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Saturday
Apr202013

The Berber Weightlifting Champ

I honestly don’t know how some of these tribal ladies don’t collapse under the combined weight of all this fabric and jewellery. The cloak is a dead weight, and I am quite literally carrying a millstone around my neck in the form of a traditional necklace made from stone beads – amongst others. The weight is truly staggering.

I am wearing a number of Berber items that I bought when holidaying in Morocco nearly two years ago, although I am not wearing a technically correct traditional Berber ensemble. Research online was not definitive as there are so many tribal and modern influences to sift through – I became daunted and gave up. This is, after all, only a fanciful evocation of a Berber lady. In general, traditional costumes are made up of layers of coloured woven cloths; pounds and pounds of jewellery, many pieces dripping with silver coins; and henna tattoos. (I probably skimped on the kohl too.)

The 14th century Merenid Tombs, Fès, June 2011

The most spectacular piece is the cloak. This may look like a carpet, but the Berber merchant I bought it from in Chefchaouen told me that it was a traditional cloak, worn to ward of the desert night’s chill. I am uncertain of its fibre content (so taken with the jingling sequins, I forgot to ask!), but it is woven in subtly complicated stripes and shaggy sections that have been interwoven with silver sequins that are a little tarnished with age. The tarnish only adds to its charm. It is incredibly heavy however. Currently it sits across the bottom of my queen size bed and has become a comforting weight at night – in the winter months at least. It looks decorative though, and it is such a lovely souvenir of my holiday. I saw many of these cloaks used as rugs, some in my room in the Marrakesh riad I stayed in. 

A pile of rugs shown to me, with my favourite on topThe Chefchaouen Berber carpet seller modelling my antique cloak in his tiny store

Underneath the cloak I am wearing a vintage Berber kaftan that the seller threw in as a bonus. He let me choose from many that were hanging high on the walls in his shop. I also chose another free item – a traditional belt – that unfortunately you can’t see very well in these pictures. It’s pale green, embroidered in white and pink, and is glued onto a cardboard backing.

The kaftan is cream-coloured brocade woven with metallic silver thread – by the style I am guessing it dates back to the 60s or 70s. It’s quite scratchy to wear, and presumably it would have been worn with a cotton shift of some sort underneath. (As he recommended, I handwashed this in a gentle laundry detergent, and it washed up brighter. The belt I merely sponged, again at the seller’s advice.)

Most of the jewellery is from Morocco. The chunky necklace is made up from stone, glass and shell beads and is so heavy I could not contemplate wearing it for more than a few minutes. The long coloured beads are all made from glass – one of the necklaces is about 3m end-to-end. All of these pieces came from the souqs in Essaouira. The coin earrings I am wearing are made from replicas of Turkish coins, and were bought in a Melbourne jewellery boutique that specialises in ethnic jewellery from around the world (mostly Arabia and Asia). Although the necklace looks tribal, it was bought from an Australian jewellery chain store, Lovisa. 

I do not know the provenance of the hat. I actually purchased it for 50c from the Australian designer Karen Merkel’s garage sale a few years ago. I was undecided on its purchase as the chains were broken and tangled, and they said I could have it for 50c. “How can you lose?” asked my friend Sapphire, who accompanied me. True. I untangled the mess and managed to figure out its repair.

The slippers are tooled red leather, bought in Fez. I originally purchased two pairs, one in pumpkin yellow, and this red pair; I wore the yellow as house shoes, and they did wear out rather quickly, so I keep the red pair for special occasions only.

Shopping Notes

If you are planning to travel in Morocco, here are some shopping tips. Obviously you must bargain, and not appear too eager etc – that’s just common sense. I was rather chuffed when my Berber carpet seller opened his eyes wide at my opening gambit and ultimately complimented me on my bargaining skills: “You bargain like a Berber!” (You offer half their asking price to start with, and then go slowly up.)

I am not sure if he was merely flattering me, but for around €120 I bought the rug you see here and a vintage cloak, and had the kaftan, belt and a few bags of herbs and spices thrown in for good measure (most of which were confiscated by Quarantine at Melbourne airport). The textiles were very heavy though and did cost about $100 to FedEx home. (They arrived home the same day I did, and I believe the package had been opened for inspection by Customs.) I can’t imagine how much a rug like that would cost at home – probably up to $1000. The stone necklace was about $90, and five other necklaces for under $20.

The background image is of the 14th century Merenid Tombs overlooking Fès. 

View of Fez from the Merenid Tombs, June 2011The 14th century Merenid Tombs, Fès, June 2011

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