Halima’s house in Bejaad is modest and tiny; we gingerly walk up the narrow staircase into her small living room and on into her workspace where she has carefully cleared out an area for our visit.

As we make our way up the stone stairs into her humble abode, her lively children run up and down the stairs around us. The street below is busy and bustling with little ones playing, neighbors chatting, and curious by-standers gazing at us, wondering whom we were.

Halima is a master weaver in rural Bejaad, Central Morocco. She is the head contact for a small but mighty group of female weavers in this quiet town; known for its beautiful, unique rugs. For female weavers here and all over Morocco, these carpets symbolize a tiny slice of independence.

Just as importantly, though, Halima is Mushmina co-founder Heather O’Neill’s loyal friend. Their friendship has evolved from Heather’s starting days in Morocco as a galvanized, determined Peace Corps Volunteer almost 15 years ago. She has also been Heather’s most trusted rug weaver and much-needed informal ‘consultant’ ever since.

 

Halima, whose infectious smile lights up a room and whose eyes twinkle with clever humor and intelligence, is an example of the strength and inspiration of the small but Herculean business of the Mushmina sisters, Heather and Katie.

Halima’s calm temperament and warmth radiates from her when she hugs me and welcomes us into her home.

Halima has not had it easy, however. As a woman, mother and wife in a tiny traditional Moroccan working-class town, it is often seen as taboo for a woman to be earning a salary. Finding a balance is difficult. Maintaining a busy home, where most women still wash laundry by hand and toil in front of teensy gas stoves for hours, as well as caring for her three young children, takes up most of her time.

Halima’s work ethic is unmatchable; her energy and vigor are unstoppable; her motivation is ceaseless. She has something inside her that is different-she takes initiative with her trade. She wants more for herself. She demands better for her children.

Halima’s heartwarming story is a fascinating one. An incredible woman who never had the opportunity to go to school as an uncle suddenly passed away and she was sent to care for the family, Halima speaks no French; typical of most rural Moroccan people. Luckily for me, Heather flawlessly translates Halima’s heartfelt story for us from Darija, the local language.

And then there is her actual physical weaving. Halima, like most Moroccan weavers (most are female, as it’s an ideal trade handed down from mother to daughter), has the family loom in her cramped kitchen. The lighting is dim and the elements can be brutal; summers are stifling hot and winters are brutally frigid. Heating and cooling systems are unthinkably too expensive.

Luckily, Halima is still young and her eyes and hands haven’t failed her. But she weaves at night after her incredibly long work hours at home are finished. Inevitably, the day will come. Her mother sadly had to give up weaving because it was too hard on her vision.

Weavers depend on their knowing hands for their work; these are their tools. Halima’s hands are her lifeline; soft and calloused from years of physical toiling at her basic wooden loom. Her loom, a simple wooden structure with two beaten-up, rudimentary cans placed precariously on either side as well as a spoon tied right in the middle for balance, is the heart of her income.

The ancestral wooden looms on which these women weave, amazingly, have not changed over the years. Although electrical looms exist, they are not used as a result of cost and maintenance.

 

While we talk and work and she shows us her gorgeous weaving, her children periodically come in and out of the room, asking questions, scrambling all over her. She handles them like a pro; not skipping a beat in continuing our work and caring for them.

We watch her as she weaves rhythmically, mesmorized.

Halima’s talent is quite magical. As Moroccan weavers do, their trade is innately in them-she doesn’t use any conventional tools. Halima uses her hands and her arms to measure the rugs. The rest, is almost divination-all of the stunning symbols that make the Bejaddi rugs so famous throughout Morocco and beyond, come from within Halima. Her patterns are so exact, so perfect, such excellent quality, one might think that they are factory-produced. This is a real, pure, raw gift.

Astonishingly, weavers work with their textiles facing outward from the loom; the women have to essentially do everything backwards. It is intricate, difficult work. When I ask Halima where she finds her inspiration, she tells me that her revelations come to her in various ways. It can be as simple as the outline of a grain. Or the peaks of the majestic Atlas Mountains. Nature and agricultural motifs are often woven into Moroccan textiles. Each region has its own trademark patterns.

 

We got a sneak peak of creative director, Katie working closely with Halima on designs that will later be sewn into Mushmina’s trademark handbags.

IMG_1810

As the afternoon wanes and the evening appears out of nowhere, we stop our work for a tea. The pocket-sized room, all of a sudden, is cold. We fill ourselves with minty, heavily sweetened Moroccan tea, cakes and toasty flat bread. And when our bellies are satisfied and our hearts are warmed, we hit the road. Feeling grateful to have been enlightened by this incredible woman. And to have shared a little bit of her world.

-By Tara Fraiture, Mushmina blogger

www.mushmina.com

 

 

 

 

*any ad content below this is not related to Mushmina

 

 

 

 

 

 

Advertisements

Ahmed Ghezawe journeyed three long hours from rural Bejaad, Central Morocco to his destination of Rabat. His goal was the second annual rug exposition of Morocco; a massive white tent, held in the capital, with hundreds of stands, vendors, visitors, and of course, rugs as far as the eye could see.

It is, though, so much more than rugs. These textiles have a story. Each piece is carefully made by a strong woman. Often, under difficult conditions-tiny spaces, no electricity, frigid rooms in the cold winter, sweltering spaces in the heat of the summer. But still, these hearty weavers persist. Their calloused fingers and hands work tirelessly and rhythmically in motion, day after day, week after week, month after month.

