The social life of a moroccan rug, in sound

audio and visual work: George Bajalia, Jesse Bowman, Tom Casserly, Ben Derico, and Hugo Massa

text: George Bajalia

Choose a point along the line for sonic and written details about that node in the social life of a Moroccan rug. 


Listen through the playlists below, sonic map legends accompanied by a bit of liner notes.

Tangier roofs: Sacred sounds in the strait of Gibraltar

Depending on your perspective, the Mediterranean begins or ends at Tangier, as does the Atlantic. This is Al-Barzakh. Popularly known as the border between light and shadow, life and death, and salt and fresh water, Al-Barzakh circulates out of Islamic eschatology to refer to the Camarinal Sill between Morocco and Spain. This sill produces the distinctive waters of the Atlantic and Mediterranean, and yet depends on both for its geological formation and sustenance.

Resounding across the Strait of Gibraltar, sacred noise interrogates the borders of the seas. Ramadan prayers mix with live renditions of the songs of Andalusian maestro Paco de Lucia while young people sit at Cafe Texas, staring out across the Pillars of Hercules. The clamor of construction along the harbor reminds the listeners that any such nostalgia needs to come to terms with the day-to-day reality of Tangier, something far from mythological. The sounds, though not mythic, are distinctly ‘of Tangier’. Covers of Paco de Lucia abound in the city’s popular youth cafes, and pause as the call to prayer begins. Though the music stops, the sea gulls do not.

fez: Synthetic and sacred sounds

From the rooftops of Tangier to the rooftops of Fez, birds remain constant. There are no bells to be heard, though. The association of bells and birds is particular to Christian-majority countries, perhaps. In Morocco, the birds perch on rooftops and minarets. Meanwhile, on the streets, the calls of Sufi orders mix with sounds emanating from shops and cafes. During the Fez Sacred Music Festival these sounds come into sharp focus as musicians from around the country come together for two weeks of performances. Critics of this festivals assert that the performances are synthetic and artificial, and bring sacred sounds into the profane realm for commercial profit. 

The sacred remains, though, in the sounds of festival goers and in the language of the street. Moroccan Arabic, though often holding associations of vulgarity, is the language in which the sacred is expressed among popular religious orders. While listening to classical Arabic and French performances of the Sacred Music Festival, festival goers sit on massive synthetic carpets in hotel gardens and on rooftops. The sacred emerges on the fringes of these carpets, where listeners are neither passive nor quiet.  The roar of a crowd calls the performers to life, as electrified voices reign supreme over the noise. Reflexive gestures emerge strongly here, as the film-makers voices join in with the crowd, and an American ethnomusicologist joins the Hamadcha Sufi Order on stage. Headlining the 2014 festival, Buddy Guy plays across the rooftops, and adds electric guitars to the mix. 

Khemisset: burning desires

While tourists come to Fez from all over the world, the synthetic rugs on which they sit come to Fez from Khemisset. The demand for cheap and readily available textiles has spawned a new step in the circulation of the Moroccan rug. Before being sent off to tourist bazaars in Tangier in Fez, or sold en masse to hotels and event planners, Yassine goes at them with a home-made flamethrower. He burns the rugs to seal off the plastic edges and to age the textile a little. The roar of the crowds in Fez give way to the subtle drone of butane flames on plastic. 

Al-Andalus: River Songs with Ahmed

The rugs are washed even before they make it Yassine, though. Ahmed spends 3 days a week at his home running his washing operation, and 2 days a week distributing rugs to places like Khemisset. A great lover of Andalusian music himself, he and Aziz (of Gite Nerrahte) join George (documentary director) in a rendition of Abdelessak Chekkara’s Ye Bint Bladi while en route to the larger market of Mrirt. The Moroccan musician is well-known for his role in the Andalusian revival that emerged in Morocco during the immediate post-colonial period, though his songs still circulate today.

