MIRROR: Extracts from my journey
I’m going to talk about my work. ’MIRROR’ and in particular focus on some of the ideas, images and experiences behind the Moroccan part of this story.
My projects are always slow to develop: they usually take a good 3 or 4 years.
And when a project is finally finished, invariably I feel a need to take off on an adventure that importantly is quite opposite to the project I’ve been working on.
So, after years of working on ‘Belonging’. I decided to take off on my own for a few months and explore S. Morocco.
I loved what I found here, the colours, the textures, the dramatic landscapes, the huge presence of history and culture, the open friendliness of the people, the rich diversity of Moslem culture….
At this time in Australia, there was much political poisoning of attitudes towards foreigners and foreignness. But travelling alone in remote Morocco, a woman ‘stranger’ myself, I was met with much friendliness and generosity from ‘strangers’ The idea for my next project was right there and ideas for a story naturally started to grow.
So I began to plan a second trip, to linger for a longer while in the valleys and Berber villages of the foothills of the lower Atlas Mtns and learn more of the way of life here … and to evolve the story for the project that became ‘Mirror’.
The Berbers are the indigenous people of NW Africa. Traces of Berber culture can be dated to between 2000 and 3000 BC.
Berbers live throughout the mountains and rural communities of Algeria, Tunisia and Morocco. Their language is related to Ancient Egyptian. They do not have a written language (Arabic is taught in schools)
Geography and geology have fractured the Berber language into at least five mutually incomprehensible dialects. But their visual language of symbols endures, or has until now and can be seen in their weaving.
When Islam arrived with the armies of Arabia in the 7th century, the Berbers became Muslims and remain so today. But they still retain many pre-Islamic customs, such as reverence for saints, whose shrines dot the countryside. Belief in the evil eye and the power of magic, also endure side by side with Islamic teachings.
With growing Arabisation, Berbers mostly abandoned their coastal settlements and retreated to N Africa’s inhospitable mountains and deserts. Many Berber farmers were forced to leave their traditional homelands and become nomads, drifting from oasis to oasis on the fringe of the desert, or from high plains to valleys with the cycle of harsh winters. The Berbers have been forced by history to inhabit the barely habitable.
Unlike many other Muslims, Berbers haven’t traditionally required women to veil their faces. On the contrary, makeup and tattoos are elaborate and often meant to carry a message to the outside world about a woman’s status, tribal affiliation and availability. Recently, some Berber women have adopted the veil, but most remain comfortable with the gaze of the outside world.
Contacts I made on my first trip to Morocco arranged a family home stay, allowing me to spend some weeks with a Berber family, living in an area of particular interest to me. And so I came to meet the Bouras Family, a Berber family, who welcomed me into their home as part of their family.
Mohamed Bouras, the youngest son, speaks fluent English, which he was keen to practise. Luckily he had time on his hands and was happy to take me to stay with several family relatives living in some of the remote traditional villages in the Ziz Valley He was so good and quick an interpreter, I would have conversations and ask questions of Berber villagers and become totally engrossed in the conversation, forgetting he was the intermediary
And in this way, I was given the opportunity to experience, observe and ask questions about the everyday life of the Berber people.
Two or three days a week, the Berber women must gather wood or grass for cooking fuel and heat. Few Berbers are wealthy enough to afford a mule for such work.
Notes from my Moroccan diary
25th February 2005 (Friday, Idlerson village)
Some of the village women mentioned they would be away the following day collecting wood. I mentioned I’d be interested to join them. And soon we had arranged to meet at 3am the next morning, though I would need to find a mule to ride on.
I’d expected to be going alone with the women, but Mohamed Bouras (who was acting as my interpreter) had assumed he’d be joining me. Hammou helped us arrange to rent a mule from another villager
We went to bed early (about 9pm) Fadma, Hammou and the children (relatives of Mohamed) slept in another room to lessen the chances of our being woken in the night. Fadma and Hammou put themselves out so much for us.
