Wednesday, 27 February 2013

The story of a house in Tangier

I am often asked : "Why Tangier?"
Why indeed.
There are so many stories about the choice of Tangier.

First, it is the story of the power of memories.
Morocco reminded me of the place where I was born, Tunisia. It was not the place itself as Tunis and Tangier don't look anything alike but for the fact that they are both ports. It was the general atmosphere and the smells.
They say the memory of smells is much stronger and longer lasting than that provided by any other sense, that we can remember odours from when we were babies whereas visual and mental memory come much later.
We left Tunisia when I was six and I have forgotten many things but, sometimes out of the blue an odour sparks memories of those days.

In Tangier I was immediately submerged by the familiar smell of the orange trees and jasmin bushes, the particular lemony aroma of lantana flowers that we had in our garden in Tunis.
Then there was the odour of iodine, seaweed and motor oil rising from the port and even the pungent smell of the donkeys and sheep on market day. It brought me back to a time I thought I had forgotten, back to my worry-free childhood in North Africa.

Then, it is the story of people.
When we got lost in the labyrinth of the medina on our first day in Tangier, many pointed us in the right direction and many more offered to take us where we wanted to go. They asked for nothing in return.
There were those who gave money to beggars on the street. They were following one of the tenets of the Koran but one could see that their generosity came from the heart and a long tradition of giving to those less fortunate. At the end of Ramadan, Muslims buy enough food to divide it in three parts: one for their family, one for their guests and one for the poor.
It is the story of the kindness of strangers who went out of their way to assist us, of the pride in their eyes when they welcomed us to their city and of their dignity and resilience in the face of hardship.

And it is a story of beauty.
The beauty of a city turned toward the sea, living from it and thriving in it. A bustling city with its breathtaking views and centuries old monuments.
A city of contrasts: huge wealth and abject poverty, great beauty and heart breaking decay, extreme generosity and rampant corruption. And in the midst of it all, the beautiful, happy faces of cheeky children who say words in arabic, spanish, english or french, all in the same sentence and laugh noisily if we don't understand.

But above all, it is about friendship.
The friendship between six women who met a long time ago and who, in spite of the oceans between them, stayed in contact. A friendship that never waned and a bond that grew stronger over the years.
Each has her personality, her style, her likes and dislikes, her very different career and family life. Each has had joys and heartbreaks, successes and disappointments. Each has been down that unpredictable, arduous road of life we all travel.
Yet, when we are together, there is harmony, happiness and glee. We all agree enthusiastically to whatever is proposed. Everyone chips in and most importantly everyone laughs. A lot.

Each year in June we reunite in Tangier for a week and every year there is a new theme. Each must write, draw, bring a book or an object that fits the theme. The only rule is "go for it!".
The first evening we drink champagne and do our "show and tell" according to the year's theme.

The first year, the theme was champagne and we were to bring a "flute". One friend brought two identical Eiffel tower shaped glasses that she painted in gold, representing my twin sister and me. Another was the last flute from her family's Lalique set (this fact brought tears to my eyes). Yet another was decorated for June!

Last year the theme was "The Jasmine Revolution" (the start of the 2010-2011 revolution in Tunisia, dubbed "Revolution du Jasmin" by journalists, a term tunisians dislike particularly, actually started in Kasserine, the town where I was born).
For our own revolution, there were flower themed poems, "Jeopardy" style riddles to solve, an amazing landscaping book "Nicole de Vésian: un art des jardins de Provence" by Louisa Jones and even a beautiful pastel painting of an amaryllis by Cynthia de Moucheron, an american artist living in Paris. The glass broke on the way to Tangier but fortunately the painting was intact.

Although I often go to Tangier, I wait for that week in June with excitement and longing. Sometimes, when for a lame reason I contemplate selling the house, I realize that this would mean there would be no more June reunions and the matter is quickly settled.
After all, the two most important things in life are family and friends. Everything else is secondary.
Even this Titanic moment on the upper terrace!
Leonardo, where are you?
In case you are wondering, the theme this year is:
"The Majesty of the Camel, the Slow Pace of the Caravan, the Elegance of the Nomad". I hope no one delivers a camel with a Tuareg on it at my door! With this group, one must be ready for anything.

