Tanning in the Sun in Fez

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The tanners who work in the dye pits at the heart of the Fez Medina spend their days waist-deep in cow piss and pigeon shit.

It is even worse than commuting on the Thameslink.

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Balak! Balak!” the old man shouted in warning and the people pressed themselves to the sides of the derb* and the donkey train clattered through, piled high with animal hides, on its way to the tanneries.

The Medina dates back to the eighth century and the greater part of what is there now was built around the time of Chaucer, Petrarch and the Black Death, two hundred years before Shakespeare, four hundred before the Declaration of Independence.

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The old walls encircle an area of three square kilometres, a medieval tangle of going on ten thousand alleys and lanes – free of all vehicles, unless you count donkeys – winding, intersecting, curling uphill, sloping down, lurching round dog-leg corners, through keyhole-shaped archways, opening out into squares with fountains decorated with zillij tiles and bustling, clamorous souks, and closing in on claustrophobic passages with crumbling walls and battered doors and petering out into silent cul-de-sacs.

More donkeys clopped over the cobbles, laden with gas bottles and bags of cement. Men in woollen djebellas rested in doorways; women in bright hijabs picked through the vegetables at the grocer’s stall. A sheep’s head was on display at the butcher’s.

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A man worked leather in a tiny workshop; others tink-tinked with hammers and chisels on blocks of stones, and pounded copper with mallets; handlooms ker-chunked in the carpet shops; a baker fed discs of khobz bread into an oven, another carried a tray of them on his head through the derbs. The muezzin called the faithful to prayer.

Outside the walls, in the unseen ville nouvelle, there are as many smartphones, tablets, digital cameras, ATM’s, supermarkets, takeaway franchises and chain hotels as there are in any modern city; but the Medina has barely changed since the Middle Ages.

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The tanneries, hidden behind the facades of the leather souk, seem centuries away from the Industrial Revolution, let alone the Digital Age. The tanners who work them are organised into a craft guild, as tanners across Europe once were, in feudal times. Fathers bequeath their jobs to their sons; some families claim to have been in the dye pits for thirty-odd generations.

They work in a tightly-packed honeycomb of vats built of stone and lined with tiles. The grottiest are filled with water, quicklime and cow urine and are so foul that the tanners – who mostly work in shorts and bare feet – wear rubber boots and waterproofs around them. The hides are soaked for two or three days to soften the hair and flesh, then hauled out, scraped and stretched over balconies to dry in the sun.

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Once dry, they are dunked in vats of diluted pigeon poo, which is collected by young boys with one of the world’s less enviable jobs. Their fathers are tanners and they hope, when they grow up, to be tanners themselves, promoted from scraping the pigeon shit off rooftops to standing up to their waists in it, treading the hides for hours at a time until they are softened enough to be dyed.

The hides are then submerged in coloured dyes, which are claimed – some have doubted it – to be entirely organic, using mint for green, indigo for blue, poppies for red, cedar bark for brown, henna for orange and turmeric for yellow (the Fassi insist it is saffron but the economics of that make no sense). A tanner, once again, climbs into the vat.

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The finished leather is sold to artisans who work it into jackets, handbags, pouffes and babouche slippers; and they, in turn, are sold by fast-talking salesmen to tourists who have spent the rest of their money on Berber carpets, Fez blue ceramics and bags of spices.

There is talk now of moving the tanneries out of the Medina and creating a botanic garden in their place. With luck, though, it will get no further than talk.

© Richard Senior 2016

*Narrow alley

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