By Lauren Kopchik
Photographs by Rachel Woolf
RABAT, Morocco — On a lazy Sunday afternoon, El-Ayadi El-Griny sits in a dimly lit garage watching the people of Rabat stroll along Lalou Avenue. They walk past hole-in-the-wall shops like his that surround the old medina marketplace, with its narrow streets and close-knit neighborhoods, without casting a second glance.
El-Griny, 39, makes a comfortable seat using plastic bags filled with the only product he sells: wool. It surrounds him, with overstuffed bags filling the corners of his shop and excess white and blue fabric spilling onto the floor. Wool saturates the air. The miniscule bits leave no visible trace, but are present in every inhalation, filling the room with a musty odor. El-Griny is so well camouflaged that passers-by might not even see him. However, he’s not missing out on potential customers, since most of the time he has none.
Situated in a highly-trafficked part of the city, his shop has the perfect location – but he sells the wrong product.
“[I get a customer] one or two times a month,” says El-Griny, whose family has been in the wool industry since the 1970s. “I don’t have an exceptional day. Nobody asks about this,” he says, holding up small scraps of soft, shaggy wool.
As a country with a mild climate suitable for agriculture and herding animals, Morocco has long been a producer and exporter of wool. The majority of today’s sheep in Morocco are native to the land, dating back to Berber origins in the Atlas Mountains. It was customary to use wool when furnishing the home, stuffing pillows and mattresses with the warm material for cold nights. Carpets, rugs and traditional garments such as djellabas were often made from Moroccan wool as well.
With the ever-increasing amount of cheap, accessible material coming in from China and other major exporting countries, however, Moroccans have done away with the old and accepted inexpensive replacements. According to the Observatory of Economic Complexity, Morocco spends nearly $800 million annually on imports of cotton, as well as synthetic fabrics and fibers.
The traditionally handmade wool products are now often mass-produced using wool blends or other fabrics entirely. Throughout the winding streets of Rabat’s old city, the medina, one can find an abundance of embroidered cotton djellabas, often at a lower price than their wool counterparts.
Some might equate the increase of interest in other materials with a loss of tradition. It has undermined the livelihoods of families that have been selling wool for generations. As El-Griny figured out, it’s not easy to change over to a new business.
“I have many ideas in my mind, but no money,” he says.
El-Griny’s dream is to eventually open a small café. If he had his way, he’d be serving fast food to tourists, a venture he believes would allow him to make a decent living to support his wife and five children. He sacrificed much already, living three hours away from his family in an attempt to keep his father’s business alive. It’s hard to let go of a space that only costs him about $35 a month to rent. According to El-Griny, even a small move to a nearby location would be too costly.
“It’s very, very cheap, that’s why I’m patient in this,” El-Griny said. “I’d change [my business] in a heartbeat. [But] I don’t have enough money to fix the store, the material for coffee or for fast food. It’s hard.”
The store has been El-Griny’s responsibility since the death of his father eleven years ago. As a child, he grew up helping out with the business, serving customers on his own when his father needed to travel to buy the goods from sheep herders near Settat, a city between Rabat and Marrakech. Back then, there were plenty of customers to keep him busy. But these days, El-Griny feels little incentive to keep the shop open every day. The pull to be near his family is greater than the pull to solicit disinterested customers.
“I close any time I want,” El-Griny said, adding that he frequently visits his family. His mother, wife and children live a few hours outside of Rabat in a small town called Talent Sraghna, where they raise cows and sell fresh milk every morning. Although his eldest son, 17-year-old Muhammad, is no longer in school and works with his father, El-Griny envisions a more prosperous life for the rest of his children.
When he begins discussing plans for his dream café – the sort of family business he’d like his children to one day inherit – he speaks rapidly with a sense of youthful passion.
“I dream to have a better life,” El-Griny said. “I will never give up. I’m fighting until the end – until I die.”