In this gargantuan Bedouin-style tent, rows and rows of rugs-wool, cotton, silk, chenille. Colossal rugs and miniature ones. Gorgeous wool shags and tightly-knit kilims. Naturally-dyed throws and brightly colored patterned carpets.

The mecca of Moroccan rugs; all the way from Chefchaouen in heavily-Spanish influenced northern Morocco down to Marrakech and beyond into the High Atlas region of the south. Distinctly different, vibrant rugs from this incredibly unique country. The people of Morocco reflect this diversity. And their art; these rugs represent this fascinating range of singularity in its people.

Along with Ahmed on this trek came Zohra, one of the committed weavers of ‘Association Beni Zemmour’; a women’s co-op of talented rug makers aptly named after the famous rug-weaving region around the holy town of Bejaad.

The dedicated pair brought with them a van filled with carefully hand-woven rugs. And hearts brimming with hope. Their main goal was to find influential contacts with whom they could find networking opportunities. If they could possibly sell some of their beautiful rugs at the same time, it would be an added bonus.

Most of the stands at the rug expo were women’s co-ops; a rare opportunity for women to showcase their group work and trade in a typically traditional country where it is often seen as taboo for women to work. It is a unique chance for women to work towards a sliver of independence and empowerment.

For Ahmed in his role as mentor to these female weavers, his journey started many years before and is forever linked to ours at Mushmina. Ahmed was Heather O’Neill’s counterpart (or professional mentor and government-assigned aid) years before when Heather was a Peace Corps Volunteer….in Bejaad, Morocco.

Heather describes Ahmed back then, “He started from scratch with the women’s rug-weaving co-op. But he had a vision from the start. He was committed and hard-working. But most of all, he believed in the women and their ability to grow professionally. It’s not often that one finds a male leader like this in Morocco.”

She continues, “I was so fortunate to be mentored by Ahmed. He was an incredible teacher to me. But what he has done with the co-op is so much more than me. He has taken it from a room with no electricity to a large showroom, where visitors come and see the women working. He facilitates professional training sessions. He supports these women’s families by helping their sons receive certification courses in electricity and plumbing classes. These are young people who would not normally have the opportunity to learn a trade.”

This partnership between Heather and Ahmed was recognizably meant to be. A professional collaboration that has lasted for years and is based on respect, a vision for the future, and the hopes of others.

When I had the good fortune to meet Ahmed, it was very clear that both he and Zohra care deeply about Heather. Ironically, I barely speak Darija (the local language in Bejaad) and Ahmed’s French is quite basic. (Zohra speaks no French at all.) So we reverted to animated hand gestures, quite a bit of smiling, and much laughter. I find, funny enough, that these are the most heart-felt interviews.

It is quite rare, to be honest, to find a Moroccan man so incredibly invested in the professional growth of rural Moroccan women and their trade. Ahmed is a trailblazer himself; breaking down barriers of traditional cultural norms.

Ahmed kept touching his heart when he talked about Heather. He described working with her with such fondness that it was as if he were describing his own daughter. He told me how devoted Heather was to her job. How she would go into every house and get to know every neighbor and every woman with whom she worked. She was special, he explained to me. These relationships took time.

Relationships and family are incredibly essential to Moroccans. And perfectly apropos, Ahmed showed up at the rug exposition with his 5-year old grandson, Yahya. Moroccans are so deeply connected to their families. It didn’t seem at all odd that the entire time I was sitting with Ahmed and Zohra, Yahya was running circles around us; clambering joyfully all over his grandfather. Ahmed wasn’t bothered at all. Work and family. So closely connected.

BeniZammourStand

It’s superbly fitting that in explaining his work to me, Ahmed wrapped up our chat with this gem, “The association is made up of seven women. Six ladies. And then me.” And then he laughed. A long, hearty, self-depricating chuckle. Zohra giggled as I burst out laughing.

I left the rug expo, a few more rugs in tow, satisfied and happy. And now as I gaze upon these brightly colored pieces of art proudly laid on my tile floors, I know a little more of their story. And the women who carefully created them. And I am determined to know more.

 

-By Tara Fraiture, Mushmina blogger

 

 

*any ad content below this is not related to Mushmina

 

3 Things That Feed My Soul

January 21, 2018

It has been a while since I posted a ‘Super Soul Sunday’ blog post, this Sunday I’m feeling inspired. This month I have been making a conscious effort to listen to positive messages, to reconnect with what really feeds my soul, and to carve out personal time to connect to ‘spirit.’

Today I’d like to share 3 things that feed my soul.

1. Positive Conversations. Did you know that Oprah’s Super Soul Sunday conversations with the world’s top thought leaders are now available on podcast?! Download these Super Soul Sunday podcasts for free to your smartphones. Podcasts are a game changer for me because some days I spend hours in the car driving across Morocco’s landscape to meet with Mushmina artisans. These half hour conversations are thought provoking and uplifting and help set the tone for my day.  I also love Hay House podcasts. Every spring Hay House broadcasts a ‘World Summit,’ hour long conversations with spiritual leaders. Highly recommend!

2. Spending time in nature. I take a walk everyday if I can to feel the sun on my face. Richard Diebenkorn, the American painter’s California landscapes remind me of Morocco. Maybe that is why I always liked his work even before I came to North Africa. The bright Moroccan sun and vegetation are similar to a California landscape. Something is calling me to paint again this year, another way I feed my soul!

