Crafting Margins from the End of the World
The branding of a Moroccan cultural heritage
Ismail Tazi, a young French-Moroccan entrepreneur, shifts a large, orange duffle bag from the corner chair to an open space on my desk. It’s a cool afternoon in February as we conduct a live interview for this article at the TIAA offices in North Scottsdale, AZ. Tazi is impeccably and fashionably dressed. The three-piece ensemble with polished loafers may echo his background in investment banking (specifically energy and infrastructure project financing) in Washington D.C., London and Paris; but the on-trend colors and tortoiseshell eyewear reveal an artistic and entrepreneurial temperament with strong ties to the vibrant cultures of western Africa where he grew up.
Abby DeLaney, '12, Ismail Tazi and friend enjoy the outdoors Moroccan-rug style in Boston.
Introduced to TIAA by Bob Girvin, ’13 and TIAA Premier member, Tazi came to campus through a Thunderbird exchange program with the French Grande Ecole (EM Lyon Business School) to complete a certificate of advanced global studies in 2011. That’s when he met Bob, and then Abby DeLaney, ’12. But it wasn't until 2016 the trio formed a venture they call Oum Rugs (Oum is Arabic for “mother”). While Bob’s path has since led him elsewhere, Abby and Ismail celebrate a year of Oum Rugs this March. Tazi has detoured to the TIAA office en route to exhibit his Moroccan rugs at New York Now.
Tazi uses graceful gestures to help communicate his thoughts, which he expresses in a buoyant mix of English and French. These gestures become more decisive as we progress from talking of his Vintage (found) and Bespoke product lines to understanding his goal of running "a profitable company that does good – both to its customers and to the community as a whole.” This is the moment he unzips the orange duffle – and uncorks a luxurious masterpiece from a region once called the end of the world. It widens my eyes and lures my hands as my list of questions slips to the floor.
Globalizing a remote culture
Tazi explains that I’m looking at a 100% handmade Moroccan Berber wool carpet. Long and wide enough to cover most of my large office desk, its creamy 100% sheep-wool color is segmented by a blue, mid-century line pattern that would – and has – earned awards. Tazi handles it with such care as to inspire respect. He explains, “When you go to Elle Décor, Architectural Digest, Vogue, Vanity Fair – it’s a lot about Moroccan rugs right now.” (Right: Oum Rugs featured in a 2017 issue of Vogue)
Authentic Berber rugs first gained prestige outside of the Kingdom of Morocco decorating European and Near Eastern palaces. Later, in the 1920s and 30s, classical architects such as Le Corbusier, Alvar Aalto or Marcel Breuer drove appreciation of this ancient craft by integrating Moroccan rugs into their interiors and promoting them in important presentations and their western interiors shops. For a few decades, “artwork for your floor” was vogue. Then people moved on. It wasn’t until the 1990’s when these bold and spontaneous designs resurged in popularity to recreate a market with high demand that persists today.
The surface of the stunner I’m holding is surprisingly silky. The underside is tight and clean, and its weight is as heavy as you’d expect it to be, given that its original purpose was to keep its nomadic designers cozy in extreme weather conditions. When I comment brilliantly that, “wow, this must feel amazing under bare feet”, Tazi nods and chuckles as he replies, “Dogs love these rugs!”
I’m told this one emerged from a region deep within Morocco’s Middle Atlas Mountains. It likely began in the mind of an Amazigh woman (The name Berbers call themselves, meaning “free people”). Men do weave, but Berber weaving is generally passed down matrilineally. The craft itself reflects an indigenous heritage reaching back to 10,000 B.C. Today, the designs blend multiple influences: Berber indomitability, Arab tradition, Spanish accents, spiritual nuances (Baraka) and more recently, French colonialism. About a year in the making, each rug tells its weaver’s own story of hopes and dreams held close while defying harsh elements within a tightly-knit, relatively isolated and highly interdependent community.
Rolled securely, this rug may have lumbered along pistes, unsealed tracks or roads between remote Berber villages passable only by foot, mule or local bus. Tazi does not tell me where he found the beauty we’re handling – though he travels “hundreds of miles” regularly through these remote regions. He recalls, “I’ve lived there…stayed in the villages, met the people…” to source these works of artistic and cultural significance directly from the weavers.
(L) Remote Amazigh (Berber) Village, Middle Atlas Mountains. (C) Mid-century vintage 100% Moroccan Wool Rug (R) Amazigh weavers at their loom.
The specifics may vary, but I have no reason to doubt the backstory. Tazi’s family has planted generations of roots in Fes, the oldest of Morocco’s imperial cities. His passion for his country and his work is utterly genuine. His Thunderbird connections further validate his credentials.
The elephant in the room, of course is that I personally have no way of proving the rug’s authenticity. My knowledge of this craft will never equal Tazi’s. Whether perusing a Moroccan souk or visiting a rug store in an upscale western mall, why should I care if a given carpet is "the real thing"?
From commodity to “cultural I.P.”
Such is the challenge for authentic handicrafts like Moroccan rugs. Across the world, modernization and globalization have pushed such ancient designs, products and practices to the margins. Why? Because the word “handicrafts” too often evokes cheap, mass-produced, third-world tourist trap trinkets that spill from marine shipping containers.
