The Complete Artist’s Guide to Morocco: Part V: Rugs

Prior to my trip to Morocco, I thought that all oriental/Persian rugs were the same. Most of them red, with blue and cream-colored arabesques with tan outlines. Some of them featured in Jeff Bridge’s movies….


But after a visit to a Berber rug cooperative, I learned the subtle differences and personal touches that go into every rug. I also learned that Berber women are more productive than I am in my off-time!

But first, a word on Berbers. Both ‘Berber’ and the term ‘Barbarian’ come from the latinate Roman empirical term for outsiders, who spoke such a different language from Latin that the Romans thought all they were saying was “bar-bar-bar-bar” (basically the ancient version of the Charlie Brown adult voice). Berbers are not Arabic. They are known to have been in North Africa since at least 3000 BC. Waves of Berber migrants swept across North Africa in the third and eleventh centuries with further migratory and nomadic patterns within the country.

Most Berbers have created permanent settlements. Some speak Arabic and some have converted to Islam. However, it is important to know that Berber has its own culture, language, and history, apart from the Arab dynasties of North African and the Middle East. I asked a Berber man at the cooperative how they keep track of their history and he told me it is completely an oral culture.

I soon learned that Berber men are often farmers or migrant workers, while the women do the cooking, child care, and other household activities, including rug-making!

So without further ado, the Berber Rug Cooperative!

After entering another enchanting Moroccan door…



we entered the Berber rug cooperative. Like many other commercial entities in Morocco, they do not believe in conveying scarcity by displaying limited wares.



When I entered this Berber rug cooperative, I noticed a few things. One, that Moroccan rugs are not all Persian-looking. They are not all knotted, the way your prototypical Persian rug is. Moroccan rugs are notable for being embroidered, knotted, and woven (sometimes all in the same rug!). The use of these three different methods produce some highly textured floor decor that did not fit my taste, but provided one of the girls on my group with a great entry rug.

We were greeted by a man in traditional blue Berber garb.



In terms of the materials, sheep, goat, and camel wool are all fair game. In terms of patterns, Berbers traditionally incorporate diamond geometric patterns with natural symbols (wheat, river zig zags, etc). They dye their fibers saffron yellow, mint green, and henna orange.



Every tribe has their own story and set of symbols that the women pass down from one generation to the next. With their busy schedules, it is amazing that Berber women find time to weave at all, but one woman (if she has been trained from a young age) can make up to fifteen rugs in her lifetime! And these are not pot-holder mini-rugs. We’re talking 5 X 8 and larger.

Without books or a significant written culture, the Berbers place a great deal of emphasis on the symbols that stand for who they are, which are expressed in their rugs that they use every day.









The Complete Artist’s Guide to Morocco: Part IV – Fossils

Ancient Arts

Morocco is a dry, sandy dessert-y place where some trees grow, but millions of fossils reside. Maybe the most ideal place for retirement, but for some million year-old species, it is!


If you get a chance to visit Morocco, you’ll probably see fossils on every street corner, but like many other things sold there, you have be sure that what you’re paying for is authentic. Luckily, I was able to visit a dig site where I watched the rough stuff get smoothed, polished and primed for resale.

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The fossils in Morocco range from small, shrimp and beetle-looking creatures to giant nautilus shells, bigger than dinner plates. If you have the money and the personal taste, then it’s possible to not only buy a granite countertop or sink from Morocco, but also to buy a granite or marble table with fossils in it.

Not a bad conversation piece for the living room.
Not a bad conversation piece for the living room.

I found this fossil art to be interesting simply because you start with a living, organic specimen that once walked or em, scuttled the earth. While the sedimentary arrangement of fossils is luck of the draw, the polishing, cutting, and framing of all the fossils together requires intense focus, visioning skills, and attention to detail.

Water is poured on the slabs to reveal what the marble and granite will look like once it’s polished.

For poor college students like me, there are smaller pieces that have been fashioned into wonderful keepsakes and tabletop accessories.



I ended up snagging a 200 million year-old nautilus shell, aka ‘ammonite’. There were several versions of ammonite, some of which looked like a mini-nautilus countertop, since they were so polished. But I preferred an ammonite specimen that retained its rough organic texture, but still had some human touches to even out the rough edges.

A naturally beautiful shell to support my books at home.
A naturally beautiful shell to support my books at home.

