Selected Grant Narratives

Peace Corps Partnership Program

The weavers of the Ouarzazate Region make carpets and other products using traditional skills and knowledge. Weaving is an important source of income, yet they are unable to earn enough to reinvest in new equipment, attend craft fairs, or produce marketing materials. The proposed project consists of two workshops aimed at improving business and production skills. The workshops will empower the women of local weaving associations to understand the full costs of materials, labor, overhead and distribution for their handcrafts, as well as factors of consumer demand for products, quality points, finding trustworthy distribution outlets, and other important concepts necessary to succeed in the handcrafts market. The workshops will introduce them to important financial concepts and accounting practices necessary for setting up a business. They will introduce improved production and finishing techniques, and provide important contacts with other weavers in the region, highlighting points of comparison and encouraging solidarity. This will help them stand united against the downward pricing pressures of middlemen and bazaar owners. To produce these workshops, the weavers are prepared to contribute space, labor and materials, and to host participants from other villages. An expert from the regional office of the Ministry of Artisans will lead the first workshop. Local experts from within the community will lead a series of follow-up practicums. The costs of the outside expert, necessary equipment, materials and supplies form the bulk of the request to the Partnership Program.

The village of Anzal is located in the Siroua [seer-wa] region, Ouarzazate Province, in the south of Morocco but well north of the Southern Sahara. This is high desert between ranges of the Anti-Atlas mountains. The village has a permanent population of 1500. The residents are Tashelheit-speaking (Amazigh [ah-mah-zeeg] Shlha) people of the Aít Ouaouzguite [ayt wa-waz-geet] group. Jemaia Tifawin [zhe-may-i-ah teef-a-ween], the Association of Light, was so named to express their optimism, as well as the figurative light that the bright colors and cheerful designs of the carpets — no less their financial value — bring into the lives of their possessors and producers. The weavers make carpets in any of several styles drawn from tribal, regional and urban traditions. The purpose of their organization is to exchange information and effort so that they are not forced to undersell their products. A secondary purpose is to encourage and train young artisans, and help them learn practices that will make their work more profitable. The association hopes to expand its educational activities to include the proposed workshops.

Carpet-making is a traditional skill that strengthens relationships between families in the community through the cooperation of women. Weaving is also an important source of income. There are few other ways that women can contribute directly to family income. In Morocco, there is constant pressure from merchants and retailers to keep carpet prices low. Rug merchants buy hand-woven carpets at very discounted prices, then sell them to tourists at (typically) very inflated prices. The low prices for carpets are part of the reason that this art is dying out in many regions. The weavers of Anzal are trying to buck this trend by selling their carpets themselves, bypassing middlemen. It is a struggle. The village is unfortunately far from the usual tourist routes. Few tourists pass through, and fewer still stop and look around. Of those who do, most are hikers on their way to Jebel Siroua (Mount Siroua, one of the highest peaks in the Anti-Atlas range), little inclined to purchase heavy carpets or even smaller pieces.

In addition, there is increasing pressure from the government ministry for the group to change its present structure as a non-profit Association to a structure as a profit-making Cooperative. Initially, the women resisted this pressure, believing the Association was better. They have come to see that changing to the new structure is the only viable way for them to meet their goals. At present, however, they are unable to form a Cooperative. This is due partly to a lack of business skills in the group.

The skills to be taught in these workshops will help in several direct ways. Boosting the quality of the work will give them important new distribution outlets in the ministry's artisanal showrooms, at increased prices. New products will enable them to sell to new customers, such as tourists at craft fairs, who may not be interested in traditional products such as carpets. Better business skills will help them manage new income so it can be reinvested and the business can grow. In addition to these direct benefits, we believe that this project will enable the weavers to strengthen two key relationships. First, the relationship with the regional office of the ministry, which will be heavily involved in the first workshop. Second, with weavers in surrounding communities who will be invited to attend. If the project is not implemented, they will continue as they now do, barely making ends meet, and struggling to find the resources to grow their business.

Santa Fe Folk Art Market Financial Assistance Grant

The weavers typically use wool shorn from the sheep they raise themselves (though in the case of large orders, they may buy wool from shepherds in neighboring villages). Every family represented in the association raises sheep. Newly shorn wool is washed in plain water and then left in the sun to dry. When dry, it is cleaned by hand of foreign matter using no tools or using simple wooden, hand-cranked machines. It is then combed by hand, using two flat, square carding instruments. It is spun by hand using small wooden spindles. Yarn destined for pile carpets is hand wound and then spun a second time in double strand. The finished yarn is dyed by hand in plastic basins, using dyes either made at home using natural products, or purchased from the local souk (market).

Looms are built by local blacksmiths and carpenters, and are assembled by the weavers for each carpet. The looms used are vertical; a design based on simple upright looms dating to nomadic times, which were typically erected in the family's tents when camp was made.

Warp string (called the "eed") is prepared for the loom by at least three women, two of whom sit at each end of a pair of stakes driven into the ground, defining the width of the carpet. A third woman walks back and forth between the two stake holders with the ball of string, passing it to each in turn. The stake holders braid this warp string into another length of string to form the vertical edges of the weaving. When the appropriate number of passes for the intended width has been reached, the stakes are pulled up and the strings are spread across and attached to the top and bottom pieces of the loom. They are straightened and rolled, and the loom boards lifted up onto the loom supports. The warp strings are then straightened again and tightened. Depending on the size of the piece, up to ten weavers may be involved in preparing the loom.

