The Learning Place-Threads of Empowering Dreams

The rhythmic whirring of sewing machines can be heard from outside the craft centre, practically singing in tranquil unison. The chatter behind the doors is animated, lively and productive-the cheerful force behind this festive clatter is remarkable and distinct. These are the gifted artisans of the Eve Branson Foundation; the force, the strength, the heart of this unique women’s group.

One could say that the warmth of the Berber people, and particularly the women in the rugged High Atlas Mountain region of Morocco, is the catalyst for this thriving ensemble.

This is something that Eve Branson, Founder of the Foundation, recognized, 12 years ago, on a trip to Morocco by chance. It was a quintessential moment. The spirit was already present in these incredible women. They just needed someone to bring out their light. And it’s been shining fiercely ever since. Ms. Branson, who has dedicated her life to challenging the status quo and going against the grain, so to speak, is a sprightly 94-years old and is showing no signs of slowing down.

This fire, this phenomenon, began on a whim when Ms. Branson stumbled upon the magical Kasbah Tamadot in the depths of the High Atlas Mountains. Immediately mystified and charmed by the achingly beautiful landscape and the radiance of the Berber people, Ms. Branson felt it was her calling to help Berber women, in particular.

Eve with Amina teacher

Photo by @charliedailey

Women depend on sewing, stitching, and creating, often meticulously by hand, in their homes or on ancient wooden looms. The artisanal industry is thriving in this mystical country and is essential to the Moroccan economy. Many handcrafted products such as rugs, table covers and napkins, so incredibly popular with tourists, are made by women in rural provinces.

From the Eve Branson Foundation website, ‘Tansghart was the first of our craft houses, and it was established to train young women who had dropped out of school. We now proudly run five craft centers in the area, with each center encouraging the production and sale of artisan goods. This allows the young people to generate a small income for themselves and their families.’

In addition to these essential skills-training centers, the Foundation partners closely with several different innovative organizations that allow them to assist vital community programs supporting access to education, environmental issues, healthcare, and wellness.

The Foundation has, from the start, worked faithfully with the team at  Kasbah Tamadot, ‘who employ over 90 per cent of their staff from the local community to enhance living standards in some of the most impoverished communities surrounding the property.’

EBF weaver

Embroidery programme

Photo by @charliedaily

It just so happened that a few years ago, EBF was looking for collaborators who could guide, lead, and teach these extraordinary women; to take them further than they ever could imagine. Someone who knew authentic Morocco at its core, who understood the artisans + women’s groups. They also sought someone with a specific passion for empowering the female population and creating sustainable, reachable employment for rural Berber women, the often-marginalized population in the jagged High Atlas Mountain terrain of Morocco.

Eve and her expert team were looking for someone with business savvy who would not compromise the integrity of the Berber culture and artistry.  Those who had equal heart as they did. Someone with creativity, ingenuity, passion and unequalled talent.

Heather and Katie O’Neill of Mushmina were also seeking fulfilling, sustainable collaboration at the time. They were looking to expand their mindful reach with gifted female artisans throughout Morocco. The business-savvy sisters were looking for women with compassion and spunk.

On a cold, rainy ho-hum day in winter of 2016, surrounded by the rustic landscape of the High Atlas Mountains, this unique collaboration between Mushmina and the Eve Branson Foundation was born. The Foundation welcomes new connections to help scale and strengthen its impact in the region and through a mutual contact, met with Heather and Katie from Mushmina.

Katie and Heather were graciously invited up the enchanting, rugged mountain of mystic red peaks and endless fruit tree valleys to meet Barbara De Bastier, the experienced and wise Coordinator of the foundation’s home. The meeting sparked a friendship and subsequent partnership leading to design and color workshops focused on improving the quality and style of products being crafted.

Asni, the bustling Berber town where the flourishing foundation is based, and several surrounding villages, are now the home to five successful artisanal centers that are funded by the Eve Branson Foundation.

As Heather thoughtfully explains, ‘From the initial samples to this last round of beautiful custom Fedowa Tunics, we are delighted to work closely with the women who hand-embroider this stunning collection with traditional Moroccan stitching. Carefully led by Amina, the teacher at the Tamgounssi Weaving Center, the women learn pattern-making, intricate Rhonda stitching, and striking embroidery.’ Heather continues, ‘We also made capes and jackets with the younger trainees at the Tansghart Craft Center, led by their teacher, Rachid, who patiently listens as Katie diligently and thoroughly walks him through her designs.’

