23 January 2014

The Tanneries of Fes

Just follow your nose and you'll end up in the dark alleyways that lead to the tanneries of Fes...at least, that's how it works for us. I've already visited the tanneries of Marrakech and had a guided tour in amongst the vast caverns of solutions and dyes which are used in the manufacturing of leather here in Morocco - but I am told that the tanneries in Fes are a sight to behold - especially with camera in hand. So it is that we find ourselves (hubby and I) deviating from the main roads into a small alleyway to head in the general direction of the smell. It is not long before a man thrusts sprigs of mint into our hands and begs us to follow him up an uneven stone staircase leading to a terrace which overlooks the tanneries.

Overlooking the tanneries

As the view unfolds before us, it is as though we have stepped back into mediaeval times. Below us stretch row upon row of large stone vats of liquid, a veritable artist's palette, all placed tightly together as though one depends on another. Scantily-clad men in shorts and vests are moving between the various vats, alternately crouching and balancing on the edges, tugging behind them or carrying over their shoulder large swathes of animal skins which they dip into one vat then another. As we watch, they climb into the vats and start to tread the skins, almost as though they are grapes and this is a vineyard, only this work is much harder! Various hand tools are then used to scrape, beat and stretch the skins; long poles prod the skins and hoses wash them down as they are moved between the various vats. The smell is just awful - although sniffing on the proffered sprigs of mint does help to keep the nausea at bay. I wonder how these men can stand working in this environment every day of their lives, not just because of the stench but also the physicality of the work - to my amazement I can see that some of these men are in fact no more than boys.

An artist's palette

The man who has brought us onto this terrace now leaves us in the capable hands of another man, the shop owner, who explains the processes happening in the tannery.
Firstly the animal skins, fresh from the slaughter-house, are soaked in the white vats in water from the local river, Oued Boukhrareb, into which is mixed pigeon poo and limestone. The limestone helps to get rid of any hair left on the skin and the acid in the pigeon poo is added to make the skin supple and malleable, therefore easier to work with. The skins are left here in the white vats for three days and then are washed thoroughly in fresh water and moved to the brown vats where they are dyed. The dyes used are all natural - poppies are used to make the red colour, the blue comes from the indigo plant which is a member of the pea family, the yellow comes from the addition of saffron and the orange from henna. The natural dyes are mixed with alum stone and water - the alum stone helps the colour to set. The colours produced are wonderfully rich. In order for the colour to adhere to the skins evenly, the skins must be manually dunked time and time again - and they are not light!

White vats

Soaking the skins in pigeon poo

The dyeing process

On rooftops all around us are displayed bright yellow skins - these are the ones that have been treated with saffron dye and are now left to dry out in the sun. As saffron is so expensive (see my previous blog post on the production of saffron), the colour is made by mixing saffron with oil and the skins are rubbed by hand rather than in the large vats as with the other dyes. Once the skins have been dyed in the large vats, they too are laid out in the sun to dry before being stored and cut into shape to make an assortment of leather goods. Small storage rooms are located around the outside of the vats and it is here that the goods are made to be sold in the surrounding leather shops.


Rubbing saffron onto the skins by hand

Laying the skins out to dry

Ready to be stored

After all has been explained to us, we are free to roam around the terrace taking photos of the scene below. Like everyone else, I take many photos - this work has to be seen to be believed. Apparently, these tanneries, the Chouara tanneries, are the largest of the three tanneries to be found in Fes, and they are run as a cooperative, each foreman being responsible for his own workforce and his own tools. The work is very strenuous but seemingly well-paid by Moroccan standards. This particular tannery has been going strong since the 11th century - this I can well believe!

Men hard at work

Treading skins

Working the skins

Having received such a fascinating insight into the work of the tanneries, we are brought back to this century abruptly by an invitation to explore the leather shop which is conveniently located on our way down the steps to street level. Here on display are all manner of goods - bags of all shapes and sizes, babouches, cushions, pouffes, leather jackets - anything you want. We explain to the shop owner that we live near Marrakech and have everything we want, so he swiftly moves on to help somebody else part with their cash instead. We are let off the hook! Now all I have to do is to work out how to remove the stench from my clothing....

And the work continues...

If ever you have the opportunity to visit the tanneries in Fes, I would definitely recommend a visit. It is amazing to see the work that goes into making that small leather handbag whose price you have just been haggling over in the souk. Maybe, like me, you too will think twice about the man who has been up to his waist in pigeon poo whilst preparing this beautiful item just for you.

19 January 2014

The spirituality of Fes

Where does one start to describe Fes? A phrase often bandied around is that Fes is 'the spiritual and cultural capital of Morocco'...but what does this mean? I'll start by exploring 'the spiritual'....

The spiritual part is accounted for by the presence in the heart of the old town of the mausoleum of the city's founder, the most venerated place of pilgrimage in all of Morocco, the Moulay Idriss Zaouia. Only Muslims are allowed entry to the mausoleum but interested tourists like ourselves are welcome to take a peek through the outer doors to admire the lush decoration within. The floor is covered by several brightly-covered patterned carpets strewn across each other to allow for the barefooted prayer sessions undertaken by Muslims. There are beautifully carved and painted wooden porches around the outside of the room and zellij tiling adorns the walls alongside intricate stucco workmanship. As I admire the craftsmanship, I notice a man who appears to be sleeping in the corner of the room. At this moment, this is a place of peace and tranquility, a haven from the crowds outside who throng the narrow alleyways. I feel I am spying on a private moment...so quickly take my leave.

In prayer or sleeping?

