Daily life in the traditional tanneries of Fez has changed little since the Middle Ages. The oldest and largest of these, Chaouwara, is also the most popular, but smaller places allow you to get a closer look at the city’s leather manufacturing industry and its centuries-old craftsmanship. They are also a great choice when it comes to getting away from the hustle and bustle of the main streets of the Medina.
The man jumped out of the crowd.” Hello again, you guys!”
His thin five features looked more characteristic during the day, but his sly smile was still the same as when he stopped us in the street last night, shortly after we arrived in Fez. Before my girlfriend and I could react, he offered us marijuana, selling it on the Moroccan police’s ‘other-eye view’ of light poison.” Not coming to Italy,” he said, gleefully implying that he had guessed my nationality at first sight. We refused, and he let us go with a simple “goodbye”. Obviously, he meant it literally.
Now, in the early morning hustle and bustle of Talaa Kebira Street, his interest has turned to the tour guide. Our plan to visit the Chaouwara tannery was not approved by him: it was for tourists, he said, and tourists were not even allowed inside, and the visit took place on the adjacent terrace. It wasn’t worth it. If we want to see the real thing, we should visit a smaller tannery nearby. And naturally he can show us.
His half-cunning, half-clumsy ways don’t quite convey his credibility, but he’s also not so much as to give the impression that he’s a misanthropic man. Plus, at this time of our trip, getting out of the crowd is just what we need.
The early morning hustle.
We’ve been roaming for about two hours now, and we’re still immersed in Fitz’s medina for first-time visitors. In my memory, the things we saw on the way to Bou Jeloud’s door included: piles of spices that smelled so mixed and rich that it was tantalizing to smell them; the malnourished cats on the street, unaware that one of the luckier cats was devouring the thick chunks of meat that had fallen to the butcher’s floor; the kebabs in the display cases that were temptingly grilled in oil and onions. A rooster on a birdcage with two rabbits in the cage; a pile of at least 500 eggs; people lining up to spread cheese triangles on buttermilk bread, topped with honey or olive oil; a long clay-colored shirt with a pointed hood, a color I’ve only seen in the Star Wars movies.
Standing by the horseshoe-shaped arch of the gate, we joined the queue for cheese triangles (which we didn’t find particularly delicious). We stopped at Medersa Bou Inania to take photos in the courtyard, zooming in on the geometric wooden forms and meandering Arabic calligraphy that serve as a link between the zellige mosaics and the finely carved plaster paintings. On the way back, one of the two rabbits was gone, the rooster had been moved into a cage, a stocky shopkeeper had shouted away a tourist for pointing his camera at her cloth shop, and a porter had skittered through the crowd pushing a rather large wheelbarrow full of snails up the hill.
Happy to be temporarily removed from such lively people, sights and activities, we followed the man into a narrow alleyway and away from the happy chaos of the central axis.
Look the other way.
The path winds and twists, making it impossible to see more than 20 meters ahead. Our self-proclaimed guide pointed to the seemingly abandoned house and said it was a Berber residence. Then he quickened his pace before we had time to speak. Soon he was walking ahead of us, his dark and somewhat lean figure occasionally sliding behind a curve in the street.
Just as we struggled to catch up, the faint roar of an engine broke the silence of this quiet Medina region. It approached quickly from where we couldn’t see, prompting the man to take a leap to the right and disappear around the corner. By the time we got to the crossroads, there was no trace of him. It turned out to be the roar of two police motorcycles, riding past us and down the road we had come from. We spotted the man at a couple of turns, and he waved at us as he walked backwards.” It’s okay!” “They know me,” he said cheerfully.
By the next stop, we had nothing to worry about that had anything to do with the police. An unbearable stench pervaded the street relentlessly, and the opening in the wall the man wanted us to enter looked like its epicenter. Nonetheless, we followed him into a small yard where a workman was handling the scraps, soaking them in the murky stagnant water. The man explained that unwanted parts of the animal were being removed from the skin, a process that utilized raw lime and cow urine. We found the source of the stench in a pile of rotting pelts next to us, with hides, fur, flesh, fat and claws.” Please feel free to take pictures.” The man said before we left.
A short time later, we arrived at the tannery.
Colorful pits, hanging skins and water wheels.
