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Trendy | Must-Have

You might have seen the babouche slippers in the famous Japanese TV drama, We Married as a Job. The protagonist, portrayed by Yui Aragaki wears them in home scenes. Babouche slippers became a hit in Japan because of the drama. Babouche is now a popular domestic product. Many people have theirs at home or as travel slippers.

A scene from We Married as a Job (Source: TBS)

Barbouche slippers have been popular for hundreds of years in North Africa and Mediterranean coast and recently "re-discovered." In 2016, Vogue magazine proclaimed barbouche as "Must-have" shoes. Céline also designed a series of shoes based on barbouche. Barbouche became trendy in several fashion boutiques. And it inspired the footwear with backless design.

Designer shoes (Source: Céline)

Our Barbouche project is a good way to discover the Berber culture in North Africa and to know about Fes and Marrakech, the cities famous for exuberant leather and footwear industry since ancient times.

Berber Slippers | Thousands years of lives

The Berber slippers originate from the most ancient ethnic group, the Berbers (Amazigh). The group thrives for more than three thousands years and there are still more than ten millions of them. They populate in Morocco and the mountain areas of Algeria. The language of Berbers (Tamazight) are still alive, thanks to the identity and mother tongue movement in the 1960s and 70s. Tamazight became the official languages in the two countries recently. However, the ethnic group has been hybridized with Arabic Islamic culture for more then a thousand years. Many of them are unaware of their Berber origin.  ( see more about Berber cultural movement and Mouloud Mammeri)

A Berber male  (Source: Yavuz Sariyildiz from Shutterstock)

Berber handmade woman's slippers with sheepskin, from Atlas Mountains, 1969 years ago (Source: British Museum)

Now, many Muslim-Berbers  still follow traditional genderized lives, men taking care of livestock and women doing house chores and handicrafts. The tradition has the nomadic seasonal pattern that women collecting different materials to make crafts, such as wool Kilims (rugs) dyed with different plants and selling them in traditional markets, Souks. Each tribe has different kilim patterns, mostly tassels, rhombuses and triangles. Besides kilims, there are also pottery, wood, textiles, jewelry and leather products.

The women from the Atlas Mountains weaving rugs / source: Youssef Boudlal from Reuters

Among the leather crafts, the Berber slippers are the most wide-spread and famous ones. "Babouche" is the combination of the Arabic word Babush (بَابُوش ) and Persian word Papush (بابوش ). "Pa" means foot and "Push" means covering. The classic design of Babouche is the soft leather and the "slip-on". It summarizes of the thousands years of Berber lives.

Al-Maġrib | Berber's Husbandry

The Atlas Mountains separates the North Africa into halves. Just like the Central Mountains in Taiwan, which can block the typhoons coming from the east side, the Atlas Mountains also block the hot air from the south, coming from the Sahara Desert and keep the northside of the mountain moist. The area is called Al-Maġrib, modern-time Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia. Morocco, close to the Desert, is even named "a cool country with a hot sun".

The geographical location of Morocco

The soft leather of Babouche might result from the moist of Al-Maġrib. The moisture allows the Berbers to earn their livings by keeping livestock. Cattle, sheep, donkeys and camels are their precious resource. They are pack animals and meat source. Their fur and skin is fully used and helps establish the leather handicrafts. Leather product is seen everywhere in Berber lives, such as the chairs and stools in their living rooms.

The Berbers have been doing business between Al-Maġrib and the Sahara Deserts for more than two thousands years. The handmade leather product is a part of the trading. However the heat and danger in the desert had been a great hazard and kept the trading away from extending southwards. It was not possible to cross the desert until the Berbers tamed and trained the camels in the 3rd century. The trading channels were set up and became the root of the Islamic civilization of Al-Maġrib area and the desert.

The Souk, traditional market in Morocco /source: Floratheexplorer

Islamization | The Berber trading network

In the 7th Century, the Arabs invaded Al-Maġrib. They built mosques and bazzars everywhere they stepped on. The Berbers living in Al-Maġrib gradually became Muslims. There are multiple times of praying for Muslims. Their constant rituals involves taking off shoes before they pray and enter the mosques. This is the origin of the invention of slip-on Babouche.  After the Islamization, the civilization went southward into the desert along the old Berber trading routes.

Moroccan Muslims gather in the mosque for Eid al-Fitr  (Source: Nes Hub)

The Islamized Berbers widened their old trading routes into large gold-salt trading networks, connecting to the whole Islamic world-wide business web back then. There were two lines for the gold-salt trade, the main line ran from Morocco to the bay of Niger and the sub-line ran from Tunisia to Lake Chad. The gold-salt trade continued for seven to eight hundreds of years. Thousands of camel caravans carried gold and rock salt and transported commodities and even slaves across the desert.