26th February (Saturday)
It was like a dream… We were woken at about 3am by one of the girls shouting to us from outside Fadma’s window. We jumped up and into our clothes. Hammou led us to our mule and we joined the girls who were waiting on their donkeys … Hada, Abbe, Rhadija and Soumia. First I climbed a large rock, a good vantage point from which to fling myself up and across the mule’s back. We dumped our bags inside the large baskets straddled either side of the mule. Mohamed sat in front. It was almost full moon. We were both still half asleep and with the motion of the mule pushing us onward and sitting motionless astride its back, it felt as though we were being propelled through a dream. It was bitterly cold, though I was wearing three thick jumpers, a long sleeve thermal top, Fadma’s dress (a bright pink dressing gown which I later found out was her most cherished dress) and my goretex. I’d been unable to find my gloves in our haste to leave and my hands quickly froze. Mohammed let me put them in his pockets. I was rapidly losing my body heat through my legs (I only wore a thin pair of trousers) Mohammed put my feet into the mule bags and stuffed a blanket around them; I felt much better. The girls were very cheerful, joking and singing. We rode for perhaps three hours. At about 6am just as dawn was starting, we stopped, tethered our mules or donkeys and the girls had soon made a blazing grass fire. It was wonderfully warm. We shared the boiled eggs and bread Fadma had given us.
I had expected to be working alongside the girls but it was now obvious that was not what they expected at all. They each had a pickaxe with which to chop near the roots of bundles of grasses. There was no pickaxe for me or for Mohammed. I insisted on having a go. I grabbed hold of a clump of grass, ready to cut at it with the pickaxe but instantly gave a yelp. The grasses had thorns! The girls rolled around in laughter. I grabbed one of the girls hands and looked at it, her palms were as hard and tough as leather!
We left the girls chopping at the grasses and went mountain climbing and were soon surrounded by snow.
By the time we’d climbed down, the girls had cut and collected huge bundles of grasses. Mohammed rekindled the fire and soon we sat around it sharing food and drinking tea.
The girls packed their donkeys high with grass bundles and we made our way back to Idlerson village: (there hardly being a tree to be seen in all this distance) the girls walking this time though occasionally taking a ride on our mule.
We arrived back about 3pm: it had taken twelve hours of work for the girls to collect a supply of grasses for fuel.
Each year the labour gets harder as they need to travel further to find new suitable areas of grass.
I then went on to explore the region independently, travelling to a valley of mostly quite isolated villages, known locally as ‘the Valley of Roses’, through which the M’Goun River runs. The villages here are still very traditional. Once outside the main town of Kalaat M’Gouna, it’s a place where few tourists venture and a place rich with images and contrasts to western culture.
From my Moroccan diary
8th March (Tuesday, my first trip into the Valley of Roses)
… the transeet (local bus) journeys on and on through very desolate rocky desert country. Finally we climb a steep rocky mountain and at the top we can see the other side.
Before us is an amazing view. Two rivers have their confluence below, where there are bright emerald green terraces, luminous trees and crops (almonds and walnuts) and the pretty village of Boutaghrar. It is very traditional and many of the houses incorporate homes for animals … hens, sheep. cows and mules. This is the first place I have seen children dressed in traditional clothes. I go for a walk. People here are friendly: the women invite me to sit with them.
The traditional Berber mud brick buildings seem to ‘grow’ from the land itself. The most striking buildings are Kasbahs.
A kasbah was a mud brick fortified lordly residence often having four crenulated towers, one at each corner of the walls.
9th March (Wednesday)
Lassan (the only one in Boutaghrar who can speak a touch of English) agrees to be my guide for the day.
First we walk to the oldest part of the village, where there is a beautifully detailed Kasbah, though it is starting to crumble.
There is a stork’s nest on top of the highest point with a stork. We climb the stairs of the Kasbah. I’m assuming Lassan is just showing me the beautiful building …. but there are two women weavers living in one of the higher rooms, working at their looms. We have tea and they are happy for me to photograph them.