Photos: Sylvie Pellet, Joelle Desparmet

Thursday, 21 February 2013

Shopping in Tangier (1)

Wherever you go in Morocco, there is something to buy and the medina of Tangier is the part of the old city where you can buy anything. In Morocco, buying is not an occupation, it is an experience. The vendors are insistent, jovial and often very funny. "Plaisir des yeux" (just for the pleasure of looking) they say to entice you to come in. Then they proceed to show you absolutely every item in the store. This is done with good humour and the offer of a boiling hot glass of mint tea so you will linger.

As anywhere there is the good, the bad and the ugly.

The ugly: fake anything with well known logos. "Vuitton", "Chanel" and "Dior" handbags, babaouches and even footballs, every type of sports shoe you can imagine and "Lacoste" polos in every colour of the rainbow.

The bad: cheap trinkets made for tourists, often in Asia. Leather camels with green plastic eyes, "antique" Aladin-style tea kettles with very long spouts in ultra shiny copper and cheap key chains galore .

The good is easy to find beside the bad:
Turquoise, coral and amber jewelry. The materials may not always be genuine but most of the jewelry is very inexpensive and lovely none the less. You just have to make sure you are not paying "authentic" prices for fakes.

Little hand embroidered and crocheted caps. We keep wondering what we could do with them. Maybe with a zipper they could make cute little pouches.

Soft leather babouches: if you disregard the "Burberry" ones, these slippers are pretty, extremely comfortable and come in every colour imaginable. I prefer the ones that are not too pointy as I tend to trip on the tip of my own babouches. Don't ask...

And for anyone willing to look beyond the obvious there is excellence.
At "Bleu de Fez", two brothers roam the country for great finds. All carpets are one of a kind and the antique ones are a little more expensive but still very affordable. The fun is in the discussion: you can ask for a price at any time but you will not get an answer until you have seen almost all the carpets. That's when you can start haggling (also known as "negotiating", a favourite pastime in Morocco!).

The brothers also sell antique textiles and original paintings by Moroccan artists. This one was bought by a friend who had it framed locally.

Another must-see place is "Bazar Tindouf", an absolute treasure trove. It is enormous and packed to the ceiling (literally!) with jars, bowls, tables and chests, mirrors and carpets, lamps, marble fountains and antique tiles and...and...and... Everything is authentic and you need a whole afternoon to go from packed room to packed corridor.

Antique and contemporary jars in different styles from different parts of the country.

Tadelakt covered jars. Tadelakt is plaster that is tinted with natural pigments and shined with smooth stones by hand. It is traditionally used on walls and floors and is water-resistant enough to be used in bathrooms. The word Tadelakt comes from the arabic verb "dlek" which means to rub, knead or to caress.  That is probably why these jars are smiling.

Bowls in all sizes and colours. I use them for jams, olives and nuts, as soap dishes and for emptying my pockets into.

Not far from the house is a man who makes mostly silver jewellery (necklaces, bracelets and earrings and rings). He will reproduce anything you want, will make your designs to your specifications and has his own creations for sale. I brought him the stones, we worked out a design and he made it in a few days. His store hours are unpredictable but he always comes through in the end. The price is by weight and can't be beaten. (I bought the chain in Montreal)

More on shopping in Tangier soon.

Photographs: Sylvie Pellet, Joelle Desparmet

Saturday, 16 February 2013

Tangier then and now (2)

Like any city in the world, Tangier has grown and evolved though the years and as for any city some changes have been good and some less so. 
Sanitation, roads and safety have made huge strides but some modernisation projects have taken some of Tangier's charm away. 
Old buildings are fighting to avoid the wreaking ball of developers and ancient old structures are battling the elements and the insults of time. Huge apartment complexes are springing up on the outskirts of the city to house the influx of workers coming  to town to fill the jobs on offer in this ever expanding city. 

The bay of Tangier has not been spared.
A postcard form the 50's of the bay...

...and now: the old buildings along the boulevard are still standing proud but one can see the modern high-rises behind them.