The gold-salt trade across the Sahara Desert

In the West Africa, the tribal society was transformed into kingdoms after Islam spread to the south of the Sahara Desert with the development of trading. The Middle Age is the heyday of trading in the Islamic world. The cities Fes and Marrakech were built and became the trading centers of the north of Africa.

Fes, the city of leather tanneries

Fes was built by the invading Arabs in the 8th century. The city developed to its peak in the 13th and 14th centuries when the trading between Fes and Europe was constant and busy. Its 14 city gates are intertwined with more than 9,000 lanes and alleys. It is very easy to lose way. The lanes are too small for vehicles. Commodities are mostly transported on foot or carried by donkeys. The city's look since Middle Age is well-preserved and is listed as the world cultural heritage by UNESCO. 

The city of Fes (Source: Stories & Objects)

Donkeys in Fes (Source: Archkiosk)

The ancient city, Fes, is most famous for its leather tanneries. Chouara Tannery is the oldest one. It has run for over one thousand years since it was built in the 11th century. The tannery uses ancient technique to dye the leather and this tradition is also listed as world heritage. Most of the families in Fes are involved in the leather business. Leather is transported from the markets to tanneries in Fes and sent to workshops elsewhere after processed here. It will later be made into belts, bags, shoes and home decorations. Leather product is an important commodity in Morocco since ancient time.

 

There are many steps in traditional leather tanning technique. The first step is to process the raw skin from the beasts. After shaving off the fur, the skin becomes "hide". Then the hide is soaked in lime-filled sinks where the tanners step into and they must tread on the hide to rub away residuals and soften it. The process of soaking and drying is repeated several days before leather is finally ready. The last step is to dehydrate the leather and put it into tanks for tanning. Natural ingredients are used in the tanning process and it has to be sun-dried and re-tanned several times before evenly colored. (see more about the technique)

The layout of Chouara Tannery / Source: Floratheexplorer

Each piece of leather takes three to four weeks and great efforts from tanners. The tanneries are filled with beast skin and the smell of dyes. Tanneries are not pleasant places to work in, but the leather made is unlike factory-made and very unique. People in Europe and Japan love it.

Marrakech, the center of trading and footwear 

While Fes has a long history of leather tanning, Marrakech, the other ancient city is the center of cobblers and shoemakers who makes the Babouche from the leather. Marrakech was built in Berber Dynasty in the 11th century. The Berbers made Marrakech the center of trading while they connected Al-Maġrib with the desert. It is the pivotal in the Middle Age. Although once surpassed by Fes, Marrakech became the capital in the kingdom in the 16th century. Marrakech is still the largest souk for Berbers and characterized by their most important commodity, the Babouche.

Shoemaking in Marrakech /Source: Nizaora

Marrakech is the center of Babouche. The city has the most skilled shoemakers. They mainly live in the old region, Medina and most of the shoemakers are male. There are shops where shoemakers sit in and make the shoes there. The decoration of Babouche with tassels, beadings and embroidery, however, is mostly done by women. Because of the religion, women work home and take care of the children, while men work together in workshops.

Modern Babouche styles are the round ones and pointy ones. Round ones are Berber style and pointy ones are Arabic. Before made into shoes, leather has been cut into patterns of shoes, tanned and sun-dried again. The cut pieces are assembled, sewed, polished and shaped. A pair of Babouche takes a shoemaker half working day.

Babouche | Shoemaking steps

𝟙 Cutting : On each piece of leather, shapes of shoes are drawn and cut.

𝟚 Assembling and sewing : the sole and upper are sewed together.

𝟛 Trimming : The edge of the sole is trimmed off with knifes.

𝟜  Polishing and shaping : the shoe is propped up in a mold, beaten with a mallet into shape

Round v.s. Pointy

The round Babouche slippers are mainly for the household and the pointy ones are for outdoors. Both of them are made of 100% Moroccan sheepskin. The round ones have soft sole and not suitable for rough ground. They are thus used as indoor slippers. It is light-weighted and comfy. Many people carry them when travelling. Unlike the less comfortable, one-time only slippers, they are the better alternative for walking around hotels and hostels. The pointy ones have hard soles to walk either indoor or outside. They are elegant in style and the best choice for you to go shopping with or even just walking to the nearby convenience stores.

Sousou Project 03|Morocco Babouche