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.

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