With its diverse cultural influences, Figuig is a must-visit destination for those who love traditional craftsmanship.
Rabat – Morocco is known as a haven for traditional arts and crafts, easily accessible at the traditional souks. The variety of colors and items stem from the melting pot that is Moroccan society.
From Jewish, Arab, and Amazigh cultures came arts and crafts which blended together creating the unique Moroccan styles.
Although some crafts may be comparable to those of other North African and Middle Eastern countries or trace back to sub-Saharan countries, their uniqueness remains in the way they are made and sold.
This is on full display in Figuig, an oasis town in eastern Morocco with a population of 10,872. Located at the meeting point of the High Plateaus and the northwest edge of the Sahara in the Oriental region, the town is 370 km southeast of Oujda. It may be a bit off the beaten path, but its rich history and flourishing crafts scene can captivate any visitor.
Algerian borders surround the oasis on three sides. During the French conquest of Algeria in 1847, Figuig was declared a town under Moroccan sovereignty by decree of the Lalla Marnia convention. But the Awled Sidi Cheikh tribe, fighting against the French starting in 1864, made Figuig an unstable region.
In 1903, French forces conquered Figuig as part of their colonial conquests. This led to a severe military response with artillery fire on the Zenaga ksar. The people gave in to French authorities’ demands, paid heavy compensation, and handed over the perpetrators of the attack.
Figuig’s population today is a mix of Berber (Amazigh) and Arabs, and today’s visitors know the oasis for its seven ancient Ksour, citadels or castles, that separated tribes in the past.
The seven Ksour are: Ksar of El-Hammam-el-Foukani, Ksar Zenaga, Ksar Loudaghir, Ksar Laabidate, Ksar Oulad Slimane, Ksar Hamam Tahtani, Ksar Hamam Foukani, Ksar El Maiz.
Figuig’s evolving arts and crafts economy
In this first article of our series on Figuig, we would like to introduce our readers to the town’s beautiful arts and crafts and their value to the community.
As is the case for many regions around Morocco, Figuig’s arts and crafts cooperatives have grown steadily over the past few years. This comes as little surprise, given Figuig’s artistic potential.
The region’s rich artistic culture is a combination of North African know-how, nomadic craftsmanship, and Sub-Saharan traditions transmitted through trade. This diversity has served as a basis for the styles and patterns that emerged in the region.
Chief among the crafts that this combination created are perhaps specific styles of rugs and carpets, a common cultural and traditional creation for artisans in the east of Morocco and other North African countries.
The picture above depicts a rug that was made from recycled fabrics: Jellabas (Moroccan caftans), rugs, and clothes. This has been the new trend for different cooperatives. Not only is it eco-friendly and cheaper to make, recycling fabrics to make new rugs has become trendy and matches newer values of sustainable fabric production. The rugs are beautiful, eco-friendly, and importantly, affordable.
In other parts of Morocco, I have seen similar rugs also made of recycled fabrics. Nonetheless, those in Figuig are made to perfection. “Recycled rugs” could be the town’s new brand of artisanal rugs.
I had the chance to visit a nomadic tent near Ain Beni Mathar, 288 km from Figuig, to look at some authentic pastoral crafts. Typically, women are the main producers and use them as household items.
The most commonly used items are the tbeq (dish for bread) and the keskas (steamer basket), both made of the now endangered plant called halfa. The most colorful and decorated ones are usually a mix of halfa and other materials, often plastic.
The women in the tent told me these items last them three to four years before they have to make new ones. Women are usually also the ones making the tents themselves. They use goat hair and wool to craft them. Goat hair, when in contact with water, expands. This makes it stop the rain from coming in.
Tourists, whether Moroccan or foreign, are the main clients that purchase these goods. From plates to kitchen utensils, these items offer a decorative charm. However, the few local people of Figuig also use some items for practical reasons.
Although the market place might be flooded with plastic kitchen items imported from China, some staples cannot be substituted: People are not only used to them but there is an increasing awareness of the harm plastic brings and the benefits of a sustainable and eco-friendly alternative.
In 2010, the Moroccan Ministry of Agriculture launched its first research project for the development of local products in different regions. In order to promote their development, the Agency for Agricultural Development (ADA) created platforms for local producers. This initiative consisted of organizing workshops to encourage local producers to work together, as well as helping them develop their marketing strategies and production systems.
The main goals of this program were to raise awareness about the importance of these products and their value, as well as to introduce sustainable ways of production to protect and improve the ecological system.
Maroc Taswiq, for example, is a governmental initiative that provides local producers and cooperatives with a local facility to sell their goods and helps them promote their items nationally and internationally.
Because of its distance from airports, very few people visit Figuig. This in itself is a major loss not only for the oasis, not only for the country, but also for the tourists who miss the chance to experience this hidden gem. The oasis is extremely beautiful and its people are of tremendous generosity. It is truly a place worth visiting.