3. Connecting with my tribe. My tribe is my sister, my mother, my girlfriends in the US and abroad who have become like family to me. I love hearing what exciting things they are up to, Women’s March posters they have made together,  stories and struggles and triumphs we share.

Do something that feeds your soul today.  Happy Sunday!

xo Heather

Mushmina,Co Founder

*any ad content below this is not related to Mushmina

 

In the vast, rugged mountains overlooking the sleepy, blue-washed walls of Chefchaouen, northern Morocco, Berber men and women weave labors of love in the strands of rustic cotton textiles called ‘mandils’. Rich hues, created by broad, calloused hands from years of hard physical toiling.

These fabrics are produced from natural dyes and carefully woven on traditional horizontal wooden looms. The material is then transformed into rustic striped cotton pieces; matching the ivory clouds and the fierce sun in their pure tones.

Women’s weaving groups are scattered throughout the haunting mountains of this region; loosely-organized co-ops where women make a small profit to support their families with these sustainable pieces that can be used as blankets, throws or towels. But for the locals, they are much more than a decorative piece.

The history of this striking red and white fabric is as fascinating as the women who wear them-the hearty women of the Rif region of Northern Morocco have worn these ‘mandils’ as aprons for centuries. The reason is deeply rooted in a utilitarian sense; the fabrics are used for practicality-they are deeply warm in the cool, mountain air and can easily be thrown over other clothes for extra insulation.

And why the red and white stripes? The answer is, like the history of Chaouen itself, a bit of a mystery. One theory is that the stripes have just evolved as a natural way to add interest with a simple pattern.

Another speculation is that the Rif region, once Spanish in its possession, has much to do with the presence of the bold pattern.

Color is clearly an essential part of Chaouen’s rich history. Chefchaouen, which translates to ‘see the two mountain peaks’ in Darija, was founded in the 15th century and initially populated by Jews and Moriscos fleeing the Spanish Inquisition.

Many stories have circulated over time as to why Chaouen is so utterly blue. Some say that European immigrant Jews chose to paint the tiny town sapphire upon fleeing Hitler’s Nazi regime. Some insist it’s a natural protection against mosquitos. And some even claim that Chaouen is blue as part of its etheral and spiritual aura. In any case, the haven of Chaouen is famous for its gorgeous blue hue; throwing peaceful shades of vibrant azure throughout its charming, winding passageways.

Chaouen has still managed, over the years, to keep much of its pastoral, tranquil appeal. It’s one of those places where you feel you might have just stepped back a few hundred years. In fact, time seems to slow down in Chaouen. Locals still seem to follow sunrise and sunset as their faithful guide. After all, the community around Chaouen is still vastly a farming one. The Rif Mountain range is enormous, spreading from Tangiers all the way south and east to Tetouan and Chaouen.

Tara's 3 girls peering over the city

The women of the Rif mountain region have adapted to a rugged, rural terrain for centuries. They need clothing that is sturdy, robust and lasts over time. The thick, softly woven cotton of the mandil is ideal for these hard-working locals.

Most female weavers learn their trade from birth; carefully watching their mothers, aunts, sisters and grandmothers patiently labor on their looms, their worn, creviced hands working tirelessly day in, day out. Weaving, sewing, embroidering is in their blood; it flows through them like the blue paint that is stirred in the vivid colors of the old medina doors.

One such women’s group is high above the tiny village of Dardara, 10 km from Chaouen, about a 35-minute bumpy drive down the mountain and into the larger town. The co-op doesn’t even have a name; it is just a small building with no water or electricity and a group of very active female weavers.

Typically, one mandil takes a full day for a woman to weave on a basic wooden loom. The supplies cost about 10 dirhams ($1). The mandil then sells on the local market yielding a few dollars profit, a substantial amount for the weaver.

The telltale traditional red and white colors of the mandils vary depending on the communities of women who wear them throughout the enormous rural region. They are really the identification keys of each community.

In recent years, these distinct materials have caught the eye of vendors and tourists alike.

Other colors, as a result, have been introduced as an entrepreneurial spirit has taken over and merchants have started requesting additional patterns and colors. However, the true originals are deep red and white. One can still see this if you catch a glimpse of a local woman washing clothes or selling vegetables in the surrounding villages. The indigo shades of Chaouen are now visible in the blues and whites of the mandils as well.

The practicality of these fabrics have two benefits for locals-the men and women weavers of the region will always need the mandils for their physical labor as well as protection from the harsh elements. In an enterprising sense, there will also likely continue to be a demand for this unique product to tourists visiting the region.

The story of the mandil is a success story in Morocco for of women creating an income for themselves and seeking an independence that they would not normally be able to find in such a traditional region. These women’s weaving co-ops create a unique means for women to have a small income in a bucolic area, where they would not normally have had the possibility to go to school to learn a trade or profession. This gives them a chance at success; no matter how small it might seem.

These shades of Chaouen-the rusty red of a brilliant sunset from the peaceful rooftop terraces, the pristine white of the puffy broccoli-shaped clouds above the tremendous mountain peaks, the dreamy blue of the dusty medieval doors of the old town. Paramount to the region and etched forever in the hearty cottons of the mandils.

