by Emily Vega
RABAT, Morocco – Ayoub El Khalifi stands against a wall covered in his family’s handmade traditional leather goods. He wears a black felt fedora hat. Every square inch behind him displays polished and hand crafted leather bags, cushions, belts and more. As customers explore the store, the smell of tanned leather follows them. Hanging from the ceilings and lining the walls, hundreds of designs are displayed.
This traditional craft has provided the El Khalifi family with an escape from a troubled region and livelihood in a country where many young people struggle to find jobs.
As part of the family’s third generation of leather artisans, Ayoub, 23, and his brother Rachid, 42, have become the face of Boutique Japon, located on 93 – 95 Avenue des Consuls in Rabat. Their store is jokingly named after the store’s creator, their grandfather, Abdsalam El Khalifi, 85, whose slim eyes often make people unsure of his origins.
Abdsalam was originally born and raised in Al Hoceima, a city in the North of Morocco, between the Rif Mountains and the Mediterranean Coast. Abdsalam found no opportunity in the poor coastal area over 60 years ago and moved in search of better chances.
Following the area’s independence from Spain in 1956, the Riffian people demanded social and political rights from the Moroccan government. The late King Hassan II, however, ordered thousands of troops to the region to put down the protests. With their demands unmet, a flood of Riffian people emigrated to nearby European countries and other cities throughout Morocco.
The Rif region is still, to this day, a marginalized part of the country that suffers from underdevelopment and underrepresentation in government. The Hirak protest movement, which erupted in Al Hoceima in 2016, reflects the resentment this community continues to feel.
The movement began after fisherman Mouhcine Fikri, 31, was crushed to death while trying to retrieve his confiscated swordfish. It rapidly evolved to include demands for the creation of infrastructure and jobs, an end to corruption and the release of political prisoners. In 2017, the Moroccan authorities arrested the protests’ leaders and accused them of sedition; police forces were deployed to prevent further demonstrations.
“Al Hoceima was originally colonized by the Spanish but there was a lot of poverty. My grandfather saw this poverty and came to Rabat in search of work and a change in his life,” Ayoub explained.
Abdsalam traveled between Al Hoceima and Rabat, learning and developing his trade as a leather artisan for several years before finally opening his own store, which has been handed down for the past three generations. This family business of traditional leather crafts has guaranteed the El Khalifi brothers a livelihood, something that other Moroccan youth struggle to find.
“The problem is not with the economy, the problem is that there is no work. While the economy has grown, the jobs have stopped,” explained Rachid.
According to the High Commission of Planning 2017 figures, the country’s GDP grew a promising 4.2%, but jobs only increased by 0.9%. Approximately 29.3% of young people between the ages of 15 and 24 in Morocco are unemployed.
“It’s not about your intelligence, it’s about the connections you have. Even if you are intelligent, and you don’t know someone, it is very difficult to find work,” says Rachid.
But there is one way Ayoub knows to get by.
“If you know how to make handmade goods, you can find work through this skill and start to make money,” Ayoub explains.
The El Khalifi brothers began to learn the process of creating handmade leather goods over summers with their family. Beginning with small leather bracelets and moving onto more detailed and larger work, the boys learned how to design and create pieces such as handbags, pillowcases, and cushions.
Before beginning high school, Rachid officially joined his father and grandfather at the shop. Ayoub, however, studied economics because he saw it as an opportunity to not only learn more about the family business but the world in general. The brothers now serve as partners, overseeing the store’s production and sales.
The process begins with raw materials sold by three leather tanners in Rabat. The brothers inspect the raw and unfinished goatskins displayed across the pavement of the Souk and determine what they would like to add to their stock.
“When looking at the material, you determine what you will use it for depending on the size and quality,” says Ayoub.
Following the purchase of the material, it is prepared by one of 17 artisans, who soften, cut and design the leather before adding color. The leather is then dyed five separate times, polished and passed along to a person who stitches the designs together. Depending on what is being made, artisans can spend from a couple of hours to several days working on one piece. While most stores outsource to factories, Boutique Japon is quite different.
“We make everything in house!” explains Ayoub as he points to the sunlit courtyard in the back of the store where artisans are working on their pieces.
Many storeowners in the medina outsource production to increase their profit margins. These factory-made products are often sold for low, competitive prices. But these products raise no concern for the El Khalifi family.
“People often compare products as they shop, but they see that we are a good place, with good quality and good prices,” Ayoub confidently explains.
Their shop stands on one of the oldest boulevards in the medina and near the historic Rabat fortress, the Kasbah of the Oudayas. Both locals and international visitors bustle in and out of Boutique Japon. Moroccans from cities such as Marrakech and Fez visit to buy large quantities from the family shop.
Standing outside of the store in his black fedora, Ayoub greets visitors. Towards the middle of the store you will find Rachid code switching from French to Darija to Spanish. Between them, the two brothers speak over five languages, including English and Arabic. They accredit their multilingualism to their favorite part of the job: “All day, we make new connections with new people.”
In the back store, you will find their father, Hafid, and other talented artisans polishing their latest creations. Their grandfather Abdsalam, however, can be found back in his hometown of Al Hoceima. His sacrifice as a young man to create Boutique Japon in Rabat has provided his family the security and stability that the Rif still yearns for.