South of Europe’s southernmost tip, beyond where the mighty Atlantic meets the mild Mediterranean, is a land long shrouded in mystery and exoticism, a world away from the Westernized continent to its north. Morocco elicits a sense of otherness for many: bone dry sands of the Sahara; crimson crags of the Atlas Mountains and verdant oasis valleys in arid landscapes all scintillate the senses and feed the imagination. It is the cultures of the country; though, which are most captivating: long a gateway between Europe and Africa, the country is a confluence of diverse histories; a place where cultures collide and collage into a fascinating and idiosyncratic milieu.
Nowhere is Morocco’s unique culture more evident than in the country’s Souks – famed city markets of winding alleys, countless diverse stalls and an array of sounds, scents, and sights that overpower the mind.
We caught up with Ana Caufman, Maison Numen’s head curator and all-around adventurer, to hear about her recent sourcing trip to Morocco.
Maison Numen: What was Morocco like?
Ana: It was an incredible experience – both completely foreign and like home. I grew up very close to two aunts from Tangiers, who infused my life with the flavors and feel of North Africa from a young age. Despite this being my first visit to the region, there were many aspects of the culture that were familiar to me from my childhood. There’s a passage from Elias Canetti’s Voices of Marrakech – a firm favorite throughout my life – which encapsulates this:
“I had the feeling that I was really somewhere else now; that I had reached the goal of my journey I did not want to leave, I had been here hundreds of years ago but I had forgotten and now it was all coming back to me. I found exhibited the same density and warmth of life as I had in myself.”
It sounds like you felt a real connection with this place – did it extend to the people?
Oh absolutely. There are mannerisms and habits that I picked up as a child which fit into the cultural context and ingratiated me with the merchants I met, marking me out from the crowd of tourists who pass through the Souks every day. Speaking fluent French also helped, of course!
There’s also unconnected things about the way I work that people were happy to see: the respect which I have for handmade products, the desire to hear the stories behind them, and the way I look at pieces.
How do you mean, ‘the way I look at pieces’?
Well, when I’m sourcing I always sit on the floor, surrounded by potential home decor pieces. It’s a good way to appreciate the quality, compare them and visualize them at home. In Islamic culture, to sit on the floor is to be humble – lowering yourself before God – so without knowing it I was acting according to cultural norms!
What were the merchants like?
They are incredible people. Many of the stallholders are fourth, fifth generation or more – the practice runs in their blood, they have deep and historic connections with artisanal communities around the region and an encyclopedic knowledge of their field. You can have fleeting chats or days of discussions, depending on what you’ve got time for. I learned so much from them.
On a related note, what inspired you to source in Souks rather than going to artisans?
It’s a good question, one which I spent a very long time thinking about. I always prefer going to the source of a handmade good: meeting the makers, hearing their stories first hand – that’s what I did for the Latin America collection. The difference is that whilst in Latin America an artisan might sell their work at a local market, perhaps even a few, in Morocco the souks are central to the culture of craft production.
It’s important to understand that artisanal practices evolved alongside the markets, each supporting the other; the stallholders are deeply connected to the communities they sell for and are central characters in the stories of the handcrafted products. It would be a dismissal of Moroccan culture – an imposition of my own beliefs – to ignore this rich cultural establishment.
How else was this trip different from previous sourcing journeys?
Like all previous sourcing trips, this one was the result of intensive work, study and thought: there’s months of research that goes into each one. In Latin America I worked to a tight schedule: I would know where I was going, who I was seeing, where I was staying and when I was leaving. There’d be finds along the way, touches of the unexpected, but there was a plan.
This wasn’t a possibility in Morocco. You’re entering a world the order of which has been established for centuries; the pace of life, the workings of the Souk, are all decided before you arrive. I approached it with flexibility, seeing where I was taken because any other way would lead to missing out.
You spent a good deal of time in Marrakech – what was the city like?
It’s a truly magical place – it imprints itself on your senses as if experience there is somehow more intense. You go out in the morning and you can feel the air enveloping you, covering your skin, getting into your pores. It’s not dirty, just completely unique. I was there in Spring, which is when the jasmine and orange blossom are in full bloom. Every now and then I’d stop in the middle of the street, breathe the smell of the flowers in deep, almost getting drunk on their sweetness and strength.
That sounds incredible! What was a regular day like?
Well, there wasn’t really one: each was different, each followed its own path. My watch became irrelevant whilst there; I kept time by the calls to prayer. With the first call, I’d wake, listening to all these different voices singing across the rooftops in the hour before dawn. I’d get ready, have a light breakfast, recap what I wanted from the day, then go out into the street. I’d often not get back until well after nightfall, getting completely caught up in the sheer experience of being.
Not a holiday then!
Oh absolutely not! I love my work and I’m very fortunate to be able to do what I do, but it is not easy. My experience in Morocco will have been very different from most people who go; maybe buy a carpet or lamp, and enjoy the feel of the place.
Do you have plans to go back?
I’d love to. I feel it would be a wonderful place for a romantic getaway, I just need to find the time! The night before leaving I treated myself to a refreshing session in the Hammam; bathing and being scrubbed and massaged. It was a truly wonderful parting memory. The women there were using jasmine, orange blossom, and argan oil in their hair; combining the scents of the city in one heady mix. The next morning I left for the airport, with all the carefully chosen handmade goods packed safely away; feeling refreshed and invigorated and completely alive!
Thank you so much for talking, Ana!
A pleasure as always!