June 21, 2008 Posted by Tahir in Travel


It all begins with a square tile, glazed terracotta ten centimetres square, the colour of ochre. Add to this a decade of apprenticeship, a pair of hands so steady they could match those of any surgeon, a cushion of pressed felt, and a hammer with an ultra sharp edge. If you have all these things, you have what it takes to create the finest zelij mosaics in the world.

When I first moved to Morocco I thought the West had some pretty amazing tools. I used to traipse up and down the aisles in the hardware stores gawking, checking the spec of the electric drills and the angle grinders. Once in a while I’d buy one, plug it into the mains, and blow myself away with the power ready and waiting for me to abuse it.

Like everyone else who lives in the West, I became brainwashed by the system. But then, move away, decompress, and you come to understand very quickly that the names we give things, and the nonsense we consider to be important, is quite meaningless.

In the Occidental world we get all caught up with what we perceive to be power. All we talk about is how many horsepower or megawatts, or gigabytes, or amperes we have on tap. And what we forget is that the power’s not important… but what is, is the skill of hands in which the power is placed.

When we moved here to Dar Khalifa, the renovations were ongoing. They went on and on and on. And in that time I had the opportunity to observe another system at work, a system that has been honed through a thousand years and more. It’s a system that is based on transmission alone, and the idea that if you spend enough time with someone who has the knowledge, then you will learn and, ultimately, you’ll gain knowledge too.

But of course the important thing is to be in the right frame of mind from the start, or be ready to enter the right frame of mind as you progress. If you’re not ready to learn, you’ll stay ignorant. And that’s a big point. Because in the West we like to imagine that everyone is a blank sheet, ready to learn, something that’s not right at all. An athlete getting ready for a race limbers up, prepares. Only then does he put his mind to the exercise at hand.

We had several teams of craftsmen working on the house. The one which impressed me greatest with their chain of transmission were the zeligiers, the mosaic workers. There was an entire range of them, and how extremely remarkable it was. At the bottom of the ladder were a group of boys. They were about fifteen years old, fluff on their cheeks, a glint of expectation in their eyes. All they did was to move sand, cement and carry the precious tiles.

After years of struggling under the burden of the raw materials, they were permitted to sort the tiles themselves, to wash them, soak them in troughs, and to caress their hands over what would become their livelihood.

More years, and they would be taught to mark out a shape, the same shape, over and over on a ten by ten square of terracotta. There was no question of making a mistake, because given time the hand and the eye perfected the skill… a skill that would enable them to cut the mosaic pieces in hundreds of different shapes without error. And that’s how humans learn: through repetition.

Trawl the wide aisles of Home Depot of B&Q, buy into the brainwashing system, and you quickly imagine that you can do anything with a set of tools, each one with a power cord fifteen feet long. It looks so easy on the packet, or on the in-store TV display. And the mistake we are making is by assuming that technology is a substitute for skill, which is certainly is not.

During the renovations at Dar Khalifa, a man in his forties sat straight-backed on a cushion in what is now the main salon. Beside his left knee was always a glass of piping hot mint tea, and in his right hand was a hammer. All day, every day, he would chip away, cutting mosaics from ochre-red tiles. To watch him was to slip into another world, a world which surely at once existed (and probably not so long ago) in the Occident.

One morning he smiled as I watched, transfixed by the tap, tap, tapping, by the raw skill focussed on the job at hand. He whispered something. I leant forward, and he said it again.

‘To cut one piece it takes a minute,’ he said, ‘one minute and twenty years.’








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