Where there was no water, it was desert. Here nomads could sometimes be found living in caves…
10th March (Thursday)
…We pass the country trekked the previous day and on to a series of caves, the home of a family of nomads. A woman is weaving in one. I am told she will sell her weaving in one of the local souks … her husband will take it to sell there.
And further on (closer to the Dades Valley) Lassan takes me to another series of caves, where an extended nomadic family are currently living, their hens and sheep are in another cave close by. The family is very welcoming,. We give them gifts of food and sit and drink tea with them. I ask to take photographs. The whole family is happy to oblige. Lassan mentioned this family also have a herd of camels.
12th March (Saturday, near Aldome)
… I take off along a thin path in the direction of the souk. It’s a lovely walk, crossing streams by stepping stones, passing a village. Maybe I walked 5-6 km before reaching the souk, by which time I could see paths in every direction, with other people and mules heading there too. There were no cars, only donkey parking
As I walk through this country, I wonder if this is the area in which I’ll set my story, and I’m thinking perhaps I’ll return before this trip ends!
I took a transeet back to Kalaat M’Gouna. After Boutaghrar, it took a different road and we passed some fascinating villages … Tabrhan, Hadida and Olar. It was this that decided me to stay and explore this area further, rather than travel further south: it has all the ingredients I am looking for!
I did much exploring of the Valley of Roses on foot but also bought a second hand bicycle
From my Moroccan diary
18th March (Friday)
I ride until I reach a high point overlooking two Kasbahs like two islands in a sea of green beside the river.
It’s the hottest day so far and its very hard work pedaling up and down the mountain road of tiny stones.(Now I understand why Youssef insisted I buy a puncture kit before leaving Kalaat M’Gouna) Many times my bicycle chain slips and I get very dirty. I can see blisters coming on my hands and wonder if I might get them on my bottom too!
I stop at the Hadida Cafe/gite and order lunch. I leave my bicycle there and head off on foot into the M’Goun Gorge. Its beautiful! I can’t stop taking photos. I’m joined by two young boys who show me the way, often using stepping stones or bridges of tree trunk to cross the main river and its various channels. We pass two villages of mud homes, the one on the left has a crumbling tower with a storks nest perched on top. We eventually reach the far village. Again beautiful with houses of mud. I decide to stay in Hadida the following day and explore the gorge more slowly and try to meet women weavers in the villages.
19th March (Saturday)
Rachid (who can also speak a little English) wrote some sentences phonetically in Berber for me, so I can ask the women in the villages if there are women weaving in their homes. They get very excited when they hear me speak Berber and understand what I say.
20th March (Saturday… a snippet from the journey to Agouti)
I continue alone. I get to the point where the path is blocked by a sheer wall of rock. Some women on the other side of the river are collecting grass. One of them wades across the river to me, when I sign to her I am headed for Agouti, she beckons I should remove my shoes and socks, she then takes my hand and steers me around the rock face. I reach a point along the river where there is an oasis, its here I’ve been told, to look for the path to Agouti. There is a house here and I notice a woman nearby. I shout out and sign to ask if I’m going the right way and she walks down to me and invites me to her home for tea.
I meet her husband (who is fascinated by my detailed map of the area, so I give him my spare one.) I’m pointed in the right direction and take off again. But the path isn’t easy to stay with … there are many goat tracks that look like paths too. I meet with some women carrying grass and ask again if I’m on the route to Agouti. They tell me no and take me back to where I went wrong.
They stay where I left them, sitting together, keeping an eye on me: and when I reach the top of the mountain, let out a great cheer.
25th April (Monday)
Visit the carpet Gallery in Kalaat M’Gouna (the small town at the entrance of the Valley of Roses) and speak with the Berber family who own it and live here. They are lovely and very patient with me, struggling to understand and answer my questions., though neither of us can speak the other’s language.