At the entrance, we were handed half-wilted mint buds. They are supposed to filter the stench, not half as pungent as the yard we just visited. We stayed behind while our guys negotiated with some of the guys who seemed to be running the venue. Whatever the negotiations were, they were successful, and after a few moments, we were given permission to enter the interior of the complex.
On one level are irregularly shaped potholes, embedded in each other like Tetris, filled with different mixtures of liquids, forming one colorful cube after another. The higher floors, on the other hand, are scattered with rows of scaffolding and covered terraces. The pace of work doesn’t seem intense, but the work in the tannery is in full swing. Some of the tanners stood in the pit, while others walked around it with unusual agility. We also had to be careful to jump over the slippery ground next to the water wheel, the repeated creaks and splashes hinting that we had to be careful or we would trip and fall into the murky water and it would be bad.
At this point, the man’s paraphrase reads like a proper guide: the mixture of water, salt, raw lime, and cow’s urine has a corrosive effect and helps to remove the excess flesh attached to the animal’s skin; after soaking there for three days, the skins are roughly scrubbed, washed, and then placed in other pits filled with water and pigeon droppings; the ammonia contained in this mixture softens the skins, and the tanner kneads them with his hands and feet.
We climbed the narrow, winding steps. Leaning against the railing on the upper floor, the guide pointed to the first floor, which split in two. “Berber Square on one side and Arab Square on the other,” he said, emphasizing his words with a broad gesture.
In one of the many workshops located on the first floor, a worker was scrubbing the hides with a large, serrated knife. Leather that has been softened is sanded and turned into leather and is ready to absorb the dye.
Today it’s yellow.
The tanners barely acknowledged our presence and seemed neither intrusive nor excited by the visitors. In fact, it wasn’t until we got to the rooftop that we saw the other tourists, a family of three who were being shown around, walking around the rooftop as we were.
“It’s yellow today!” Our guide claimed that there were dozens of stained animal skins lined up around us, lined up two by two above a large strip of carpet. The carpet itself has a pale yellow hue (not the original color), which, combined with the floor tiles and the cobbler’s leather shoes, gives the patio a bright monochrome look.
The tour guide said the yellow dye is a mixture of saffron, oil and other elements. Because of the high cost of saffron, this mixture is applied to each piece of leather by hand in moderate amounts, rather than soaking it with pitted leather. He stressed that all the dyes are natural and no chemicals are used in the making: red from poppies, orange from chickadees, blue from indigo, green from mint and brown from cedar wood.
While traditional dyeing agents may still be used today, it’s safe to say that cheap, effective chemical products, like those used elsewhere in the tanning industry, were introduced here not too long ago. This, coupled with a process without machinery, is likely to pose a health risk to workers. In other words: a tanner standing thigh-deep in stinking water while softening moldy hides may be a fascinating silhouette of a traditional craft, performed with centuries-old methods, but not worth his long and unsafe exposure to toxic chemicals.
This raises questions about the role tanneries play in Fez today. The three tanneries in Medina serve mainly the tourism industry, thanks to the establishment of a large-scale leather manufacturing industry (more than 50 modern factories) in the industrial area of the city. They attract tourists, produce a variety of quality leather goods and are one of the most popular souvenirs in Morocco. They are also precious and historic pieces that leave a deep imprint of ancient craftsmanship in the hearts of the locals. Chaouwara, in particular, has been in business since the early history of Fez in the 11th century.
Recent developments have shown that modernization does not necessarily hinder the transmission of tradition. Between 2015 and 2016, Chaouwara underwent a year-long refurbishment that included a new waste disposal system, and its timeless vibe was left unaltered. The same logic can drive future innovation if further health or environmental issues are to be addressed.
View from the mountains.
Before we left, our guide suggested that we ascend the hill next to the tannery for a final view, insisting that someone would take us to the exit when we returned. His happy response showed that we tipped him more than he expected, but the trip was well worth it. If it weren’t for him, we would certainly have missed the opportunity to get up close and personal with the city’s old tannery industry in this way.
We walked up the mountain path until we reached the wall that marked the northern edge of the medina. There were dozens of half-finished hides down the hill, and the last tanner was laying them. On the hillside, there were many small houses, empty walls, and sand-colored terraces, huddled together as far as the eye could see, so that you could hardly see what was inside.