Beyond Marrakech: Discovering the Beauty of Berber Rugs
Danielle Donker takes us on a journey from the Netherlands to the magical Ourika Valley and reveals her magnificent collection of Berber rugs
Written by: Arianna Meschia for The Nopo
Thirty five kilometers south of Marrakesh, lies what comes as close to an enchanted place as possible in the real world: Ourika Valley, a place steeped in the ancient Berber culture and overflowing with natural wonders.
It’s no surprise then, that when Danielle Donker first happened in Ourika over twenty years ago, she fell utterly and irremediably in love with it, so much so that she decided to stay.
Originally from the Netherlands, Danielle grew up with a deep love for foreign cultures and handicrafts. She reveled in the gifts her father brought back from far and exotic places he visited on his business trips and in the plush Persian and Indian textiles her mother collected from markets around the world.
Traveling was as natural to her as breathing, so aged 19 she set off to discover the fascinating world of textile crafts in India, Iran, and Turkey. Ultimately, she ended up in Morocco, on a fourteen-day trip through the desert, led by local guides and camels carrying their tents and equipment.
“Let me tell you, I’ve never experienced love at first sight with a man, but with a country I did! And despite all my traveling in India, the Middle East, Turkey… That country ended up being Morocco.”
After several trips back and forth, the final bit of magic happened in Essaouira, a beautiful beach town west of Marrakech. Danielle felt someone tap her on her shoulder while strolling around town. She turned to experience the shock of her life when a man she had known in the Netherlands twelve years before stood smiling at her.
“We went for coffee, which became dinner, which turned into exchanging phone numbers… Soon after that date he took me to Ourika Valley, saying he’d heard of a beautiful house for sale.”
They managed to find the building, a one-floor brick house in need of heavy repairs: destiny had struck its final blow. The two started a beautiful life and work partnership, eventually opening a guesthouse named like their daughter, Dar Zohra, which means house of Zohra.
The Berber communities she works with, however, didn’t easily accept her at first. It took a lot of effort and time to move beyond the stereotypical ’tourist vs. local’ interaction. Today, more than 20 years after moving to Morocco, Danielle and her family feel very much at home and have forged strong connections with the local community. “The real turning point was when Brahim, who has been working with us for almost twenty years, called me Daan, the nickname only family uses for me!”
These hard-earned relationships allowed Danielle to start what has become a huge collection of exquisitely crafted rugs, furniture, and homeware. 'Beyond Marrakech' was born!
“We chose this name because we are, literally, beyond Marrakech. But also people think Morocco ends with the souks of Marrakech and the beaches of Essaouira, but most of the Moroccan history and heritage we know actually comes from beyond that, the Atlas Mountains and the desert.”
Within four years of starting to sell her magnificent collection, Danielle had seven full-time local employees sourcing and restoring the most spectacular original vintage Berber rugs.
Though they’ve grown more organized and properly set up as a business, the core of the brand remains the same: preserving ancient crafts which risk getting lost with mass migration away from villages and into the cities, while giving artisan weavers (mostly women) dignified wages and proper recognition for their mind-blowing artistry.
What attracted Danielle to carpet weaving, and Berber textiles in general, is the fact that it’s a wholly female-centered artform passed down from grandmothers, to mothers, to daughters since the beginning of time.
“The Beni Ouarain carpets we find in trendy NYC apartments have actually been used by the Berbers for centuries both to sit on and as bedding. Or the woven beach baskets that are all the rage on European beaches were originally made to carry the men’s work tools.”
Today, weaving is how Berber populations perpetuate their identity in an increasingly globalized world that threatens to erase such historical practices. Carpets and blankets have different patterns, colors, and designs according to where they were made or what they are used for.
Boucherouite rugs give new life to discarded bits of clothing and textile in an explosive fantasy of colors.
Handira wedding blankets are hand-loomed in creams and white tones and decorated with sparkling sequins, as gifts for Berber brides. Beni Ouarain carpets use undyed wool woven into black/brown or charcoal geometric designs, bridging this ancient craft with modern-day interior decor. Azilal rugs use asymmetric and abstract colored patterns and are great on the floor or used as wall decoration.
“A fortune is paid for a work of art from a famous painter, but the women who weave these carpets and blankets are amazing artists in their own right. Weaving is the purest form of expression of their millennial identity, and I think that is absolutely worth preserving.”
We’re incredibly excited to start collaborating with Beyond Marrakech and contribute to expanding the reach of this beautiful artform. Don’t miss her live studio walkthrough on 14th November - Sign up here!