I came away with the understanding I could do almost whatever I wanted re the carpet in my story … that there are no particular colours and designs relating to the Valley of Roses … and anyway the wife of the man in my story could come from a village elsewhere and bring her style of weaving with her.
The region of the Valley of Roses was a trade route of various tribes further north and west around the Imilchil and Taznakht area. Consequently I decided to make a special trip to Taznakht, to try and understand the basic design and symbols underlying their carpets, which it seems the women in the Valley of Roses have been much influenced by.
Later, looking at carpets woven in Taznakht, I start to recognize a strong diamond shape in the carpets (the diamond being used as a half diamond, an open and closed diamond … in all combinations)
For most Berbers today, the symbols they use in their carpets are above all, decorative patterns unique to their own culture. But for the elderly, the superstitious and the traditional, they serve a vital purpose: they are protectors against the evil eye, bringers of good luck and bountiful harvests.
One of the most common symbols used is the eye of the partridge, a diamond shaped motif that represents the bird’s unblinking stare, always on the watch against lurking evil.
And although they have been extinct in North Africa since the beginning of the last century, lions once prowled the Berber lands and were admired for their strength and majesty and so the lion’s paw remains a popular weaving motif.
In the process of trying to be authentic and checking the details within my story, I have more and more interesting interactions with Berber people.
The family in my Moroccan story are loosely based on an extended family I stayed with. During my visit, and through the eldest son of the family (another Lahcen who could speak fairly good English and who interpreted for me) I explained the idea of the book and the evolving story.
These people (as did others I stayed with) invariably took a bit of an interest, contributing to show how things should be portrayed to be reasonably authentic: and some role playing and acting out evolved from their involvement.
From my Moroccan diary
5th April (Tuesday)
Lahcen’s village (near Skoura) is beautiful. Very traditional mud houses, palm trees and distant mountains. Surrounded by rock desert, his village has water and hence its green. I met his family. They are all characters and very likable. His grandfather especially is physically striking. I was made to feel very welcome. I took some photos that evening. Most of us slept alongside each other on the very hard floor in the main room.(though I’m not sure I slept at all) Again it gave me an insight into their day to day life.
6th April (Wednesday)
Was woken by the sound of (perhaps Lahcen’s) alarm clock set for 5.00am … the time of the first call to prayer.
I woke again about seven when we all got up. I washed, in a small basin of water from the courtyard well, and collected my things together. Lahcen soon joined me and from then I started work.
Lahcen hired a mule for the morning (at some cost to me) He also borrowed a traditional dagger and shoulder bag and a ‘baby’ (a boy of about two, older than I’d wanted.)
Lahcen dressed himself in a white jellaba with the appropriate shoes, trousers and under hood and cap. He also went to great trouble to shave, telling me a man going to the souk would be ‘clean’. We carefully worked through the photographs I wanted to take as background/research for my book. His family seemed only too willing to be involved.
Most Berber families have, set into the thick mud wall of their main room, a shelf or alcove in which they place their most prized possessions.
One of these is usually the woman’s wedding scarf, the colours and design of which signify the tribe she is part of.
In my story, the Moroccan family also place a silver teapot and oil lamp here. Later, these prized treasures are replaced by the computer monitor and keyboard: the other treasures being transferred to the window sill.
I love the jellabahs, the long, hooded gowns the men and women wear. I find them full of character. The hood is sometimes used as a carrying bag. I was fascinated by the peaks of the hoods, which sometimes stand pointed straight upright, or they’ll permanently flop in various ways to one side or the other, backwards or forwards. The hood itself might be folded back to reveal a face or pulled out and mysteriously obscure the face underneath.
The women in the Valley of Roses often wore their headscarves with a large distinctive knot sticking upright at the top of their head. And their top gowns were often secured to leave one shoulder free.
The gathering of people at the souks made me conscious of just how multicultural the populations here are. There is usually a mixture of Arabic and Berber people, nomads, Jews, southern desert people and immigrants from sub Saharan countries … and a variety of shades of skin colour, some very black and some in comparison, quite fair. The variety of their costumes, also tells the story of a variety of backgrounds.
