Mohammed Sultan Tajouri, The Man Underneath The Kachabia

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Mohammed Sultan Tajouri is of Benghazi origin in Libya. He was born and lives in Manchester, England, home to 10,000 Libyans– the largest population outside Libya. Tajouri is deeply interested in Libyan culture, history, and tradition. Due to many factors, much of these components have been buried beneath the soil in the past 100 years. His passions expand to neighboring countries, including south Tunisia and east Algeria. He notes the similarities between western Libyan and southern Tunisia culture, from attire and jewelry to dialect. His interest in Libyan clothing whether it has links to Ottoman, Andalusian or Maghrebi tradition comes to no surprise, his Instagram page @NorthAfriqiya is where he is known for selling kachabias. He has also expressed appreciation for the vast Islamic history that connects these countries together, particularly the Senussiya tariqa that originated in western Algeria and eventually spread to eastern Libya.

Like Madghis Madi, the Libyan with the largest personal collection of North African antiques, Tajouri has a knack for collecting himself. He collects vintage books, postcards and anything else tied to Libya. Sometimes the books aren’t in English, he mentions a German book from the 1950/60s with pictures rarely found online. He emphasizes the gap of digital resources on Libya, “We lack the information online compared to our neighboring countries,” he says. His postcards date back to different generations, ranging from the 50s to the 80s. He talks about his favorite part of the postcards, the letters written on the back. For instance, he found one sent by a British man who went to Tripoli on a business trip and was detailing the beauty of the city to his family, its weather, people, and food. Tajouri even tries to collect old Libyan silver, which is on the pricier end. He says, “I try my best. It’s a very expensive hobby. It’s a myth collecting it, especially being outside of your country, and when you do find it, you find it for crazy amounts of money. I do have a few pieces, anklets, bracelets, head pieces, which I usually get through auction.”

The Forgotten Country

“We’ve been left out from the rest of North Africa for 42 years. Our population is small, the only thing people really knew about was through our leader Gaddafi. You can imagine why people never knew much about us. Everything was controlled by the government, a certain type of image they wanted to give off, which never represented the majority. We should represent everyone.”

He continues, “There’s certain things that painted Libya in a certain light, which weren’t really true, so people thought, ‘What is this country?’. They’ve always been confused about us and left us on the sidelines, which makes sense. Libyans themselves don’t even, not every single one of them, but the majority don’t even know their true culture, their true identity. The generation born in the 1960s, they lived all their lives during the Gaddafi regime, that’s all they’ve known, for 42 years. They’ve just been taught his ideology through education, through the media. How can we blame others for not knowing who we are when we ourselves don’t know who we are?”

“But I’m glad now, for the past 5, 6 years, especially from social media, Twitter, Instagram, especially Twitter, people are really working hard to expose our culture, our history. Libyans are going out of their way to learn which is important because at the end of the day, it’s good to know who you are and what your country is.”

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NorthAfriqiya and the Iconic Kachabia

When Tajouri visited Libya, he’d see his cousins with a kachabia, which has its origins in Tunisia but is also a part of Libyan and Algerian culture. Tajouri mentions old shops in Libya circa the 50s and 60s that would sell kachabias.

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Souq El Musheer, Tripoli, Libya, 1959. Kachabia on the top left.
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Three Libyan girls (farthest left is wearing a kachabia) in Ghadames, 1960s.

“I’ve always wanted one, I had been planning to own one for ages, and said I was going to go to Libya in the summer, get one and come home. But I never got the chance to go. And then one of my friends came back and he was wearing one. I was like, ‘No way you got it!’ He goes, ‘Yeah, my uncle owns a shop’. I started thinking, ‘I need one.'”

Tajouri’s friend went to Libya that same year around Christmas and got him one. Tajouri has been wearing it ever since.

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“My other friend went to Tunisia and got one as well, and we started wearing it at university all the time, around the street, around my area. People used to stop me and go, ‘Where did you get this from? What’s this jacket?’ Loads of people were like, ‘Where can I get one?’ so I’m like, ‘Okay, there’s a demand. Why don’t I bring it over?’ Because within the Libyan community specifically, especially here in Manchester, there’s such a void, there’s no one here doing cultural attire, something that’s connecting us to back home. I felt like if I bring that here, people have something. It’s a good feeling to separate yourself from others and show off your culture. It’s a conversation starter as well. People were really interested, especially Libyans and other ethnic minorities.” Tajouri realized then he could offer the missing puzzle piece.

The Process

“I started off confused. I didn’t know anything, I didn’t know no one to speak to.” Exactly a year ago, Tagouri reached out to his sister and her husband who were living in Tripoli at the time. He told them to get kachabiat, speak to someone who sells them and get in contact with the person that supplies them. Tajouri figured since he’s not a competitor that they should be cool with passing the contact. But turns out, they weren’t willing to share. He decided he’d buy the kachabiat from the seller himself and thought the mutual help would be good reason enough to do business that way. Unfortunately, the seller ended up taking advantage of Tajouri’s desperation and position in the West. “He knew I wasn’t really experienced or had any knowledge about anything on the business side of things. I told him the sizes and colors I wanted, some of them came in opposite of what I asked. But, ‘It is what it is,’ I said to myself.” Tajouri recognized he was starting off from somewhere, even if that meant being charged far too much. “I said to myself, ‘I need to do this.’ I remember I wasn’t even breaking even, I was making a loss for awhile, and then breaking even,  it was awhile until I slowly started seeing a bit of profit. I told myself, ‘I’m willing to do this just to give people a chance to buy a kachabia and get something from back home, and to expose the business, and to show people what I’m doing.’ I’m doing something for the community.”

