Morocco’s Rug Weavers


The threads of culture, history and environment

Set against the backdrop of a babbling brook that meanders its way toward two gently sloping mountains, the idyllic village of Ait Hamza boasts endless fields with mud brick houses that dot the horizon; you get the sense that you are nestled in your own private plateau that perches above the rest of Morocco, and this is the home of talented weavers like Fadma.

The women of Ait Hamza are Amazigh a word that means, ‘free people.’ Also known as Berber, Chleuh, or Imazighen, these are the indigenous people of North Africa. With more than 600 tribes in present day Morocco, each one has maintained its own unique weaving style and speaks one of the three Amazigh dialects.

Fadma sees her granddaughter Majda once a year when the girl comes to spend her summer vacations in town. Majda appears to be painfully shy for her age until you realize that she is literally at a loss for words; most of the women in Ait Hamza, including Fadma only speak the Amazigh dialect, called Tamazight, and Majda, from a bustling Northern city, has only been schooled in Moroccan Arabic.

Beyond language differences, the most visible sign of the Amazigh identity are the tattoos that splash across the foreheads, along the chins, and up and down the arms of elderly Amazigh women. These beautiful body art markings, called lousham in Arabic or ahetjam in Tamazight are no longer considered to be a pious Muslim practice and as a result very few younger women will carry these tattoos. At one point these tattoos were tribal markings of status and beauty, symbols that were borrowed from the complicated designs in the rugs; now most Amazigh women consider their tattoos to be a shameful reminder of a pagan practice. Nevertheless, several women in Ait Hamza wear their facial tattoos proudly, calling them their “Berber passports.”

Drawing from their rich Amazigh heritage, the weavers in Ait Hamza have mastered the old motifs but continue to play with new ones. Specifically, they have begun to incorporate into their carpets letters from the newly formed Amazigh alphabet, called Tifinagh; these letters appear in white along the border of this rug.

The Tifinagh alphabet was created in 2003 as a mandate by the King Mohammed VI and is based on stone carvings that were found in North Africa from 300 BC to 300 AD. The script is the first written record of the Amazigh language.

Over the last several years, the preponderance of this new written script has increased especially in the Amazigh regions of the Middle and High Atlas Mountains. Newspapers and children’s school books are now being published in Tifinagh. Even the artisans of Ait Hamza, most of who are illiterate have started weaving with the symbols of the new alphabet, a testament to their indigenous roots and a reminder of who they are and where they come from.

Ain Leuh takes its name from the Arabic, Source of the Spring and is located on the edge of Morocco’s cedar forest in the Middle Atlas Mountains. The women in Ain Leuh have set themselves apart from other local weavers by mastering the art of intricate details and gentle color combinations.

With approximately thirty-five women weaving in the Tissage Ain Leuh (TAL) cooperative, these artisans are constantly thinking about the future of their craft. Over the last several years they have established a successful two-year weaving apprenticeship program designed to teach young ladies the necessary skills to create rugs of the quality and craftsmanship for which these pieces are so highly renowned. While these girls may come into the program with a basic knowledge of the craft, Khadouj and the other maellemas, or master weavers, make it their responsibility to train the new girls in a way that is on par with Ain Leuh’s dedication to excellence.

In the old days when boys were sent to the fields to harvest and tend to the livestock, young girls would stay at home and learn the complicated craft of weaving from their mothers. They would start learning at quite a young age, as a girl’s first woven piece would often be the rug she wove for her dowry. By the time a girl would get married around fourteen, she would already be a talented and skilled weaver in her own right.

Nowadays, things have changed; most notably, girls are staying in school much longer, marrying later in life, and dedicating themselves to other more academic pursuits in the meantime. Whereas girls at one point would begin their weaving careers at the age of six, in this day and age, the ladies in Ain Leuh’s apprenticeship program are all at least sixteen-years-old. While the craft of weaving may have reached a crossroads in Morocco, the weavers of Ain Leuh are doing their part to ensure that their trade secrets are safe with a new generation of maellemas.

Khadouj’s passion, patience, and easy-going demeanor make her the perfect mentor for these young ladies. As for Khadouj’s own teenage daughter, she is far from a prodigy rug weaver—instead Nadia is still in school and training with a girl’s rugby team in her free time.

The rural areas of Morocco are called the b’led, which is the Arabic word for ‘land.’ Not surprisingly, the land is central to life and weaving in Morocco. Nowhere is this more evident than in the southern desert region that is home to Taznakht. Known as the carpet capital of Morocco, Taznakht somehow lacks the luster that you would associate with this distinction. Instead the town is a dusty and desolate outpost that is reminiscent of old western ghost towns.

Located on the edge of the Sahara desert, the land is shriveled, leaving behind only the scars of dried up riverbeds that cut through the region. This area was not always so dry, or so the story goes; apparently at one point agriculture thrived and the land was green. Now, after seven years of drought the land has suffered and the fields have dried up. As a result, weaving has taken over as the sole source of economic income in the region.
The women, like Jamila take on the burden of caring for the home, raising the children, and weaving the carpets. The men, who have not already moved to the big cities in search jobs, take on the selling and the bartering of the rugs.

As for the rugs, themselves, they are wild yet harmonious, offering a mélange of colors and shapes to the palette of southern rug weaving. The style of this particular hand knotted Moroccan rug is a kharita, which is the Arabic word for ‘map.’ With the sun and the sand being central to daily life, kharitas are meant to be an abstract interpretation of the surrounding landscape. Full of extraordinary depth, texture, and energy, kharitas may vary from rich, earthy hand-knotted carpets to wave-like kilims.

Reminiscent of Paul Klee or Kandinsky paintings, these carpets from Morocco’s High Atlas Mountains maintain their balance in the same way that people in Taznakht achieve a balanced life in spite of the harsh conditions. Once the sun finally sets, families will retire to their central courtyards, sit upon their bright splashes of colored carpets, drink tea and eat food under the lingering blanket of heat.

Kantara is a fair trade business that imports rugs directly from women artisans working in rural villages of Morocco. Meaning ‘bridge’ in Arabic, Kantara was founded in 2008 with the goal of supporting Moroccan artisans and paying them a living wage. A portion of all proceeds go back into Kantara’s Education Fund that offers small grants to Moroccan women for computer training, literacy classes, and material costs