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Sunday, November 3, 2013

Morocco -- Arts and Crafts

by Victoria Tang in Fodor's Guide to Morocco
Shopping in Morocco is an unforgettable experience.  In cities like Marrakesh and Fez, the souks are both magical and chaotic, their narrow alleyways overflowing with handcrafted products created using centuries-old techniques.

Open bazaars and medieval markets display the bright colors. bold patterns. and natural materials found throughout Morocco's arts and crafts tradition.  Items are proudly made in artisan workshops dating back to ancient times.

Handmade Moroccan arts and crafts demonstrate the influence of Berber, Arab, Andalusian, and European traditions.  Using natural resources like copper, wool, silver, wood, clay, and indigenous plants, artisans and their apprentices incorporate symbolic motifs, patterns, and color into wood carvings, textiles, ceramics, jewelry, slippers, clothing, and other decorative arts.  Traditional processes from the Middle Ages are still used in many cases and can be observed from start to finish.  Be prepared to negotiate a good price for anything you would like to buy:  bartering here is expected and considered an art form in itself. 

Visiting Morocco's souks also gives you the opportunity to view the techniques still used to mass-produce a wide assortment of authentic goods by hand.  While prices in Morocco may not be as cheap as they once were, hand-crafted goods can be found at any price point.  Even the highest-quality pieces are half of what you'd pay back home.

Morocco's most stunning ceramics are the distinctive blue-and-white Fassi pieces.  Many of the pieces you'll find actually have the word Fas (the Arabic pronunciation of Fez) written in Arabic calligraphy and incorporated into geometric designs.  Fassi ceramics also come in a beautiful polychrome of teal, yellow, royal blue, and burgundy.  Another design unique to Fez is the simple mataysha (tomato flower) design.  You'll recognize it by the repetition of a small. four-petal flower design.  Fez is also at the forefront of experimental glazes--keep your eyes out for solid-color urns of iridescent chartreuse or airy lemon yellow that would look at home next to a modernist piece by Philippe Starck or Charles Eames. 


Safi's flourishing pottery industry dates to the 12th century.  Produced near the phosphate mines known as Jorf el Asfar (asfar. like safran. means yellow), because of the local yellow clay, the pottery of Safi has a distinctive mustard color.  The potters' elaborate designs and colors rival those of Fez but are in black with curving lines of leaves and flowers, with less emphasis on geometric patterns.  The pottery is predominantly overglazed with a greenish blue, though brown, green, and dark reds are also used.

In Sale, potters work on the clay banks of the River Bou Regreg estuary to produce glazed and unglazed wares in classic and contemporary styles, from huge garden urns to delicate dinner sets. 

Buying Tips
Look for kiln markings left after the ceramics have been fired.  Pottery fired en masses is put in the kiln on its side, so the edges of bowls are often painted after they have been fired.  The paint tends to flake off after a while, giving the bowls a more rustic, or antiqued, look.

Another technique for firing en masse is to stack the bowls one on top the other.  This allows for the glazing of the entire piece but results in three small marks on both the inside and outside of bowls from the stands on which they were placed.  Small touch-ups tend to disrupt the fluidity of the designs, but such blemishes can be used as a bargaining angle to bring down the price.

You can spot an individually fired piece by its lack of any interior faults.  Only three small marks can be seen on the underside of the serving dish or bowl, and the designed face should be immaculate.  These pieces. often large, intricately glazed serving pieces, are the most expensive that you'll find.

Moroccan rugs vary tremendously in quality and design.  There are basically two types:  urban (citadin) and rural (Berber); each type has endless varieties of shapes, sizes, and patterns.  In general, smaller bazaars in the souks carry rural rugs, while larger bazaars and city stores carry a selection of both.

Urban rugs have been woven in Morocco since the 18th century.  They have higher knot counts (they're more "finely" woven) than rural rugs, which technically makes them of higher quality.  Urban rugs typically have seven colors and varied patterns including bands of different colors with geometric and floral designs.  They are woven by women in cooperatives. Rabat and Sale being the main centers, but also in Meknes. Fez. and Marrakesh.

Rural carpets. some of which are known as kilims (tapestry weave or flat weave) are identified first by region and then by tribe.  They are mostly woven by hand in the Middle Atlas (Azrou and Oulmes) and on the plains around Marrakesh (Chichaoua) by women.  They're dark red and made of high-quality wool and have bands of intricate geometric designs.  A single rug can take weeks or months to complete.  No two rugs are ever alike.

Buying Tips
  • Check the color.  If artificially aged, the back will be lighter than the front.  Natural dyes are very bright but usually uneven.  Artificial dyes can bleed when swiped with a damp cloth.
  • Check the weave's knot count.  Urban carpets should have a high knot count--about 100 per square inch.
  • The age of rugs.  Rugs don't have labels with identification, provenance, or origin date.  Rural rugs are rarely more than 50 years old.
  • Carpet prices.  Good-quality rugs are expensive.  Expect to pay 200-750 dirhams per square foot.  Flat-weave rugs are generally cheaper than pile rugs.  Cotton is much less expensive than wool.  It's worth taking the time to check comparable prices at one of the fixed-price state-run cooperatives.


The most popular silver jewelry in Morocco is crafted by Berbers and Arabs in the southern High Atlas and in the Anti-Atlas Mountains.  Taroudant and Tiznit are the most well-known jewelry-producing areas.  Desert nomads--Touaregs and Saharaouia--craft silver items for tribal celebrations.  Smaller items include fibulas (ornamental clasps to fasten clothing). Touareg "crosses," delicate filigree bracelets, and hands of Fatima (or khamsa, meaning five, for the five fingers) that are said to offer protection from the evil eye.  There's also a good variety of Moroccan Judaica that includes silver yads (Torah pointers). Torah crowns, and menorahs.  Silver teapots, serving trays, and decorative pieces capture the essence of Moroccan metalwork with geometric designs and ornate detail.


Moroccan leather, known as maroquinerie, has been sought after worldwide.  Fez and Marrakesh have extensive working tanneries, producing large quantities of items for export.  Sold inexpensively in local markets are bags, belts, luggage, jackets, vests, and beautifully embroidered goat skin ottomans.  Leather and suede babouches are the ultimate house slippers; myriad colors and styles are available, and they make an inexpensive gift.

For centuries, weaving in Morocco has been an important artisanal tradition to create beauty and spiritual protection.  Looms operate in medina workshops. while groups of tribal nomads can be seen weaving by hand on worn carpets in smaller villages.  The best buys are multicolored silk-and-gold threat scarves, shawls, and runner, as well as hand-embroidered fabrics used for tablecloths, decorating, and traditional caftans and djellabas.

From the forests of the Rif and Middle Atlas. cedar wood is used to create beautiful mashrabiyya latticework often found on decorative household chests, doors, and tables.  Essaouira is the source of all thuya-wood crafts.  Here, only the gnarled burls that grow out of the rare coniferous tree's trunk are used to carve a vast variety of objects, from tiny boxes and picture frames to trays, games, and even furniture often decorated with marquetry in ebony and walnut.

Argan Oil
Much valued by the Berbers, argan oil has been used for centuries as an all-purpose salve, a healthy dip for homemade bread, protection for skin and nails, a treatment for scars and acne, a hair conditioner, a skin moisturizer, and even a general cure for aches and pains.  With its strong nutty and toasty flavor, argan oil is popularly sold in the food souks of Essaouira, Marrakesh, and Meknes in its purest form for culinary use.  The oil is often mixed with other essential oils for beauty and naturopathic treatments.

The origin of the oil is from the Argania spinosa, a thorny tree that has been growing wild in Morocco for some 25 million years.  Today. the tree only grows in the triangular belt along Morocco's Atlantic coast from Essaouira down to Tafraoute in the Anti-Atlas Mountains and eastward as far as Taroudant.  It takes about 35 kg (77 pounds) of sun-dried nuts to produce one liter of oil.  

The Art of Negotiation

Everywhere in Morocco you will haggle and be hustled by experienced vendors who pounce on you as soon as you blink in their direction.  Your best defense is the proper mindset.  For your first souk visit, browse rather than buy.  Wander the stalls and see what's for sale.  Don't enter stores or make eye contact with vendors, or you will certainly be pulled in.  You can also visit one of the state-sponsored artisan markets found in most large Moroccan cities, where prices are rather high but fixed.

Once you've found what you want to buy, ask the price (in dirhams).  Stick to the price you want to pay.  The vendor will claim you are his first customer and never look satisfied.  If he won't decrease the price far enough, walk away.  Chances are the vendor will run after you, either accepting your best offer or making a reduction.

Currency Exchange

1 dirham = 12 cents (US)       $1 = 8.27 dirhams

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