A detour in the medina: Fez’s lesser-known tanneries

by Andrea Gambaro  |  Published May 7, 2019

The daily routine at the traditional tanneries of Fez has changed little since medieval times. The oldest and largest of them, Chaouwara is also the most popular, but the smaller sites provide a more intimate encounter with the city’s leather-making industry and its centuries-old techniques. They are also an excellent option when in need of a break from the hubbub of the medina’s main streets.

Blank walls and small houses are a constant backdrop in the medina of Fez (Photo: Andrea Gambaro)

The guy jumps out of nowhere in the middle of the crowd: “Hello again!”

His skinny features look more defined in the daylight, but his crafty smile is the same he sported last night when he stopped us in the street, shortly after our arrival in Fez. Before my girlfriend and I knew it, he was offering us hash, making a selling point of the Moroccan police’s look-the-other-way approach on light drugs. “Non come in Italia,” he said, amused to imply he had guessed my nationality at first sight. We declined and he let us go with a simple “see you later”. Which, apparently, he meant literally.

Now, amid the morning bustle of Rue Talaa Kebira, his interests have switched to guided tours. Our plans of visiting the Chaouwara tannery don’t meet his approval: that is for tourists, he says, visitors are not even allowed inside and the tour takes place on the adjoining terraces. It isn’t worth it. If we want to see the real thing, we should visit a smaller tannery which happens to be nearby. And naturally, he can take us there.

His half-cunning, half-clumsy ways don’t exactly convey trustworthiness, but he doesn’t come across as ill-intentioned either. Plus, at this point of our visit, a break from the crowds is just what we need.

The minaret seen from the courtyard at Medersa Bou Inania (Photo: Aina Pomar)

Morning bustle

We have been roaming around for about two hours, and we are still under the bewildering spell the medina of Fez casts on first-time visitors. My recollection of what we saw along the way to Bou Jeloud gate includes: piles of spices emitting a scent so mixed and intense it goes to your head; malnourished-looking cats on the side of the street unaware of a luckier one devouring a thick cut of meat dropped on the butcher’s floor; alluringly-thin skewers sizzling in oil and onions inside a display case; a rooster on top of a bird cage containing two rabbits; a heap of at least 500 eggs; people queueing to get a cheese triangle spread on batbout bread and topped with either honey or olive oil; a clay-coloured tunic with a pointed hood the likes of which I had seen only in Star Wars movies.

After standing by the gate’s horseshoe arches we joined the queue for the cheese triangle (which we didn’t find particularly tasty). We stopped at Medersa Bou Inania and took pictures in the courtyard, zooming in on geometric wooden shapes and sinuous Arabic calligraphy used as a connecting link between zellige mosaics and elaborately-carved plasterwork. On the way back, one of the two rabbits was missing and the rooster had been moved inside the cage, a hefty shopkeeper shouted a tourist away for pointing the camera at her fabric shop, a porter panted his way through the crowd pushing a considerably large cart overflowing with snails uphill.

We are happy to disengage for a while from such a vibrant variety of people, sights and activity, so we follow the guy into a narrow alley and leave behind the blissful chaos of the medina.

Away from the crowds of the medina (Photo: Andrea Gambaro)

Look the other way

The path winds and breaks so that one can never see more than 20 metres ahead. Our self-appointed guide indicates seemingly-abandoned houses and says they are Berber dwellings. Then he picks up his pace before we can even attempt to start a conversation. Soon he is walking well ahead of us, his dark and somewhat lanky figure occasionally slipping behind the curve of the street.

As we struggle to keep up, an engine’s faint roar breaks the silence of this quiet part of the medina. It approaches fast from somewhere we can’t see, prompting the guy to leap to his right and disappear around the corner. There is no sign of him when we reach the crossroads. The roar turns out to be that of two police motorcycles, which ride past us and along the way from which we came. We find the guy a few turns away, as he makes his way back, waving at us: “It’s all right!” he says cheerfully, “they know me”.

At the next stop, what we have to worry about has nothing to do with the police. An unbearable stench is relentlessly filling the street, and the opening in the wall where the guy wants us to enter looks like the epicentre of it. Still, we follow him into the small courtyard, where a worker is handling shreds of material, soaking them in murky, stagnant water. The guy explains that the unwanted parts of the animal are being removed from the hides, a process which utilises quicklime and cow urine. With that, we spot the source of the stench in a stack of rotting pelts sitting next to us, complete with fur, fleece, flesh, fat and paws. “Feel free to take pictures”, says the guy before we leave.

Shortly after we arrive at the tannery.