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For shipping, Tajouri got in contact with a company based in Manchester and Tripoli. They told him it’d take 5-6 days, as long as the kachabiat were sent to them packed in a box ready to go. It turned out to be nearly 3 weeks of Tajouri waiting and calling with no response. “It took ages for it to arrive. I should’ve expected it, since Libya is not a stable country. There’s delays and things that happen that you don’t expect.” After awhile, Tajouri started to give up after experiencing the difficult and longwinded nature of managing a business that depended on cooperation overseas. He knew something had to change. He went to Libya that December for a month and a half and set himself on a mission to find someone to speak to that could help. “All directions were leading to Tunisia. Everybody would tell me Tunisia, Tunisia, Tunisia. No one will give you the supplier, but go to Tunisia. I wasn’t financially able to go to Tunisia, so I went back to the UK. I was back to square one.”

He didn’t stop there. “I was on Google, I started searching in English, nothing came up. Searched in Arabic, nothing came up. And then I was like, ‘Okay, what’s a second language in Tunisia? French. Let me try.’ I just put in English translated into French, boom, a business came up.” Curious enough, the business Tajouri found sells both diapers… and handmade attire. He emailed them, no response. He gave them a call through Whatsapp, and thankfully was able to partner up with a woman named Hayat who deals with sellers. “She’s a great person, she’s top in business. She handles the shipping, everything. She made it easier for me, but the difficult thing is finding the person who makes it, and that’s my goal.”

He continues, “I need to travel to Tunisia and especially the South to find that person.”

For now, he’s working with Hayat who luckily has the same mindset as Tajouri. Her main concern is supporting local craftsmenship, rather than being profit-oriented. “She’s really into preserving the Tunisian culture, so that’s the best thing we have in common.” Hayat even left the company she was working for and carried on with Tajouri’s project. “And thank God Tunisia is stable, because the shipping from there is easy. It’s still expensive, but it’s easy, ’cause it reaches to my door in 2, 3 days straight.”

Recently, Hayat visited the coastal town of Beni Khiar and sent Tajouri photos and videos of a man who makes kachabia the traditional way (photographs below).

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“I want to show people this is a timely process. It’s not a simple thing. There’s skill.” Tajouri was caught off guard seeing the videos and pictures, “I was just taken in by the video, I was just imagining, ‘If this is just me watching through my phone, how would it be like if I’m actually there?” Tajouri is amazed at how threading comes so naturally for these crafters.

Ethical Fashion and Preservation of Tradition

Tajouri expresses his love for Tuniq, another North African brand. “They can do anything and I’ll love it and support it,” he says. Tajouri deeply appreciates their way of displaying the rudimentary elements that go into making the clothing and giving a face to those who weave them by hand. From purifying the wool to make a bernous, to hearing the story of the designer himself who speaks of the craft passed down generationally, consumers have intimate insight on the source of their purchases. Tajouri points out that while the items can be seen as expensive, understanding the process that goes behind the scenes makes it worth the money. More importantly, “they pay them [the workers] the correct wage.” Unlike many who are taken advantage of, “they aren’t being ripped off.”

“Not only are they doing this to support them, they’re safeguarding the traditional method. That’s what we need right now, because with everything that’s going on, with modernization, they’re [North Africans] leaning toward jeans and a t-shirt, these things are being left behind. And what Tuniq is doing is keeping that process alive.”

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“I love what they do. It’s a wage they can live with, support their family with. I feel like it actually encourages them to carry on with what they’re doing. They can say, ‘Ok this skill from my grandparents passed down to my parents, passed down to me, is worth it.’ Not only that, it encourages their children.” By being financially respected as an artisan, Tajouri says their children won’t feel the need to move into a different city in search for employment. “What they [Tuniq] do impacts so many people, and I don’t think people realize that. It really is ethical fashion. Power to them. If I ever had the money to buy anything from Tuniq, I’d buy everything they sell. The quality, everything, is just perfect. I wish I could hit to what they’re doing. It’s a goal of mine to do that.” Tajouri also admires the family-knit organization of the business, and the relationship the owners have with the artisans themselves.

Consumerism

“It’s a great thing to feel like, ‘I’m representing my culture, North African culture,’ but it’s much deeper than that. We’re born and bred in a society where it’s all about consumerism, we’re constantly buying clothes at H&M and Zara, three of the same t-shirts of different colors, you wear it once then it’s just in the wardrobe collecting dust. I’m guilty, I collect shoes, I’ve been doing this since I was young. It came to a point where, like I realized, ‘What am I doing here?’ I’m buying shoes I wear several times and then I don’t like them no more, or keeping them for some nostalgic feeling. I have shoes that have been in the box for like 6, 7 years which doesn’t make sense. Why?”

“We definitely buy just to have. We don’t even buy to wear. I feel like sometimes we just buy t-shirts and jeans and jackets just to have them, and just to feel like, ‘Okay I’ve got this amount of things but I’m going to constantly wear my favorite t-shirt or this pair of pants.’ Like, what’s the point? We spend so much money on these items, that don’t even last. You wash it once, and they wear out, or you wear it for one day, and it smells, and you find yourself throwing it away. All this money that we spend on these companies that pay people less than a pound, we could be saving our money for businesses like Tuniq, buy something that will last you for a lifetime, and it’s connected to your culture, and you’re supporting local artisans, and you’re supporting this traditional method of making a garment. You’re affecting so many people, you’re even supporting the economy. People need to know the impact they have on with buying just one kachabia or one bernous. It has a massive impact.”

Tajouri remembers his grandad who owned a jerid, or holi, worn in southern Tunisia and Ghardaia, Algeria as well. He raises the point that these fabrics don’t absorb sweat the way our cheap ones do. “My sister’s husband, he was telling me about how his dad has a jerid which was passed down from his grandparents. It went from his grandparents, to his dad, to him, and he has it to this day, and is going to pass it to his eldest son. These things last for ages. Things made back home are not made just to be worn once or thrown away. No, they’re made to last you forever. They’re made to pass down to your grandchildren, and your great-great grandchildren. There’s a beauty to it, there’s a story to it, there’s history to it.”

“In Sha Allah, in the future I’m really thinking of starting to bring things from Libya, especially our traditional clothing, the bedla, the jerid, etcetera, but I know there’s not a lot of people who will be really after them, because they’re the type of clothing you wear at weddings, or Eid, during celebrations. I was really thinking of doing that but with the situation of the country, it’s not really helping.” He says if Tuniq is going to sell the jerid, he’ll be the first one to buy one. “I’ve been wanting a proper one. In south Tunisia, and Jbel Nafousa in Libya, those are best quality. I have a friend from Yefren, I think he told me his neighbor makes them by hand. This jerid, when you see it, you think, ‘Okay, this is a big, massive white cloth that you wrap around yourself, whatever.’ People don’t realize it takes a whole year to make a proper, good quality jerid.  In Libya they’re expensive. You know the ones that are fake or a proper one by the stitching at the ends. There’ll be symbols, those symbols represent Mazigh families in Jbel, and you know each family, you’ll know which town it’s from. There’s so much time and effort put into it. It’s expensive, but it’s understandable. The price you’re paying is deeper than you just wearing it just to be like, ‘Oh look at me, I’m North African.'”

“We live in a time where everything is just machine-made. Hardly anything is handmade nowadays. When things are machine-made, they wear down very quick. That’s why I love the idea of Tuniq. I do have kachabiat that are half hand-made and half machine-made, but I try my best to keep it 100% traditional.”

“When people buy something from back home, especially if it’s handmade, it’s such a big deal. We should encourage it, but we exaggerate it so much when we should actually make it the norm just like how we buy t-shirts or a pair of jeans or a coat. We should promote it constantly and make it seem like it’s normal so other people go out of their way to buy it.”

The Whirlwind of Business

“Everything is baby steps. I’m still learning, I’m still gaining experience, I don’t know everything in this business. But I learn. My goal is to have a true bond and connection with the people who make the kachabia. You have a true connection with them, you speak to them, you know their name, they know your name. You know what they’re about, they know what you’re about.” Tajouri has no desire to take advantage of earnest artisans.

Tourism is not stability

“We all rely on tourism as if that’s the sole solution to everything.” Tajouri believes that it is North Africans themselves who should support artisan businesses rather than placing the future of their craft in the hands of eager foreign visitors. He also makes the point that because tourism is based on certain seasons, it isn’t a sustainable way of boosting the economy. “Tourists themselves, when they come over Tunisia or Morocco, they try to get a discount constantly. Instead of that, why don’t we buy from our own? Everyone thinks tourism is the solution to our craftsmanship, the problem is us.”

Walk the walk

Tajouri bumped into an old high school friend he hadn’t seen in 4 months recently on campus. He showed Tajouri his camera roll and it was filled with photos of NorthAfriqiya and of Tajouri wearing the kachabia. He told Tajouri he was doing his dissertation on how Muslim youth in the UK incorporate their heritage into UK culture, street culture in particular. After his friend broke it down for him, he realized he does in fact blend these two identities, synthesized by his mixing and matching of clothing, like a kachabia over a track suit and a pair of Air Max 95s.

Tajouri wants people to know that the kachabia doesn’t have to be worn in a specific cultural setting, it doesn’t have to go over a jellaba or thobe. “You can wear it with whatever you want,” he says confidently. The kachabia is versatile.

“It’s great to make people aware of certain things, but then again, it’s even more important to take action. Through NorthAfriqiya, I’m taking action. Even if it’s a small impact, it’s an impact.”

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