I remember speaking to someone when I first came to Tangier about the risk of losing the ability to document stories, and instead of writing, just absorbing life passively. Those words haunted me when I first heard them, purely because I couldn’t imagine not writing every day, or at least twice a week.
But no truer words have been spoken. I did begin to exist without my pen and paper (or keyboard rather), and what was once splashed onto my screen as I raced in the door with bags full of fresh fruit and vegetables from the market, having witnessed all the wonderful things I witness the minute I step out the door each day, was no longer.
The past year has seen the world change so suddenly, and the flow on effect has been rather mind boggling. At the beginning of all of this, I sort of cocked my head and gave it a few months. As months became several months, and then a year suddenly clicked over, its hard to believe that we used to travel so freely, hug strangers if they hugged us, and didn’t think twice about touching door handles.
I used to rattle around Tangier in shared taxis with people I’d never met, huge bags of shopping the only thing dividing us, and I’d always walk away feeling that little bit more connected having listened to flurries of conversation in a language I could barely understand.
Nowadays, I have a list a mile long of the numbers of taxi drivers who can pick ‘just’ me up from my flat and deliver me to wherever I need to go. I have to be more organised, on time, and each day is slightly more curated than it once was when I would happily hail a shared taxi in the street.
But these small changes in my daily routine haven’t been such a bad thing; I’m more organised and more likely to be on time, which means I achieve more in the day than I may have once before our lives completely changed.
In April last year I launched Made in Tangier, a small online store with a focus on textiles made here in Tangier.
The Fonduk (Arabic for ‘hotel’), is a huge courtyard nestled behind a busy fruit and vegetable market where operatic chickens squeal and cluck (I don’t even think about their destiny), amongst piles of freshly grown fruit and vegetables sold by Jibli (country) men and women. At the Fonduk, looms clunk day after day, producing the most beautiful homewares in cotton and wool.
What began as a little online experiment on the eve of COVID and Ramadan (2020) has turned into a business that, quite literally, takes up almost every minute of my life.
Each morning I make my way down the steps towards the Fonduk, leaving the sweeping streets and the bustling boulevard behind me, as I enter the wonderland of noise that is the bustling marketplace. A wave to my favourite ancient Jibli woman peeling turnips, sees a kiss blown back as she raises her little knife in a wave.
A sharp right takes me into the Fonduk and there lies the peace that is the clunk of the looms, little transistor radios playing ancient love songs in Arabic, and the smiling faces of the men who make these beautiful artisanal pieces.
My order book is frayed at the edges, we’ve shipped endless packages to each corner of the globe and will continue to do so. I find great peace in climbing the rickety ladder up to a dusty loft where three metre looms are operated by my friends, Hassan, Nordine, Mohamed, Abdelslam, Mohamed and Mohamed.
I work with quite a few Mohameds.
These men are masterful, talented, deeply religious and kind. A small stool is drawn out from under the loom and they urge me to sit down as I send emails and watch my designs become a reality. Quite often I film them working to the beat of the radio and their chatter, and a sweet boy delivers coffee from a little hole in the wall downstairs.
My translator is never far from my side, and when we have a big order to ship he can be found ironing pieces with Latifa, the beautiful girl who makes pom poms and stitches them to the ends of my designs.
He translates conversations, negotiates prices and relays stories from the loom. He raises an eyebrow when I say ‘I understood that’.
Whether or not I actually did, is beside the point.
Working with Moroccan people day after day as Made in Tangier has grown, has taught me a great deal. Hardly a scholar, and mathematically challenged, I am learning to count in Arabic and small phrases are beginning to tumble clumsily from my mouth. Patience is something I wasn’t born with the privilege of understanding, but in this country, the words from my Grandmother’s mouth were never more true; it really is a virtue.
When I was chatting to a friend recently who has been here for many more years than me, she explained that culturally, Moroccans don’t naturally say no, and criticism is not usually dished up. Therefore, the importance in reformulating the same question several times, without waving a finger in fury, is the only way to see progress and a mutually agreeable outcome unfold.
Never mind if the mutually agreeable outcome has a little red thread woven through it, or a piece of rogue straw jammed into the zip, that is the nature of this particular work, and those little red threads and pieces of straw only make each handmade piece that little bit more precious.
The absence of machines under the arches of the weaving courtyard is magical, and the way these men move makes a suburban Pilates class look like a meander through a woodland.
Slippers are kicked off, a jumper is tied around each waist, protecting abdomens from the large wooden frame onto which each body leans, and hands flash like lightening as bare feet run the peddles that drive the loom. It’s like watching a Jibli ballet, and when each man pauses to reload the bobbins, chickens can be heard in the distance from the marketplace, competing with the transistor radios playing ancient Arabic love songs, and then comes the call to prayer.
I am quite literally rocking on that little stool each day, covered in dust, observing all of this in the most magical workplace imaginable.
As I leave each day in a flurry of smiles and ‘shoukrans’ (thank you’s), I quickly jot down what we will check tomorrow, knowing that orders may need to be repeated, sizes may vary, but patience and a deep breath with see all of that ironed out tomorrow.
I walk out of the courtyard and into the market place, dusty and bustling, cars tooting and hooting and shouts in Arabic whirling around me. I fill my basket with beans, tomatoes, lemons and handful of lettuce. Next stop, the avocado man, before waving goodbye to my favourite ancient Jibli woman who is still peeling turnips, as she raises her knife in a wave and blows me a kiss goodbye.
The past twelve months have seen the world come to a standstill, but in that standstill I have been exposed to a life I may otherwise have never lived.
A life that could easily be overlooked if airspaces were freely open, and we rushed to our next destination.