The Profound Beauty of a Muslim Country
All photos by the author
A few years ago, I had the special privilege to travel to Morocco by invitation of the Maison de l’Artisan – with a directive no more precise than to “document the artisans and crafts of the country.” The opportunity was beyond incredible, but in the eyes of some, it was to be feared. Morocco is a Muslim country.
I joined eight other remarkably talented individuals – writers, shop owners, and designers – from Austin and Houston. Along with the outstanding Molly Winters, I would be one of the official photographers because someone else had recently dropped out.
I assume travel to Morocco was regarded as dangerous and unsafe because of its ties to Islam, the established state religion. As a country just a few years separated from the September 11th attacks, we were stricken by a fear of the word “Muslims” because of the media’s all-too-frequent connection to the word “terrorist.”
My parents didn’t want me to go, nor did several other relatives that I spoke with about the opportunity. I remember how caught off-guard I was with that then. And in today’s world, in a climate that seems to be even more accepting of a clenched fist reaction to a religion (that counts nearly a quarter of the world’s population as followers), I am even more so.
I remember what I saw there.
I remember the beauty I felt privileged to witness.
And I remember what I discovered about myself while on the other side of the lens.
Before I was a Creative Director, before I was a graphic designer, and before I was a writer, I was a photographer.
Photography was one of the primary factors that led me on the course to quit my engineering job, and towards my search for creative freedom.
It was something I unknowingly had a knack for. In fact, I distinctly remember thinking “instant art” the first time I went out on a shoot.
I especially enjoyed capturing moments — the unexpected instants of truth when no one is particularly looking. And during this trip, without much setup beyond a Canon 5D Mark III on a leather camera strap, I took some of the best photos I’ve ever taken. But it wasn’t me or the Canon — it was Morocco.
For seven days, I was inspired by a foreign country and an unfamiliar beauty I wasn’t expecting to find.
Though my current role in my business doesn’t often allow for the chance to engage in photography, these photographs remind me of why I started my creative journey.
They remind me of my purpose.
DISCOVERING RABAT AND ESTABLISHING RESPECT
Our first day in Morocco set the tone for me. Upon arrival, we checked in at the government office of our host, the Maison de l’Artisan. We were escorted into a room with ceilings of hand-carved wood, and greeted with silver trays of handmade cookies of uncountable variety. We were treated like diplomats. And the sincerity, warmth and respect they showed all of us, was something I wanted to reciprocate through my photos.
Being personally escorted by the Arts & Tourism division of Morocco was a further revelation of the respect this country had for art, and it left me wishing our own government held these institutions in similar reverence.
Not too far from the official building where we made our introductions was our next destination, the Kasbah des Oudaias. This interior of narrow streets, and whitewashed homes marked with pale shades of blue, was coincidentally built by Muslim refugees from Spain.
Emerging from the walled medina and onto the expansive open-air plaza is a sight that brought forth both emotions of humility and self-regard. Everyone was framed diminutively against the size of the sky around them, yet individually we all had our own space — our own world.
I stood on the edge and admired the colors of the Moroccans’ dress and the independence with which they wore them.
THE HANDS OF CASABLANCA
The next morning we took a one hour bus drive from Rabat to Casablanca — the country’s largest city and headquarters to most of its leading businesses. Our first stop was the Grande Mosquée Hassan II — the largest mosque in Morocco and the 13th largest in the world.
On the mosque grounds the light was so perfect that it seemed to possess its own atmosphere. It imparted an ethereal glow and prominence on everyone within it.
Every step we took toward the mosque uncovered more detail. And stepping inside the prayer hall, whose hand-crafted marble walls can embrace over 25,000 worshippers within them, made you feel their religion. It made you realize their devotion — both in the hands that created it, and the hands that have prayed within it.
This inspiring display of Muslim faith is something that all Americans deserve to see.
Located on the same grounds of the mosque was the Complex Artisanal de Casablanca, which seemed to serve as both a monestary and university for learning the traditional skills of the country’s crafts.
The studies we observed ranged from jewelry-making and tile-making, to the art of hand-chiseled wood and plaster. The attentiveness of both student and professor in every classroom showed an enviable reverence. And even though I was surrounded by both the artisans and their finished works, it was still almost impossible to imagine that hands — just like yours and mine — were creating these masterpieces.
In a digital age where everything is so immediate, this dedication to craft was otherworldly.
Surrounded by both the artisans and their finished works, it was still almost impossible to imagine that hands — just like yours and mine — were creating these masterpieces.
SOUKS AND SILKS
Craftsmanship in Morocco is not isolated to institutions on holy grounds. It is also found in the country’s souks — open air marketplaces where you’ll find hand-hammered silver tea sets, leather satchels, silk robes, and Moroccan rugs.
After having explored these bazaars along the city streets, we were treated to a private tour at the Complex Artisanal de Marrakech — another complex of artisans responsible for producing a sizable amount of the country’s exports.
Before taking this trip, my first vision of photographing “authentic artisans in Morocco” was rural and un-industrialized. I never expected to see all of this.
SERVICE AND DINNER CONVERSATION IN THE ESTATE OF A MOROCCAN RUG DEALER
The Ministry of Handicraft had arranged for us to privately tour the estates of rug dealers, cooperatives, and artisan entrepreneurs. I was humbled by the exquisite form of hospitality they all provided (to us as well as our bus driver), and in awe of the tapestries displayed on every wall — like canvases in a gallery hall.
While the interior designers were procuring their selection of rugs by the acre, I explored all the floors of the facility — observing as the family and their butlers prepared a traditional Moroccan meal on the rooftop for their guests. For us.
As we enjoyed dinner, with a view that overlooked the mountains, we had one of our first real chances to talk with the government officials serving as our hosts. I remember how awestruck we were with the respect and knowledge they had about our politics, and about our democracy. They knew about recent policies our president had passed, and shared their perspective on them from their own country’s history.
It was one of the most intelligent and open-minded dinner conversations I’ve ever had.
PERSPECTIVE AND ACCEPTANCE
This experience of Morocco opened my heart and my mind. In seven days, this Muslim nation taught me about dedication, craftsmanship, devotion, hospitality, talent and confidence. I am better for going. I am better for knowing its culture.
And in light of today’s political atmosphere, I can’t help but feel sympathy towards those who let fear interfere with their willingness to really know and understand people from a culture that is different than theirs.
The first step toward change is awareness. And I hope the profound beauty of a Muslim country that I witnessed allows others to see these people from a new perspective.
We are all human.
This article originally appeared on Medium and is republished here with permission.