The Paradox of Perfection in Imperfection: the Artisans of Meknes

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March 11th 2019
Published: March 11th 2019
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Meknes, Alto Atlas, Morocco

January 2019

“When you do something, if you fix your mind on the activity with some confidence, the quality of your state of mind is the activity itself. When you are concentrated on the quality of your being, you are prepared for the activity.”

Shunryu Suzuki, Zen Mind Beginner's Mind

“The true work of art is but a shadow of the divine perfection.”


“Have no fear of perfection - you'll never reach it.”

Salvador Dali

“Ethics is the activity of man directed to secure the inner perfection of his own personality.”

Albert Schweitzer

Meknes (33.89352 -5.54727) is located in northern central Morocco close to Fez and is one of the four Imperial cities of the country. It was established as a military site by the Almoravids in the 11th century and was the Moroccan capital in the late 17th Century. Under Muslim rule it became a Spanish-Moorish style city with high walls with great doors. It has a population of around 750,000. The area surrounding Meknes is rich farming land with rolling green plains.

The old medina of Meknes is a delight to dwell in. Smaller than the myriad of mazes that is Fez, it is safe to get lost in this place because finding your way out is not such a challenge. It is full of artisans who see themselves as simply people making a living from what they were brought up to do best. However, to watch these people at work inspires something about the human spirit and its search for perfection. Perhaps a rather romantic view looking in, however there is just a magic in the place as various masters perform their otherwise usual tasks each day. Having said that, I sensed pride in these artisans for what they did, and a sense that they understood that they were performing tasks that were a heritage of skills passed on through generations. Of course too, many of these skills are now becoming bespoke as tourism increases dramatically in Morocco. The beauty still of Meknes is that they are still the means of production for much that is in everyday use within traditional local practice.

I am always attracted to the idea of being an expert in what one does. I start thinking about how it might be possible still to find some activity to become expert in and to practice it as a way of life; as a means of expression which in itself will provide a sense of inner peace and calm. I fantasise about presenting myself to a wood carver or painter or jewelry maker as an apprentice. Then I remember my age and think 'maybe not'. And of course the fantasy often trivialises the time, the years of very hard application what would be needed in such an endeavour. Such is fantasy.

And then I am reminded of the wisdom that whatever we do in life can and ought to be done with passion and focus as best we can do. This is enough, that we apply ourselves in the moment to what we are doing. The idea of perfection can become just another deviation from the actuality of living here and now. And in the ordinariness of being here now and doing what we are faced with, lies a perfection of sorts. Acceptance of what we are doing, peppered with a mindful focus, and set within an ethical frame might just be enough. It might be more than enough. And in the end, what we are is just perfect.

I become fascinated with one particular form of work that is particularly famous in Meknes called Damascene Silver. Probably originating in Syria, steel form work is blackened (by fire) and then scored with a hardened steel point to create a rough surface. Then a very thin thread of silver is painstakingly fed and hammered into the steel by hand, seemingly with no effort at all by the skilled artisan. It is then cured in fire to meld the silver to the steel surface. The pattern is created freehand with no use of a template by the malem (master). At the end the work is cleaned with fine steel wool and olive oil (also famous in Meknes, whose olive oil won the gold medal last year in an Italian international event).

Just 30 km from Meknes is the small town of Moulay Idriss Zerhoun. It is a sacred pilgrimage destination for the Moroccan people, established by the saint Moulay Idriss who in 789 brought Shiism o the country. Sufis celebrate his life at the mausoleum in the town's central mosque. Moulay Idriss also established the larger town of Fez.

Like many towns and cities in Morocco, there is a rich Jewish legacy in Meknes. Now fewer than 5,000 Jewish people live in the country, but evidence of synagogues, Jewish mellahs, and artifacts can be found aplenty. Apart from an older presence among the Berbers, many Jews fled to Morocco after the 1492 Alhambra decree that expelled them from Spain and soon after from Portugal too. There were more than 250,000 Jews in Morocco before operations to get them to the new Israel in the 1960s.

I spend a week in Meknes and never grow tired of wandering around the medina. I stay in a newly renovated old riad, which is a traditional family home of the more well off, decorated with elaborate and intricate window frames and columns and with a spacious inner courtyard garden area. The whole concept is not so unlike an Indian harwalli for its clever design to stave off heat and noise. A veritable refuge from the bustle of the medina outside. I find simple local food options like askif (soup) and harsha (semolina flat bread). As in all Morocco, dates and olives are scrumptious and cheap. The shopkeepers are keen for my attention but not over the top or in any way harassing. Having said that (and maybe because of that), I somehow, and apart from any intention to do so, end up buying a gorgeous Berber rug and post it back to Australia. That I paid a fifth of the opening price of the trader does not necessarily mean I got it for a good price. But in the end that becomes immaterial to being happy with it.

I would readily return to Meknes again..... and hopefully (in sha Allah) I will.

Ohm gate gate paragate parasamgate bodhi svah

(Gone gone, beyond; completely exposed; awake. So be it)

more pics below

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11th March 2019

Stunning again!!!
I want to go there!!! How did you resist buying more of these exquisite masterpieces :) !!!
12th March 2019

Well... there is this thing called money... but above all I just don't need more stuff. The rug I also don't need but what can I say?
11th March 2019

Thanks for this interest blog. I am intrigued by Moroccan artisans and craftsmen and their work such as you have seen, and I'm sure I could watch them for hours without becoming bored. Handmade furniture, jewelry, paintings and such may not always be exactly perfect, yet I find them totally perfect in my eyes. Will be in Meknes for only a matter of hours this fall, but hope that I get the opportunity to see some of these craftsmen. I'm sure I will not be able to come home without one of their exceptional works of art.
12th March 2019

Well... use those hours well. I suspect you are though going to visit Volubilis and Moulay Idriss Zafoun? Fez of course, but for my money and time, Meknes is a great place to stay some days. Hope you enjoy Morocco. I did a blog on Tafraout and also on Imlil.. both recommended as well. Good journey... keep that travel infection festering :)
11th March 2019

Thanks for the memories
We really enjoyed Morocco. Meknes is lovely. We love the Moroccan people. We became pretty good at bartering.
12th March 2019

Yes indeed. I have wanted to visit for a long long time. India kept me away I guess... so the universe intervened (as it tends to do) and gave me the India Visa problem to steer me to a new adventure. Really a nice laid back country .. Hope you guys are well and smiling :)

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