Archive | The Women of Kahina

Tribal Beauty

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In traditional Berber societies, women bear a tattoo on their foreheads.  When they marry, they then tattoo their chins.  They wear these symmetrical marks proudly first as a symbol of their heritage and secondly as a sign of their marital status.

In his forward to the book “The Disciples”, with photography by James Mollison, Desmond Morris describes human beings as tribal at heart, with people in modern Western society searching for ways to define themselves as aligned with one group or another, in this case modern concert goers. In a society where we all shop at the Gap, our tribal status is conveyed through body piercings, hair styles, the cut of our jeans, the labels on our sneakers, we learn to read the signs of other tribes, and use these cues to gauge our interactions.  Isn’t it ironic that while we struggle to create our identities, so many women are erasing the signs of who they really are through botox and plastic surgery.  Or can this be considered another sort of extreme tribe.  While we consider the extreme septic piercings of some tribes as primitive, are the painful processes that many western women undertake in the name of beauty any more sophisticated?

An Argan Cooperative Near Biougra

traditional argan cooperative near Biougra

 My Berber hostess Zaina insists I return for a visit to a cooperative in a remote mountain village followed by lunch at her house for couscous, although we were scheduled to arrive in Essaoura, a 4 hour drive, by afternoon.  Knowing that lunch at Zaina’s house, with several courses, would take many hours, and that the visit to the village was an hour in the opposite direction of my end destination that day, I agreed. I couldn’t miss the chance to see these women.

We drive into the hills behind the village of Biougra, through a beautiful rolling landscape with cactus, argan trees, dry grass and the simple square built terra cotta houses of the Berbers.  Eventually, we turn off the main road and drive for a few miles on an unpaved dirt road, at the end of which is one of the most charming villages I have ever seen.  Rough stone houses boast brightly painted doors and curling metalwork on windows, with crumbling stone walls surrounding the courtyards.

We are greeted by two beautiful young girls wearing brightly colored traditional dress, embroidered skirts with cotton embroidered scarves covering their heads.  We are led inside a courtyard, and then into another, interior courtyard where a group of women and girls similarly dressed are cracking argan nuts. The women are friendly and smile as I offer my greetings in Arabic, but they are reluctant to show their faces, while the younger girls shyly hold back.  It isn’t until we leave the courtyard together that they ease up a bit.  The women and their daughters gather around me chatting and laughing.  I give them scarves and candy I brought from home as a gift, although I hate the idea of them changing their beautiful white cotton ones for mine, which seem garish in comparison, but they welcome the items from America.  The curiosity of the younger girls at my presence is obvious and I can tell that some of the them are eager to have their pictures taken, but their mothers quickly tell them to stop looking at the camera and to cover their faces.  An older woman presents me with a wonderfully aromatic bunch of sage.  Three more give me the scarves off of their heads, gifts I treasure. We kiss three times on the cheeks and wave goodbye and they make me promise to stay for a few days the next time, a promise I hope to keep.

We return to Zaina’s for a tremendous platter of couscous with chicken and vegetables, accompanied by buttermilk in which we put yet another type of grain, then fruit and fresh mint tea and cookies before we head off to Essaouira, sorry to leave.

A visit to an argan cooperative near Agadir

 

schoolroom at the cooperative

We start the day at the fish market where we pick out 8 pounds of various fish to bring to Zaina to cook for us.  I thought we would just grab a few sardines to grill to make it easy on her, but Majid and Mohammed look shocked at the suggestion and continue to select several large whole fish along with sardines for grilling, and two different kinds for frying.  I can only imagine what kind of reception I would give someone who arrived at my home bearing this haul of fresh fish for me to cook, but Zaina graciously welcomes us and disappears into the kitchen while I entertain her children with gifts I have brought for them – a Spiderman action figure for Hussem, a sweet 5-year old boy and a beading set for Sahem, a lovely 8-year old girl.  I am rewarded with constant hugs by the children who don’t leave my side.  Soon a feast of perfectly prepared fish – whole steamed fish with vegetables, fried fish and my grilled sardines.  Plates of chopped beets, cucumbers, tomatoes and rice are served first along with a yogurt drink containing chopped argan nuts and large flat disks of bread to help scoop up the food with our hands.

After lunch, we drive to a nearby cooperative to visit the women working there.  This group is one of several from which Zaina sources her oil, including her own – Ecocert demands that an argan oil manufacturer employ at least 200 women and so most must source from a number of women’s cooperatives.  Often associations of argan cooperatives are formed for this purpose.  The cooperative we visit employs about 15 women who greet us warmly.  As usual they talk and laugh as they crack and churn the nuts.  There is a schoolroom next to the chamber where the women are working.  The students here, children of all ages, are the children of the women of the cooperative.  They each have only a small chalkboard and a piece of chalk to work with.  They need electricity, paper and pencils, and workbooks.

A trip to the Moroccan cooperatives is never complete without a trip to see the livestock which is typically another source of income for the women.  They sell the milk from the goats.

Signature Statement – What Signatures Say About Personality

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I read recently that your signature tells a lot about who you are as a person.  If your signature slants upward, then you are an optimistic person.  If it slants downward the opposite is true.  If your letters are open and rounded, then you are a warm person, open to other people, if they are closed and tightly spaced, then you are probably controlling and a perfectionist.

What if you use a mark as your signature because you can’t write your name?  In looking at the signatures and marks of the Berber women of the Argan cooperatives, which I collected and use as the basis for the artwork for Kahina Giving Beauty, I feel that the personalities of these women are truly on display.

Some of the women struggle to create a single letter from their name.  Others steer away from letters altogether, and create original pieces of art such as the woman who uses the star in the circle, which is the emblem on the Moroccan flag.  Several of the women use a wavy, up and down line, but even though they are the same idea, there are differences in their execution similar to the differences in our handwriting – some are more openly spaced, some tighter together, some slant downwards, some slant upwards.

We tend to take our signatures for granted and whip them out fast, but these women take great care when they put pen to paper to write their names.  In a world where most people can’t write, I imagine the thought of owning a signature is imbued with great importance and some mystery.  The idea of a physical manifestation of who they are, this thing they are called, and which is mostly necessary for legal documentation or pay records is a grand thing indeed.

Making a Mark: Helping the Berber Women

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Most women of the argan cooperatives are illiterate and some are just learning to write their names through literacy programs provided by the cooperatives. Meeting these women for the first time,  it struck me that these women could barely write their names and yet they were producing the most amazing product.  It occurred to me that I could help them and produce a line of products that women here would want to buy.

In trying to bring these women to life for customers, I collected their signatures  and graphic marks which form the base of the package design. I use these signatures on the packaging so that people can understand what it means for them to be illiterate and then to learn to write their name or to navigate a bus route for the first time.  I also wanted to showcase the lyrical, beautiful side of the simple way these women live.

Since my first trip to Morocco, I have been back six times in order to source the oil from the cooperatives myself instead of going through a broker.  I want to know the source of the oil and test it for quality.  I have become friends with the women who work to extract the oil, and I let them indicate how they will allocate the resources I raise for them.

It has become clear that while few, if any, of these women has any formal schooling, education for their children is a top priority for them.  While there are some public elementary schools, early education is clearly lacking.  One of the cooperatives from which I source my oil outside of Agadir has indicated that they would like to build a preschool with the money.  Another cooperative houses a small classroom, but it badly needs electricity and supplies.  Yet another cooperative is in the process of building a women’s center complete with preschool, and a classroom to provide the women with literacy and women’s rights programs and could use help toward completing this project.  My measure of success will be when I am breaking ground on a preschool in a small village near Biougra.

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