February 20, 2004 - Philly.com: Fresh out of college, Susan Schaefer Davis joined the Peace Corps in 1965 and was sent to Morocco, a North African country she needed a map to locate

Peace Corps Online: Directory: Morocco: Peace Corps Morocco : The Peace Corps in Morocco: February 20, 2004 - Philly.com: Fresh out of college, Susan Schaefer Davis joined the Peace Corps in 1965 and was sent to Morocco, a North African country she needed a map to locate

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Fresh out of college, Susan Schaefer Davis joined the Peace Corps in 1965 and was sent to Morocco, a North African country she needed a map to locate

Fresh out of college, Susan Schaefer Davis joined the Peace Corps in 1965 and was sent to Morocco, a North African country she needed a map to locate

Weaving connections

A Haverford anthropologist's Web site links Moroccan rug-makers with consumers around the world.

By Diane Goldsmith

Inquirer Staff Writer

Caption: Rehma Aznug sits on rugs she made with her sisters-in-law. The one in front is 3 feet, 9 inches by 7 feet and costs $420.

Susan Schaefer Davis has long harbored a dream of making the world a better place.

So, fresh out of college, she joined the Peace Corps in 1965 and was sent to Morocco, a North African country she needed a map to locate.

Her service led to an abiding affection for Moroccan women, whom she describes as "earthy, frank and funny" - far from downtrodden, as she'd imagined.

And she became an anthropologist, doing research in Morocco and consulting there over the next few decades on development projects for groups such as the World Bank and the United Nations' Food and Agriculture Organization. Then, about two years ago, Davis hatched a bootstrap plan of her own.

She set up an e-commerce site for Moroccan women weavers, featuring short bios and photographs of them and their rugs. Her aim: to redirect to them profits that would have gone to middlemen.

The project is a pro bono activity Davis operates as part of her Marrakesh Express Web site (www.marrakeshexpress. org), named for the Crosby, Stills & Nash hit. About 50 women are involved - teens to grandmothers, shown online in traditional garb near stone and earthen dwellings, at looms, and with their rugs. Prices range from about $100 to $780 for new pieces, measuring about 2 by 4 feet to 5 by 9. Vintage rugs cost more ($500 to $5,100).

The project has brought the Internet to two villages largely untouched by technology.

In N'kob in the High Atlas Mountains, the more isolated of the pair, electricity is run off a generator at night, and only some residents have running water. Davis recalls the look of "shy pleasure" on the faces of women as they first saw themselves on her laptop.

"I explained that the Internet was sort of like being on TV [which they have], but not everyone sees you," said the Haverford resident. Otherwise, the women might have balked on grounds of modesty.

"This is Rehma Aznug," reads the information near a photo of a woman in her 30s from N'kob. She's sitting cross-legged on two rugs, made with her two sisters-in-law, that incorporate diamond shapes into the design.

"She has two children, ages 5 and 7; another of her children died," the site says. "In addition, she cares for her husband's seven children from a previous marriage. Her husband is a farmer, and with the drought [which is common there], they need the women's earnings from weaving to pay household expenses."

While hunger is not a problem for most Moroccans, rural people "don't have much in the way of material things," said Davis. So rug sales fund school fees and books, doctor's visits, clothes, cosmetics, and visits to the women's married daughters living elsewhere.

Story brought orders

About 80 orders have been taken from around the world, many since a segment on the project was shown last summer on the CNN show design360.

The rugs have a strong tribal feeling, especially those from the north. Many are flat-woven, like kilims, and have geometric designs, unlike the floral motifs and curved lines associated with Persian rugs. Others are piles or a combination of weaves.

"Some of them are very beautiful, very typical," said Maryanne Conheim, who has visited the Web site and whose self-named gallery in Fitler Square sells vintage African and Asian tribal textiles.

"She has a good eye," said Conheim, who met Davis 20 years ago at the home of the American cultural attache to Morocco; the two became friends. "She's a person of absolute integrity."

"I think the project is very interesting," said Jerry Sorkin, of J.M. Sorkin Distinctive Rugs & More in Wayne, which carries some vintage Moroccan and Tunisian rugs. "She's really doing something very wonderful for these women... and the prices seem very reasonable."

While some folks may be put off by the looser weave of these Berber pieces compared with many Persian rugs, Davis said, their bold designs often contain spontaneous elements that keep you looking.

"Sometimes the border design changes halfway down the rug for no apparent reason. Sometimes you find a diamond free-floating in a plain, colored area," she said.

"What surprises me is how varied the weaving traditions are."

Rugs at home

In the living room of the home she shares with her husband, Doug, a psychology professor at Haverford College, Davis pointed to a wall on which she'd hung a festive red flat-weave with white design bands and sequins. Beneath a coffee table was a vibrant piece in three different weaves, a style called Glawa.

Nearby lay a fine, tight flat-weave with white design bands between bright stripes. In the foyer were rugs in subdued palettes with white lattice patterns.

They all popped against Davis' white walls and hardwood floors. And their colorful, geometric designs promised to be a good complement to modern decor.

"When design is fairly simple or maybe quite asymmetrical, Moroccan pile rugs are being used a lot in modernist interiors," said Moroccan-rug dealer Brooke Pickering of Upstate New York. She's sold a number of off-white rugs with a brown or black pattern from a tribal area northeast of Fez. Their hand-spun wool and indigenous character gives them "an organic feeling that's a nice counterpoint" to the hard edges of modern design.

"Both flat-weaves and piles," Pickering said, "have a less formal look than [what we think of as] Orientals, even tribal rugs from other Middle Eastern countries. So they also work well in old houses, country houses, where you're looking for something less formal."

Pickering's contact with Davis dates back at least 10 years, to their collaboration on an episode of a PBS series on rugs. "She's very knowledgeable and enthusiastic," Pickering said, "and is doing some very interesting-sounding things with women."

Davis' idea grew from her experiences bringing back pieces to sell to friends and colleagues who admired the distinctive handicrafts in her home. Then, in 1994, she branched out to the Internet, to see whether people would buy on the basis of an online image.

The answer was yes, but to launch her pro bono project, she needed to find enough fine weavers in one locale. She encountered them during the summer of 2001, while working in N'kob for an American organization, teaching rural people how to set up a village development association.

A year later, she noticed impressive weaving from Ben Smim in an exhibition at the university in Ifrane, where she was teaching, and added that village to her Web site.

The project is time-consuming. Davis spends two hours processing each order, with e-mail to customers and e-mail and phone calls to her two Moroccan contacts. They're both Berber but understand Davis' fluent Arabic.

Weavers set their own prices for the rugs. The online price reflects that, plus shipping and handling, and a small amount to fund village projects in N'kob (for N'kob rugs) and to compensate Davis' contact in Ben Smim (for those rugs). Refunds can be made.

Sounds like Davis is still idealistic after all these years.

"I really want to make this work," she said. "I see it as a pilot project for isolated peoples worldwide, selling their crafts on the Internet and making a living. I'd like to get a grant to make it sustainable."
Contact staff writer Diane Goldsmith at 215-854-2474 or dgoldsmith@phillynews.com.

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Story Source: Philly.com

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