The dedication on behalf of the Mushmina sisters is one of energy, expertise, warmth and grit. Katie and Heather will spend hours going over color swatches, potential patterns, cross-checking and brainstorming ideas for future projects with the seamstress team. It is truly a productive collaboration on all sides.

EBF tunic

Asni Embroidered Flower Top in eggplant/ Photo by Ingrid Pullar for Mushmina

And the future? Katie and Heather are always hopeful to continue their ethical partnership with the Foundation. The sisters intend to create more unique clothing collaborations, continued custom work opportunities for these talented women, as well as reaching out to global markets. Heather and Katie have brought several groups of North American women to meet the seamstresses in Asni and anticipate engaging in more of this type of cross cultural exchange. Over couscous, of course!

In the meantime, the calloused, soft hands of these brilliant seamstresses carefully persist with their precious work. And the quiet, invaluable guidance of the Eve Branson Foundation and the Mushmina  Sisters endures.

By Tara Fraiture, Mushmina Blogger and Director of Social Engagement

www.mushmina.com

 

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Please join us on Saturday September 29th for a Mushmina Fall Trunk Show in Marrakech. 11am-4pm @Cafe Clock 10% of the sales will benefit the Eve Branson Foundation. Please RSVP here

Shop the complete Mushmina and Eve Branson Collection on www.mushmina.com

EBF-Mushmina- Cafe Clock promo

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The creations are timeless; simple but extraordinarily beautiful. The earrings are meticulously created in striking mixed metals of brass and silver that sing of the earth’s natural textures. The necklaces, whimsically inspired by nomadic wanderings and unique lands, are ever-evolving and spirited in their playful inspiration. One might think that the genius behind these gorgeous compositions is a wizened elderly savant, but in fact, this gutsy brilliance belongs to Katie O’Neill, Co-Founder and Creative Director of Mushmina.

Katie ONeill (1)

Katie’s breathtaking talent is unparalleled. It is rare that one finds a female master metalsmith, let alone one with such a fierce fervor to continue learning and honing her intricate, luminous skills. Katie is not only an accomplished metalsmith, she is also a textile and clothing designer.

Soft-spoken and with a dazzlingly genuine smile that shines with compassion, Katie is a force with which to be reckoned when it comes to her passion-creating enchanting, enduring art in all forms.

Katie treks the earth, seeking illumination. She has traveled to the Sahara desert of Mali to study the famed Tuareg ‘Blue Men’; well-known for their mastery of crafting spirited jewelry. She walks the walk, one could say. She sits with local artisans. She teaches them. She learns from them. She is constantly changing, growing, advancing herself, and searching for understanding and self-betterment. And she does all of this in the most humble of ways.

What inspires her? She pauses and is reflective. ‘ That special visceral reaction that happens when people “connect” in the world.’ Katie explains, ‘ I found that what inspires my interest in craft is its relationship to cultural anthropology and the deep rooted connection to our ancestry or childhoods,’ She continues mindfully, ‘It’s a nostalgia, a comfort, a trigger.  It is important to me that we be reminded of the origin and integrity from which art is created, its roots; the force behind the innovation and craftsmanship.’

Katie also has a passionate appreciation for unique storytelling though artistry. Luckily, this mindful mission is embedded in the soul of Mushmina. ‘I do what I do in order to allow other artisans to tell their story through our collaboration. As artists we have been given the duty of continuing to carry out these traditions. I think in a past life, perhaps I was a metalsmith or weaver and decided that in a future life, when I was in a position of freedom and opportunity, I would come back and use my skills to empower the fascinating stories of others. It is truly a gift to be creative.’

Katie and Heather have been honing authentic, reciprocal, learning relations with their team of skilled Mushmina artisans for almost 10 years. It is deeply rooted in their philosophy to support and employ local artisans from all over Morocco. It’s taken years to establish and the genuine rapport between the Mushmina Sisters and their team of experts is something of which they are extremely proud.

Katie looks to her own spirituality for guidance. Simplicity, earthiness, and the pure beauty in nature. Blending the unexpected. Mixing metals. Who creates striking earrings inspired by the lovely historical Art Deco period in Casablanca? Katie does. Who hand-draws and designs a best-selling line of handbags ingeniously taken from a vibrantly upholstered Moroccan couch? Katie did. Katie sees color and light in everything.