 

By Tara Fraiture, Mushmina blogger

Mushmina, mindful fashion and home.

www.mushmina.com

 

 

 

 

*any ad content below this is not related to Mushmina

 

Rabia El Alama is, one could say, an unofficial ambassador of goodwill here in Morocco. She is also a household name and a role model to many Moroccans, particularly women, to whom she feels especially connected.

Officially, Rabia is the head of the AmCham, the American Chamber of Commerce of Morocco; whose goal is to promote bilateral relations between the United States and Morocco. We here at Mushmina gravitate towards Rabia because she is an incredible leader, inspirational teacher, and loyal friend to Moroccans, Americans, and all global citizens alike.

Rabia and Mushmina sisters

Rabia is particularly motivated to help empowering women within the small business sector. But as she explains, “Education is the key onset for women in this country, as well as any country globally. Once a woman is exposed to the joy of learning, a seed is planted inside her, and a whole new world of independence opens. Part of learning is working in a classroom with others. Most women in rural areas of Morocco do not have this experience. It’s rooted in our culture. They do not go to school. We have to change this. We have to alter this mindset.”

Rabia goes on to talk about how she encourages women to begin thinking about becoming entrepreneurs. “No matter how small her potential business is, there always is room for a woman to dream. Here in Morocco, whether it be opening up a simple vegetable stand or creating a handmade jewelry line, women are vastly talented and creative. They just need the leadership tools and the guidance to begin.”

Rabia’s advice for young women around the world?

Don’t ever stop learning. Pursue higher education. Seek scholarships. Learn from others. Continue to be inspired every day. Think outside the box. Don’t be intimidated by other successful women. Ask them what has helped them and what has driven them to succeed. And if you have the chance, encourage other women, particularly younger girls, to become leaders themselves.

The answer, Rabia is certain, is countering the culture of greed that we humans, have created. The key is in kindness. She tells me, “Women have been taught this. Humans have been taught this. Particularly in a poverty-ridden country like Morocco where there is often a fight to survive. Where there is such a difference between the have’s and the have-not’s. This culture can breed jealousy and envy. Women who should be working together to attain a goal of independence.” She continues, “Jealousy halts this progress. It’s toxic. And it’s counter-productive; particularly in the business world where it’s essential to learn from others.”

So how do women defy this counter-productivity? Rabia takes a simple, but effective approach to her business model. She explains her success theory, “Being an accomplished entrepreneur does mean that you have a competitive flair but this does not mean that you have to sacrifice your integrity and kindness as a human being. Sharing happiness is infectious. Training young people to be strong and driven in their businesses but also to be good people outside of their jobs is possible.”

She goes on, “I tell potential female business owners if there is something missing in your idea, business, or model, turn it into a positive instead of a negative. If someone else is doing better business than you, ask what has inspired them and what has been profitable. Again, learn from others. Turn that potentially destructive moment and make it positive.”

Rabia finds that showing success stories of women working together is an encouragement for female business owners. Soft skills, she says, are expertise easily taught, but not innate in many women who are not educated. And Rabia’s heart is truly invested in helping the youth and women who need her most; those who have little education and financial means. She goes all over Morocco working tirelessly with women’s groups, teaching basic entrepreneurial-skills, sustainability, and people skills. As part of this movement, Rabia also founded a unique non-profit for women called the ‘Women Advancement Network’, or WAN. It is her mission to promote women in the business world.

IMG_7298

FullSizeRender_1

Rabia easily found her own inspiration in those whom she treasures most-her family. Growing up in the small port city of Safi, about three hours south of Casablanca, Rabia remembers her grandmother’s story-a young mother of three whose husband suddenly died when she was only 26 years old. “My grandmother was suddenly alone and dependent on others because she had nothing to offer society. Ironically, she worked harder than anyone I knew. I recall vividly the day she cut off her long, beautiful locks of hair because as she put it, she had no time to care for such a superficial thing. She chopped her hair very short. I won’t ever forget this and the immense sadness I felt for her.”

Rabia went on to say that as her grandmother did not have the means to send all of her three children to school. Only Rabia’s uncle profited from an education abroad. Rabia’s mother was married at the mere age 11 and her sister, Rabia’s aunt, at age 14. To this day, Rabia’s mother regrets her own lack of education. It was her mother’s dedicated mission to send all of her ten children to school and on to university. And she did.

Rabia earned both her Bachelor’s Degree and her Master’s at Casablanca’s prestigious business school, ISCAE, where she studied finance, marketing and international trade. Her close-knit family continues to be her support and inspiration. And now, her daughter is following in some big footsteps, studying business in New York.

This goodwill, this kindness, this mantra, is a lifestyle and more than a job for Rabia. Caring for her family, providing for others, encouraging homegrown entrepreneurs, and advancing the disadvantaged in her own country. This is what makes her tick. And this is why we here at Mushmina are in awe of her. Case in point, when she read over the draft of this blog to make sure I hadn’t made any glaring errors, her humble (and typical) response was, ‘This piece inspires me to do more.”

By Tara Fraiture, Mushmina blogger

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

*any ad content below this is not related to Mushmina

Thanksgiving. Eid Shokur, as they call it in Morocco, ‘the holiday of thanks’ comes down to two things for me, love and food. Gathering those you love to give thanks over a meal of all your favorite foods. The sweet smell of pies baking, warm cider brewing, and family and friends pouring in. It doesn’t get much better than that.

