A hands-on Moroccan workshop experience
THE YEARNING FOR LEARNING
I had a dream. I was yearning to learn how to make leather fashionable things (mostly purses). And in my home town, there was no chance of learning the craft. Surprisingly the opportunity arose while I was guiding in Morocco. I had a chance to stay in the ancient city of Fes, Morocco for a week between two tours. I decided I wanted to do something different, where I would be able to meet local people in their environment, be creative, learn new skills, offer myself a chance to start producing fashionable leather accessories, and after all, take home a souvenir made by me.
I wanted to spend time and learn in a real Moroccan workshop. After all, Morocco has always been famous for its high-quality leather called marocain. Without knowledge of Arabic, at first, my wish felt impossible. It did after all take quite a lot of courage to face those dark strangers, all alone. But the experience was waiting for me!
A very typical view of the street in Morocco, Fes
KNOWING THE RIGHT PEOPLE
Nevertheless, my wish to grow, my love for the crafts, and my curiosity prevailed. I found a friend who knew someone, and that someone knew someone (that is how things work in Morocco), and after a few days of organizing this friend of mine managed to get me into a leather workshop. Leather craftsmanship is very traditional for Fes and something I have really been wanting to learn. I got into a secretful workshop in the heart of the medieval Medina (the old town).
The medina of Fes, said to be 800 years old
WHERE MANUAL WORK IS APPRECIATED
In Islam, manufacture and craftmanship are appreciated deeply. The people of Fes are particularly famous for their workshops and are probably among the most devoted Muslims in the world. The life of a craftsman in the medina is constant, predictable, and flows with a calm, almost sacred routine. The work is considered a sacred meditation, that is (the process itself) dedicated to Allah (God) himself. Every procedure and every cut into the material is planned and has been learned from a master and passed down to the apprentice through the generations. Nothing comes inadvertently. Creativity is sacred and is respected for and by those men.
I can only imagine, what were they thinking when I came in for a week and wanted to learn the secrets, that took them half of their lives to master! I had, of course, no idea about it then. And it was best so!
A FOREIGNER ENTERS THE SACRED SPACE OF THE WORKSHOP
My experience has begun. After spiraling around the streets of a labyrinth that the Medina of Fes is, and climbing a steep and narrow staircase up a few floors, we finally reached the place, my friend and me. The room was small, dusty, and packed with tools and raw leather. It was dark and the scent was that of a workshop. It was exactly as I had pictured it to be! I was excited, my creative force was rising, ready to start working immediately as I stood there in front of the owner.
Upon entering, we found six elderly, serious-looking men, sitting among piles of raw leather skins, doing their jobs. As I entered nobody looked at me, they kept their eyes fixed on their hands and the leather. They were all very modest and religious. Looking at their long black beards, I realized a big contrast to me, a young European woman.
My fear started to resurface and I had my doubts growing, too. Was I going to be able to learn anything without knowing the language, will my presence disturb (or even offend) them, will I be able to sustain the smell and the demanding labor, etc.?
But I trusted my friend and I trusted that he knew what he was doing by bringing me there. After a short while, my friend left and I was sitting behind the table. My hands were desperately trying to avoid the glue and the dirt of the table, a small pile of raw brown leather was flirting with me from the floor in front of me. Looking at those men from under my eyebrows, and so that they could not tell I was looking at them, I had to prove myself to them, I understood. After another period of time, one of them got up and came to me. He showed me what I needed to be doing and then returned back to take his seat. At this time my French was non-existent (I only knew a few words of some nostalgic songs, that helped me nothing in real life) and my Arabic consisted of only a few more words.
THE CALMING COMMUNICATION WITH NO WORDS
But in fact, there was no language communication among us, they didn't speak at all. The radio was playing a cassette with the reciting of the Koran. It was a monotone background sound, and I came to like the calming and meditative effect it had on all of us. Another meditating effect was the glue’s strong odor present in the air at all times.
RELAXING INTO WORK AND INTO THE ENVIRONMENT
I worked eight hours on the first day (it felt), and I came back the next, and then the next day. As time went by, we became accustomed to each other. I would have lunch with them at midday before the prayer, and I tried to work as hard as the rest of them. Even though my leather cuts were bad and I made many mistakes, they seemed to appreciate my will to learn and my immunity to the smell of the glue. There were still very few words spoken. Our communication was limited to pantomime and work.
