March 10, 2014

The true meaning of a rose

The Rose of Morocco, directed and photographed by Laurie Castelli

“That which God said to the rose, and caused it to laugh in full-blown beauty, He said to my heart, and made it a hundred times more beautiful.”  Rumi

In a world of mass cultivation, thousands of varieties and Hollywood love stories, the rose has become so ubiquitous as to have its symbolism reduced to that of a superficial gesture of saccharine affection.

Yet, as far back as Classical Greece the rose was associated with Aphrodite, The Goddess of Love; In Christianity the rose relates to the blood of Christ as well as The Virgin Mary, but it is in the Islamic traditions that this sensual and evocative flower achieves its most mystical status.

The rose took pride of place in the geometric gardens of Iran and the Near East, as well as in Sufi poetry where it was often used to characterize the quest for a divine love.

I was unaware of all this as I set out to make a short documentary about the rose harvest in the Souss Massa Dra valleys of Morocco, but once we began the 6 hour car journey from Marrakesh across the High Atlas Mountains, I realized we were entering a very magical part of the world.

The rose harvest centres on the town of Kelaat M’Gouna, and its annual May rose festival, but as soon as we entered the surrounding green valleys dotted with pink damascene rose bushes, seemingly growing wild among the wheat fields, we began to smell the sweet scent of roses faintly in the air. It is for this scent, so valued by perfume makers, that the roses are harvested. Many tonnes of petals are collected by hand, mixed with water and distilled in order to extract a mere litre of their precious essence, in the form of pure rose water or rose oil.

Picking starts at dawn before the hot sun has time to damage the delicate flowers or diminish the scent of their petals. The first shafts of early morning sunlight illuminate the fields, and the women who do the picking, and the muted colours of their jellabas and derras (to cover their hair and much of their face) blend in, to create a scene from a painting. Feminine hands, trained through generations of practice, curl their fingers around the spiny stems, and with a gentle tug the small pink flower tumbles in to a cloth bag, or apron.

The roses arrive at the rather antiquated small distillation plant in large sacks, and are immediately weighed by the manager, Aîn Hamid, who explains to me the details of the process, as well as the significance of the rose for the region. The sacks are opened and their bright pink entrails are poured in to the old metal vats, releasing an intoxicating almost overwhelming perfume in to the room. Aîn studiously and deftly turns wheels and pulls levers, droplets of steam wake the pressure gauges, and the distillation process is under way. For us it is time to share a delicious tagine for lunch at Aîn’s home, surrounded by his friends, family and co-workers. By the time we return, all the vats of petals have been reduced to a brown sludge, but at the other end of all the plumbing, stands a small bucket filled with a rich, sticky nectar that will eventually find its way in to some of the most valuable cosmetics and perfumes in the world.

In Kelaat M’Gouna, and all the surrounding valleys, the rose isn’t just a flower, it is a way of life. Children on street corners sell roses to tourists, all manner of medicinal and magical products made from roses are sold in the shops of the bazars, a yearly festival celebrates the rose harvest by crowning the ‘Miss Rose’ of the valley. As Crach Ibrahim, of the local rose co-operative tells me, it is thanks to the rose that we can put clothes on our children’s back, and buy a sacrifice for our religious festivals, ‘Inshallah!’

As suggested by its name, it is said that the Damascene rose originated in Damascus, and spread its way through the Islamic kingdoms. Eventually it was the colonial French, and their tradition of perfumery that brought it back here to this mountainous region of Berber tribes, where the rose has truly taken root to become the defining cultural symbol of the region.

Whatever the history associated with rose growing here, there is a rare beauty about these mountains with deep gorges and fertile green valleys, that is matched by a warmth and hospitality of the local people, who would not let us leave without sharing at least some freshly toasted almonds, and a sweet mint tea. Perhaps the rose really is an embodiment of love, that has effected this mood of quiet calm and beauty that I found in Kelaat M’gouna.

“When the rose is gone and the garden faded
you will no longer hear the nightingale’s song.” Rumi

These four images were used as window displays in Liberty London.