First as a Peace Corps Volunteer and then as artisan production manager for Mushmina, I have lived abroad for a total of 9+ years. Some of those years were spent flying back to New Jersey to be with family for Thanksgiving weekend. A small(ish) gathering at our parent’s home on the bay, followed by dessert with our (VERY) large Irish family hosted by an unsuspecting cousin who has a house (or bar) big enough to host us all.

Two kids later (and a whole lot of frequent flier miles) a new tradition is forming. The last few years my family has spent Thanksgiving in Morocco with other American families living abroad. So what does an ex-Pat Thanksgiving look like? New faces, new accents, and new variations on all our favorite holiday foods… of course we hunt down a turkey, pumpkin soup, and if we are lucky (imported Spanish) cranberry sauce! Did I say cranberry sauce?!

We are a mix of people of whom might be put in the slightly crazy category of having jumped ship and moved to foreign lands.

This soulful Sunday we bring you, The Giving Meal, by our lovely blogger, Tara Fraiture, an American Ex-Pat living in Morocco. Did you know Tara was also a Peace Corps volunteer? Are you surprised? 😉

Read on…..

xo Heather

The Giving Meal

Thanksgiving is all about family, love and thanks. When I was a child, my British-born mother would cook up a frenzied storm for days in preparation for this beloved American holiday. The gorgeous smell of a Thanksgiving meal to this day, brings me back to my happy youth.  My New-York born father, a foreign student counselor and Western Civilization professor, would invite students from all over the world to join us. These were undergraduates of all religions, ethnicities and socio-economic groups coming to our modest house; young people who could not travel home for the holidays to be with their own families.

These were also people who were not familiar with American Thanksgiving. It was a real treat. And the best part was the sharing. Everyone would bring a dish from his or her home country; our antique dining room table would be teetering in dishes, bowls and platters, filled with delectable delights. Of course, my Mum offered the traditional homemade Thanksgiving indulgences with a Californian twist-barbequed turkey (still the best I have ever had), fresh cranberry sauce, pumpkin chiffon pie, buttermilk biscuits, Mum’s special recipe of sausage stuffing, homemade mulled wine and much more. My sister, father and I were given some menial tasks like juicing oranges for the mulled wine or cranberry sauce, but really, I think it was just to stop us from helping ourselves to the treats a little too early. But everyone did lend a hand. We then would stuff ourselves silly.

But still, the sharing part was the best. Chatting, laughing, telling stories until late into the evening. My Dad was the best story-teller. He still is, at almost 90 years old. He has a way with words and a gift for making people feel welcome. Even if my father he doesn’t speak the language, he manages to communicate, particularly with humor. And my Mum does what most mothers do to get to people’s hearts-she cooks. Her comfort-food casseroles and fluffy sweet potato biscuits make their way into your soul.

My parents always opened their house to others, particularly those far from home, on Thanksgiving Day. We lived in a small house when I was growing up, but we always welcomed others for the holidays. This simple idea of caring for those far from home was embedded in them and it carried over to my sister and I. It’s what I remember most as a child-my parent’s giving hearts.

One of the earliest memories of my childhood was in the rural Kenyan bush; miles and miles of savannah, practically another world from the capital of Nairobi, with my parents and sister. My parents met and married in East Africa. It was a swelteringly sweaty day and I recall red clay dust was puffing up around our hearty old four-wheel drive as we bumped along the unpaved, potholed road. Suddenly, we were flagged down by a staggering pair, hobbling along the path. The woman, we could tell, was clearly deathly ill. Even I, young as I was, had feeling of impending doom for her. Malaria, they said. I vividly remember seeing the flies circle around her face and smelling the pungent odor coming from her body. I was hesitant and afraid. The woman was terribly weak; she didn’t even open her eyes. My parents carefully shuffled her in the car and we barreled off to the nearest health clinic. Which was, of course, miles away. We never found out if the woman survived. It’s likely she died, she was so ill. But my parents, they never even blinked. They just acted. They always reacted with their hearts first. And they still do.

I’d like to think I am teaching my three daughters this same sense of selflessness as they grow up overseas. We always tell them that it feels so much better to give than receive. Thanksgiving is, and always will be, my favorite holiday because of its message of gratitude and reflection. We typically celebrate by inviting a handful of international friends over who have never celebrated Thanksgiving. Some have never even heard of the holiday before. Everyone brings a scrumptious dish to share from their native country. I furiously cook up a storm for several days before. My girls help. The kitchen is abuzz with activity and sublime smells. Sound familiar? The dining room table resembles the Leaning Tower of Pisa with its massive stash of delightful dishes from all over the globe. We even have my favorite; a teeter-tottering dessert table. Because Thanksgiving just is not Thanksgiving without pumpkin pie and homemade ginger-whipped cream.

Yet once again, the sharing takes center stage. We occasionally have an impromptu acting out of the Thanksgiving story by the kids. Someone inevitably puts on a goofy turkey hat with massive wings on the side. There is always a ton of laughter. Kids flying by, playing, yelling, singing. Music from all over the world resonates throughout the house. And afterwards, late into the evening, everyone pitches in to clean up. Every year, I am grateful for my little family; for my children and for my husband-even if they drive me a wee bit batty, for my life and health and opportunities that we have. And I want to share this with others.

By Tara Fraiture, Mushmina guest blogger

 

 

 

Loubna’s Smile

November 21, 2017

Here in Morocco, unsung heroes are everywhere. Those who make it their life-long mission to give back to those less fortunate. In honor of  Thanksgiving happening this week in the US, our team at Mushmina would like to tell the story of ‘Association Hadaf’, in the capital city of Rabat during this month of giving and gratitude. This unique organization has a touching, personal story and a massive heart.