The Moroccan part of the story opens showing a light in the window of a Kasbah, where a woman can be seen weaving. She has stayed up all night to finish weaving a carpet for her husband to take to the local souk (market) to sell.
And then she has to collect water from the well, milk the cow, find and collect eggs and bake bread for breakfast. Her husband is seen counting out all his savings and placing them in his shoulder bag.
It is usual for parents and great grandparents to live together as a family here, so the whole extended family eat breakfast together.
The woman shows her husband the finished carpet and he carefully places it over the mule’s back, puts a sheep in each of the mule’s saddlebags and ties a couple of hens up: he’s hoping to sell these animals too at the souk.
Father and son set off very early up and down mountain tracks in the moonlit dark in order to be at the souk soon after it opens. Donkeys or mules are still a common means of travel in this part of Morocco.
In the part of the story based in Sydney, the family wake with the morning light and then mother fills a kettle from the tap and we see in contrast packaged food that has obviously been bought from a shop. I have the family living in the all too familiar mess of endless renovations. In the meantime, their dining table is an old door, still complete with door knob and latch, and father’s seat is a paint tin.
Here I mirror an equally arduous journey, as father and son, travel in their yellow van, through the torturous Sydney traffic, with all its traffic jams, turmoil, obstructions, delays, rules, speed cameras and unpredictability.
The final Sydney traffic scene shows an area close to my home (Tiger country) and is much influenced by the actual and wonderful craziness that went with our local team, Tigers, being a player (about four years ago) in the Grand Final Football match.
The Moroccans are probably even more crazy about football. Even in the tiniest villages, a football field, often carefully outlined with large rocks, will always be in use.
The Moroccan climate and culture made sketching an ineffective way of working. Whilst in Morocco, I would write down my thoughts and ideas daily. I took many photographs and worked out a rough page layout of my story.
My books start in a small way. They start with strong feelings and intuition as much as anything. I’m following an instinct, that I’ve learnt is worth taking seriously.
As is my usual working process, this started as little more than scribbles on a smallish sheet of paper, initially very much working on the book as a whole: drawing lots of oblongs within a sheet of paper, and imagining each as a double page spread within the book. The ideas evolved, chopped and changed. Inspiration came and sometimes went, but there always seemed to be something that held the book together. With the book having two parts, I was working to develop the layouts for each part simultaneously. As my ideas slowly evolved, the oblong boxes grew larger until each was eventually the size of a page of the book I hoped would interest my publisher.
I then worked on these drawings, over and over and over again, until I got to the point where I could see no way of taking the ideas further and its at this point that I send the layouts drawings, bound into book form, or in this case two parts of a book form, to my publisher.
The book was designed so that when you open it, you are able to look at both parts simultaneously. Arabic reads from right to left, from top to bottom: whereas English reads the other way from left to right, so by designing the two parts of the story to face each other, its possible to open out the pages, and turn them to read the two parts side by side. Even though my story has no words, the visuals still read in these different ways for each language. Each part of the story finishes at the centerfold of the book, where the two stories interlink.
Initially I put the two parts of the book together in a more complicated way. I tested it on a friend and watched as he just couldn’t work out how to open it.
So I went to bed that night, tossing it over in my mind and woke up with the problem solved … such an obviously simple solution; to have each part of the book open out from the edge of the cover and also have the benefit of being strengthened by the backing of the cover itself!
There is a lot of communication between me and my British editor and designer, and as with this book, its usual for them to question various details and see ways in which I can communicate my ideas more effectively.
So again, I work over and over the images, until we are all satisfied. It’s at this point that I start work on the final artwork (the collages) for the book, though I’m still working at, refining and developing the ideas and images in the book right until the very last opportunity, before it is photographed for reproduction.
