Like grandfather, like father, like son

11 04 2014

“I’ve brought him inside today,” Said  tells me as I turn my head towards a soft chirping sound and discover a little bird in his cage set on the floor tucked behind the counter. “So he doesn’t catch a cold”, he adds.

Situated just off the Najarine square on Derb Seqqaiene, I have stepped into the last workshop in Fez that fuses ironmongery with silversmithing. An array of earrings dangle on a pole like percussion chimes, the plates and urns sheen like the cheeks of someone who has just come out of the hammam, the animals are collectively pinned on a board like a mass cross continental safari, the bracelets overlap each other in domino effect. Even the unfinished hand of Fattema has been carefully propped up in the corner. A carefully executed mise-en-scene. When Said tells me he has 3 daughters and no sons, with 3 fingers raised and a smile on his face, I smile too. “My youngest, she’s 12, (or 13?), and loves pigeons, like me,” Said explains. “Although her mother has stopped her from going up to the rooftop until she’s finished her homework and anything else that needs doing downstairs. Otherwise she’s up there all afternoon! She knows all 30 of them. I mean, if someone else’s ends up among ours, she will catch it and put it to one side until I get home and then show it to me, “Is this ours, Baba?” They’re not like the ones my father used to have though. His were as big as chickens. They would come up and peck the food right out of his hands.”

I ask him if he lives close by. “Oh yes, near Sidi Ahmed Tijani” and he points south east to where he’s standing as though we are suddenly at a bird’s-eye view of the medina and can map out the path directly to his home. Instead we can see little else than the decorated walls enclosing us. But I know where he means; I’ve weaved my way past that mosque many a time over the years with my husband Ali and our dogs as we return to our house from a walk on the Jbel Zalagh hillside reentering the medina via the hotel Palais Jamaii entrance. So I nod to confirm we’re on the same page. Said tells me that he lives in the house where he was born, where he got married, and now where he and his wife and 3 daughters live. They share the house with his brother and family. “We have the first floor and they have the ground floor” he states matter of factly. He goes back home everyday to lunch with his wife and daughters. He closes up just before the evening prayer. He opens in the mornings on Fridays to tie up loose ends before heading off to the main Friday prayer. His daily routine ticks along like clockwork.


Said Akessbi at work

Photo by Anaas Med El Issmaeli.

Hidden inside the only cupboard in his shop, are Said’s father’ s and grandfather’s tools. “I haven’t been inside this cupboard for 10 years; not since my father died.” He raises his eyebrows as he says this and waves his hand back and forth to denote the years flying by like salt over his shoulder. He brings out a small newspaper bundle, hardly crumpled, (hardly touched), and unfolds blades that more resemble excavated arrow heads I remember from the Roman museum of my hometown after they found remnants under our local Somerfield supermarket. “A quick polish with wire wool will clean these up” he chirps,”they are all ready to use”. He repeats their usability to us again as he unfolds another blade and presses his finger tip against the point. I do the same. No blood but I do think of the knife sharpeners down in Bab Sinsila and the sparks that fly when a dull blade hits the mill stone they pedal into rotation. The family blades return to the cupboard.

There is one last piece remaining made by Said’s father; a huge urn sits on the top shelf on the right as you enter. Above head height, it would take a very curious customer to spot it. I imagine Said casting his eyes up from time to time to admire his father’s work as he sits on his stool rubbing the jade stone wand across another finished piece. “My father was a teacher, you know. He left Fez, his workshop and his family to go and train apprentices in Meknes. A rich Meknessi offered him a good deal. But he reached a point where he missed Fez, so he came home, back to this workshop. His dad, my grandfather, had the workshop next door although we sold that years ago. People now think this craft is from Meknes because there are still a number of maalems, or master craftsmen, in Meknes who do the craft but it was my father who taught their fathers and my grandfather who taught my father.” His tone is honest and soft. We all study the faded picture of his father.

The hook in the door frame of the shop hangs empty today but Spring is on its way and soon Said’s chirping companion will resume his elevated position and sing out, as we all like to do, when the sun shines upon our backs.


By Alice Barnsdale, 9 years in Fez and married into a family of artisans.



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