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.
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