 The waterfront Boulevard has helped traffic and offers a great view of the sea but the tall buildings hide the hills beyond and block the view of Spain for those behind.

The Square of the Kasbah in the old days, also known as "La place du Mechouar". A Mechouar or "mashwar" served as a place to pledge allegiance to the Sultan. The custom consists in kissing the hands of the Monarch. (Wikepedia). 
The door a the centre of the painting leads to what used to be the Sultan's Palace and is now the museum.

Only a few changes have occured on this beautiful square at the heart of the Kasbah. There have been additions vertically to the buildings and three elegant palm trees adorn the entrance to the old Palais de Justice (the old court).
The arches of the building on the left have been closed by wrought iron doors and house Laure Welfling's shop, a French designer who sells lovely caftans in silk, linen and taffeta. Her husband who is an artist has paintings and stunning original potteries (the subject of a future blog) for sale there. And as everywhere, cars have invaded this historic space.

This old photo of the port shows the shore along the coast at the bottom left.

Now a waterfront four-lane road has taken its place. I did not care for it at first because I liked to see the tide come in and out at the bottom of the hill but now people stroll on the sidewalks in the evening and can view the sea as well as the kasbah. City traffic has been improved by the new road by avoiding the centre of town.

The new seaside road is simple and follows the coast and once the vegetation is fully grown, it will blend in quite nicely. All in all, a logistical if not aesthetically perfect change.

In the old days, the Place du Grand Socco was the main market place as in this photograph from the beginning of the last century.

Later on, it became a little more "civilised" with paving and alleys. Buildings grew upwards but the shops still flapped their awnings in the wind on the right of the postcard.

Now, the main gate is just as it was but buildings have grown again, this time to the right, a large marble fountain marks the centre of the square and tall palm trees sway gracefully in the breeze.

In the end, you cannot keep a city from evolving and while you may regret the "good old days" when everything was quaint and authentic, those who live there are grateful for any improvement to their daily life. The difficulty is, as  always, to find a balance between modernity and historical charm and beauty.

Photos: pinterest

Tuesday, 5 February 2013

Moroccan embroideries

The art of embroidery is very alive in Morocco. Women learn to embroider at a very young age and some embroidery is so intricate it takes months to do and costs hundreds of dollars. 

Below are typical embroideries made in Fez. The "Fez stitch" is a very fine mix of cross and straight stitches that often covers the cloth entirely.
Antique embroidery from Fes in a purple border.
Photo: IDPCM

Antique pillow in Fes stitch.
Photo: McCann

A tablecloth in Fez stitch 

The women don't mark the cloth. Positioning of the stitch is done by "eye" at an incredible speed.
photo: J R Pelmont

More to the south is another type of traditional embroidery from the area of Rabat, the Moroccan capital. This type of stitch is often done in silk, gold or silver thread and gives a beautiful shiny aspect. It is a very rich embroidery and is used on garments as well as cushions and bed covers.

These traditional embroideries are used by contemporary designers as in this superb room photographed  for the magazine "Coté Maison" by Bernard Touillion.

Some embroidery is now done with special sewing machines. That makes embroidered garments affordable. 
This proud tailor made the embroidered caftan below for a friend in just three days. We bring the fabric, choose the style of embroidery and thread colour and he starts working.

Djellabas are often elaborately embroidered and worn with co-ordinated scarves and babouches.

The main diffference between a caftan and a djellaba is that a djallaba has a hood while a caftan does not and a caftan is often worn for special occasions and sometimes heavily embroidered. 
The linen chambray caftan I wear for lounging at home:

Simpler hand embroidery on a blouse by Ludovic Petit, a french designer  in Marrakech.

Hand embroidered placemat and napkin by abanjà. This pointed example is called the "dars" stitch and is traditional moroccan embroidery. 

Dark brown hand embroidered velvet cushion by Abanjà...

 ...and olive green linen with chartreuse and silver embroidery by Ludovic Petit for abanjà.

Photos: Sylvie Pellet, Jeanne-Aelia Desparmet-Hart, Joelle Desparmet and others as sourced.