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Excursion: The Blue City of Morocco

Guest Blogger: Ruchi Tekriwal

Nested in the heart of the Rif mountains lies a tiny gem of a city called Chefchaouen. The population of the city is smaller than the student body at the University of Illinois! Despite its small size, this city is famous for its cobblestone medina, its split pea soup, but most of all, it is known as the blue city of Morocco. All the buildings in the old town, or medina, are whitewashed and decorated with bright blue accents. Doors grommeted with brass studs line the narrow alleyways. Instead of the usual French, shopkeepers approach in Spanish, selling their crafts to whoever walks by. Many call it the most beautiful town in Morocco. I had a chance to visit this charming city on a group excursion with other students from my program.

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Chefchaouen is also well known for its handicrafts and artisanal workshops that sell goods not available anywhere else in Morocco. Woolen blankets, beaded tapestries, hand-woven carpets, and painted ceramic ware are visible at every turn in the winding medina. However, I was able to experience these shops in an entirely new way. The director of our program had arranged workshops with craftsmen in the city so that we could work with them in their studios to see how they made their goods. We could choose between painting, carpet weaving, brass work, and leather craft. Along with one other student, I chose to work with brass because I knew next to nothing about this art. I entered the tiny shop that was filled with plates, sculptures, and jewelry. There were small tea sets and large hands of Fatima, a symbol representing blessings and protection against the evil eye. The shopkeeper and his son greeted us both, and quickly started instructing us on making a brass medallion. I sat on a small stool and awkwardly balanced my circular piece of brass on the tiny work surface. With a hammer and a pick, the shopkeeper showed me how to make a border around the edge of the medallion. His lines were smooth, curving perfectly with the metal and mine were crooked, disconnected, and uneven.

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Using different chisels and picks, I made a border and a design on my medallion, ending by clumsily engraving “Morocco” and “Chefchaouen” on the medallion in Arabic. This small feat took me about an hour and a half to complete. Other students from my program had laced bracelets out of leather, made paintings of the city, and woven a brightly patterned rug. It was amazing to see how these artisans made their products and how much work went into each piece! This experience also made me realize the uniqueness and effort behind every handcrafted item.

I treasure this memory from Morocco because it is so different from anything else I did, or even from what most students get to do. I was able to be a part of this city by working with shopkeepers and participating in the craftwork it is known for. How many other people can say they have worked in an artisan’s workshop, engraving and polishing brass?

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