ABURY meets Moroccan Crafts Expert Maha Alouani
Posted on 16 August 2017
Having recently completed her Bachelor’s degree in International Relations at Queen Mary University of London, Maha Alouani currently acts as the manager of the Heritage Museum in Marrakesh, which fostered in her an insatiable curiosity for Moroccan history and its tribal ethnography.
A born and bred native of Marrakesh, Maha Alouani has always been exposed to different cultures, both in her international elementary school in Morocco and when she lived in the UK. Her interest in global affairs and cultural anthropology are therefore a natural consequence of her upbringing.
Maha Alouani is also interested in the politics of contemporary conflicts in East Africa and the Horn, dabbles in several languages and is widely passionate about music from Mali. Maha is learning the Tifinagh alphabet and is also in the process of writing a book on 18th century Andalusian embroidery and another on tribal Berber rugs.
Maha Alouani speaking at TEDxMarrakesh on the topic of "Coexistence or No Existence"
Maha Alouani, start by tagging yourself with three words.
Inquisitive, clumsy, optimistic
We believe that “hands tell stories“. What do your hands tell about you?
That I’m obsessed with old Moroccan silver rings... and hand cream!
What is the last thing you created with your hands?
I am actually in the process of curating a small gallery of Moroccan antiques. When I got to the stage where I had to select the smaller pieces (silver jewellery and accessories), I noticed that some earrings and fibulae were missing some hooks. I spent the afternoon fixing and mending these. Now they’re good to go!
If you could choose, what would you like to be able to do with your hands?
Imagine receiving a bank of information on every item you touch. Some might consider this sensory overload, but what if by the mere touch you could delve into that item’s past, and receive vivid images of it being crafted by the artisan? What if you could momentarily live in each item’s phase; you could smell its environment and momentarily live in the time period in which it was made. It would feel like every time you touched something, you would teleport to its place of birth. How enriching, and what a fulfilling way to learn!
“One of a mind” underlines our strong belief in equality and the value of sharing. How does intercultural exchange benefit our global society in your eyes?
I believe there’s everything to gain through cultural interchange! Think of the jubilation you feel when you learn a new bit of information, on any given topic. There is so much to learn from one another, especially if we are from different walks of life.
I spend a lot of time researching historical imprints of commonality in different populations, especially through my study of motifs and their presence in textiles. The lozenge motif is ubiquitous across the continents. Found both in the Vikings caves in Denmark and in Berber rugs of Morocco, for example, the lozenge shape in both cultures represents the woman’s body.
Another example is in the similarity of the penannular Celtic fibula and the Berber fibula, used to hold the outfit in place and was a quintessential element in once upon a time’s traditional woman’s outfit. It’s a popular belief that we have more in common than we are different, and this is something we can learn through ethnology.
You were born in Morocco but lived abroad for a while. What would you say differentiates Morocco from other countries? What does Morocco have that no other culture has?
I could not honestly say since I cannot draw comparisons from things I do not yet know about. With over a hundred tribes in Morocco (each with their respective cultures), I believe it’s difficult to assume a uniform ‘Moroccan culture’. Needless to say that I’m not yet familiar with all of Morocco’s diverse cultures, let alone those of other countries!
Talking about other senses - how would you describe the “Tastes of Morocco” and what is your favourite?
A popular Moroccan dish is called ‘terda’. The basic ingredients are bread, fava beans, lentils, tomato, and onion. The idea behind it is to make a dish with the week’s leftovers, to be shared with family and friends. It’s very resourceful without compromising on that world-famous Moroccan flavoursome taste. I consider ‘terda’ to be reflective of the Moroccan way of life—making something great out of basic elements. Resourcefulness and sharing are values that are very much entrenched in the population’s way of life, from re-using old clothes as mops to weaving spectacular ‘boucherouite’ rugs (known as rag-rugs) from recycled fabric.
You are managing the Heritage Museum in Marrakech. In what way can the Moroccan heritage inspire other cultures to ‘co-exist’ in peace?
Morocco as-we-know-it is a product of diversity, and this is something I’m learning from studying handmade artifacts of Morocco at the Heritage Museum Marrakech.
Having been part of the Silk Road which revolutionised trade relations worldwide, overlooking the Atlantic and Mediterranean Seas and sitting in Africa, Morocco was predisposed to becoming a crossroads for many cultures. This is something we can study through the country’s diverse craftwork. For example, we can see some uncanny similarities in embroidery from the city of Fès and that of Romania and Croatia. A closer look into the trajectory of embroidery would reveal that Andalusian embroidery came to Morocco in the fifteenth century from exiled Balkan embroiderers who passed on this craft to young aristocratic girls of northern Morocco.
Perhaps some lessons which we can draw from concrete examples of mutual influence (as seen in embroidery) is that we have much more in common than we might think if we would only take the time to look closer. It is from plurality that beauty stems. The Fès embroidery has become iconic in today’s fashion industry, and we have the exiled Balkan embroiderers who settled in Morocco to thank for that.
© All photos via Maha Alouani