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15 October 2020

Forgotten Artisans of Sefrou

Written by Published in Eco Travel
Mustapha's workshop
Local artisans making buttons
Bhalil, Morocco
Sefrou, Morocco

People have been seeking authentic experiences in Morocco ever since Marrakesh established  itself as a luxury travel destination in 1921. Nevertheless, the craftsmanship of classical artisans in the Kingdom may be on the road to extinction. Sublime explores how ecotourism can support ancient culture, and the impact of this on artisans' livelihoods.

For generations, Morocco's classical artists have learned ancient skills and continued to produce exquisite handcrafted items in ways that have been passed down family members for longer than we can record.

In 2012, a centre was set up in Marrakesh, training young people how to keep the ancient traditions alive. The BBC News reported back in May 2020 that the centre has over 800 pupils, just as Morocco broke its record and hosted 13 million tourists. This is of course fantastic news, but what about areas that do not attract millions of visitors each year? Like Sefrou, a short drive from Fes. The city’s location in central Morocco once made it a hub for traders travelling between the Mediterranean and the Sahara.

Seffrou 3 Jess

THE HISTORY OF SEFROU

The name of the town comes from the Jewish word translating to ‘count.’ It is believed that Jewish people settled in Morocco more than 3,000 years ago. Despite a complex history in Morocco, latterly they lived here in Sefrou in harmony with the Muslim community who welcomed them and encircled by them for protection. Accounting for 40 per cent of the population in Sefrou, they were predominantly involved in various types of trade including carpet sellers, barbers, gold dealers and watchmakers.

By 1967, this all changed. 250,000 Jews emigrated to Israel and Europe, alongside the descendants of Sefrou’s Jewish settlers. 

MODERN DAY SEFROU

Today, on entering Sefrou, duck your head to avoid tangling yourself up in the agave silk as it is being spun into thread. There are women tying incredible silk buttons for use on djellabas and kaftans, weavers making blankets, rugs, and handiras (wedding blankets) in the same way they have been made for generations. 

There is no escaping the sounds of the blacksmiths and iron mongers pounding molten bars of metal into shovels, scythes, picks, hammers, and knives and the sites of shops filled with tin and brass teapots and the tinsmiths used by locals to repair their items.

You will also find people sitting around small tables in and around Huddadine Square, drinking tea, catching up on gossip, playing ronda (cards) or having lunch in small restaurants, as well as children playing traditional games such as dinifri (a physical game of bravery), kick (similar to hide and catch and seek), and of course football, the most popular sport in Morocco.

Mustapha 1 Jess

Sefrou was once an important artisanal trading hub. There used to be 274 weavers in the city, but today there are just four remaining. One of the remaining weavers is a man called Mustapha. He is the fourth generation and last of the weavers in his family.

Over the sounds that come from Mustapha's workshop he explained why his craft is dying. He blames it on ‘modern fast fashion'. Rather than take this lying down, Mustapha has a plan. He has started to train women and girls in the craft as he believes that they are more likely to keep the old ways alive and teach them to future generations. He is passionate about the reasons why Morocco should be protecting its cultural heritage and the steps that need to be taken to do so.

THE VILLAGE OF CAVE HOMES

buttons LindaJust six kilometres from Sefrou, Bhalil is set on the side of a hill. Known as the village of cave homes, it’s the place to discover the tiny, hand woven buttons that adorn traditional Moroccan Kaftans and Djelabas - long traditional hooded capes with around 100 waved buttons.

All over Bhalil, local women and girls sit in the streets, alleyways and terraces making these buttons. It’s a way for them to earn money while raising children from home and for girls to save money to study. 

The buttons are exported across the Arab world, but unfortunately these women do not receive a fair price for their work. There is a way for us to help the craftsmen and women in Sefrou and Bhalil, however - by visiting them in their places of work and cave homes we can gain first-hand insight into their lives and provide a fairer source of income for them.

Environmentally conscious, sustainable holiday experiences in Morocco. Tourism with a gentle footprint.

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