Berber people, the descendents of the original North African nomadic tribes, make up around 35% of Morocco’s total population. Berber women are known for their colourful jewellery, makeup and sense of freedom.
Based mainly in rural and mountainous areas, most Berber women don’t wear veils and have more liberty of movement than their urban counterparts, wandering freely between fields and villages.
Village women such as those in Morocco’s Tazenakht and Ouarzazate regions are famous for the beautiful rugs they produce, weaving 10 kilos of raw wool to make just one of these dazzling, precious carpets.
The Tangled Art of Beauty
Rug weaving is a full-time pursuit that requires dexterity, patience and perseverance. Berber women can spend a month preparing the wool, and another actually weaving these eye-catching rugs.
In days gone by, Berber families made a living from wool and weaving, but economic hardship is throwing a spanner in the works. There’s a great article in Turkish Weekly that explains the nature of the problem threatening to make this ancient artisan practice extinct.
If a family is commissioned to make a rug, they can earn around $50 in profit. Split three ways, this amounts to around 25 cents a day each. This may sound meagre, but that’s more than they would get at the local souk, or market, where the prices a rug can fetch today barely covers the cost of the wool.
Sadly, but not surprisingly, many young Berber women who would have once cherished the opportunity to keep this beautiful tradition alive are opting not to learn the craft.
Weaving a Solution
One option to help Berber weavers and their families to survive is to cut out the middleman. Intermediaries pay the Berber women relatively little for their rugs and turn around and sell them at a profit to shops in Marrakech and other tourist hotspots.
The rugs sell for hundreds of dollars in stores, but most of the weavers are humble village women who live physically and figuratively miles from the markets where their stunning woollen works of art are sold.
Ighilnasaf is president of the Women’s Weaving Association of Anzal, a mountain village where 88 Berber women have united to cut out the middleman.
“Now, instead of selling to a middleman, you bring it to the association and sell it yourself,” Fatima Ait Elkadi explains in the Turkish Weekly article. A large carpet takes about a month to weave and sells for around $150. All but $20 of this goes directly to the weaver.
How will the Future Unravel for Berber Weavers?
Whilst the association is certainly improving the situation for Berber women who weave to survive, the future of this age-old art remains uncertain.
Although weavers are now making more money per carpet, they’re not selling many. In the two years since the association began, treasurer Zahara Ait Ali sold just four rugs, for a total of $300.
Given the present gloomy forecast, daughters born into weaving families are reluctant to enter the trade. With each child who refuses to learn, a Berber art that’s endured for centuries inches ever closer to extinction.
We can only hope and pray that this glorious tradition becomes more than a pipe dream for future generations.