The pits are filled with softening or dyeing mixtures (Photo: Andrea Gambaro)

Coloured pits, hanging hides and water wheels

At the entrance we’re handed half-wilted mint sprigs. They are supposed to filter out the stench, which is not half as pungent as in the courtyard we had just visited. We stay behind while our guy talks to some people who seem to be running the site. Whatever the negotiation is about, it is successful, and moments later we have the go-ahead to move forward inside the complex.

On the ground floor are irregularly-shaped pits slotted into each other like Tetris tiles, filled with different mixtures of liquid to form a multicoloured square. The higher levels are scattered with rows of hanging hides packed under scaffolding and covered terraces. The work pace doesn’t seem hectic, but the tannery is fully operational. Some tanners are standing inside the pits, while others walk along the edges with remarkable agility. We too need to be careful as we jump across a slippery surface next to a water wheel, the repetitive creaking and splashing suggesting it would be a bad idea to trip and fall into the turbid water.

The guy’s commentary is now that of a proper tour guide: the mixture of water, salt, quicklime and cow urine has a corrosive effect which helps to remove the excess flesh attached to the skin of the animal; after soaking there for up to three days, the hides are roughly scrubbed, washed and placed in other pits filled with water and pigeon droppings; the ammonia contained in this mixture softens the hides while the tanner kneads them with his feet and hands.

We climb up narrow, twisting steps. Leaning against the railing on the upper level, the guide points towards the ground floor, divided in two parts: “The Berber square to one side, the Arab to the other,” he says, emphasising his words with broad gestures.

Inside one of the many workshops located on the first floor, a worker is vigorously scrubbing hides with a large mezzaluna blade. Already softened, the hide thus polished becomes leather and is ready to absorb dye.

Yellow everywhere (Photo: Andrea Gambaro)

Today yellow

The tanners barely acknowledge our presence, seeming neither bothered nor thrilled by visitors. In fact, we don’t see any other tourists until we reach the rooftop, where a family of three is being shown around the same way we are.

“Today yellow!” our guide declares, surrounded by dozens of dyed hides lined up two by two on top of large striped carpets. The carpets themselves have yellowish tinges (not their original colour), as well as the floor tiles and the tanners’ shoes, making the rooftop terrace a bright monochromatic sight.

The guide says the yellow dye is derived from a mixture of saffron, oil and other elements. Since saffron can be costly, the mixture is applied by hand-rubbing moderate amounts to individual pieces of leather, rather than by soaking them in pits. He stresses that all the dyes are natural and no chemicals are used during the process: red from poppy flowers, orange from henna, blue from indigo, green from mint and brown from cedar wood.

While traditional dyeing agents may still be used nowadays, cheaper and effective chemical products have arguably been introduced here a while ago, like they were anywhere else in the tanning industry. Which, combined with the machinery-free process, is likely to pose a threat to the workers’ health. In other words: a tanner standing thigh-deep in smelly water as he softens soggy hides might make for a charming snapshot of a traditional craft, executed with centuries-old methods, but is not worth his prolonged and unsafe exposure to toxic chemicals.

Softening hides (Photo: Aina Pomar)

This prompts questions regarding the role the tanneries play in present-day Fez. With the large-scale manufacturing of leather established in the city’s industrial district (over 50 modern plants), the three tanneries located in the medina mainly cater to the tourism industry. They attract visitors and produce a wide variety of quality leather goods which are among the most sought-after souvenirs from Morocco. They are also precious historic creations, keeping an ancient craft, steeped in the local identity, alive. Chaouwara, in particular, has been operating since the early history of Fez in the 11th century.

Recent developments show that modernisation doesn’t necessarily get in the way of preserving traditions. Between 2015 and 2016, Chaouwara underwent a year-long renovation which included a new waste disposal system, while its timeless atmosphere remained untouched. The same logic could drive future innovations, if further health or environmental issues are to be addressed.

Ready to be turned into babouches or other leather products (Photo: Andrea Gambaro)

A view from the hill

Before leaving, the guide recommends we ascend the hilltop next to the tannery for a final view, insisting that someone else will show us to the exit when return. His pleased reaction suggests the tip we are giving him is higher than what he expected, but the tour was well worth it. Were it not for him, we would have certainly missed out on such an up-close encounter with the city’s old leather-making industry.

We walk up the hill until we reach the city walls that mark the northern edge of the medina. The hillside below is covered with dozens of semi-processed hides, the last of which is being laid out by a tanner. Sloping beyond them, a multitude of small houses, blank walls and sand-coloured terraces stretches as far as the eye can see, so cramped together that little is given away of what lies within.