From my very first books I have worked in collage. For me this medium evolved from a love of texture … a love of the tactile qualities of things.
I found I could build up my pictures with the materials that would otherwise have to be painted.
I’ve explored building up my collages in layers to achieve a sense of space and depth within the works.
And a sense of this texture and special quality comes across in the reproductions.
I’ll often be told that children will try to pick things off the pages in my books or stroke the textures.
Whenever I can I like to use the actual material I’m trying to depict in my work.
‘Car park’ includes enamel paints, acetate plastic, preserved vegetation, earth, wire (shopping trolley)
‘Donkey parking’ includes sand, tiny stones, sheep’s wool, feathers, fabric, hair, clay
As with every new project, I enjoyed playing with collage materials I’d never tried before these included using various earth pigments and spices collected in Morocco. And also clay paints, Tadelaxt (which is a lime based plaster) and traditional Moroccan mud plaster, these gave me the natural soft pink tones and textures found in the traditional mud buildings and landscapes of Morocco.
In a book without words particularly, colour can play an important role in conveying meaning. In this work, it is important to have each character wearing the same coloured garments throughout, so they can easily be identified: particularly as I often show just hands and arms and the character’s colour is the only thing that identifies them.
The Moroccan desert landscape is often very pink, as is the colour of the plaster or mud of their dwellings. Especially as this is a lovely soft warm pink, I chose to reflect this same soft pink in the background colour of the pages throughout.’
Where there is water in the Moroccan landscape (close to the rivers) there is life. And here I feature rich luminously green fields of food crops which dramatically contrast the arid pink desert landscape elsewhere
I also use a lot of deep blue … a colour I strongly associate with both Sydney and Morocco as it reflects the beautiful deep blue of their skies. The rich blue endpapers, titlepage and binding also help pull the two parts of the book together.
It was my American editor who suggested the Moroccan title, introduction and author’s note in the Moroccan part should be in Arabic. And once the idea had been thrown it made perfect sense.
I designed the cover so the front cover would be the cover of the Australian journey and the back cover the cover of the Moroccan journey.
We’ve tried throughout to give equal weight to each part of the book and exhibition.
The English title type used is Papyrus, which I modified to eliminate its featured ragged edges: in doing this, we’ve created our own version of the type. In promoting the work, whenever the English title is used, we’ve striven to have the Arabic title placed alongside it: the two titles together having become the project logo. Also in promoting the work, when an Australian image is shown, we have stipulated that its Moroccan equivalent is shown alongside it.
Mirror was also a national travelling exhibition The exhibition was set out in a different way. When a visitor enters the exhibition room space, they can choose to walk to the left or the right to view the works. If they walk to the left, they can view the Sydney journey and read the images from left to right and if they walk to the right, they can view the Moroccan journey and read the images from right to left.
At the midpoint of the exhibition hangs a mirror, with words engraved both in Arabic and English, telling the viewer to go back to the exhibition start and walk in the other direction to follow the other journey. As the viewer looks in the mirror at their own reflection, they might contemplate what does a stranger grasp when they see this face?’
One of the joys of working in the medium of picture books and wordless books even more so is the wide scope for discovery and a spectrum of interpretations.
Nevertheless, I do hope to encourage children to be enriched and curious, rather than fearful of cultural difference and to see the ‘stranger’ as most probably, in the ways that really matter, not a stranger at all.
What I see, is the sheer richness of different nationalities and cultures, a richness that will no doubt diminish as our western culture spreads. We really need to celebrate these differences and diversities while we can.
These worlds, as depicted in my project, couldn’t be further apart, yet with the showing of the parallel lives of the two families in my story, we see a simple truth.
We see that in the context of strikingly different lifestyles, remotely different countries, landscapes, differences of clothing and all, the families are essentially the same. They care for each other, they need to belong, to be loved by their loved ones and be a part of their community. The simple truth is that even with all these differences, in the ways that really matter, we are all the same. We are the mirror of each other.
Copyright © Jeannie Baker