20 years ago, Mrs. Amina Msefer, opened the Association Hadaf, which translates to ‘goal’ or ‘objective’ in Arabic, after years of unsuccessfully seeking a feasible post-school option for her daughter, Loubna. Loubna was born with disabilities. Amina, like so many other parents of disabled young adults, found herself in a heart-wrenching position: there was no place for her daughter to go as an adult.

Even before adulthood, Moroccan law requires schools to accept handicapped children but in reality, schools in the kingdom cannot realistically adapt to the needs of these children. The cost is too much. There is also a social stigma that is slow to change. And most certainly an unknowing; perhaps even an ignorance of what it means to be disabled.

If a disabled child in Morocco is lucky enough to have a family who has the financial means to send him or her to school, there is still the enormous looming question mark of what to do after that education has finished. At the time of Loubna’s youth, there was nothing for families like Amina’s with a disabled young adult.

When Amina was pregnant with Loubna, she was diagnosed with toxoplasmosis; an infection that is extremely dangerous for a fetus. Amina’s daughter was born with several physical and mental disabilities as a result; the most severe being epilepsy. Specialists told the mother of three children that her infant daughter would not walk, talk and that she would be blind by adolescence. Her life expectancy was dire. But Amina did not give up on hope for Loubna. Instead, she persisted. And Loubna’s family rallied around her. At that moment, the young mother had a genius revelation. She decided that she would counter Loubna’s degenerative disability and already weak vision by teaching her to focus on her other senses, as her eyes were quickly growing useless.

By the time Loubna reached 20 years, she was legally blind. But thanks to her mother’s wise groundwork, Loubna was prepared. She reads braille. She has an incredible sense of touch. In fact, she is now trained in massage and has clients with whom she works at the center. Her family considers this a victory, not a failure. In Amina’s words, “Our family feels that we have won. Louba is thriving. She beat all of the medical odds. She has the least strength of all of us physically and medically, but in the end, she has proven to be the most powerful.”  Loubna speaks French and Arabic and some Spanish, she has a prodigy’s memory in mental calculation, she plays the piano and is talented in IT skills. Loubna is also very social; she is the heart and soul of the center, and she is a “real sweetheart”, as her mother puts it.

Ironically, Amina feels that Loubna gives her the strength and inspiration to fight for her daughter and other families in their position.

Amina has also found comfort in many other parents and families in the same situation; those with disabled children. These people have become her allies, her support, her colleagues, her friends. Eventually, they would collaborate to open an innovative learning and development center for young adults with disabilities; with Amina at the realm. Each family is inspired by their unique child. And each child just wants validation and acceptance into society.

After many years of thought, preparation, research and hard work, Amina and her team of parent volunteers opened the Association Hadaf on October 3, 1997 in accordance with the Moroccan League for the Protection of Children. Her work-space was about the size of a large closet-about 12 square meters. But she persevered. The center was tiny. Amina had a dream and a passion and a fire within her. She wanted other young adults; not just Loubna, to have a place where they could learn and thrive after leaving school. A place where they were safe; a setting where they were affirmed and cherished. An environment where they could learn and feel respected.

In 2005, the center moved to a much larger building in the neighborhood of Hay Nahda, Rabat. It is so much more than just a learning institution. The center is a shining light of empathy and tolerance. It is a place where grins are infectious and the validation of learning a trade is taken very seriously.

Association Hadaf runs on donations. It is a well-oiled machine, thanks to the dedication of Amina and her board of trustees. She is the foundation, so to speak, of the structure, but humbly, she would tell you that the students are the ones who make it function. It’s true. And the staff, specially-trained and certified, aren’t just employees. They care for but they care about these young people. This is clear as soon as you walk through the doors. There is a vibrance and cheer to the air; it is obvious that everyone wants to be there. It is a mission for everyone.

The students, who come from home between 8 am and 5 pm, are admitted to the center from age 16.5 years until the age of 24 years old. There is a rigorous application process because places are limited. Realistically, Amina tells me that they have students who are even 40 years old. Because where else would they go? Once they come to the center, they aren’t going to leave. And the association certainly would never kick them out. Maybe a handful can go out and get a job with their training in a bakery or a garden (with supervision), but most of them, 95 total, will stay. They are home.

The center teaches them formal training of cooking, gardening, sewing + embroidery, baking, woodworking, jewelry-making, and other trades. There is even a flourishing garden where students tend to fresh herbs and vegetables for the restaurant kitchen. And these kids are focused. When I observed their workshops, there wasn’t a peep in the room. Dedicated teachers meticulously train their students step-by-step, minute-by-minute, for hours on end. The results are impressive. Association Hadaf has a fully-functional, high-end restaurant where one can go for a lovely lunch. The setting is quaint and the food is delicious. The center also has a boutique where the student’s wares are sold. Fundraising exhibitions are also occasionally held, as the center constantly needs financial support.

Association Hadaf (3)

Amina pauses when I ask her what her biggest challenges are.  She is thoughtful. “Respect outside of the center,” she says. She goes on to explain, “These young people yearn for acceptance in normal everyday life. Walking outside, going to the store, being with others. They want to be just like you. That’s our biggest hurdle. Showing the rest of the world that they deserve the same rights, just as everyone does.”

