Middle-east Arab News Opinion | Asharq Al-awsat

Breathing New Life into Old Tyres | ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive 2005 -2017
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Marrakesh, Asharq Al-Awsat – Mohamed Belkhali never imagined that one day a Dutch princess would stand before his modest shop and greet him smilingly, and that he would greet her in the same way that he has greeted movie stars, sporting figures, world-famous celebrities and [political] leaders.

Inside his shop, which roughly measures three meters by one meter in dimension, Mohamed Belkhali sits beside a teapot, and a half-full glass of mint tea. In one of his hands he holds an ordinary pair of medium-sized scissors, and in the other the rubber-tyre of a bicycle or motorcycle. On the walls of the shop there are a number of photographs of Belkhali taken on various occasions, including one taken with Princess Maxima of the Netherlands, who is wearing a pink dress and smiling as she shakes Belkhali’s hand. Next to this photograph is another of Belkhali, this time with a Moroccan minister, as he receives a cheque for 12,000 Moroccan Dirhams [MAD] which amounts to around US $1,000 for his participation in a demonstration of traditional Moroccan craftsmanship.

After welcoming you [to his shop] and presenting you with his business card that includes his full name, Mohamed Belkhali, his position, Decorator and Craftsman in the use of Tyres, and finally the address of his shop, Riyadh Al Zaytoun al Qadim. Belkhali’s shop is situated in the heart of Marrakesh’s old town, only a few meters from the famous El Badi Palace. Belkhali narrates his story which deals with giving new life to thousands of rubber tyres after finding new use for them other than that which they were originally designed for.

Belkhali speaks calmly and confidently, and now and then repeats the word ‘Alhamdulillah’, meaning praise be to God as a sign of his satisfaction and gratitude to God for the “fame” that he has been blessed amongst foreign tourists, to the extent that his products have reached the USA, France, Italy, Sweden and elsewhere.

At first, Belkhali made buckets from tyres to be used at the public baths, but when the baths stopped purchasing them in favour of modern plastic ones, Belkhali’s trade began to decline.

In an interview with Asharq Al-Awsat Belkhali recalls the circumstances under which his handicraft began to flourish. He said, “The sales of buckets were dropping and I was having difficultly marketing my products. One day I tried to use rubber to make a frame for a photograph that was hanging on the wall. Fortunately for me a foreign tourist was watching what I was doing, and he approached my little shop and sat with me. Having completed making the frame, which I was manufacturing ‘just to pass time,’ the tourist asked me what price I wanted for it. I told him 100 [MAD] and was surprised when he paid me 200 [MAD]. I will never forget the favour that this foreign tourist did for me, as he encouraged me and opened up new doors for my livelihood after the door was closed in my face with regards to selling buckets, which was all I knew how to do. At the time, I realised, that the foreign tourist saved my craft and ensured a decent livelihood for me. So the next day I embarked upon making frames for photographs and mirrors. That was seven years ago. As time has passed I have developed my products, and now I [also] manufacture, cups, tables, shoes, chandeliers, and other items.”

After succeeding in marketing his goods, Belkhali has been imitated by others. He said, “I was the first to take the initiative, and then others imitated me. They noticed the increasing demand from foreign tourists – I do not know if it is within my right to invoke intellectual property law or patent law – but I can, at least, call for them to sell their own products with a sense of honour. It is unfortunate to price a specific item, and then find others selling the same item but at a cheaper price.”

Speaking with clear pride about his products, Belkhali said, “My products have reached the USA and Sweden. The tourists that flood Marrakesh stand and wonder, how can rubber tyres – which have been used to transport passengers from one place to another for thousands of miles – serve a new purpose other than that which they were originally designed for.”

Elaborating on this, Belkhali said, “Officials in some Moroccan institutions, as well as tourists and foreign journalists, have told me that by doing what I am doing, I am contributing to protecting the environment, stressing that old tyres could pollute the environment if they were burned or disposed of inappropriately by their old owners, and that I am giving them new life by recycling them.”

“At the beginning, some Moroccans would laugh and mock what I was doing, and some continue to do so even today. One day I was asked by a Moroccan woman about the price for a mirror frame made of motorbike tyre that was on display. I offered her the local “Moroccan” price which was a [comparatively] low 350 [MAD]. It was such a big frame that it took me three days to make. But she refused to buy it and said ‘Couldn’t you find a better job than manufacturing these trivial things?’ The strange thing is that I am going to sell this frame to a foreign tourist in a few days for 800 [MAD].”

Belkhali purchases bicycle tyres for 1.5 [MAD] and car tyres for 5 [MAD] and it is from these that he manufactures his products in his small shop. Belkhali said, “I place the rubber tyre between my hands, and then I move the scissors spontaneously, and finally reveal what might be a cup, or a pair of sandals, or frame for a photograph or mirror.”

Belkhali said that most of his customers are tourists and foreigners who have settled in Marrakesh, and that he deals with hotel owners who decorate their hotels with traditional [Moroccan] pieces. Belkhali went on to say that “Now there are foreign tourists who ask me to make large quantities for them in order for them to resell my products in their own countries. I am currently working on an order for a Moroccan who is residing in Sweden. What is funny is that it was Swedish tourists who had previously visited Marrakesh and purchased products from me who told that Moroccan about my shop here in Marrakesh.”

Responding to a question about whether international tyre manufacturing companies were aware of his work, Belkhali said, “A few weeks ago a French journalist interviewed me and took samples of my work. He told me that he will show my work to officials at the Michelin [Tyre Manufacturing] Company, and that they may send a gift to me to encourage my work out of appreciation as it is a form of publicity for their company, especially since I keep the French company’s logo on the tyres that I use in my work.”

Marrakesh is famous for its large number of motorcycles and bicycles because of its small streets. When motorbikes and bicycles drive past Belkhali’s shop, he gazes only at their tyres. When asked about what he feels when looking at all of these bicycles and motorcycles as they drive past his shop, Belkhali laughed and said, “No matter how many kilometres they travel, these tyres will end up in my hands and I will transform them into cups, tables, plates, and frames for photographs and mirrors.”