Coming from Northern California, the words "artisan" and "co-op" are like comfort food for me - these get tossed around an unnatural amount when you're living in a place like Berkeley. When I came to Morocco, however, I was not expecting to encounter them so frequently - and oh how wrong I was!
The past several weekends I've traveled have been trips organized by CIEE, and are therefore a big shift from the independent travel I had embarked on in previous weekends. For one, they were already paid for! Beyond that wonderful fact, they also have an actual structure and intent to them. There are itineraries, tour guides, reservations - in short, organization that 20- something year olds (and in my case, younger) are not prone towards. One commonality in these trips is our interaction with local artisans and rural cooperatives through workshops and conversations (sometimes over lunch!), something that I have greatly appreciated.
Our first excursion was to the city of Fez - considered the cultural capital of Morocco - and surrounding area. After our first day touring the medina and eating in the city, we set out Saturday for the small city of Sefrou. Off the current beaten tourist track, Sefrou used to serve as an important point on the trade route between Morocco and the rest of Africa and is now home to Culture Vultures. This organization was started some years ago by a wonderful British artist who had a "mission to enhance cross cultural exchange and dialogue through art ventures and culture programs" (from their website), in effect meaning that they host artists in residence, hold art shows and workshops to engage with local artisans. Over the course of a day, we visited traditional weavers, plow-makers, a cooperative housing wood workers and women making jewelry from djellaba buttons (the traditional Moroccan dress), and the abandoned synagogue and Jewish school just outside of the old medina before ending our time there with a lunch of rafeesa prepared by local women.
The next day we left Fez and headed to an extremely small village where we visited two women's cooperatives, one of which produced herbal teas, oils, and soaps (and couscous!) and the other absolutely delicious honey. Our conversations with them were conducted through a translator not only because our darija is lacking, but because the village we were in spoke Tamazight. In spite of the multiple language barriers, these women were unbelievably warm and friendly, and shared so much about their lives with us, including the difficulties of balancing this work with being a mother and/or wife. They gave me a lot of insight into the importance of rural co-ops, especially for women, and how challenging it can be for them.
A weekend in Chefchaouen also proved to be an opportunity to connect with local artisans through workshops CIEE had organized with them. Because of an (ultimately inaccurate) intimidating weather forecast, the majority of the group opted out of the hike on the second day, meaning we were able to participate in two workshops each. The first day I "made" lime leaf extract, meaning that I watched as it was made and drank a lot of tea. Beyond the fascinating process of producing this extract, we learned about various herbs that grow in the area and how the community uses them as natural remedies (again something very familiar for a Northern Californian like myself). The next day I opted for something a little more labor intensive: blanket weaving. And my goodness, was it a challenge. The looms the weavers work with are enormous and extremely delicate, so of course our group managed to break something while we were there. Ultimately the experience made me appreciate the intricacy and delicacy of the blankets I see for sale - how incredibly low the price is for something so well-made by such wonderful people.
Cooperatives are an integral part of sustaining rural life in a place like Morocco. They provide people (and especially women) with a way to support themselves doing things that they often are already experts at - for instance, the herbal co-op we visited was based on the knowledge andpractices of thee women and their families; it was simply the structure of the co-op, and the knowing that this was a feasible path for them, that was needed. Similarly, with an organization like Culture Vultures, the traditions and ability, etc, are of course present - they are there only to facilitate and support them, which is an incredibly important job in a time when so many arts and trades are being phased out or only exist in the larger cities. These experiences were among the best I have had in Morocco because of how real they were; because of the ability to witness the making of the merchandise I see every day, and to interact with those who produce it.