In the broad smiles of these students, you will find happiness. It radiates from them. Their beaming expressions are infectious. And those who visit the center find that in leaving, they too, want the right of respect and compassion for these young individuals. Ideally, the hope of Thanksgiving is alive and well here in Morocco. Appearances and judgments are left behind and tolerance and compassion are what remains. And gorgeous smiles from ear to ear.

This is why is Thanksgiving is so close to our hearts. There is no religion on Thanksgiving Day. There is no class or economic status. There is no rank or importance or hierarchy. Every American celebrates Thanksgiving. Any global citizen can enjoy Thanksgiving as well. It’s a moment for people to take a step back and to be grateful for everything; even the little things. It’s also a time for sharing kindness and humanity with those who need it most.

 

By Tara Fraiture, Mushmina guest blogger

BioPicMushmina

Tara Fraiture, a dual British-American, had great intentions of being a professional Belgian fries taste tester in her young adulthood. When these dreams were tragically dashed (an unfortunate mayonnaise injury), she resorted to her second talent and passion of freelance writing. A former French and Spanish teacher, Tara keeps herself busy by talking to herself and dancing around the house (awesomely, I might add), when she isn’t writing or chasing kids.  She recently considered opening a Mexican take-out food truck, but she kept eating all of the guacamole + chips. Business would have been a bust. Tara recently moved to beautiful Rabat, Morocco, with her three daughters, husband, and orange cat. Caramel, aka Mr. Fuzz, doesn’t care for his resemblance to our 45th president. He is considering changing his hair color. As you might have guessed, humor is part of Tara’s mantra; in life and in her writing. As she puts it, “Writing is cheaper than therapy.” A wee bit of laughter and a touch of poignancy. The Fraiture’s have lived all over the world and liken themselves to global nomads-calling Egypt, Senegal, El Salvador and Qatar their home. Tara enjoys writing most about stories with heart, people who change the world, and women who implement change. She can’t wait to begin her Moroccan adventure with Mushmina.

 

*any content below this is not related to Mushmina

On a scorching hot, dusty day in 2004, in the rural town of Boujad in Central Morocco, former Peace Corps Volunteer and Mushmina co-founder Heather O’Neill had a life-changing, eureka moment. She witnessed a group of female weavers, seated in a circle, waiting patiently for their carefully hand-crafted rugs to be sold by an unknown middleman.

Heather recalls, “I just knew there had to be something better for women in this position. These incredibly talented artisans put their whole lives into these gorgeous rugs, day in and day out, and they were gaining so little in return. The men buying the rugs to, in turn, sell them at another souk (market), were the ones making the real profit. I realized then that I could make a huge difference. I always knew that I would gravitate towards development and helping others. But I then recognized that it would become a lifelong mission and much more than a job. I had an obligation. It became my calling.”

 

Many years before, as close sisters in suburban New Jersey, Heather and her younger sister Katie knew they were destined to have their own custom fashion and accessories business together. Katie would eventually become the creative and artistic designer of Mushmina; specializing in her trademark mastery of African hand-crafted accessories. Katie’s expertise in distinctive metal-smithing and textiles places her in a unique field in which women are not typically found. Heather would be the connecting force behind this inspiring business with her knowledge of business and materials sourcing and her interest in working in developing nations. The two sisters; yin and yang, best friends, and now business partners and creative collaborators were fated for Mushmina.

Heather and Katie’s mindful plan was slowly coming together. Heather had successfully completed two years as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Morocco teaching small business skills to local women. Katie was a flourishing designer in New York City. Fast-forward a few more years to 2009, the sisters returned to Morocco with a business plan in their backpacks. Heather has remained in Morocco ever since. Katie continues to live in the US, but threatens (lovingly) to move to Morocco as well. After all, they are a team.

This month, in honor of Small Business Saturday, which always held on the Saturday after American Thanksgiving, the sisters have chosen to tell the story of a particularly inspirational Moroccan female small business owner.  Zohra’s story below is one of perseverance, determination and plenty of heart. Read on….

 

Zohra Mellouk, native Moroccan and founder of Souss Saffron, a USDA-certified organic co-op that cultivates “natural products of the Moroccan earth”-saffron, argan oil, and prickly pear seed oil, (as well as many other chemical-free products) has a similar story of dedication and epiphany when it comes to realizing her lifelong ambition of helping women in need.

Souss Saffron’s name comes from the rugged, agrarian Souss region in mid-Southern Morocco, just below the High Atlas Mountains.

Zohra grew up in Casablanca, the largest city in Morocco; she was one of eight children and had everything could possibly need as a young girl. However, her father’s story always inspired Zohra-he had come to Casablanca as a 15-year-old youth, traveling 700 km on foot from his tiny, Berber village in the Sirwa Mountains of southern Morocco. He had nothing but the clothes on his back and the wish of making a better life for himself. And that he did.

Zohra never forgot this. As a child, visiting her father’s family in Tinfat, a village so small that it inevitably blends into other miniscule hamlets in these rural mountains; the nearest large town being 180 km away in Touradant, Zohra said she witnessed “suffering on a huge scale due to unemployment and lack of schooling. But it was the women-the girls, mothers, and grandmothers who always touched me the most. I wanted to do something to give back to them. Because they were the cords that held our community together.”