AN INCIDENT IN THE GENTLEMAN'S PUBLIC BATHROOM
During my second day, I was in need of a bathroom. One can only work so long before that happens. Knowing those few words in French-Arabic, I managed to explain myself. The younger of the six got up and (without looking at me, as always) escorted me to the street and further down the street. We must have been walking for quite some time, and I was wondering why didn't he just show me to their bathroom. Later I realized that in the Medina places do not have their private bathrooms, but instead, people have to use public ones. After turning left at the last corner we arrived at a part of the medina that I had never seen before (which wasn’t really that hard, as I was pretty lost in its streets most of the time). In my mind's eye, I remember it as being a cave-like space inside of the wall, about the size of a school classroom. Entering and coming out, were only men. Traveling and spending time in a Muslim country, one gets very mindful of its environment. And when it is mostly men around, a decent woman would remove herself as soon as possible. But I was young then and in need of a bathroom. The bearded companion of mine should have known better, but I guess he never had a situation like that before in his life.
I entered the cave (as I got to call it to myself), and saw a surprisingly bright space. The light was coming from an opening in the ceiling. I was even more surprised by the absence of such typical smells that public bathrooms are usually full of. In fact, the air was light and breezy. The place was as old as the medina itself, I reckon. And this part of the old town is said to date back to the 12th century! On my left-hand side, I observed a natural well-like opening in the wall. The water was pouring down the wall and into a low, raw, long, stone-made sink. There were no pipes in the wall. The water was running freely and overflowing the sink, and cascading toward the lowest part of the space, the toilets, or rather the stone holes in the ground. At the end of the space, there were two niches, with no door. Being aware I wasn't in China, where many bathrooms have no door, I knew there must be a way Muslims get some privacy. And there it was. I entered the left-hand-side niche and noticed a big piece of cloth, hanging on a hook. I tried to install its other end onto the other hook and close myself in when an old man came running toward me. Me, in need of a bathroom, him angry! He pulled me by the hand and removed me back to the street. I was back to where my companion from the workshop had been waiting for me in no time.
I understood! This was a gentlemen's (only) toilet. I also understood there were probably no public ladies toilets in the Medina. Women simply never stay away from their homes long enough to need them. They stay mostly at home, or visit friends, or go shopping, but then they always return home.
An elaborate ablutionary pool and wall fountains, nothing like the ones I described above, Fes
A HOME THAT SAVED ME
Therefore a home is where we went next! Coming close to the workshop again, we went in the opposite direction and knocked on an old wooden door. We (actually my companion did) knocked three times. How many times one knocks, tells the family if the visitor is a family member, or not, knowing or not the proper number of knocks. The door opened lazily into a black dark space behind. I noticed a decently covered female figure with eyes looking downwards. Arabic was spoken and the massive door let me enter the house. Once again, my patient escort was left to wait outside. I was led onto the main Riad (a central part of the house) and from there a similar cloth as I had seen in the public bathroom and was covering a niche with a stone hole in the ground. Relieved, I did what needed to be done and returned to the workshop. From then on, I would use this house as my bathroom refuge. I would come, knock on the door three times (not knowing up until this day, if that was a sign that we are a part of a family, or not), and be let into a private household. I never got to know anybody else, but the tiny lady, and I never learned her name. I wouldn't really say that we became friends, but soon she started to openly look me in the eyes. It still feels amazing to me, how she would just let me into her private life and household, a stranger I was! Was I a man, I would never have seen that house... but then again, I would then have been most welcome in the public bathrooms anyways.
THE WORK GETS EASIER AFTER A WHILE...
In a few days, my headache (of the glue in the air) got almost bearable. I was able to concentrate more on the beauty of the knowledge and on the finished products. It feels fascinating and amazing to me, how beautiful and fashionable goods start their lives on the back of an animal, proceed through the smelly and unpleasant phase of tanning, patiently cooperate with the master, and at the very end, end up being opulent marvelous accessories that we buy for high prices in modern fashionista's heaven. All of the phases are immensely important, without each of them there is no result at the end. Such is the path of every natural made stylish product in the world! Such is the path of the best leather slippers one can possibly imagine- called the Babouch!