Detailed decor

Outside the zaouia (shrine) are several stands where fruit, vegetables and nuts are being sold, predominantly to those people entering this shrine. Alongside these stands are several others which sell ornate candles, incense and beads, presumably to be used in worship at the shrine. I wasn't aware that Muslims used these items in their worship. I have learnt something new today.

Candles on sale

Moving on from here, we make our way to the Kairaouine Mosque and university. It is said that all roads in Fes lead to this spectacular place which is not only a Muslim place of worship but also claims to house the oldest university in the world. It was founded in 859 by Lalla Fatima el Fihrya who was a very pious woman from Kairouan in Tunisia who emigrated to Fes. At that time the mosque was only a small prayer hall which she had built in memory of her father, not the sprawling 16,000 square metres it is today! Apparently, the building can now accommodate as many as 20,000 people - Today is Friday, the Muslim holy day, and I reckon this is quite true. As we peek through one of its 14 doorways, men come and go continually, each one carrying out his ablutions ritualistically before entering the heart of the building. All ages enter here, from young boys to elderly gentlemen.

Men come and go


Within the same complex, there is a separate prayer hall for women. I am amazed that nobody seems phased by us sightseers who want to catch a glimpse of the local peoples' authentic day-to-day spiritual life.


The women's prayer hall

Deep in prayer

The university here was in the past considered to be a great seat of learning with a wonderful reputation. In the 14th century it attracted over 8000 students, one of whom even became a future pope, namely Pope Sylvester II (999-1003).

Two other sites of spiritual interest in Fes are the Madrassa el Attarine and Madrassa Bou Inania. In days gone by these buildings would have housed many young people who would come here to concentrate on their religious studies away from life's distractions. They were usually built very close to mosques so as to establish close links between studies and practice of religion. Once again, the decor is very elaborate and one can see how many expert craftsmen and how many hours it must have taken to complete such buildings, a real labour of love.

The minaret

Courtyard of Bou Inania Madrassa

Stucco and Zellij

Sunlight in the courtyard

Intricate craftsmanship

As we are just about to leave the madrassa, a young Moroccan couple enter the courtyard and begin to look around. They are clothed in modern dress and I'm interested to see how they interact with this environment. After a quick look around at the architecture, the man enters the prayer hall and soon seems lost in prayer, the young woman takes to her mobile phone as she waits for him....maybe a sign of the times? 

Youth of today

In my opinion, from the snapshot I have gained of the spiritual life of Fes, I conclude that spirituality is still alive and kicking here. Both men and women attend the mosque in large numbers, the buildings are preserved beautifully....But the prevailing evidence of spirituality for me is in the welcome of the people and the genuine helpfulness that is offered to strangers. Marhaba, welcome, is always on their lips....

10 January 2014

Arrival in Fes

Arriving in Fes after such a long journey by car (well, long for me anyway as somebody who gets bored after even an hour of sitting in a car), I heave a sigh of relief. But then I realise it is rush hour and we are in the new town and we don't really know where we are going. But never fear, my enterprising hubby has lovingly spent ages collating screen grabs from Google Maps on his iPad. Only problem is that it is now getting dark...and somehow the maps don't seem to follow on. Suffice to say, I ignore them and hope for a few road signs to miraculously appear. We may have taken a few wrong turnings whilst negotiating the usual Moroccan traffic madness - but we eventually arrive at Place R'Cif where we've been told to park up and ring the Manager of the riad we are staying in so he can come to meet us and guide us through the narrow alleyways to our home for the next few nights. Only problem is that two burly policemen are blowing whistles and won't let us enter the Place and make us turn around at the roundabout. Surrounded by beeping cars, taxis, donkeys and carts, motorbikes and pedestrians who insist on walking in the middle of the road, we have no alternative but to turn back on ourselves and find somewhere else to park amongst the craziness. About 10 minutes later we are guided into a very tight parking space by a friendly young attendant - Hamdoullah! A quick phone call is soon followed by the arrival of Simo, the riad manager, a smiley young man who guides us through the rabbit warren of the medina, and after a 15 minute walk spent weaving in and out of people, trying in vain not to knock their ankles with our burgeoning luggage, we make our way up the final alleyway of steps that take us to Riad Laayoun.

We enter the courtyard of the riad and are immediately surrounded by an atmosphere of peace and welcome. The riad is an 18th century building which has been lovingly restored by its French owner, Jean-Claude, retaining its original character, but introducing modern facilities. All work has been carried out by local Fassi craftsmen using the traditional materials of cedar wood, zellij tilework, decorative painting and stucco. In the courtyard, as is Fassi tradition, stands a beautiful fountain comprising wonderfully intricate tilework in blue, white and yellow. The trickling of the water complements the beauty of the scene. After a hearty welcome of traditional mint tea and Moroccan pastries, we are ushered into the dining area as it now quite late and are served the most delicious food – traditional harira soup, followed by three Moroccan salads (each!) served in beautiful patterned bowls, then a lamb and fig tajine to die for, with fresh fruit to follow. Fully satiated, we are shown to our room which is situated on the first floor, overlooking the beautiful courtyard below. We make our way up the very steep tiled steps into our suite which comprises a comfy double bed at one end of the room with a seating area at the other and in between is a creaky wooden stairway which leads to the bathroom on a mezzanine level. It is very unusual in design. To my delight, shuttered windows block out the light for ease of sleep.

The beautiful courtyard

Me... chilling out by the fountain

Detail of the fountain

First floor room and balconies

Our room: The Cinnamon Suite

Seating area

It is with great anticipation of what is to come the following day that we drift off to sleep, dreaming of the monkeys we encountered in the cedar forests, beeping car horns, police whistles and hoards of people milling around the tiny alleyways of Fes. Tomorrow is a new day and time for a new experience……