Craft­ing mo­saic tiles is an en­dan­gered tra­di­tion in Morocco

USA TODAY Weekend Extra - - NEWS - So­phie Pol­lock

FEZ, Morocco – Morocco prides it­self on an ar­ti­san cul­ture that cre­ates strik­ing jewelry, metal, leather and wood. But one tra­di­tional craft is in dan­ger of fading: the cen­turies-old skill of mak­ing zel­lige, the mo­saic tile that adorns mosques and palaces.

Mak­ing these tiles, a skill handed down from fa­ther to son, re­quires in­tense train­ing and hard work with low pay. Few young peo­ple now are in­ter­ested in learn­ing how, as fac­to­ries here and abroad can spit out sim­i­lar tiles much faster and cheaper.

“The kids of to­day want easy work with head­phones, and they talk all the time,” said Mo­hai­had Thaifa, 65, di­rec­tor of Mo­saique et Po­terie de Fes, one of the largest pot­tery and zel­lige fac­to­ries in Fez, a city con­sid­ered the heart of Morocco’s craft in­dus­try. “They’re not ac­tu­ally in­ter­ested, which means the work of a kid of my gen­er­a­tion is equal to the work of four or five to­day.”

Driss Zour­gane may be part of the dy­ing breed. He crouches in a dusty work­shop, with his knees rest­ing on cin­derblocks and a strip of old denim stretched across his lap. He ham­mers chunks of col­ored clay with his weath­ered hands, me­thod­i­cally break­ing off pieces he then chips into pre­cise shapes and sizes.

An­other worker will take those shapes and po­si­tion and ce­ment them into place to cre­ate a beau­ti­ful zel­lige, or mo­saic.

Zour­gane, 36, has been do­ing this since he was 7. He spent five years learn­ing the craft — time he oth­er­wise would have spent in school learn­ing to read. Now, he pro­duces about 400 such pieces dur­ing a work­day of 10 hours or longer and takes home $10 — the only steady in­come for a fam­ily of six that in­cludes his par­ents and sib­lings. The work is gru­el­ing.

Hand­made tiles might cost $200 per square yard, but those made in a fac­tory cost only about $7, said Itri El Ber­mossi, man­ager of the shop where Zour­gane works.

More chil­dren now stay in school longer than when Zour­gane dropped out to learn the trade from his un­cle. Some start learn­ing zel­lige around age 15, but their work of­ten is not as good as those who start younger, Zour­gane said.

Morocco’s ar­ti­san in­dus­tries em­ploy 2.5 mil­lion to 3 mil­lion peo­ple, in a coun­try of more than 35 mil­lion, ac­cord­ing to La Mai­son de L’Ar­ti­sanat, a pub­lic or­ga­ni­za­tion cre­ated to pro­mote Mo­roc­can hand­i­crafts. A 2016 re­port from the High Com­mis­sion for Plan­ning of Morocco shows a steady de­crease in the num­ber of jobs in the ar­ti­san sec­tor since 2007.

Zour­gane and his life­long friend and co-worker, Ab­del­wahd Hafid, 35, said their earn­ings are mod­est, but they are proud to make enough money to sup­port their fam­i­lies.

Zour­gane’s fa­ther used to sup­port the fam­ily with odd jobs. Now Zour­gane’s par­ents and sib­lings — in­clud­ing a dis­abled sis­ter — live off his earn­ings.

“Even if Al­lah gives me just 10 dirham ($1), I will give it to them,” Zour­gane said of his fam­ily.

Zour­gane and Hafid, who has been mak­ing tiles since he was 10, are among the youngest in their work­shop. Oth­ers in their late 50s still per­form the phys­i­cally de­mand­ing work. The ques­tion is whether they will be the last gen­er­a­tion of zel­lige mak­ers.

Hand­made tiles still are pop­u­lar with wealthy Moroc­cans. For­eign tourists covet the tiles and other Mo­roc­can crafts. Tour groups are dropped off to see Thaifa’s fac­tory and then given a chance to buy tiles and pot­tery.

Tourism brings much money into Morocco, so the govern­ment en­cour­ages a new gen­er­a­tion to learn the tra­di­tional skills.

Across Morocco are 58 ar­ti­san schools that teach the art of jewelry mak­ing, wood­work­ing, metal work, leather and many other crafts. But in Fez, only seven stu­dents out of 400 are en­rolled to learn zel­lige.

For ev­ery three or four cur­rent zel­lige work­ers, there is only one stu­dent, ac­cord­ing to Thaifa.

“The govern­ment has made a lot of ef­fort, and the co­op­er­a­tives have made a lot of ef­fort, but we only find a small mi­nor­ity who wants to learn,” he said.

In 2015 the govern­ment be­gan a la­bel­ing ini­tia­tive to pro­mote the qual­ity of hand­i­crafts and to pro­tect Mo­roc­can tra­di­tion. For zel­lige tiles, the la­bel guar­an­tees that the clay does not con­tain lime or iron, el­e­ments that can dam­age the mo­saics.

But work is ir­reg­u­lar in small shops like the one that em­ploys Zour­gane and Hafid. De­spite the govern­ment’s ef­forts to boost craft in­dus­tries, most ar­ti­sans lack of­fi­cial doc­u­men­ta­tion of em­ploy­ment, mean­ing they re­ceive no govern­ment health care. Hafid said the next gen­er­a­tion wants a steady in­come and ben­e­fits.

El Ber­mossi, the shop owner, blames au­to­ma­tion for the in­dus­try’s troubles.

“That’s why the de­mand for our craft is de­creas­ing,” he said. “Peo­ple don’t value and ap­pre­ci­ate our work.”


A tourist in Mar­rakech ad­mires the col­umns of Ben Youssef Madrasa, Morocco’s largest tra­di­tional Is­lamic school, founded in the 14th cen­tury.


Ab­del­wahd Hafid, Mo­hamed Mohsime and Itri El Ber­mossi craft tiles in the work­shop El Ber­mossi man­ages in Fez, Morocco.

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