Fortunately, Katie has the best of collaborators in her adventures. She explains pensively, ‘Heather and I just mesh. We fit perfectly as sisters and work partners. There isn’t anyone who knows me better. Mushmina is not an actual word but rather, the nickname my sister gave me as a child. It doesn’t technically mean anything, but in Algerian Arabic, we’ve been told “Meshy mna” (spelled phonetically) means “Not by us”. I loved learning this as we often say the that the work happens “through” us. My creations are inspired by a myriad of things and are largely due to the people with whom I have the honor of working. This is what makes our items unique. They tell stories. The fact that the results are often a collaboration leaves room for the element of surprise…I then combine old and new, so it’s relatable.’

Lastly, I have to ask Katie what her favorite Moroccan food is. ‘All of it!’, she says without missing a beat. She explains with enthusiasm, ‘I actually love Moroccan food so much that Heather says she’s never seen me eat so much as when I’m in Morocco. I think it’s possible that I finish one meal and then start talking about the next one immediately afterwards. It’s a constant joke with Heather. ‘The food is yet another sensory stimulating combination of Morocco’s magic that makes you want to come back for more.’

You will often find Katie in the tiny, rugged workspace of Mushmina’s master jewelry mallum, Ahmed, in Tiznit, southern Morocco. Or in the high Atlas Mountains designing clothing with the women of the Eve Branson Foundation. Katie will be there, sitting with women’s co-ops and artisans, studying and participating, guiding and advising, and becoming enlightened herself. And of course, laughing with her peers. Because Katie is a friend to everyone. Her warmth glows as her gorgeous metals clink gently against her strong stride.

Luckily for us, enchanting Morocco has this bold, visionary woman to tell its beautiful story.

By Tara Fraiture, Mushmina blogger

The first time Heather and I spoke on the phone, I was immediately struck by the radiance and warmth of her voice. It glowed through our conversation and I knew right away that I had come across someone special.

Heather, I discovered soon after, is the heartstrings of Mushmina and so much more.

 

Running a successful small business is one thing. However, running a flourishing small business, as a strong female CEO, with a mindful mission from Morocco is an entirely different situation. All of these challenges could bring even a strong person down. Heather, despite these obstacles, chooses to ‘run into the storm’ as she has expressed to me in the past. And she is one storm-strong woman.

Heather describes successfully owning a business in Morocco as ‘rolling with it, no matter how crazy things may be.’ She is a firm believer in karma and the universe backing her up. And she should; her work ethic and her incredible human spirit are unmatchable.

On top of it all, Heather is a loving mother to two wee people-Hiba, four years and Youssef, one year. And she is as hands on as a mama could be-I often call her and she’s been out for a nature walk with her kids. Or she brings the gang with her to our informal meetings at my house. Which I love!

The pressure, however, of being a thriving small business owner and an effective mother, can be stressful. Particularly working from home; where chaos can reign with two little ones.  However, Heather manages to find the light in the chaos. She claims that flexibility is the key to positivity. She explains earnestly, ‘To me, this has so much value. I love that each day is different and I can take a sick day with my daughter if I need to.’ She continues, ‘Hiba loves to play in the workshop next to me and tries on all the latest clothing and bags. My son goes right for my toolbox. It does get a little chaotic but I have a wonderful helper and a door that I can shut when necessary; this is how I find my sanity. I also work at midnight when everyone else is asleep.’

Peace seems to seek out Heather. This girl just doesn’t get flustered! I’ve called her more times that not when a product order has been lost in the Moroccan mail (it happens quite often) or Hiba has dumped applesauce all over Youssef’s head. And she goes with the flow! She frequently tells me that the universe has its way of sorting things out.

She’s also pretty darn humble. She’ll be the first to give credit to her fab sis and Co-Founder, Katie, as well as the incredible team of Mushmina artisans. As well as her family and husband, Mohamed. Her nature is one of caring for others.

 

At the same time, this Mama rocks the fashion accessories world with her innovative, creative, supportive mission. But Heather is no wallflower! She says she has learned to be assertive and firm living in Morocco and running a business here. She explains, ‘You have to have boundaries. There is a balance in being patient but also being productive. Things take more time here, but I have found a rhythm.’ She laughs good-naturedly. ‘Most of the time.’