... AND MUTUAL RESPECT GROWS
After the time, spend with them, I felt that my presence wasn't a threat anymore. A piece of bread at lunch was offered to me with a relaxed gesture, I could catch a glimpse of an eye from across the room, them looking into my working hands and checking my work, making sure I am ok (and not making too much damage to the leather I was given). Furthermore, a chair would be moved closer and the master would come to me and show me how I needed to be making holes in the leather in order to be able to sew faster, or a cut had been made instead of me after I had my thumb and index finger in blisters from the hard knife's handle. The atmosphere was not relaxed in Western terms, but with a growing respect for each other we all started to soften into this experience, it seemed. I am sure if I had been joining a workshop of Moroccan cookies, the experience would have been much different, as in Moroccan culture women among women relax totally and show you the real hospitality and openness... as is the case with my favorite experience in a local hammam, but let us leave this story for the next time, shall we?
A LUXURY THAT SPOILS THE FEET AND IS LIKE WALKING ON CLOUDS
My main wish was to learn how to make a lady's purse, but we really can't always get what we want in life, so I had to adjust. Today I am proud to say, that I am probably one of the very few foreigners, who know how many hours, what cuts, how much glue to use (and where) and how to sew the famous Moroccan Babuch slippers (sewing is done by hand and simultaneously with two needles). I can't say that I had completed a pair on my own, but I got very close. Hours and hours of manual work are needed for only one leather, hand-made pair of the divine sleepers that Moroccans love to wear at all times.
I absolutely adore them, too! I am in possession of many pairs and wear them on my tours. And after seeing a photo of Pablo Picasso wearing a brown Babuch in his studio, I started wearing them at home and would never go back to old ways. Wearing Babuch feels like walking on clouds to me. It is pure hedonism for the feet! Depending on how beautiful, expensive, and what material they are made of, of course. The best ones are mostly stitched, very little glue is used. Those are the perfect ones. Made of three different types of skin, sheep's, cow's and dromedary's, they are durable on the outside (cow's skin for the sole, the outside of a dromedary's) and soft like a baby's skin on the inside (the goat's skin). The Babuch come in different colors. From gloriously fashionable ones (produced and sold mostly in Marrakech, the country's fashionista's capital), to those sober, traditional Fassi (from Fes) Babuch in saffron-yellow color. The latter being more respected and usually also more expensive.
A modern color take on tradition, hers and his Babouch
THE APPRENTICESHIP CONCLUDES
I finished my apprenticeship and my time came to leave the workshop and my six masters. It was a sad goodbye for me. I liked the work I was doing and appreciated the teaching I received.
I was extremely happy with my week and had experienced something really outstanding. Not only had I won my fears, but I had met locals at their work, spent an incredibly interesting time with them, connected to them not with words, but via creativity and learning. It was a very important experience for me, something I had never done before! And... after all, I took home with me the best ever souvenir – my very own, handmade by me, Babush slippers. (I had actually made only one, small Babuch, but plural sounds more distinguished.)
OUR WISH FOR EVERYBODY WHO LIKES CREATIVITY AND TRAVEL IS TO TRY THIS KIND OF ADVENTURE AT LEAST ONCE
I felt my experience was a bit risky at first, but it later developed into so much more! This insight into a local's everyday life is beyond precious to me. To spend good quality time in a place, as secret and hidden, is a chance that a tourist rarely gets, and connecting to those men in a respectful and honest way of working, learning, and creativity was the biggest gift to me. (I was hoping they enjoyed at least a little bit as well.)
These new insights got me thinking and my passion and love for such experiences only grew with time. This is why I have introduced them also on our tours.
I hope for every traveler who likes creativity and learning, to be able to experience such an honest and heart-warming connection on their travel at least once in their life.
On our tours, we aspire to bring the warmth of the local people to our guests, as well as form a special bond that can only be established when we spend time together doing what we love, no matter if we know each other's language or not.
For me, this kind of experience represents a universal human bond, a meaningful relationship. In my opinion is, that this is what makes a life worth living and forms vivid and fulfilling memories (and friendships) to cherish forever!
We add a creativity hands-on workshop at least once per tour. We always do it at significant places, with experts of the art (or craft), in English, and with a material and craft that adds to our guests experiencing the visited place or community. The topic and the technique are always relevantly connected to our tour and the place.
You can read more about our creative hands-on workshops in Creative Workshops and Workshop Tours.
We also write about our beloved destinations in Cuba, Morocco, and Vienna to Venice.
We also organize and passionately love our Workshop tours. It sounds very technical, but the main idea of those tours is that we indulge and spend most of the time learning and enjoying in a passion such as Art Photography (in Havana and on our trip around Cuba), or Argentine Tango (in Havana, Cuba, or Ljubljana, Slovenia and Trieste, Italy).