News from Marrakesh, Morocco

With more than a million inhabitants, Marrakech has almost no industry except for tourism now, but it has a very rich tradition of craft work. On their arrival about fifty years ago, the brothers worked very naturally as independent craftsmen in small workshops that they rented in the medina. One was a cabinet-maker, the other a blacksmith. This work in the midst of other Moroccan craftsmen facilitated the insertion of the fraternity into this traditional area of the city. The insertion was completed by the work of other brothers in the public health sector.
At 11.00 on Saturday November 24, Paul-Francois and I went to hand back to the owner the keys to the Bab Khemis blacksmith's shop. We had a quick look round the premises. The floor space of a few square metres was empty and swept; there were rifts in the floor and the walls were peeling, blackened or discoloured, with large cracks, while the ceiling had partly collapsed. Everything in the workshop bore witness to years of labour. A quick handshake, and we had turned a page in the history of the Marrakech fraternity. Gaby had set up the workshop in what was then a new building back in November 1965, 42 years ago. Gaby and Yvan in the workshopGaby and Yvan in the workshop He maintained a faithful presence for a long time.
Some of you will know the workshop. It is 10 metres square, with a single opening which gives directly onto a square. Facing it is the local primary school, and there is a secondary school not far away, so thousands of children pass by every day. Those who were at school forty years ago call in to ask for news of Gaby; some of them are university lecturers, others homeless drunks. Thanks to Gaby, the workshop was a wonderful meeting place where we made contact with local people and shared in their lives. I made the most of it for some years. I have only been here six years, but nowadays I can't go through Marrakech or even its suburbs without someone greeting me by name or calling out "Hi, there, smithy!" And I do not need to mention the contacts I formed with local craftsmen, who quickly made me one of their own. Needless to say, I was none too competent, but they thought it was a European way of working to try all sorts of ways of doing things and to keep starting afresh. And countless times they stepped in to help me! Right next door, there was also the moul pneuouat, who pumped up the tyres of cycles, mopeds and trailers; he served his customers tea while they were waiting, and I would lend them some chairs. I even made a bench from bits of metal and planks from packing cases, which was used by the district police chief, the local mokadem, weary hand-cart pullers and some women, who would dust it first so as not to dirty their djellaba. It must be said that some days there was a lot of chat outside the workshop, and not a great deal of work inside!

passers-by in front of the workshoppassers-by in front of the workshop
I had hoped to continue working a few more years – I am only five years from (Swiss) retirement age. But I saw that customers' needs were changing; there were no more orders for the things Gaby had taught me to make (lamps, chairs, beds, fireplace fittings), or for gates and balustrades. What people wanted were items more on an industrial scale (large gates), or else things requiring panel beating, which I can't do. Having never been properly trained for the job, I was well aware of my limitations, and of the fact that my work was mainly DIY or improvisation. I was also often asked to go and do very small jobs in the houses of European customers. What with that, and spending three months in Algeria last Spring, the workshop was often closed, and thus not really economically viable.
More than a year ago the owner had told me that the rent would have to be reviewed (I was paying the equivalent of 30 euros a month, the equivalent of a labourer's pay for four days). I said that I would first need the receipts for the rent which he had been refusing to give me for a long time. Later on, he informed me third hand (via some neighbours) that the going rate for a shop in that district was at least three times or even five times as much. Like other towns in Morocco, Marrakech has seen an enormous inflation in property prices, and land, apartments and commercial premises change hands for exorbitant sums, similar to those in large European cities. And other costs are on the increase as well, thanks to the current deluge of tourists. But the benefits of the tourist industry are often very unequally distributed.
I heard nothing more from the owner for some months. Then, in October, he told me he needed the premises for his own use and was revoking the lease, but would allow whatever period of notice we needed. Everything was in Gaby's name. To oppose the revocation I would have needed legal authorisation to act on Gaby's behalf, and the legal procedures necessary to obtain this - as Paul-François can tell you – are labyrinthine in the extreme. Was I up to taking on such a task? Furthermore, the owner’s decision had not come at such a bad time: over the next few months, I was going to be busy with a lot of tasks other than being a blacksmith (such as journeys, including one to Cameroon to prepare for the Chapter, and being co-opted onto the diocesan Council for Religious to prepare for the meeting of the major Superiors). So that’s why Paul-Francois and I went to hand over the keys of Gaby's workshop on November 24.

But before we did this, I came to realise just how much Gaby had been adopted by the local residents. All our neighbours were critical of the owner’s decision (he owns all the houses in the district), invoking not the terms of the lease, the financial considerations, nor common law, but saying quite simply, "He can't do that, it's Gaby’s workshop!" They remembered him as a "good and upright man" (as the Bible says), who should thus be left in peace. One of Gaby’s best friends, a skilled blacksmith, salvaged the plans, the patterns, the scaling machines, the forge and some of the now out-dated machinery. Another younger friend, who has just started his own business, came to take away the workbench, the large vice and a nearly new chain-saw. A third person, a French craftsman who had settled in Marrakech, wanted the anvil, some of the tools and, in particular, a load of rivets imported from France a long time ago. The children took care of the scrap iron. In a single afternoon, the workshop was emptied. I had thought I would hang onto a few tools, just in case - but everything vanished!
With the closing of the workshop, the fraternity has lost a major opportunity to be part of local society. On the one hand, it was a place where we shared the lives of the locals, through the low-profile presence to which we are called and through the solidarity that unites all workers (even if I was never able to work the crazy hours of Moroccan craftsmen – 12 hours a day, sometimes 7 days a week). In front of the workshop,Yvan with OmarIn front of the workshop,Yvan with Omar I liked working out on the pavement, near the local inhabitants (warning them to mind the flying shards), despite my difficulties in joining in the endless arguments, and working like them (I never learned any other way) with the item to be soldered in one hand and the pincers and iron in the other, with a primitive mask on the end of my nose. The shop also gave me an identity: I was a blacksmith, not a tourist or a wealthy retired person, like most of the Europeans in Marrakech. Having such an identity made it easier to relate to people, at least in that particular district. Another advantage was that it was never a problem to have someone else working there: I was able to work there with Gaby for years without any legal formalities.
A lot is happening in Marrakech Fraternity, and we will have to wait a bit before we know in which direction the Spirit is leading us, or to where the Star is guiding us. Happy Christmas!