Interview with Hamza: The Ecosystem of Wisdom

The Interview Collection

I’m lucky to be surrounded by inspiring friends, and often take for granted that I get to have inspiring conversations on a daily basis.

It’s been on my radar for a while now to get down and write some of these conversations down for the greater good.

Not because we’re the most enlightened people in the world, (Lord knows, we’re far from it!) but because we’re lucky enough to be exposed to knowledge in our lines of work that I know a lot of other are seeking.

Sometimes I start to chat about this stuff with someone and it’s all a bit too much, so I’d like to build up a collection of interviews here for people to flick through in their own time, something I can point people too when we don’t get a chance to finish an interesting chat, because the baby needs a nappy change and we need to go home.

The first interview I’ve been dying to do is this. With my husband.

Hamza chatting with a brasssmith

I’ve been wanting to interview my husband for a long time now, and as funny as it sounds, trying to sit down and have a serious chat with my spouse about his work has proved to be one of the most difficult things imaginable.

If you know my husband, you’ll understand, since he’s constantly moving at a thousand miles an hour, but today I finally managed to sit him down and ask some questions I’ve been meaning to ask for a long time.

On the Ecosystem of Wisdom

Hamza has been involved in the world of craftsmanship here in Fes since about 2011, when as a masters student he grew interested in his father’s work.

Hamza’s father and master, El Hajj Mokhtar El Fasiki

He completed his masters thesis in Cultural Studies on the copper guild (Seffarine) of Fes, to which his father and many family members belong.

Having spent many long hours sitting with craftsmen, eventually he unexpectedly found himself moving away from the world of academia and into their world, learning a craft, one which he found steeped in ancient knowledge and wisdom.

“This, fundamentally, is what academia lacked. My education on a whole lacked wisdom. It was just knowledge, without wisdom”, Hamza tells me.

On Becoming a Craftsman

I ask him, to begin with, about the personal changes he has undergone since beginning this pathway into craftsmanship.

Even in the time I’ve known him, which isn’t yet five years, I’ve seen huge personal development in him. I point out that during the course of our relationship so far, he has changed the way he speaks, the way he behaves, even the friends he has.

“I find myself getting bored, now”, he says, “when I spend time with people of my own age”.

They don’t have wisdom to offer like the older craftsmen Hamza spends most of his days with, and whom he considers to be his friends now, in the sense that he spends his days with them, laughs with them, shares with them.

He gives an example. “When I’m late to deliver back the cups after drinking tea in the studio, the tea maker doesn’t just say “it’s ok”. He says “you only walk where God sends you”. In other words, it was written that you’d be late.”

“I don’t get these little pieces of wisdom, sitting with friends my own age.”

Hamza at work in his studio

I ask him to help me work out what our generation can learn from his journey into craftsmanship and the world of master and apprentice.

“Wisdom was never easy”, he begins. “You used to have to travel across country on foot to find your master. They would humiliate you, make you work your hardest, until finally, one day, you mastered your craft”.

Do we want knowledge this badly now, I wonder?

I also have had my own journey with masters and have often been told “one day, inshaAllah, you will arrive at your goal. But the journey will be long.” There seems to be a secret in this, the length of the time frame.

The Re-Orientation of Time

“Yes” hamza says. “You need a different relationship with time”, he confirms.

“In school and university education, you spend a term learning a subject and at the end of the term, you have a deadline, an exam and results. Our generation has become used to this kind of short-term gratification and success, and we don’t know how to sit for a decade, or a lifetime, and learn.”

“They always tell me, when you grow up, you’ll know. But I’m already in my 30s!” It requires a completely different kind of stamina and self-motivation.

“In craftsmanship you’re always in the process, there’s no graduation. You are always becoming and never have become.”

So, he tells me. The first lesson for us from craftsmanship is this. Work hard towards your long term goals, and don’t rely on others to motivate and push you. You need to have the burning desire for knowledge and the willingness to do anything for it.

Secrets Learnt From the Craft

It’s not all hard work for nothing though, he tells me. In craftsmanship, unlike standard education, you see the dots connect.

“I might do a maths problem correctly, but not ever understand it’s real-world usage.” But it’s not the same in craftsmanship, he says. “You instantly see the practical application of your learning, and when you succeed, you get a very complete sense of success.”

“You learn the value of repetition.” In repetition, he tells me, you are able to internalise the secrets of your craft, and in the process, they become a part of you.

For example, he tells me that in his craft, “there is no perfection, and no eraser”. A line once etched on metal is there forever (unless you melt the sheet down), and however much you strive for it, real perfection cannot be achieved with the hand.

A minute slip of the compass, and your pattern is incorrect.

“1001 thoughts are better than one clip of the scissors”, he tells me. It’s a proverb craftsmen use after you’ve made a mistake.

Copper etching by Master Mokhtar

I’m reminded of the incredible presence of mind required to do such work, which demands us to be constantly aware of every small movement of the hand, but also of posture, light and atmosphere. It goes without saying that true craftsmanship is an exercise in true patience.

The lessons we can learn from this in our own lives are obvious, it seems. It’s also clear that our own workplaces and classrooms are severely suffering from a lack of this kind of wisdom.

The Secrets of Geometry

But what else, I ask, have you learnt from your craft? The secrets absorbed in the process of quiet repetition.

He describes the process coppersmiths use to trace a five-pointed star. In order to not produce too many tracing lines on the copper sheet, the craftsman must guess, to begin with, where the points of the star must land on the circle.

“We take the radius of the circle, plus approximately a fifth. We walk the compass around the circle, making tiny adjustments until we arrive perfectly at the spot in which we begun.”

Any tiny inaccuracy to begin with will completely throw off the pattern.

I think this is true for many of us in life too. A little movement, one small decision, can lead us down a completely different path than we could have imagined. Either for good, or for bad.

The main secret he says, though, is finding a centre. Apprentices used to spend two years of their training finding the centre of different shaped trays.

It might have been an exercise in destroying their egos, but it was also steeped in wisdom.

“You’re starting from scratch, when you find the centre.” Hamza says. From that centre, your entire pattern will be formed.

“This is the purpose of our lives.” Re-orientated our centre, back to the state we were born in, completely pure and perfect.

“Finding the centre is the most difficult thing in life” Hamza says. I’ve heard this many times, but it still always hits a chord for me.

The third secret he has learnt from geometry, he says, is “balance”.

“If you hit a tray with little force on one side, and a big force on the other, you’ll end up with a wonky tray.” Hamza says. “The stamp won’t show up properly”.

Hamza’s Work

“You must stamp the same tool, in the same place, with the same force all the way around the tray in order to have a perfect pattern”. Geometry, like life, requires balance.

“How long do you spend eating? How long do you spend sleeping? How long do you spend working? Any of these things out of balance, and you won’t have a fulfilled life.”

It rings true for us both as we talk, since we’ve been striving so hard over these last few months to make things work. Restoring a house, work, parenting. Things have been off balance numerous times.

The Ecosystem of Wisdom

I can see him start to try and run off again. What should we conclude then, I ask.

“Embrace mistakes!” Is the first thing he says. There is no learning without them.

He points out that if you ask any of his masters for wisdom like this, you won’t get anything back from them. “They’ll pretend they don’t know”.

“There will always be a wall between our generation and these craftsmen. They create beauty without thinking about it”. Like bees creating honey, because it’s what they have always done.

“I can’t see our generation becoming as naturally wise as them. It would be too self-conscious, too romantic.” But we can still learn from them.

“The master craftsmen works in an orbit of other beings like him. Craftsmen alike, they trade in wisdom, create wisdom, they live and breath it. It is the Ecosystem of Wisdom.”

It’s our job, at the very least, to recognise and value it. To strive to be more like it. To learn the lessons it asks of us.

And to ask, however worrying it might be, “what will happen when these people are no longer here? How can we ensure the survival of this, a precious human ecosystem?”

We finish talking as the baby toddles back into the room from grandma, all smiles and wanting Baba to play with.

I’m left with all kinds of thoughts and feelings, revolutionary and quiet. On education, eldership and work.

For today, though, I decide to leave my notes aside, let them breathe. I go to do my ablutions as the time for prayer comes in, and stand hopefully, with as much presence as I can muster, on the prayer mat.

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