 

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Heather’s connection to Morocco and its people is exceptionally remarkable. The best part is that it comes so naturally to her. Heather learned Darija, one of the local languages of Morocco, when she was a Small Business Peace Corps Volunteer from 2003-2005 in rural Bejaad, Central Morocco. As she fittingly describes, ‘People’s heads turn when they hear that I can speak the language and also that I am an experienced negotiator.’ Clearly, the respect is there.

Working closely and diligently with women’s groups, co-ops, and artisans inherently allowed her to easily pick up the language fluently. Heather’s bond with those with whom she comes in contact is extraordinary. While most expats do not speak Darija, Heather defies the odds and does all of her work in the language. Watching and listening to her work is an art-a fascinating, back-and-forth of gentle grit and perseverance. Yet she manages to have a kindness and warmth to her that is incredibly affable and approachable.

The close link that Heather has with her long-term team of loyal artisans is palpable. Trust and relationships take time to develop here in Morocco and Heather has dedicated years of her time to this labor of love, Mushmina. She has earned respect, appreciation, and most importantly, affection and admiration from her body of artists. As she often says, ‘I learn from them as much as they learn from me.’

This mutual admiration and respect comes from years of getting to know her artisans and their families, a key part of Moroccan culture. Heather describes it best-‘My leadership style is very personal. I am particularly invested in our team, I know their families and they know mine. This is also how business is done in Morocco and I love this about my adopted home.’

 

 

After I spoke to Heather on the phone for the first time, we decided to meet in Casablanca. We realized quickly that our vision was similar. We both were former Peace Corps Volunteers, gravitating towards empowering and supporting women in particular.

As soon as I walked into the café where we had arranged to meet, Heather’s charmingly genuine smile greeted me from across the bustling Moroccan tearoom. I knew at that moment, I was meeting my future boss. Even more essentially, my steadfast friend.

Perhaps one might agree that Heather is in fact, the thread of Mushmina. And if the universe has its way of sorting things out, then I consider myself unbelievably fortunate to be a part of Heather’s cosmos.

 

By Tara Fraiture, Mushmina blogger, ‘among other things!’

 

 

Our business is so much more then accessories, it’s about the stories and the people behind our handmade products. This week on the Mushmina blog we bring you the story of a dynamic group of artisans that Katie and I have worked with for almost ten years. These ladies continue to amaze me! Read on for the secret ingredient that makes The Khenifra Women’s Cooperative so successful. xo Heather

 

Khenifra Treasures –Beads of Trust and Hope

Surrounded on all sides by the majestic Atlas Mountains in Northern-Central Morocco, is the inconspicuous, sleepy town of Khenifra.

This rugged community, however, has a force within its soul that perhaps sets it apart from other Moroccan rural settings. That power, is fueled by a small, ingenious group of women with two goals-to provide for their families and trust and respect each other. This flourishing mantra is behind the thriving success of their unique women’s cooperative.

The idea all began on a whim in 2009 when a savvy and determined Peace Corps Volunteer, Linda Zahava, took note of the unusual and interesting embroidery and button-making talent of the local women in the village where she had been assigned to do her work as a small business development volunteer.

These women were skilled button makers of the traditional Moroccan ‘djellaba’, the long, beautifully flowing gown that both women and men wear for all sorts of occasions in this incredibly diverse country. The women were accustomed to working independently from home; creating and producing beautiful buttons for sale.

The concept, however, of working together as an association towards a group goal was entirely new. Most of the women were uneducated. Running a successful co-op and business would be challenging as the majority of the association members, to this day, only hold a primary school education.

Linda had a revelation when she saw these gorgeously intricate, detailed colored beads. Why not make them into unique, vibrantly colored necklaces? Little did she know that this idea would take off and become what it has today.

How did this incredible collaboration begin with the button makers, the prolific Peace Corps Volunteer and the fab Mushmina sisters? How did it evolve into a thriving, internationally successful women’s co-op?  And how is it possible that after so many years, this connection is still going strong?

It was a perfect storm, of sorts-Heather and Katie were seeking a Peace Corps-led focus group for product development in which they could invest and explore at the start of their small but mighty Mushmina story in 2009.

In true Mushmina fashion, Katie and Heather trekked down a rural backroad to Khenifra to meet at Linda’s modest house and in true Moroccan fashion, over tea and local bread, they placed a hopeful order (with Katie’s trusted color palate). It was a match meant to be.

The cooperative’s first meetings were chaotic; a mishmash of disorganized, yet enthusiastic pandemonium. In fact, at the very first meeting, over 100 women showed up and Latifa, who is president of the association today, had to stand on a table and shout to get everyone’s attention.

Slowly but surely, the group gathered momentum in establishing and maintaining its goals. Linda guided the group in electing and explaining the roles officers, managing a business and creating a thriving product.

The trust, however, was something that could not be taught.

Faith in each other is what makes this group special and a commitment to one another and their goal is what has continued to help the co-op prosper over the years.

There have been roadblocks, one might say, in this quest for collaboration. Imagine trying to run a business with 17 people. All whom have vastly different ideas? When the sparse women’s center in Khenifra was suddenly closed where the group faithfully held their Sunday co-op meetings, Heather, Linda and the ladies would meet at a café rooftop overlooking the outline of the pink-hued town of Khenifra. Not holding a meeting was not an option.

There has always been an inventiveness and freshness to this co-op of talented artisans that is both ingenious and unmatched. And all those tremendously varying ideas? They would turn into enormously clever results. In fact, the Khenifra ladies and Katie continue to dream up imaginative and visionary new pieces all the time. With buttons.

The Khenifra co-op has successfully traveled several times for trade shows in the United States. They have necklace orders flying off their shelves. In fact, they even have back orders.

Almost 10 years later, this co-op is still going strong. These relationships are still thriving. These professional alliances are still persevering. The beautiful beaded necklaces, ever-changing and evolving, are still hugely successful. These women are still empowered and providing for their families. These friendships are still blooming. And all because of some tiny buttons, a hopeful idea, a great deal of trust and a tremendous amount of talent and hard work.

By Tara Fraiture, Mushmina blogger

Shop the Khenifra collection on www.mushmina.com.

This summer we are also bringing back the popular ‘Khenifra Cluster Bead Necklace’; a fabulous chunky, labor-intensive chocker-style piece full of handmade buttons. We’re always adding innovative, cool ideas to our collections and we’ve included metal beads (rock on!) as well as a new variety of vibrant colors to these fave necklaces.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

This week we decided to have our lovely Mushmina blogger Tara, venture to Marrakech to peek behind the most amazing door we have ever seen,  that of  the Henna Art Cafe. The first of it’s kind, this cafe/artistic center/gallery is a must see when visiting the enchanting ‘Red City.’  Read on… and start planning your trip! xo Heather

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The Henna Art Café, Marrakech-Eat, Paint, Love

I quickly hop out of the way out of a rogue motorcycle whizzing by me in the winding cobblestoned alleyways of mystical Marrakech. The potholed, dusty path whimsically leads to the imaginative Henna Art Café. This vibrantly colorful venue is a lively, unequaled stomping ground that celebrates empowering artists as well as serving up divinely delicious traditional Moroccan cuisine with an unconventional flair.

As soon as I moved to magical Morocco in the summer of 2017, I heard about this exciting, innovative venue in the heart of the medieval walled city.

The popular café innovatively combines three of my favorite things-excellent food, gorgeous local art with an ingenious twist and compassionate mission that supports talented henna artists, one of main sources of Moroccan tourism.

The setting of the café is quirky and playful-Lori Gordon, founder and co-owner utilize every inch of the small space in the most creative and genius of ways. True to her artistry, even the tiny toilet space is quintessentially decorated. As Lori explains with a chuckle, ‘This way, people can’t complain too much about the small space. Distraction is key here.’  The walls of the toilet are a vivid collage of funky, fun art, meticulously painted by Lori herself. Ask her how long it took to paint the toilet!

Lori’s story is simple, she explains. An accomplished visual artist, writer, and champion of women’s autonomy, she found herself at a point in her life where she was stagnant. As she puts it, ‘I was 50 years old and I had never been overseas. I had accomplished many things as an artist for which I was incredibly proud but at that moment, I decided that I needed a turning point.’ She had an epiphany on a three-week vacation to Morocco and in her words, ‘I never looked back.’

Opening the café was a result of practicality. She needed an income. Lori decided to combine her love of art and scrumptious food as well as her ever-existing need to help others into a business and a non-profit helping local artists called El Fenn Maroc. She chose to focus on henna as it is such a symbol of Morocco and the creative strength, in particular, of Moroccan women. Because of the success of the café and gallery, the non-profit El Fenn is also able to support several other local non-profits.

Both the café and the non-profit work harmoniously with each other to create a perfect storm of good food, lovely art, and a sustainable environment for female artists.

As luck had it, she met her long-term co-owner and business partner, Rachid, on her first day in Marrakech and they have been working side by side ever since.

‘I think part of what makes it work so well is that either myself or Rachid are there at the café at all times.’ And it shows. The friendly staff, the brightly colored setting, the cozy rooftop area, clearly it’s a labor of love. And it works smashingly.

Who are the henna artists; the heart and soul of this tiny, thriving café?

Lori explains, ‘In Morocco, word of mouth is everything. We found our amazing artists this way; they’ve been with us from day one. Our first artist put us in touch with the second and so on. The momentum has never stopped from that moment.’

‘What sets us apart from other establishments in Morocco,’ she tells me, ‘as henna is a very common art form for tourists and locals alike, ‘is that other hotels and riads regularly offer henna as a secondary source. For us, it’s the focal point of our business.’

Lori and her artists spent much time testing creative means, not just using henna as decoration on the hands, as traditionally done. Instead, they offer something much more endurable in their stunning gallery: striking henna art on paper, wood and leather.

The café’s henna offerings have been such a hit that the non-profit, Actuality Media, made a short documentary, highlighting one of their talented artists; Nadia. The nine-minute film is called ‘Flowers of Marrakech’ and is a simple, beautiful take on a talented female artist in Morocco trying to support her family as a young single mother. (Scroll down to watch)

And Lori’s sense of humor always remains intact. When I tell her how much I enjoy the food at the café, she laughs heartily and says that it’s not because she is an expert chef, but because the café’s ever-changing menu reflects her own food cravings. This and a whole lot of trial and error in the kitchen. Most often her cravings are Mexican food in nature, she says with a mischievous smile. Which is fine by me!

And true to her word, no one, to my knowledge, has ever complained about the toilet.

By Tara Fraiture, Mushmina blogger.

www.mushmina.com

Photos by Inaki and Tara Fraiture

 

  

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.

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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/

 

 

 

The Evolution of the Mushmina Hobo –From Couch To Camel

Mushmina Spring 2018 (9)

Flashback to almost 10 years ago and the beating heart of Mushmina was just beginning to flourish. Heather and Katie knew they had something special; the custom Mushmina Hobo handbag; the essence of their unique small business. This was Katie’s epiphany-why not take gorgeous, striking fabrics inspired by Moroccan tiles and upholstery and turn the textiles into stunning, vibrant bags? Who says you can’t turn a couch into a stunning bag!?! No one had ever done it before. And the classic Mushmina Hobo was born.

Although the soul of this rockin’ bag stays the same; the ingenious idea behind the creation and the Mushmina mindful mission is still firmly in place today.  But this innovative product has evolved with time, changing with Katie and Heather’s whimsical, playful imagination. As the sisters have grown, adapted, matured and thrived, so too, have their Hobo bags. But the heart of this bag, as is the heart of Mushmina, is fiercely everlasting.

So what’s the story here?

Mohammedia is a town where you if blink on the auto-route, you might miss it. Not exactly a stop on the tourist circuit for international travelers here in Morocco.

Nestled, however, in the midst of this working class town, is a cozy enclave of buildings. At the focal point of these bustling structures is Mehdi’s textile factory; the producers of Mushmina’s signature fabrics. The creative process, however, is one that began many years before.

In the dawning years of Mushmina, Heather and Katie would source imaginative, vibrant fabrics from all over Morocco for their distinctive handbags. Drawing inspiration from traditional and vividly colorful upholstery (typical in Moroccan homes), the sisters would search in hundreds of shops in Casablanca, Khouribga, and beyond for the quintessential 3-4 textiles per collection. The quality lining of the handbags required the same endless trips to fabric shops. It was exhausting and incredibly time-consuming.

As Mushmina grew and expanded, so did its clientele, and after a few years, requests started coming in for larger quantities of fabrics from wholesalers. Great for business, bad for tired feet! It was becoming impossible to continue trekking into textile stores (no matter how much they loved it!).

Lo and behold, the sisters were introduced to this small, custom textile factory in sleepy Mohammedia, north of Casablanca. It was, a perfect match, one could say. Katie had brilliantly envisioned and designed (by hand) their first pattern…a Camel Repeat. Heather chuckles heartily and explains, ‘Any other wholesale factory would have laughed at the idea; putting camels on upholstery!’ But it was perfectly, quirky, heart-felt Mushmina, with a touch of Morocco.

And yes, Mehdi laughed. But in the best of ways. In fact, Mehdi and his loyal team immediately meshed flawlessly with the Mushmina sisters. Mehdi himself, having a great appreciation for hip, quirky new styles and global trends, heads his squad of loyal staff: Mostafa, talented designer, imports the Mushmina creation after it has been intricately worked on by Mehdi’s design team in Marrakech. Then Mostafa attentively places the design into a special textile program that relays it to the looms. Rachida and Malika, technician assistants, are the eagle eyes, so to speak, to be sure that the looms are working at their optimum. A small but fiercely clever and accomplished team.

Walking into the building, you feel the energy and purr of the machines at once. The jacquard looms are gargantuan, hypnotically pushing out gorgeous custom fabric. Katie will often stand meticulously at the looms and play with the color options as Malika, trusted staff, aids her to deftly switch out the threads. Shades of vibrant colors, shiny or matte, large prints or tiny ones, the Mushmina sisters have done it all. It’s a fine dance to find perfection.

So where does Katie find her revelation? The ingenious process is typically galvanized in Morocco; energized by stunningly diverse landscapes, vivid mosaic tiles, intricate wrought iron detailing, electrifying upholstery and of course, fabulous carpets of every look and fiber. Occasionally, she finds illumination in the simplest of places…on Heather’s sunny rooftop or late at night in the colorful, funky Mushmina studio. Katie incredibly still hand-draws all of the handbag patterns to this day.

Heather and Katie have, in the past, created everything from whimsical Beni fabrics (inspired by the bold, linear designs of the famous Beni Ourain carpets), to light-hearted camel prints with cheerful backgrounds. The Beni fabrics were such a popular, classic pattern that the sisters are bringing them back this fall. Stay tuned for this upbeat collection. Always inspired, continually evolving, forever fierce and fashion forward. The sisters even did a 1970’s-inspired hot pink print called ‘Wildflowers’. Playful, occasionally mischievous, true Mushmina.

Beni Black

Mushmina has proudly collaborated with QVC USA, inspirited by striking Moroccan vistas, blooming pomegranate farms, vibrantly fragrant jasmine flowers and the ceaseless Mediterranean Sea, which borders much of this incredible land.

One often says here that Morocco is a never-ending land of awakenings, complete with endless possibilities for inspiration. Our signature Mushmina Hobos have emerged, over the years, as a symbol of the resourceful, spirited vision of this small business. And spunky camel patterns to boot.

Our latest fabulously charming collection will air on QVC Germany this Friday April 20th @3pm EDT. The sisters are thrilled with this line. The custom textile available in four bold colors, is called ‘The Gardenia’, and is already a hit with pre-sales. Keep an eye out for more details.

Mushmina Spring 2018 (2)

What would you like to see u do next? Have a cool, unique fabric idea? Email katie@mushmina.com

 

By Tara Fraiture, Mushmina blogger (among other things!)

www.mushmina.com

 

Images from Mushmina’s 2018 Spring Photoshoot, @Kasbah Tamadot
Model Ghizlane Safsaf  /Photographer Ingrid Pullar

 

 

Spirited Wanderers

March 21, 2018

This month in honor of ‘International Women’s Month’ the Mushmina blog brings you the story of Aurelia Tazi, the woman who walked 372 miles to the Sahara Desert with her three daughters. We are inspired by the amazing journey of this determined mama. Read on…

Spirited Wanderers

Aurelia Tazi’s free spirit radiates from her as we meander into, of all places, a Starbucks in the city of Casablanca for our interview. My daughter, Zoë, 11-years-old, and my keen assistant, spots her immediately. ‘Mumma, she looks just like she does in the movie!’ Zoë exclaims excitedly. And she does. I think I am just as eager as my daughter.

I see Aurélia’s dazzling red shoes first. She is dressed like a gorgeous, brightly colored bohemian flower; long flowing dreadlocks are the finishing touch. Her warm smile, though, reaching all the way to her friendly eyes, is what greets us.

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My collaborator is timid at first. I brought Zoë with me, though, for a purpose. Aurélia’s three fiercely independent daughters Yoko, Maya and Lila, ages eight, six and four, are as much the heart of this story as she is. And therefore, I need a child’s perspective. My girl, Z, is a gifted writer and dreamer herself. I am happy to let her do the interviewing. She jumps at the chance to drive to Casa with me.

So who is this wonderful, quirky family and what is their story?

Aurélia is a non-conformist French native who has lived in Marrakech since marrying an equally unconventional Moroccan, Sadek in 2004. The couple owns a plant nursery where their precocious girls run free and life is perfectly whimsical.

This trailblazing woman did something astonishing-she decided to walk from Marrakech through the rugged High Atlas Mountains of Morocco to the Western Sahara Desert and the famed Dunes of Lihoudi. With her three young girls and their trusty dog, Loulou. And a cheeky mule named Gypsy. Alone. Filming their documentary, ‘Wild Mama’ (translated from French and subtitled in English) along the way.

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600 kilometers or 372 miles. Two months of intense, harsh conditions and incredibly rural, precipitous countryside. Days of not seeing anything but the great blue sky, innumerable puffy white clouds and beyond. Approximately 60 days of pastoral scenes and uncommonly gracious, kind people in distant villages along the way.

Why embark on this epic trek?

Humanity and tenacity. As Aurélia explains to me over a cozy coffee and cheesecake, ‘There is compassion everywhere you look in our world. In the most remote of Berber villages, these lovely people who have the least will give the most. We were welcomed into these homes and immediately treated like family. It was important for me that my girls see kindness in the littlest of things.’ She continues earnestly, ‘I was determined to show my girls that they are strong. I wanted them to see that they can do whatever in life they want, if they have conviction and self-confidence. They wanted to come on this journey with me.’

She goes on, ‘Just look at what they have done here on this walk. If they can do this, they can accomplish anything!’

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I feel honored to be there, listening to Aurélia’s story. With my own daughter. For Mushmina, this is what we seek-real stories of regular people doing extraordinary things in this incredible country. It is part of our mission this year, to share these stories with you.

Back to Zoë’s first professional interview. Within five minutes, my bold, pioneer girl is chatting and giggling with Aurélia’s equally individualistic daughters. They immediately connect. I wonder, fascinated at their quick bond. And I swiftly connect with the lovely Aurélia. It’s easy as she is so incredibly affable and open.

Zoë has meticulously prepared her questions on the day of our big interview and she even has a recording device with her. This is the real thing for her. I am thrilled to give my girl the chance to feel empowered.

She discovers that Lila, Aurélia’s oldest daughter, is the most comfortable answering questions. Lila talks enthusiastically about working together with her sisters on their adventure and her delight in seeing the wide, open mountain range as she fearlessly trekked on their journey.

Zoë immediately asks Maya about her love of their lush garden at home in Marrakech; which Maya, wise beyond her lovely six years, misses terribly. Maya is shy at first, but Zoë soon puts her at ease. Soon, Maya is laughing and giggling and cautiously telling her story.

Lastly, wee Yoko, just four years old at the time, is a free thinker like her Maman. Yoko clearly provided the humor on this incredible expedition, and Zoë is able to pull that joy out of her during our interview.

I realize, though, as I begin to chat with Aurélia, that I have placed her on an unobtainable pedestal. Before I had heard of her riveting story, I decided that she must be the perfect person. The ideal mother. I mean, what woman in their right mind decides to walk alone across a rugged mountain range with three young girls?!? I have three girls. Let’s just say, I would never….I might just duck and roll gleefully off the side of mountain on the first day. On purpose. To get away from my kids yelling at each other.

Then, I have an epiphany as I am watching this gorgeously honest, raw documentary. Aurélia is just as flawed as you and I. She is not the perfect mother and this is what makes her beautiful. There are moments when her children scream and yell in frustration on camera and Aurélia is clearly overwhelmed. It shows a vulnerability and humanness that brings tears to my eyes. I am oddly relieved watching her struggle with her girls; it makes me feel less alone in my trials with my own daughters.

Zoë and I traveled to Casablanca to interview a fierce, groundbreaking family about their amazing odyssey. We walked away from that intimate conversation with some lifelong friends. Along with a whole lot of inspiration from a captivatingly tenacious mother and her three irresistibly bold daughters.

By Tara Fraiture, Mushmina blogger

Want to watch her documentary? We do too! Follow Aurelia on her website, www.aureliatazi.com for news about the public release.

 

 

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