Once the loom has been strung, the weaving can begin. Aside from one singular tool, they use only their hands for weaving. This tool, called a "taska," is a heavy metal comb-like instrument, with a handle at a right angle to the teeth. It is used to tighten the weft strings once they've been passed between the warp strings. It is unique and distinctive to Amazigh weavers.

While the weavers cooperate on every carpet made, all of the women can do every step involved, from processing wool to stringing looms to the weaving itself. The weaving process is a social as well as a creative activity, and the sound of a group of weavers working includes laughter and lively chatter, the banging of the heavy taska on the weft strings, and, often, recordings of traditional music, which the weavers never tire of listening to. On larger carpets, up to six women may work on one piece side by side. Every weaver knows all of the traditional designs and patterns used, though each has favorites and specialties, and may be called over to consult on the progress of a design at any stage.

The art of weaving in Amazigh culture is very old, dating back to nomadic times, when carpets were used to make tents into homes. A woman's weaving skill was part of her dowry, as were the carpets, tapestries and blankets she brought to her marriage. The present-day weavers of Jamaia Tifawin learned the craft from their mothers, grandmothers and aunts. They in turn are passing it on to their daughters, nieces and granddaughters. Even experienced weavers continue to perfect their skills, as there are so many styles, patterns and designs to draw upon. In some parts of northern Africa, the art of weaving is dying, as modern girls lose interest in so labor-intensive a practice. In Anzal, it is still very much alive, fed by a love of the craft and the particularly strong confluence of traditions unique to this town.

Weaving is one of the most important cultural domains in Amazigh folk art, and is typically practiced mainly by women. As Amazigh women do not usually speak Arabic or French, and are the primary makers and users of symbols and motifs, it can fairly be said that it is the women who are the preservers of this culture through their arts, which also include song, ceremony, traditional dress and (formerly) facial tattooing.

The weavers of Jamaia Tifawin are influenced by both regional and tribal traditions. Anzal, located at the heart of the Jebel Siroua region, is peopled by a Shlha group that is heir to the traditions of the Aít Ouaouzguite confederation of tribes. Ignored by European traders until relatively recent times, these weaving practices have remained authentic expressions of a dynamic cultural tradition. The unique cultural influences of the region bring a wealth of styles, patterns and designs to the art of these women.

The oldest of the traditional styles is most likely the "kur" or flat-carpet style. With intricate designs created by inter-weaving colorful strands into the weft yarns, kur designs are the most distinctly Amazigh. Their motifs are rich in symbolic meaning but often produced in a spare, lightweight pattern that is almost minimalist or modernist in appearance. The symbols are drawn from nature, from everyday objects, and from fundamental activities (such as fertility symbols and tattoo designs), but tend to be quite stylized and abstract. The flat-carpet style is often called "hanif" by rug merchants.

The "tihuna" style is created simply by using weft yarns of different colors. It produces weavings that are the same on the front and on the back. Rug merchants often refer to these reversible weft-substitution weavings using the Arabic term "hanbel." Regional — more than tribal — influences are strong in tihuna weavings. Colors explode in variety, and patterns tend to recognizably represent everyday objects, such as mountains and boulders, forks and spoons, bowls and tajine casseroles, fish and birds, etc.

The third style is called by these weavers, simply, the "iboli" style. The term refers to the worsted wool, which is knotted onto the warp strings in between the weft yarns. The patterns on these carpets are a range of distinctive, mostly geometric shapes, and may incorporate symbols of Amazigh identity, such as the "takhalilt" [tahk-hah-lilt] (a kind of decorative buckle), into the borders, medallions and central fields that are found in carpets of the ribati ("royal") style. These are traditionally based on Islamic themes, symbols, and designs. The people of the Jebel Siroua region are the only rural Amazigh weavers that have had these ribati influences in their weaving for over a century. In turn, the ribati designs are influenced by even more ancient Anatolian traditions brought to the region by traders in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries.

A fourth style, the so-called “glaoui” [glah-wee], incorporates into one weaving all of the techniques used in the other three. This mixed style is influenced by the urban traditions of Salé [sah-lay] carpets.

This rich and unique convergence of traditions perfectly represents the cultural blend of Arab and Amazigh influences that is emblematic of Morocco itself. While tribal traditions persist in the form of Amazigh cultural practices, in reality, Moroccan people represent a true melding of two dominant cultural streams. Thus the weavers of Anzal are heirs to an artistic polyglot that expresses itself in these beautiful products.

Until very recent times, Amazigh carpets were made for personal and domestic use. Such uses went beyond ground or floor coverings to wall coverings, bedding and blankets, even room dividers. From their origins as tent furnishings to their present-day uses, they have always been part of the ceremonies and traditions that bring the community together.

Every Amazigh family has a stack of carpets that are used to cover the floor when guests are entertained. Small carpets are used for prayer, five times a day. They are spread out under the trees when tea is taken during breaks in the harvesting of almonds or olives. Carpets are given as dowry and wedding gifts, and cover the floors of rooftops where the women play the drums, sing traditional songs, and dance (perform "ah-hwesh" [ah-hu-wesh]) at weddings and family gatherings. They cover the ground in the family courtyard when a bridegroom takes the handle of a grindstone and symbolically gives it a few turns to start the traditional three days of wedding festivities. They are placed in layers under the thin mattresses where new mothers stay with their infants during the lying-in period following a birth, and again, under the biers of the recently deceased. Indeed, carpets are seen at every Amazigh ceremony, covering the ground or the platforms used by performers and honored guests. These colorful carpets are an indelible part of Amazigh life, identity and celebration, and eloquently express its values of family, community and hospitality.

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