Thursday, 31 January 2013

The zellij of Morocco

Zellij is the name for a certain type of traditional moroccan tiles. They are made of enamelled terracotta in subtle or bright colours. They can be worked to make a geometric motif or left plain with irregular colouring and surfaces. It is this hand-made irregular look that gives Moroccan tiles their originality and beauty. 
When came the time to choose tiles for the kitchen and bathrooms, we went to a small hole-in-the-wall type store and were shown all the styles to chose from. 
The tile makers chisel out some of the enamel to form a pattern. You choose the basic colour and the pattern and once you have made up your mind, they send the rough tiles along with the carvers right to your house: the definition of bespoke!
The tile maker on the floor of the living room, chipping away at a tile to make the borders for the bathrooms (finished brown tiles and natural tiles at lower left of photo)

We first tried to determine what we liked. Not so easy when every style is exquisite. 
Here, my sister's reflection in the mirror photographing the bathroom tiles of the Tangerina Hotel, our home away from home while the house was being renovated. We stayed at the Tangerina so often that, for a while after we moved into the house, we felt as if we had moved away from home.
We also took photos of the tables on the terrace at the first B&B I ever stayed at, Dar Sultan, a charming, colourful place very near the house.
We admired the bathrooms at El Minzah hotel, a beautiful hotel in the heart of the city. A soothing floor to ceiling, wall to wall affair with delicately hand painted mirror.
Lovely tile work in the fountain at the Minzah.
 We were inspired by a door surround in Asilah, a beautiful seaside town an hour away... a mix of antique wall tiles at a palace/museum in town...
...and the side of the minaret next to the madrassa, the religious school
...or a fish/flower motif on a table in Fes, the capital of zellij making
 ...and even worn cement floor and wall tiles cum babouches in a Marakech courtyard. Years of shuffling of babouches and brushing with "black soap" have given it that special patina.
Moroccan black soap is made with a black olive pulp/olive oil mixture that is "marinated" in salt and potassium brine, then boiled resulting in a thick greasy mixture. It is used as an exfoliant in the hammam and for cleaning.
I am sure the owner of the slippers did not think she was creating an artistic tableau when she placed them there to dry.
In the end, we opted for subdued colours and intricate patterns in the carving and the layout of the tiles and chose a different pattern for the floors. We chose natural (actually greyish blue) small square tiles and just added a line of carved tiles in a different colour and motif for each bathroom. Here natural...
...another mustard yellow and the third one dark brown. Each natural tile is a slightly different tone of grey, some bluish and others a beige tone, which gives another interesting pattern to the walls and floor.

Photographs: Jeanne-Aelia Desparmet-Hart, Joelle Desparmet

Thursday, 24 January 2013

The weavers of Tangier

There is a place in Tangier that is textile heaven. It is called Foundouk Chejra. A foundouk is a sort of market place. Traditionally, a foundouk had a ground-floor open courtyard where people came to sell their wares on donkey or camel back.
This particular foundouk was built at the beginning of the twentieth century at the time of the international status of Tangier, the colonial era when different countries "managed" the city. 
Nowadays the court yard is covered and vendors in tiny stalls sell everything from fluorescent shampoo and pots and pans from China, to flowery tea sets and fake Nikes from who knows where.

In the upper gallery were rooms where travellers could stay for the night.

These small rooms are now weavers' workshops where beautiful textiles are woven out of wool, cotton, jute and sabra, a shiny silk-like synthetic thread.

This man still makes the traditional thick sheep wool striped hooded coats men wear in winter. 

The "workshops" hold one loom and there is a second one on a windowless mezzanine just above. The looms are activated by foot and the spools thrown from one side to the other by hand. One man throws it between the thread to the other man, the foot pedal is activated alternating the threads and the other man sends it back to the first man and so on, hours on end.
 The industrial revolution never made it to Foundouk Chejra! Our gain.
On the gallery floor, men make the spools for the weavers by mixing threads together. The wheel comes from a bike and the rest of the contraption is hand made from old wood planks.
These young boys were also making spools to help out their dad much like we mowed the lawn or washed the car when we were kids. The little guy in the striped shirt and cap was a French tourist who wanted to learn how and although they could not understand the other's language the boys were able to understand each other through a sort of improvised sign language. If only the negociations at the UN were this easy and this friendly!
This one was making the tassles on hand towels my sister had ordered for her company abanja. We made sure he was only helping and was going to school normally. School is not compulsory in Morocco and child labour is not uncommon. 

The result: hand woven, embroidered and tasselled towels ready for the bathroom.

Table mats in fluorescent colours (Abanjà)
Wool and cotton throws in earthy colours

All the bedspreads and curtains for the house were made in the foundouk.We just chose the dimensions, the exact thread colours and the precise size of the stripes and came back three days later and voilà!

I also had extra long curtains made for my 12 ft ceiling living room in Montreal and brought (lugged!) them back in my luggage.
Foutas from the abanjà collection facing the ocean.
Hah! What I would give to be on that beach today!

