Silver & Mint: The Birth of the Moroccan Tea Ceremony
Mouna Fassi Fihiri shares the story of her great-grandfather, the man who brought tea-time to Morocco
Photos by: Virginie Faucher
When Mouna Fassi Fihri was young, she used to roam the dusty rooms of her grandparents’ house in Fez: the light filtered through shaded windows, the far cries of artisans at the market spoke of a wide world ready to be discovered by the hungry eyes of a curious child.
The corridors echoed with familiar noises: children running and laughing, adults chattering. But there was a subtler presence Mouna felt within her, ever since she’d heard the story of her great-grandfather, the family patriarch who had left Morocco to set up as a trader of luxury goods in Manchester in the XIX century.
Mohamed Zait belonged to the generation of Moroccan traders who made their fortune towards the end of the industrial revolution when the British were reaping the riches of new technologies that had revolutionized the world. Foreigners like Mohamed, though, couldn’t invest in the newly born industries and were relegated to trading between Britain and their home country. Thanks to a particularly flourishing market, Mohamed was able to introduce many luxury goods to the Moroccan élites, such as English furniture, porcelain, and crockery.
Though the details are blurred by the thin veil between history and legend, it seems Mohamed struck up a professional relationship and a sincere friendship with Mancunian businessman Richard Wright. The two decided to enter into a partnership to produce luxury tea sets for the newly born tea ceremony tradition, which had been slowly making its way into the Moroccan upper classes in the previous few decades. The social elite of Morocco adopted the habit of drinking tea from the British who came through Morocco. Teapots, sugar boxes, trays, and utensils for preparing tea became common in Morocco.
The Moroccan tea ceremony takes something as simple as making a brew and heightens into an experience that will take over all your senses: the smell of the fresh mint, the warmth of the gunpowder green tea, the sweetness of the sugar, the subtle hiss of the water boiling in the samovar next to the Tea Master.
While the brewing often happens in the privacy of the kitchen, the presentation happens rigorously in front of the guest, as a sign of welcome and respect. After pouring a couple of initial glasses and dumping the brew back into the pot to make sure the sugar and fresh mint mix in well, the Tea Master can show his virtuosity and pour the tea for his guest.
He starts with the teapot close to the rim of the glass, then elegantly lifts his arm up and away in a grand continuous gesture, meant to honour the guest and also aerate the tea, giving its typical frothy texture.
Back in the early 1900s, Mouna’s great-grandfather Mohamed designed new styles of teapots, kettles, tea and sugar boxes, incense burners, and samovars, which Richard Wright produced in his factory. Because the brand couldn’t be named after a foreigner, the fine silver crockery came down in history as Richard Wright’s, even though the original design had been Mohamed’s.
“My great-grandfather blended the English tradition of high-tea with Moroccan-influenced designs in a revolutionary way,” Mouna explains. “He designed the now well-known silver trays with feet, which are used to contain all the teapots, cups, glasses, sugar, tea, and mint boxes needed to prepare Moroccan tea, and which are laid on the ground in front of the Tea Master.”
In the early XX century, the silver tea sets started growing in fame around Morocco, while remaining unknown to the British market. Their distinguishing feature was the Arabic translation of Wright’s name, which was always engraved by Mohamed. In fact, the name Wright became the noun rayt, a word in the local dialect meaning “a metal of superior quality”.
Sadly the trade started fizzling out in the early 1920s after the Treaty of Fez established Morocco as a French protectorate, which made it too expensive to continue trading. Wright reinvented himself as a steelwork entrepreneur in Birmingham, until his factory was bombed in WWII, while Mohamed went back to Fez, where he was regarded as pretty much a king.
“He was a very big, very tall man,” Mouna recalls, “and he used to go about the town on his horse, which had a gold-embroidered saddle and silver stirrups. His house was the only one in the medina where cutlery was used and he had fine whiskey to entertain his guests with, while he played the piano… He always made such a scene!”
Three generations later, young Mouna managed to get into a room in her family house that had always been locked. In the semi-darkness, she could make out pieces of furniture, silver crockery, English porcelain, and large boxes covered in velvet that revealed a veritable treasure: her great-grandfather’s clothes.
Mouna couldn’t believe her eyes when she found an old pair of sandals that Mohamed had worn to undertake the journey of a lifetime, his pilgrimage to Mecca. She took them to a cobbler to get them resized to her feet and went on to wear them for years.
“I had grown up hearing stories about my great-grandpa, but in that exact moment, for the first time, I could feel him concretely. Through those sandals, he passed something down to me, maybe because shoes are what we use to march forward in life? From then on, I felt that I could achieve anything. If I had an idea, I could make it work, just like he had done in his lifetime.”
With her great-grandfather’s sandals to her feet, Mouna set off on a journey to define herself as an artist and as a designer. Today, Mouna is an award-winning interior and space designer in Morocco who is constantly challenging the boundaries of traditional Moroccon design.
Original photography by Virginie Faucher a wonderful Paris/Morocco-based photographer specializing in lifestyle, travel, portrait, and food photography. Her photography stems from the poignant combination of a dual documentary and artistic approach, which creates spontaneous portraiture with a focus on the small details. Check out her work on Instagram or her website.