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