Later on in life and ironically, after her retirement from a successful career in business, Zohra finally intended to bring her dream to fruition. She briefly thought of opening a guesthouse, but then, a genius idea practically dropped into her lap. Why not use what was already there, already part of the land, embedded in the people, distinctive in their livelihood? And even better, why not work with the women from her parental village? Those who needed employment, education and empowerment the most?

At first, Zohra approached a (male) cousin who immediately belittled her idea. Employ women? Of course not, he told her. Zohra then had a lightening bolt moment. She quickly realized, “We have everything already here that is essential for producing these gifts of the earth; we just need the work force. Women in this region already know how to cultivate these natural products; they have been practically doing it since they were walking, as well as caring for entire households. All they need is a little training in Western regulations. The rhythm is already there. The work ethic was put in place many years before. The experience is there now. We just need to put it into motion.”

Starting with just twelve women in 2011, Zohra now heads over 160 experienced female cultivators today in her successful co-op. The women work at home in the mornings and with Souss Saffron in the afternoons. During the height of saffron cultivation, (October-November), every able-bodied person works and reaps the benefits of the busy season. “What’s not important is the paperwork, what is necessary is that everyone has a job. A purpose. Our youngest female member is 18 and our oldest is (she thinks) 90. Everyone joins in.”

And her biggest challenge? Zohra feels personally responsible for changing as many girls’ lives as possible through education. “I feel a desperate need to send the girls of this co-op to school. The level of poverty and misery in rural villages is astounding. To keep young girls in school through their secondary education and possibly even on afterwards is my ultimate goal. At the moment, we have ten girls at a boarding school in Taroudant. This is huge accomplishment for our small cooperative. There is nothing for them in the villages unless they have been to school. More and more, their families, and even the girl’s fathers, are realizing this.”

Zohra still spends her rare moments of free time, pondering how to create more revenue; the goal being to ultimately employ additional women and send more of their young daughters to school. These thoughts keep her up at night. It’s not for her that she does this. In fact, she is incredibly humble when she talks about her business. She talks about it for the women that she is helping; not for herself. She talks about the future for the women she is supporting, not for herself.

This is what small business owners do; and particularly ones whose missions are linked to free trade and sustainability-they spend their whole lives envisioning and carrying out their dreams-they live, sleep, and breathe this hope. They don’t actually dream for themselves but for others who are less fortunate. Heather and Katie had a goal of helping women and men by empowering and leading talented groups of artisans throughout Morocco. As much as it’s a job for them and a source of income for these two sisters, it’s so much more-it’s a devotion, a duty, and a necessity. Zohra had this same relentless fire within her-to encourage Moroccan women to be independent using the resources that they know best-their land, their earth, their hands.

There is a well-known Moroccan expression, in the local language of Darija, that translates to “Drop by drop, we fill the river” (Nqta b nqta kay hml l’oued). Perhaps for Katie and Heather, this could be measured in the thick fibers of a vibrant Moroccan rug, lovingly woven by master weavers whom the Mushmina sisters have meticulously employed and empowered. And maybe for Zohra, this can be determined by delicate twines of vivid orange-yellow saffron, tenderly cultivated by her co-op of tenacious women in Zohra’s ancestral village.

-By Tara Fraiture, Mushmina guest blogger

BioPicMushmina

 

*Any ad content below is not related to Mushmina.

The ladies of the Tamgounssi weaving center at The Eve Branson Foundation had their own Halloween fun playing dress-up this afternoon …armed with a whole bag of Mushmina fabrics from the south of Morocco!

Most of these talented Moroccan artisans are berbers of the Amazigh tribe so they are not accustomed to wearing  ‘shbka’ fabrics, ….8 meters (26 feet!) of hand dyed cottons traditionally worn by the women of the Sahara. Rich hues in blues, fuchsia, oranges, greens, and teal. Which color calls you?

Stay tuned for our before and after pics. The ladies are planning to make hand embroidered ‘Rhonda’ Moroccan tunics as part of Mushmina’s 2018 collection.

Wishing you a Happy Halloween from Morocco!

Yesterday marked half way through the spiritual month of Ramadan. 1.7 billion people in the world are fasting from sunrise to sundown. A colleague recently wrote on the topic, “Ramadan is really about the fast of your soul and mind, not only of the body. Be a better person and reconnect with the spiritual life to achieve better versions of ourselves.” Myriam Alami

I am not fasting this year, but I can appreciate the spiritual reflection that this month brings. It is a quieting, a time to turn inward, give thanks of all life’s bounty, and spend time with family. At sundown tables are covered in dates, fresh fruit and juices, tea, and a feast of life’s sweetness.

While I am not religious, I have always been a spiritual seeker. You might conclude, perhaps we are in this world to experience contrasts -with life’s sweetness, there is also sadness.

In light of the recent events in London and around the world I can say with all my heart that there is nothing religious or Islamic about the actions of extremists and groups of people who thrive on violence and fear. These actions do not represent anything that I have come to know about Muslim people.

Having spent more then a decade living and working in a country and culture far from my own, I can say that I am humbled daily. I have learned about spirit, serving others, and surrender. Moroccan people have taken me in and become my second family. They have taught me how to see the world through a different lens and for their sweetness I am forever grateful.

Hope you are having a beautiful Sunday.

With love and peace,

Heather O’Neill

Co-founder

Mushmina, mindful fashion and home

 

*Any advertising content below this post is not related to Mushmina.
%d bloggers like this: