The Origin of Moroccan Design Traditions
As an English speaker, researching the origins and history of Moroccan design has been a nightmare. Virtually no one in the English language writes about the culture of Morocco. The subject is treated by picture books, travel guides, and cook books that do more to inspire than inform.
I understand why there is a gap in English language publications on Morocco. Morocco is a complicated society with dense cultural traditions that can only be navigated with the help of personal relationships, emphasis on the personal. Moroccans do business face-to-face, family-to-family. You cannot conduct research in the country by merely requesting interviews or sending inquiries. Even email messages sent to friends in Morocco seem to enter an alternate time zone; responses take days. You have to roll your sleeves up and dive into the mix, bumping shoulders with Moroccans in the souk while dodging donkey droppings, for example, to understand the workings of Moroccan society.
But understanding Morocco is much more complicated than a shopping trip in the medina. Even on a personal level Morocco is extremely diverse. Families in Rabat imagine themselves part of a unified French-speaking nation as they navigate the sedate streets of the nation’s capital. Meanwhile, villagers in remote towns on the Mediterranean rely on Spanish when speaking to the occasional tourist. After all, they are on the edges of Spanish borders on the Moroccan side of the Mediterranean. The weekly farmers’ market collects families scattered throughout the surrounding Rif Moutains, who come down from their hidden homes, women dressed in sombrero-like hats and colorful textiles worn around their waists, walking arm in arm, shopping for goats, grains, and anything yet unseen from the week before. The street is jammed with donkeys, trucks, pedestrians, and carts. Two European-style women driving an American truck through the congested dirt road hardly seem out-of-place; perhaps anything is possible here.
The long history of Morocco is also a challenge to understand. Anything prior to the arrival of the Arabs in the 700’s is largely irretrievable. The country is home to the world’s oldest ruling monarchy, yet for most of its history has shaken free from the grip centralized rule. While Morocco has benefited from the protection of foreign powers, it has rarely suffered under them in the way that is found in most nations. Morocco has a unique and shared cultural understanding of authority and rule. Consequently, they have managed the seeming impossible: a diverse yet solid cultural identity, one that is both incredibly tenuous and tenacious.
Anthropologically, understanding all the influences in play in Morocco is a daunting task. The culture is a mix of African, Phoenician, Roman, Arab, Spanish, Portuguese, and French influences. Each of these influences brought their own influences from China, India, and points south and east, to Morocco. Moroccans, in turn, have modified and incorporated these sub-influences, if you will, into their own styles and myths. So trying to tie-down the origins of any cultural phenomena becomes a dizzying game of chase. Moments of excitement arise. The migration of the game of chess from India to Europe provides insight into early trade routes. The many active Moroccan mystic traditions speak to a harmony forged between authority, astrology, music, and art drawn from the deepest wells of human civilization and understanding. But one chain, one thought always intersects with another. The timeline isn’t a straight one. The outline for the would-be book is a mess. The quest to understand Moroccan design continues.