At the dig site store there seemed to be something for everyone. Since Morocco is so full of fossils, this is probably true.


The Magic Flute Review!

The only thing better than comic opera, is opera seria with a bit of comedy thrown in.

Last night at the opening of the U of M spring opera, I came prepared to see a dramatic opera piece with beautiful vocals, but what I saw was light-hearted and jocular. Michigan’s voice majors reminded me why I keep coming back to each performance. The vocals were breathtaking, the sets were mystical, and the air about the Mendelssohn was rife with magic.

Prior to my viewing, I was familiar with some of the music, but not with the libretto.

Francesca Chiejina and Alexander Turpin portray Pamina and Tamino in the fairy-tale opera “The Magic Flute.” (Courtesy of Peter Smith Photography/The Ann Arbor News)

I found the story to be enchanting. It begins in a little girl’s bedroom where she overhears her parents arguing just outside. To get away from the noise and sleep soundly, she plays with her dolls and takes shelter under her sheets. After a few minutes, she hears a sound and rumbling coming from her armoire. The rumbling becomes more and more frequent until a prince tumbles out of the armoire, followed closely by a dragon. He runs out of her room while a band of women defeat the dragon. They are women of the night who work for the Queen of the Night. They choose the prince to save a lost princess and choose the wacky local bird catcher to be his sidekick. The prince takes one look at the portrait of the princess and falls madly in love (no surprises there).

The dragon (“Ned” according to his acting credentials) was a dominating force for roughly thirty seconds.

But then, after the fairytale-esque opening, the opera takes a cerebral turn. The land that the prince goes to is not one ruled by knights or wizards, but rather by scholars. The tone of the music turns intellectual and calculated when the prince encounters the wise king who has the princess incarcerated, if only to protect her from her overbearing mother, the queen.

Full of orange moons, draping seaweed, and yellow feathers, the opera is not as serious as one might think. Papageno (the wacky local bird catcher) provides many moments of comic relief, in contrast to the intense focus of prince (who takes a vow of silence for several numbers, in order to pass a test to win the hand of the princess).

The music is Mozart and was one of his final works before dying at age 35. The opera was not well-received in Berlin, but was adored in Prague. Probably the most famous number and the most impressive is Der Holle Rache (which I first heard in ‘Miss Congeniality‘ of all things). Der Holle Rache is the reason why opera tickets are so expensive and why opera singers are classically trained. It is the machine gun fire of the opera, sung by the lead female soprano, meaning that it is also light, airy and jaw-dropping.

The Complete Artist’s Guide to Morocco: Part III

Although the Moroccans are not as interested in food art as say, a group of New York urbanites, they have their own methods and artistry in cuisine that is both delectable and architectural.

The typical Moroccan food fare is laden with vegetables, couscous and usually some form of meat (either chicken, goat, or camel if you are daring enough). A quintessential form of cooking these ingredients lies in the volcan0-looking ceramic dish known as the tagine.



You’ll find the pottery of the tagine in almost every market stall you come across, whether it is in its large cookable form, or in a pair of mini tagine salt and pepper holders.

Salt and pepper holders a la tagine. Also, frequently used for salt and cumin.

I was lucky to take a tour that included a ‘Make Your Own Tagine Day’. We were divided up into different groups by our main dish. There was a chicken tagine group, goat tagine, beef tagine, and then a vegetarian tagine group that I was a part of.


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Tagine can involve any meat and vegetable combination. But chicken is one of the most common. Tagine is much like the pot roast of Morocco. It is a dish that requires a bit of seasoning and chopping beforehand, but then once it starts to cook, all that it requires is a bit of patience. Fortunately for us, there was a very picturesque valley far away from our delicious tagines that provided a two-hour walk and lots of pretty photos.








IMG_4283By the time we returned and our tagines had been cooking on the stove for 1.5 hours, the vegetables were well-seasoned with cumin, cinnamon, salt, pepper and tumeric.

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YUM! Bright and beautiful vegetables, cooked in olive oil (locally sourced!) and delicious spices!

The Complete Artist’s Guide to Morocco: Part II

If you haven’t heard Moroccan music, but like American music, then I suggest you don’t plunge yourself into a bingefest of Moroccan beats, but rather try the gateway drug of Hindi Zahra.

At first listen, she doesn’t sound like someone who comes from a place full of sand, scarab beetles, and countless Kasbahs. She sounds more like someone from a place with Monet paintings, men in tight pants, and women with multiple bellyrings.

