourselves. As we eat, we watch the local tv station where just a hop, skip and a jump up the road, it’s snowing intensely and cars are skidding out of control on the ice. It’s the main news story.

Once our tummies are full and we are (somewhat warmed up), we brave the sideways rain and trek out into the medina to find Cherif’s itty-bitty workshop. Winding through little pathways and under crumbling archways, we hear a distant clanking sound. Heather tells me the story of how she and Katie discovered Cherif years before, thanks to this very sound. They had been wandering the medina, looking for inspiration and Katie had heard that distinctive noise. Katie, an experienced master metalsmith herself, recognized it right away and led Heather to the source and into the depths of the medina. This was the beginning of the professional collaboration between Cherif and the Mushmina sisters.

Cherif greets us with a beaming smile at the door of his workspace and welcomes us inside. Frankly, there is just enough room for the three of us, the room is so tiny. I am grateful, though; a small space will mean less cold!

Cherif speaks a bit of French but it’s easier for Heather to ask my questions in Darija and then translate for me. Cherif is so incredibly warm and charismatic, though, his energy and thoughtful heart radiates from him.

He tells me that he has been in the same workshop for 20 years. When I ask if he doesn’t mind telling us how much he pays in rent, he proudly says that he pays 100 dirhams per month, which is roughly about $10. He says that he can even pay six months rent at a time and the sum has never changed. Talk about rent control!

Cherif has been metalsmithing since he was 18 years old. He is now 66 years wise. When I asked how he came to discover his trade, he explains to us that he his father was a shoe cobbler and it just fit that he fell into metal crafting.

Cherif’s unique and flawless style of metalwork, called ‘Damascus’, is special to Meknes in Morocco. There are only five or so master metalsmiths who do this pristine type of silver on steel. Cherif explains to us, ‘100 years ago or so, a Syrian-Jewish metalsmith came to Meknes and he brought the Damascus metal style with him.’ He goes on, ‘I was drawn to its beauty and originality at a young age and this is all I have done since.’

When I ask him what inspires him, he responds, ‘I am motivated in the moment. Perhaps a shape or a pattern that I see that day on a walk or in the old medina, in a flowing tile or on a on a wooden door. Sometimes the moment just comes from within me.’

Heather and I watch him as he demonstrates his stunning, intricate work. He etches with deft ease into steel, entirely freehand, in order to create an intricate crossed groove, fires it up, then he delicately layers fine strands of imported sterling silver from France into the precisely bridged notches. He then uses his torch once again to imprint the silver threads permanently into the steel to gorgeous shapes and patterns. Cherif does this all with instinct and talent alone. And the results are spectacular. He creates eye-catching bangles, earrings, vases, jewelry boxes, and the custom tags seen on Mushmina bags. The lovely silver threads are subtly inscribed into the steel.

IMG_8774

Cherif’s latest masterpiece is a line of ‘Hand of Fatima’ pieces, symbolizing protection and strength, designed by Katie for Mushmina. They are beautifully engraved with Cherif’s signature silver strands onto dark metal steel.

Cherif is so focused, so talented, so meticulously trained in his craft that he talks earnestly to Heather while he is working. He doesn’t seem worried in the least that he has a massive blowtorch, a minuscule workshop, and my long hair dangling just a few inches from the flame. I am keenly aware, however; particularly when he turns his head to chat with Heather and continues to fire up his piece. I am chuckling, though, as I am incredibly impressed with his obvious expertise and finesse.

When it is time for us to leave we feel a bit warmer, perhaps from the blowtorch, we joke afterwards. Cherif is gracious and kind as we depart. I am, once again, hearted by his simple tale and his gorgeous craft. I can see why Heather and Katie have worked with this talented artist and softhearted man for so many years. And I feel fortunate to be the lucky one in sharing his story.

By Tara Fraiture, Mushmina blogger

www.mushmina.com

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Morocco is buzzing with festive, colorful Ramadan preparation; the Islamic holiday that follows the lunar pattern and begins today. For my family and I whom arrived last summer to Rabat, it’s our first Ramadan in Morocco, and we are sharing the excitement and flurry of our adopted home.

This past Sunday as my girls, my husband Sacha and I drove to a family outing through the bustling downtown streets of Rabat, we came upon the most strikingly beautiful mural on the side of an unassuming, crumbling apartment complex. I had been meaning to photograph this particular fascinating fresco for a couple weeks as part of a recent uniquely popular international annual street art festival in Rabat called Jidar, Toiles Des Rues, or Roofs of the Roads. I was drawn to this specific mural with her message of female empowerment and spirit!

LadyMural

Mural by Peruvian artist, Decertor

 

As we slowly pulled up to the gargantuan wall painting, I caught my breath. She did not disappoint. I was mesmerized. And sitting underneath this gorgeous collage of vibrant color was a gaggle of men ranging in ages from early 20’s to mid 60’s. All joyfully eating juicy slices of fresh watermelon, chatting, talking, laughing with each other. I greeted them cheerfully in my broken Darija and immediately, their reaction was one of warmth and inclusion. Without missing a beat, they handed me a piece of the fruit. I gladly accepted. It’s watermelon season here in Morocco!

Soon after, my middle daughter curiously popped out of the car and was immediately gifted a tasty segment of sweet watermelon. And then my third daughter appeared. My husband patiently parked the car and he joined the fun along with my oldest girl. We all stood there, laughing, conversing in Darija, Arabic and French, and relishing the moment. All thanks to a mural and some watermelon.