The memory of Al-Andalus is invoked often in Morocco, whether to reference dispossession from land and resources or to reminisce about civilization glories. For most visitors to Morocco or Spain though, Al-Andalus conjures up images of the Al-Hambra in Granada, with its grand gardens, streams, and reflecting pools. Such images are not static for Ahmed, who handles daily the minutia that comprise the living memory of Al-Andalus. The intricate designs that characterize Al-Hambra are recalled in these carpets, and the reflecting pools of Granada give way to the dry streams of Khenifra, where Ahmed washes each inch of the carpet by hand.

MRIRt: Sounds for sale

Each rug is made at a cooperative factory or in a family home, and is first sold at places like the Mrirt Thursday market. Mrirt is among the largest markets in Morocco, and a few minutes walk carries the listener from wool sells to snail stands. In between, sheep are waiting to be shorn alongside stalls selling pre-made textiles, dyes, and raw wool. In the main market drag, a young man sings for money. His song is well-known in the market, though no one quite knows what he is singing. His voice mixes with the bleating of sheep and beeps of car horns, while Aziz negotiates the sale of raw warp and foundational wool.

On and Off the BEaten Track

Mark, a commercial rug dealer based in Los Angeles, works closely with Aziz and often travels to Morocco to commission custom rugs. The wool that Aziz has just purchased at the Mrirt market was washed and cleaned before brought to market, Mark explains. Along the Oued Ifrane river, he explains to the American film crew how this process works. Seated near the ground is Habiba, who laughs nervously as a group of sweaty American men lumber over with cameras in hand. On the banks of Oued Ifrane, Habiba explains how she washes her wool, just a few bags full, and beats it with a stick to clean out dirt, sticks, and insects. She strikes hard while the film-makers discuss how best to “capture the process.” By the time they come to a consensus, Habiba has moved on to the next step, leaving both director of photography and sound engineer frustrated. 

Home on the range in Al-Maghreb Al-Aqsa, The furthest West

Before anything comes to market, whether wool, sheep, or rug, it starts at home. A series of arrivals mark the sounds of Gite Nerrahte. When a film crew arrives here, the ranch of Aziz, Hassan, and Noura outside of Ain Leuh, the non-human denizens of the ranch are in an uproar. Strangers make everyone nervous, but the dogs and donkeys are less quiet about it. When Hassan arrives home on a horse, his 6 year old son Anouar demands a ride. The clops of the horse disturb the dogs again, but Anouar’s laughing voice soothes the nerves of everyone around. The contrast between the film-makers arrival and that of Hassan is strengthened by Cousin Said’s emergence on the scene. Rambling up to the ranch’s edges, he brings with him a roasted lamb to be served for dinner. 

While Aziz and Hassan are snapping photos of the lamb, Yto and Fatima continue assembling the loom and spinning the wool. Soft sounds of music come from a cell-phone radio while Yto drives iron stakes into the ground. The film-makers scramble to get into place for recording both the assemblage and the arrivals of house guests for the evening’s dinner, while Fatima drags wood from the yard into place for the loom. The sounds in this step of the assemblage are quiet, the beginning stages of constructing a carpet that will later travel on to Ahmed’s cleaning operation before being sold in Khemisset and moved onto to mass markets like Fez and Tangier. Yto’s weaving progresses steadily as she combs knots into place and cuts the pile with a kitchen knife. 

Everyone else seems to wander off in preparation for the rest of the evening. Animals, human and non-human alike, are restless as they wait. Said, Aziz, and Hassan prepare the lamb in the yard while Noura and Fatima work on the couscous in the kitchen. Can the sheep smell that one of their brethren is on the spit? Wandering among the sheep, Jesse (sound engineer) tries to record how they feel. Soon, the rug will be removed from the loom, and the fringes cut from the frame. Before this can happen, though, the rain begins. The reason behind restlessness of the animals becomes evident as the documentary team shoves equipment into bags and runs back to the ranch. When the rain arrives, the film crew has sought refuge inside, abandoning sheep and carpets alike.