High entry in handicrafts results when unsatisfied demand is coupled with low-level technology that is easily duplicated, and with original designs that are easily copied. “A lot of rugs…are Moroccan-inspired made in India,” Tazi laments, “which breaks my heart.”
Though forgeries abound, demand for authenticity is increasing. The production of artifacts and services illustrating how a particular human group, such as the Berbers, has met its needs and shaped its life has been called material cultural heritage. Armani fashion, Leonardo’s paintings, French wine, Chinese silk – and Moroccan rugs – are vital examples of such “cultural intellectual property.” They are products whose quality depends as much upon the stories of its makers as it does upon their skills.
The more buyers learn about the stories behind the weavers, the more they appreciate the unique character of an individual design. This is Oum Rug’s strategy: branding at its most personal.
“Not mere rugs.” -DeLaney
In developing countries, the production of material culture-based goods offers a basis for GDP growth. Authentic Berber carpets are one such driver for Morocco. What is often lacking, however, is an incentive system that drives more efficient ways for all stakeholders to invest, trade, communicate about and market quality handicraft products.
Institutions and good governance are needed. With their high export demand, the handicraft of Moroccan rug making has caught the attention of the monarchy. Quality and quantity are keys to sustainability, making the viability of the handicrafts sector a Kingdom-wide issue.
DeLaney confirms, “The country of Morocco is unique in that its leadership has invested in these [handicraft] communities…not only to preserve Berber weaving, but [to] provide improved working conditions.” Good thing, too: as of December 2017, Moroccan handicrafts, including rugs, represent 7% of Morocco’s GDP; the sector employs 2.5 million people and exported more than 622m durhams (US $169.3M) in handicrafts. (Left: Ismail Tazi exhibiting at New York Now 2018).
The Kingdom of Morocco dedicates a minister to the sector who has promised to establish permanent handicrafts fairs in airports and train stations, and to launch educational centers to assist these artists. While 80% of Morocco’s craft production is marketed internally, more export incentives are in development.
Weaving a future for Morocco
When globalization drives the race for the lowest production cost, authentic producers suffer. For Tazi and DeLaney, Berber weavers have been collateral damage in that race for too long. “Currently [Berber] women weave by obligation and not by choice” says Tazi. DeLaney adds, “Moroccan weavers are not in much of a position to evolve of [sic] their own with the economic impacts of globalization.” These can include anything from the prohibition of child labor diluting the cultural practice of apprenticeship, to the exodus of young people seeking modern educations and careers worlds away from Middle Atlas plateaus.
Even with iOS keyboards available in the widespread Berber dialect of Tamazight as of 2015, many Berber women remain illiterate and uneducated. Tazi elaborates, “[Berber weavers] have been doing the same thing for generations. They have been using the same designs and [the] same materials, there’s no innovation. Because they have no education to know how to do that.”
“Give them a job based on their skills and they do beautiful things.” Tazi emphasizes. “It just needs innovation and investment in order for them to be marketable in developed countries.”
Like the Moroccan King, Oum Rugs recognizes the paradox in the modern, urban value of these ancient, remote traditions. But the artisans themselves must manage quality and quantity if the sector is to remain viable. Tazi is so passionate about the people producing this art that Oum Rugs reinvests profits into rural education for Berber women and girls. (Right: Weavers in the Middle Atlas region, screen-grab from oumrugs.com)
“I grew up in a family where education is very, very important.” Tazi’s mother recently retired from a career as a math teacher. His grandfather served a one-time president of the University in Fez. His great-uncle held the title of general inspector of education in eastern Morocco after the Protectorate, and another close relative works as a history professor. It's no wonder then, when I hear Tazi say, “When we started [Oum Rugs], we knew we wanted to have some sort of impact from an educational perspective.”
In Morocco, elementary school is compulsory, but secondary school is not a guarantee. “The reality is that in rural areas, it’s tough to access,” Tazi says, explaining the need for children to contribute to the family business rather than travel the long, unpaved distances to the nearest secondary schools. Also, families have tremendous concerns around safety and security for their daughters so far away. Oum Rugs therefore donates a portion of its revenues to Education for All Morocco (EFA) a Moroccan NGO which houses and feeds rural Amazigh girls while educating them - at zero expense to their families.
Oum Rugs gives to EFA based on what it sells. Tazi smiles gratefully as he tells me, “I make a wire every quarter, and it’s always more than what we’ve agreed.”
Sustaining and growing a culture
“For me,” Tazi adds, “it’s about the economic opportunity. I think that if the parents work and have a household income that is sufficient…” they can allow their children to remain in school. “The more advanced education they get, the better it will be for them personally, and for their families, and then for the whole community.”
“Oum [Rugs] is in a special position to sustain the weaving of authentic Berber rugs and have a positive impact on those communities.” DeLaney agrees. “We generously compensate weavers for what we consider to be works of art, not merely rugs.” For each young Berber woman who then works and earns, it positively impacts her their status within the family and in the community.
DeLaney sums up Oum Rugs’ mission: “Supplying [Amazigh weavers] with more income provides an incentive for the continued production of high quality authentic pieces…[it] is the right thing to do for humanity.”
Oum’s vision: An authentic Moroccan Rug on your floor, and the weaver’s story in your heart.
 Friel, Martha and Santagata, Walter. “Making Material Cultural Heritage Work: From Traditional Handicrafts to Soft Industrial Design.” Cultures & Globalization: The Cultural Economy, Chapter 24. © 2007.