Visit to me­dieval Arab city in Morocco a trip back in time for Pen­tic­ton re­tiree

Penticton Herald - - FRONT PAGE - By GARRY LITKE

“Balak!” the leath­ery car­a­van driver shouts, im­pa­tience cloud­ing a tired face from un­der the pointed hood of his je­laba, pulled low against the crisp morn­ing air. Out of my way! A knot of pedes­tri­ans scram­bles to avoid his heav­ily-laden mules lum­ber­ing down the nar­row street to­ward the tan­nery.

We flat­ten our­selves into a door­way as the an­i­mals brush by. Piled hap­haz­ardly on their backs are the steam­ing skins of goats, newly sev­ered from car­casses now hang­ing at the neigh­bour­hood boucherie. Sev­eral hides slip off the top, plop­ping wetly onto the cob­ble­stones at our feet, bring­ing the pro­ces­sion to a halt. The driver grum­bles, and then strug­gles to fling the heavy pelts back onto the top of the heap, one at a time, be­fore con­tin­u­ing on his way.

We’ve been thrown back in time into the me­dieval Arab city of Fez, Morocco, for­got­ten by change, still pro­tected by a mas­sive wall and ac­cessed through ma­jes­tic Moor­ish gates dec­o­rated with elab­o­rate ce­ramic de­signs. Here, daily life car­ries on as it has for a thou­sand years. The Medina of Fez, its wind­ing maze of streets lined with a ca­coph­ony of com­pet­ing kiosks, was, for cen­turies, an im­por­tant link on com­mer­cial routes to Cairo and Damascus and home to the world’s first univer­sity.

To­day, we’re ex­plor­ing the Tan­nery, one of many “souks”, or mar­ket­places, in the Fez Medina fo­cused on a spe­cific, spe­cial­ized prod­uct. We’ve al­ready seen beau­ti­fully crafted, stamped brass prod­ucts in the metal souk, colour­ful rugs and blan­kets art­fully wo­ven be­fore our eyes in the tex­tile souk, and con­i­cal moun­tains of aro­matic spices in an­other. Even Ar­gan Oil, ground and re­fined from nuts soft­ened and fer­mented in a trip through a goat’s di­ges­tive sys­tem, com­mands its own ex­clu­sive shops.

But now, we’re out­side our com­fort zone, yet driven by cu­rios­ity about the an­cient process of con­vert­ing an­i­mal hides to hu­man cloth­ing for which Fez is known.

There’s no mis­tak­ing the odour of slaugh­ter, which in­creases in in­ten­sity as we ap­proach the renowned leather souk. Re­lief ap­pears out of nowhere in the form of a ver­dant branch of fresh mint, of­fered by Mo­hammed, a lo­cal youth in de­signer jeans and brand name sneak­ers — a tan­nery guide.

“Put this to your nose,” he ad­vises in ac­cented English. “It will help with the smell. Come. Let me show you our co-op.”

As we as­cend the spi­ral stair­case to the roof of his build­ing, Mo­hammed says he’ll pro­vide us with a great view of tan­nery op­er­a­tions, a co-op which em­ploys over a hun­dred fam­i­lies pro­duc­ing fine Moroc­can leather goods. Sim­i­lar build­ings vie for our at­ten­tion, each with their own rooftop view­ing plat­forms, lo­cal guides, and queasy tourists in­hal­ing hand­fuls of mint, sur­round­ing more than a hun­dred cir­cu­lar pits, each about five feet in di­am­e­ter.

From the rooftop, he ex­plains the Dan­tesque scene be­low. Raw hides are first im­mersed into a so­lu­tion con­tain­ing pi­geon “poop”, he in­forms us with a snig­ger. This pro­vides the am­mo­nia nec­es­sary for cur­ing leather in the tra­di­tional process. Af­ter soak­ing for a month in the brine, hides are scraped of hair, then dried on racks and fi­nally im­mersed into enor­mous vats of or­ganic dye. Red from pop­pies, green from mint, orange from henna, black coal, brown cedar and blue in­digo in­fuse their hues into cir­cu­lar caul­drons of so­lu­tion. Yel­low saf­fron, too ex­pen­sive for the large pits, is painted painstak­ingly onto se­lect skins af­ter they are dried.

Trans­fer­ring goatskins, sheep­skins, and camel hides from vat to drip­ping vat re­quires man­ual la­bor, men stained with colour drag­ging each hide from cur­ing tank to dry­ing rack, and on to colour­ing vats. They wade hip-deep in murky liq­uid, mov­ing their pre­cious com­mod­ity through the process un­til it is coloured, dried and soft­ened for the ar­ti­sans who cut and sew in tiny, dimly-lit work­shops down the street. There the leather is trans­formed into shoes and belts, purses and coats, hand-made prod­ucts claimed as se­cond to none in qual­ity.

Of course, that’s where we go next: shop­ping. Mo­hammed hands us off to Jawad, a lead sales­man in the three-storey, leather depart­ment store. All man­ner of leather jack­ets hang from floor to ceil­ing in one large room, at­tended by sales­peo­ple ea­ger to fit us with the gar­ment of our choice, from heav­ily-zip­pered mo­tor­cy­cle jack­ets, to soft, finely cut de­signer wear wor­thy of any fash­ion run­way.

Next, we find hand­bags of ev­ery shape and colour, and then, in an­other depart­ment, belts and shoes of unique de­sign. Fi­nally, a wall of slip­pers, ar­ranged in a rain­bow of shelv­ing, stacked to the roof. Prices are al­ways ne­go­tiable. “Re­mem­ber this is a co-op. Money goes to our fam­i­lies,” Jawad says.

We bar­gain, start­ing with half the ask­ing price.

“I like these shoes but you don’t have my size.”

“No prob­lem. We cus­tom make and de­liver to your ho­tel.” “Re­ally?” “Yes. Of course. My fam­ily works in this street,” he in­di­cates, point­ing at the open door. “They are wait­ing at their work­benches right now. They make shoes tonight. I will de­liver to­mor­row, to your room.”

You don’t get ser­vice like that in North Amer­ica.

Be­fore leav­ing Morocco, we’ll have pur­chased a del­i­cately-de­signed, soft leather jacket, three pairs of tra­di­tional pointed slip­pers, four colour­ful belts, five purses of vary­ing shape and size, and six pairs of hand-crafted shoes. But who’s count­ing? We’ll never have ac­cess to this qual­ity at these prices back home. And, oh yes. We’ve had to pur­chase an­other suit­case.

Af­ter a re­veal­ing and in­for­ma­tive morn­ing in the tan­nery district, we nav­i­gate the maze of Medina streets to a café far away from the smell. Chairs ar­ranged in au­di­ence-like rows en­able a mostly-male clien­tele to ob­serve the pass­ing the­ater of the street as they sa­vor tan-coloured cof­fee, creamy with rich goat-milk.

We order a crisp salad of bright coloured pep­pers, sweet toma­toes, sliced cu­cum­bers and spicy olives topped with a gen­er­ous help­ing of — you guessed it — de­li­cious goat cheese.

Some things don’t need to change.

Garry Litke is a re­tired English teacher and for­mer mayor of Pen­tic­ton whose hob­bies in re­tire­ment in­clude world travel.

Goatskins stretched to dry and painted with saf­fron.

Hides piled high on the backs of mules.

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