    Photos: Sylvie Pellet, Jeanne-Aelia Desparmet-Hart, Joelle Desparmet

Sunday, 20 January 2013

The food shops of Tangier

Although there are new supermarkets on the edge of town, most people buy their food fresh every day from street-side markets and stalls right down the street from my house. There is an amazing variety of vegetables and fruit year round. Morocco is a prime producer and exporter of citrus, melons of all sorts and strawberries in season. There are figs and avocados, bananas, dates and herbs and of course mounds of spices at every corner.
The spice, nuts, herbs and all sorts of remedies shop.
Some vendors display their goods in hand made straw bags...
 ....or crates set down right on the sidewalks. This "shop" decor is a testament to the vendor's sense of style and ...humour.
Even wheelbarrows serve as mini grocery stores! It gives the expression "directly from producer to consumer" an entirely new meaning.
Produce and dairy products are brought fresh every day from the surrounding farms by Berber women in their typical dress: a big straw hat with wool pompoms and striped foutas, a rectangular home spun piece of cotton they use as shawls, skirts and aprons. These women walk huge distances to come to market. 
Goat milk on offer. Hum...I think I'll have mine pasteurised.
Tangier being a port, fresh seafood arrives every morning at the brand new fish market, from shrimp and clams to baby shark (baby?..shark?) and a myriad other delicious fish and crustaceans. I have never heard of or seen some of the fish on display and odd-coloured fish roe pouches the size of an average handbag is for sale: I am willing to try anything once but huge brownish fish roe is where I draw the line! Would not know what to do with it anyway.
My typical Tangier breakfast: naturally sweet, freshly squeezed orange juice, warm bread and locally made jams and honey. Also fresh eggs and goat cheese from the Rif Mountains. And of course my tea. Can't leave the house without my cup of tea! A good start to a day of exploring the city and countryside...and food shopping.
Bon Appétit! 

Photographs: Sylvie Pellet, Joelle Desparmet and anonymous.

Thursday, 17 January 2013

A city between sea and sky

Tangier is blessed with two striking features: the sea and the hills from which to admire the sea.
In fact there are two seas that meet at Cape Spartel a few kilometres west of Tangier, the Mediterranean sea and the Atlantic Ocean, and the city is built on  a series of hills. 
The mediterranean, the "gentle" one, flirts with the boisterous Atlantic. Just behind this light house one can see where the two bodies of water meet and embrace. They are a different colour and when the sea is calm, they form a line in the sea where they come together.

Cape Spartel light house

"Everywhere in the city, the eye was drawn to the magnetic spectacle of the sea" (Villa Victoria)

The terrace of El Minzah Hotel below is a perfect place to watch the fishing boats and ferries cruising in and out of the port. The land you see beyond the blue is not Spain but cape Malabata at the east end of the bay of Tangier. 
View from El Minzah Hotel

"The sea was an integral part of the city and Anne could understand why its inhabitants were fascinated by it. It cajoled or rebuffed them depending on its mood. It could be a languid mistress or a cruel virago. They sat mesmerised on the stones of the Phoenician tombs or at the small metal tables of the Café Hafa gazing longingly at Spain." (Villa Victoria)

Spain is only sixteen kilometres away and can be seen clearly most days. That's Spain behind the long cargo boat. The white "line" at the foot of the hill is the town of Tarifa in southern Spain.
The stony lookout known as the Phoenician tombs facing Spain
The sea gently bathes the feet of the houses...
...or sparkles under an azure sky beyond the roof tops (and TV antennas!) as here from my upper terrace
It shines through the shutters of the Hotel de France.... painted by Matisse when he stayed there.
The sea is the setting and the city, the diamond. 
At the top of the hill in the middle of this photograph is the Kasbah, the ancient fortified area of the city. 
Matisse used his particular palette of colours for his renditions of Tangier. Notice the same minaret but seen from opposite angles at the centre of the photograph and of the painting.

But the sea has a more sombre side. In winter it brings rain and high winds that gnaw at the shore and weaken old structures like York Castle, a part of the XIIth century ramparts surrounding the Kasbah. The construction of a swimming pool in the courtyard decades earlier had weakened its foundation and the wet weather did the rest.
Four years ago the base of York Castle's north tower was starting to split.
In this photo of York Castle in the 60's, the tower is intact.
In this almost identical photo taken last summer, it has lost its base altogether and the outer wall is wide open. You can actually see a daring fool in white shirt and blue pants disregarding the sixty foot drop and climbing through the opening! That same palm tree is still peeking over the rampart after all those years.
Unless something is done very soon the tower will collapse altogether and come tumbling down the hill, perhaps taking the  ramparts with it.

You have not seen Tangier until you have sat high up on a hill or a terrace watching the sun's slow descent into the sea.
"The western sky slowly changed from pale blue to silvery pink, coating the bellies of the clouds with neon coloured paint. Then came the ultimate crimson burst of light announcing dusk and cooler temperatures." (Villa Victoria)

"Villa Victoria" is a novel set in Tangier that I wrote and hope to have published someday.

(Photos: Jeanne -Aelia Desparmet-Hart, Sylvie Pellet and Joelle Desparmet)