I recommend Hindi Zahra not only because of her smooth, Billie Holliday-esque vocals, but also because she represents the Euro-African culture that Morocco is known for. Also, for non polyglots, most of her songs are in English, with a few flavorful Berber lyrics thrown into songs like Imik Si Mik.

Born in Morocco, Zahra moved to Paris at age 15 where worked at the Louvre/wrote music. Not a bad coming of age period, if you ask me. Her style has been described as ‘jazz-blues-gypsy’, which is pretty accurate. Her swinging guitar riffs give just enough structure for her voice to glide through and reach her listener’s ears.

Her songs are great cafe fare.

If you enjoy Zahra, another wonderful product of Moroccan and Parisian culture is Malika Zarra, whose influences are more Bobby McFerrin than Billie Holliday, but the results are just as soothing and smooth.

Both women are chilled out introductions to Moroccan music and incorporate similar Berber strings in their bass lines.


The Complete Artist’s Guide to Morocco: Part I

I recently spent ten days in Morocco, not because I have family there or had any artistic background in Morocco, but because I knew almost nothing about it.

After trekking through gorges, medinas,and endless mazes of souks (markets), I reached a new level of understanding of their art, cuisine and culture as a whole.

Morocco is situated on the northwest tip of Africa and through the years has been a Berber kingdom, French colony, Spanish holding, and is now under Arabic rule. It presents an artistic conundrum with its Portuguese turrets, Muslim minarets, and endless Francophile references that linger in its cafes.

In a series of posts, I hope to introduce anyone who is curious (or simply confused, like I was) about Moroccan culture and history. As a point of entry, I’ll start with Moroccan doors, almost all of which beg you run your hand over their intricate designs before opening the latch into another world.



The first thing to know about Moroccan doors is that they serve a functional purpose. They let people into your home, but they also do a great job of keeping hot winds out of your inner courtyard oasis. This top photo is a perfect example of a typical Moroccan door of entry into a school or Mosque. It sits within a typical Muslim horseshoe arch that tapers at the top into a point (unlike Roman arches) and has two options for entry. The large doors serve as barn doors to let loads of air (and people!) inside, while the smaller doors serve merely to let smaller crowds and small gusts of wind inside.



Typical house doors that offer entry from the street are often another matter. They lack the larger barn style door, but make up for their lack in size by providing the pedestrian with a visual feast for the eyes. Incorporating stars, circles, squares, and triangles blended together in a myriad of ways, the Moroccan front door acts as an excellent precursor to the intricately tiled Moroccan interior.

Moroccan riads (or large houses that can host many visitors) are largely interior-focused. Since the temperatures can drop thirty degrees in one day and the winds have been known to blow Saharan sands, Moroccans have become masters of home climate control. This is why you will see very few windows in the typical Moroccan home.


Moroccan doors also incorporate the common West African practice of ‘fractal scaling’ or the repetition of a theme on large and small scales. This door (above) incorporates the Jewish six-pointed Star of David, frequently featured in Jewish districts of Moroccan cities such as Marrakech and Essaouira.


Three-dimensional representation of the Jewish star, a repeated design motif.

An important thing to know about any Muslim architecture is that animals and people are strictly forbidden. There is some leeway in a culture like Morocco, where European and Berber influences bring animals and body parts to the table (e.g. the hand Hamza symbol) but largely, figures are prohibited.

Some exceptions are below:





The swan’s head is barely a figure. From far away, it merely appears to be a curved line with an arrowhead. No harm of being heretical there.

The second object (the hand pictured above) is a ‘Hamsa’ (simply meaning ‘five) to Arabic speakers or ‘the hand of Fatima’ to Muslims. It serves an apotropaic function to ward off evil when the fingers are open and to bring good luck when the fingers are closed. The symbol pre-dates Christianity and Judaism, believed to have been found at sites of Mesopotamia.

Either way, it makes an enticing door knocker.













Moroccan doors can be any color and any design. They often bear a resemblance to the architecture of the building they occupy and more often are the most ornate and functional parts of a building. They ward off evil and let in guests. They can be symbolic, beautiful, and powerful.



Or, if you happen to be staying in a Berber camp in the Sahara desert, they can simply be a piece of fabric that keeps unwelcome sand gusts from disturbing your slumber.