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Friendship brings Moroccan rug merchant to Vicksburg

Leyland French discusses the materials he feels in a Moroccan rug with Attic Gallery owner Lesley Silver, left, at the gallery.(Jenny SevcikThe Vicksburg Post)

[2/28/04]Brahim Karaoui, a rug merchant from the Sahara Desert, has traveled a long way, but he thinks the world is small.

The distance between Morocco and Mississippi didn’t seem too great at the Attic Gallery in downtown Vicksburg Thursday night where Karaoui showed rugs, jewelry and shoes made by Moroccan artisans.

Vicksburg made its way onto his itinerary because of friendship.

Alan Huffman of Bolton traveled to Morocco to tour the Sahara Desert four years ago. The author and public relations consultant had already purchased a Moroccan rug on the trip, and he was hesitant to visit another rug shop.

His tour guide took him to Karaoui’s shop anyway.

“We talked for hours about rugs and life,” Huffman said. He walked out of the shop with not only another rug but Karaoui. The merchant traveled the Sahara with Huffman after their visit, and the two became friends.

Since his arrival into America on January 21, he has visited Los Angeles, Washington, D.C., Tucson, Ariz., and Vicksburg. He has a friend in each location who helped him present his wares and tell people about his culture.

“I live in the south in the desert. It’s a good time to bring rugs,” he said.

After Sept. 11, 2001, few tourists were coming into the Muslim kingdom of Morocco. Because of Karaoui’s dependence on tourism, his business suffered.

Through e-mail, Huffman encouraged his friend to bring his rugs to America. Karaoui came to Mississippi in January 2002 and held a rug sale out of Huffman’s home in Bolton.

Lesley Silver, owner of the Attic Gallery, received some of the rugs from Huffman after the sale, and began selling them at her gallery.

Huffman said this visit to Vicksburg provided an opportunity for Karaoui to explain the history and process behind the rugs that have been at the Attic Gallery since 2002.

The camel hair rugs, made mostly by women, are made with symbols and colors significant to each woman’s family. The women choose signature colors made from plants, stones and other natural elements. The color black is made from mascara, the blues are made from indigo and most of the reds are made from henna.

Huffman, who has learned about the rugs from his friend, said that every rug holds great significance to the maker.

“The designs are not just random geometric shapes. Some of the rugs tell complete stories,” Huffman said.

One of the common symbols used in the rugs is a zigzag pattern, which Huffman said represents the way caravans travel through the sand dunes in the desert. Another symbol used in both the rugs and the jewelry is called an evil eye, which resembles a diamond shape. The symbol is meant to deter evil visitors.

The jewelry Karaoui brought with him is made with materials such as jade, coral, onyx and tiger’s eye. Each piece is designed by a jewelry designer and made by specific families. The shoes are made of leather and dyed with saffron and henna.

In addition to selling artisan goods, Karaoui also gives tours in his village. The village of Merzouga is coveted by many American movie makers. Karaoui said both “The Mummy” and “The Mummy Returns,” along with many other movies, were filmed in his village. Karaoui rents tents to the people who make the movies, providing them with goods that present the culture of his people.

“Brahim literally never meets a stranger,” Huffman said. Karaoui knows two dialects and has learned nine languages including French, German, Spanish, Italian and English. Karaoui said he has learned the languages from the tourists who come through his village.

“I like to let people know about other cultures,” he said.

With American tourists making this trip possible for Karaoui, he said his reason for bringing his goods to the United States was not only to show his culture, but also to show the relationship between Morocco and the United States.

“It is a good relationship,” he said.

Karaoui will leave to go home to Morocco on Sunday where he has a wife, two children and a baby on the way. He plans to come back to the United States soon, though, to visit his friends and share his culture.