Reflecting on that spontaneous incident afterwards with our girls in the car, my youngest daughter, only eight, pointed out that Moroccans are ‘so friendly and they love watermelon as much as I do.’ And that’s just the point. Moroccans are some of the friendliest people in the world. And they will immediately share, no matter how little they have. This is the simple beauty of the Ramadan season.

Ramadan is intended to be a time set aside for self-reflection; particularly gratitude for all that one has in life. It is also an occasion to give back to those who are less fortunate. For Moroccans and Muslims around the world, Ramadan is about family, love and peace. And for my family, it will always be about a slice of watermelon and an extraordinary painting in the simplest of settings. Ramadan Kareem!

 

 

By Tara Fraiture, Mushmina blogger

 

In honor of May Day, ‘International Workers Day’ Mushmina is pleased to share with you the story of an amazing training center dedicated to the employment and empowerment of women. Read on for Tara’s interview with the American born founder who created a beacon of hope for disadvantaged women in Marrakech.

xo Heather

Sister Center- Soul of Marrakech

My oldest daughter, Mia and I pull up in our battered, sputtering taxi to the The Amal Women’s Training Center and I feel an immediate calm come over me-the Center is a tiny oasis of peace and sisterhood in the heart of the charming pandemonium of Marrakech.

I had heard of Nora Fitzgerald Belahcen and the Amal Center and I was immediately drawn to its story of training underprivileged women to cook and find work in the restaurant industry. The center is truly an institution of change and inspiration.

What better way to reach people’s hearts than with delicious Moroccan-European fusion food? From heavenly tagines to tempting tartes aux fruits, everything is home-made daily with the freshest of ingredients and lovingly prepared with heart.

Nora tells her profound story to us over the most divine fresh juice smoothies. Perfect on a hot spring day in southern Morocco.

Her parents moved to Morocco from California in the 70’s and Nora grew up in a mix of Moroccan and American cultures. Her roots are now permanently in Morocco.

Moving back to Morocco and down to Marrakech after her studies in the States with her husband and two small children, Nora started to wonder about the street women who begged on the roads daily, many with babies and small children-who were they? What were their stories? And how did they get to this place of such despair? As she went on to explain to us, ‘Beggars have become such a part of our landscape. They are sadly normalized and we have become indifferent to their suffering. I see it, though, as the opened wounds of society.’

Nora then met a young woman, Amina * who was 28 years old, the exact same age as she was at the time. A young street mother of two. It was at that moment that Nora had an epiphany. ‘I decided that I needed to know her story. There is such a cynicism and mistrust towards beggars in our world.’

Nora went to see where the young woman slept with her children and was stunned. As she speaks to me, her voice cracks with emotion, ‘We have created a world where we can buy a juice for 30 dh (about $3) and we don’t even drink it all and we leave the rest. Yet there are people out there who sleep on cardboard boxes, who don’t have shoes, whose children go to sleep hungry for lack of that 30 dh. This can’t be.’

However, after living a life on the streets, it is often a challenge to adapt to a different lifestyle. And change was just not possible for Amina without motivation from Amina herself, as well as proper training. As Nora puts it, ‘I’m not a social worker. I was not equipped to help at this level. I hadn’t really made a sustainable difference in Amina’s life. I had used compassion, but I really needed to use my intellect in a smarter way.’

Nora realized that she wanted to help women who displayed a continued, authentic desire to better their lives and she needed to find a trade that would allow them to enter the work force and find success. She explains, ‘Very quickly, it became clear that these women were agents of their own lives and the leaders of their empowerment journey.’

She began with a tiny, yet genius pilot project. Baking American-style sweets at the school where her husband taught. She then chose two women who demonstrated both a will to better their situation and genuine need. Nora then taught them basic recipes such as cheesecake, cupcakes and brownies. Nora explains, ‘Keep in mind that these women were illiterate. But they took the recipes, tried them one time, and they were so, so good. It was like they were born to bake and be entrepreneurs. It was magical.’

The project was an instant hit and soon the women were earning 1,200 dh/month each, which is about $130. Nothing for some but an absolute fortune for these women.

This was the tiny seed that eventually flourished into the Amal Women’s Training Center, which opened in April of 2013. Amal, meaning ‘hope’ in Arabic, is a place of promise for hundreds of women who would not normally have a chance. These women represent the force of going against the grain of an embedded stereotype.

The center targets women with two essential traits: self-motivation and vulnerability. Widows, divorcées, single mothers, orphans, and women below the poverty level, ages 18-35 years.

The goal of the center is for its graduates to enter into the formal economy with an official work contract. To provide stability and sustainability. The Amal team has created a large network of employers in the restaurant business in Marrakech. It is a win-win for everyone involved.

Nora had hoped she could help a few women when she first created her vision. Little did she know that today, the center has graduated over 170 trained chefs and utilizes 25 full-time employees in the restaurant and catering service. Now that’s sisterhood.

There is so much joy here; the center is bursting with the thriving force of this strong tribe of women. Nora finds herself truly humbled by the women’s strength and determination, and hopes that the Center will continue to open doors through the love and comfort of scrumptious food.

* Amina’s name has been changed to protect her privacy

By Tara Fraiture, Mushmina blogger

 

The Amal Women’s Training Center and Moroccan Restaurant in Marrakech is open from 12-4 pm daily for lunch, dinner with a reservation, and also offers cooking and baking classes. yum!

Amal Gueliz
Rue Allal Ben Ahmed et Rue Ibn Sina
Gueliz, Marrakech, Morocco

http://amalnonprofit.org/

 

 

 

%d bloggers like this: