The Woman Behind the Carpet
Two Projects: "Rural Family Museums" and "Dream Carpets"
Excerpt from the forthcoming Book "The Flying Carpet's Secret"
© Fatema Mernissi, 2005
"How can we stop our sons and daughters from migrating? If they do, our Assaka village will die and our Berber civilization with it." That was the only question Abdallah Raji asked in 1984 when his wife Mbarka agreed to be interviewed and he volunteered to be my translator, since I did not speak Berber. But while the husband dreaded their children's migration, Mbarka worried about the migration of the grandmothers' carpets: "During the recent drought, most families were forced to sell their splendid, huge carpets of seven meters and more which their grandmothers had woven not for the market, but to be exhibited during the community's annual ceremonies, such as marriages and local festivals. And how can a young girl develop self-confidence in her own creative capacity if the older women's carpets migrate out of the village? How can a young man feel responsible for protecting the community's cultural heritage if he has no trace of his grandmother's art?"
According to Mbarka, each family kept the grandmothers' carpets so as to ignite the youth's pride in the Berber esthetic heritage but recurrent droughts which reduced earnings from agriculture forced the men to sell anything they could. "Is anyone in Rabat thinking about supporting family museums?" wondered Mbarka looking at me intently. I avoided answering the Raji couple's questions and felt ashamed of my own silence because at that time, not only rural migration to Casablanca and other cities seemed unavoidable, but the southern part of Morocco was more threatened because of the desert's advance.
But in 2002, a miracle happened: rural migration dropped suddenly. (...) And this miraculous decrease of rural migration explains why, when I visited the Raji family 21 years later, in July 2005, most of their children were still around. Why did rural youth stop rushing to the big cities? Why did the Raji children stay in their tiny Assaka village, isolated in the rocky High Atlas mountains and whose population does not exceed 168 families? Why did the children stay instead of migrating?
They stayed because of the magical combination of a political event with a technological one: The political event was the state's decision to invest in equipping rural villages with schools and roads and upgrade some to city status, by equipping them with high schools, libraries and sports infrastructure. The Assaka youth did not have to go as far as Marrakech (232km away) or Taroudant (200 km) or Zagora (260 km) or Ouarzazate (95km) to find a high school, a library or a sports stadium. They have it all in the newly upgraded Tazenakht center which is barely 14 km away. This was the result of the political decision to improve rural areas 's infrastructure. As for the technological event, it was the arrival of new information technologies (IT) - the satellite dish and the internet - which opened the youth's horizons. The satellite dish and the internet broke the isolation of the rural youth who could now zap between a thousand television channels -starting with the 200 pan-Arab ones which have appeared since Al-Jazeera's launching in the mid 1990s - and communicate with the planet for half a Euro an hour in Tazenakht's cyber-café.
All four Raji family daughters attended the local school, something unimaginable in the 1980s when rural girls were doomed to be illiterate for the most part because no high schools existed outside the neighbouring large cities of Marrakech or Agadir. The new thing in the previously isolated High Atlas carpet landscape is that most young women weavers are likely to be literate and can write and communicate. This is the case of Kalthouma Ait Bouibaoune (born in 1984) and Fatema Ait Bella (born in 1977) who not only weave wonderful carpets but can explain their art when invited to do so. But what is interesting is that, although educated, many young weavers prefer to stick to their carpets rather than seek modern jobs. Two of the Raji daughters, Hakima and Fatema stopped schooling to stay at home and weave carpets. But Raja, the youngest who contemplates going to the University, attends "Ibn 'Arabi" college in Tazenakht where a private institution (Foundation Mohamed V) financed "Dar Taliba", a boarding school for girls.
This highlights the strategic role of the new civil society which emerged in Morocco in the 1990s. There is one more factor to be added if one is to grasp the sudden and spectacular upsurge of civil society: the arrival on the political scene of ambitious and innovative state educated new middle class from modest origin. Such is the case of Prof. Najia El Boudali from Casablanca Hassan Second University whose mother Kamla, (born in 1935), worked in a textile factory and UNDP expert Mustapha Boujrad whose mother, is a carpet weaver. These new civic actors are more likely to hear the seemingly senseless museum dream of rural women like Mbarka.
Unlike the Moroccan bourgeoisie which has a pessimistic image of the future, the new civic actors such as Najia and Boujrad have an optimistic image of Morocco's and the planet's future. For them Mbarka's dream of keeping old carpets in tiny family museums, to bolster the young people's self-confidence, is not so unrealistic. When I visited Mbarka in 2005, she summarized her happy family story in two sentences: "Before tourists used to buy our carpets from the male Marrakech bazarists, the carpet weaver did not exist because there were no paved roads to Tazenakht and no cheap communication means to contact her. Now, my daughters' generation who went to school, has more of a chance to communicate and become visible".
Najia and Mustapha's decision to help the youth of the more than 100 tiny satellite villages around Tazenakht to embark on the ambitious "Family Museum" project is likely to succeed. Many young people are now employed, like Hamid Intezga, Fatema Bella's husband, as teachers in the local schools and today's female weavers are no longer illiterate. Kalthouma not only attended school and is literate, but she adores navigating on the internet in the Tazenakht cyber-café. She and Hamid's wife are dying to have the opportunity to exhibit on the internet and thus show the world the great variety of the traditional carpets they can weave. But they would most like to exhibit their "Dream carpet".
The "Dream carpet" project was launched when I approached Rachid Chraibi, Rabat-based ex-banker and art collector to help the Tazenakht weavers their "Dream Carpet" by paying them an advance and letting them invent freely the carpets they wanted to create. Rachid Chraibi, who is from Marrakech, a city known for its humour, raised the financial uncertainty of my proposition: "Fatema, and what happens if the 'dream carpet' turns up to be a lousy investment?". And that is when I suggested he visits Tazenakht which is not far from his beloved Marrakech to meet the weavers first :"Rachid, you are an art collector. Come and you'll see for yourself if it is worth the investment!" The trip was conclusive: not only did Rachid started getting stunning 'Dream Carpets' but many weavers, starting with Kalthouma and Fatema Ait Bella, wrote short texts explaining what their art meant. They were preparing themselves to take the exhibition's opportunity to voice Mbarka's message: Connect with the artist behind your carpet!