In many ways, Muhammad Al-Wakeeli is indistinguishable from any other Moroccan man. He speaks one language, enjoys a good jog, and prays five times a day in a country whose population is 99 percent Muslim. But his knobby hands, calloused by years of woodworking while others were pursuing a higher education, hint at something that sets him apart: he has a job.
"With selling and buying, you can easily have someone replace you, -- but having someone who’s mastered [woodwork] is very rare. It’s valuable. Not everyone can do what I do."
Wakeeli, 26, is a master artisan. He skillfully crafts intricate bone and wire-laden furniture of a superior caliber. Without so much as a high school diploma, he has managed to stay afloat in a country of unemployed degree holders. According the recent High Commission for Planning Labor report, 18 percent of degree holders in Morocco were unemployed in 2013. However, Wakeeli’s pragmatism, perseverance, and resourcefulness have already begun to yield results.
"When I failed the eighth grade, I dropped out of school,” Wakeeli said. “I was forced to take up a profession after I left school. I needed money."
More than a decade later, his peers have become the ones playing catch up to him. A nation-wide lack of jobs has led thousands of unemployed degree holders to protest in front of parliament in the country’s capital, Rabat. The recent graduates are calling on the government to develop industries that would put professional degree holders to work while at the same time stimulate the country’s development.
As countries all over the world modernize, the reliance upon artisan skills is shrinking because of the increased use of machines. In Morocco and other developing countries, however, these crafts are still highly regarded and sought after.
“It’s called wood carving; it’s an art here,” Wakeeli said. “It can be useful for anything in the house, anything related to wood. It can be done for the ceiling, it can be done for curtains – everything related to wood.”
Wakeeli estimates there are only 10 other people in Rabat with his level of mastery. Most are actually based in Sale, a neighboring city.
He started learning his craft eight years ago, the year before his father died. The sudden loss of his father, who died at 48, forced him and his brother to become the family breadwinners. This accelerated the pace of his informal apprenticeship.
"I had to move forward and support my family, and take over,” he said. “You have to forget sometimes, so you can survive and move forward. You leave the present, but not the past, and start a new life, little by little."
Professions like woodcarving are valuable because they are a form of artistry that require time to master. Only select artists reach the stage where they can envision and create a beautiful work of art like those that Wakeeli designs.
“At the very beginning, the owner who taught me did not let me do things with my hands,” he said. “He only asked me to watch and observe. He would send me to get things for him, like coffee and cigarettes.”
He puts in long days, arriving at the workshop with the first rays of golden sun and leaving long after dark has descended upon the capital. Nearly a decade later, Wakeeli has mastered his craft.
"I started from nothing,” he said. “Bit by bit, I watched and sold things that I could make easily."
With practice, projects that once seemed difficult became easy.
Pointing out the ornate, silver-lined segments of walnut, rose and sandalwood embedded with oddly shaped bits of bone that now line his shop, he said, “What I’m doing is not very hard.”
Each one-meter-long piece takes up to two days to complete and sells for 400-900 dirhams ($50-100), depending on the wood and the design of the piece. Wakeeli takes great pride in not soliciting customers. The free market nature of the art, he believes, encourages excellence and drives creativity.
"Some shops provide items that I couldn’t,” he said. “It’s more about innovation. So I actually create some new designs that other shopkeepers cannot."
But Wakeeli still works for his boss, who owns the space where he works. It is too expensive for him to rent his own space. Thus, his boss takes the credit for Wakeeli’s new designs and the money.
“Working for someone else means that he just takes whatever you think and makes it his own,” Wakeeli said. “He gives you the minimum, and he takes the maximum.”
Since the beginning, Wakeeli has aspired to one day start his own shop. After supporting his family, he saves what is left of his meager wage each month to support his dream.