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

Tangier: From the Serene to the Sinister

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Tangier is at peace early in the morning. The shouting and jostling, the growling of scooters, the beeping of horns, the working-day sounds of hammers and saws and push-carts being trundled over cobbles are for later, much later. Nothing much happens before ten.

All you hear for two or three hours after sunrise is the sussing of sparrows, the guffaw of the gulls, the strangulated crowing of cockerels, and a single, early, petit taxi down at the old port.

The waking sun casts a painterly light on the buildings tightly packed up the hill to the Kasbah*. There are domes and minarets and hundreds of flat roofs in different sizes, at different levels and different angles. Each has a cluster of rusting satellite dishes, a listing aerial and a line of washing; some have the ruins of old children’s bicycles.

Some time after nine, the shutters go up on the hole-in-the-wall stores, which all seem to sell the same staples: tissues, bottled water, boot polish, hair spray, soap and Laughing Cow cheese. Workmen arrive and start hammering and sawing. Bread sellers fill display cabinets with discs of khobz bread; micro-patisseries put out their wasp-blown pastries.

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A man emerges onto the roof of the building next door; he hawks, spits, farts, and begins his morning exercises. A woman in a bright pink hijab opens a door onto another roof terrace and unpegs her washing. There are more petits taxis down at the port by then, and a few people milling about. The scooters and sirens seem to start all at once, as if somebody flicked a switch.

You go downstairs and walk round the corner, along the alleys, past the hole-in-the-wall shops, towards the square. The Medina** is a wiring diagram of alleys, all sinister shadows and eerie silences, which are suddenly shattered by your footsteps on the cobbles reverberating between the walls.

You take what looks like a shortcut and end up, lost, at the other side of the Medina and eventually, by chance, after much frustrated wandering, several dead ends and mounting anxiety, you know where you are again.

Round a dog-leg corner, a pair of sullen young men are leaning against the walls, one either side, and you have no choice but to carry on walking towards them, even if every instinct urges you not to. They ease themselves upright as you approach, and, back home, that always means trouble. But you are not at home, now, and they are just making way for you.

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The cafés are filling up in the Petit Socco, the square at the heart of the Medina. People seem to stop and stare as you swing into the square, sit down and order what everyone is drinking: mint tea. There is surprising hostility in some of their faces, or so it seems.

Suddenly there is an excitable shout and a scraping of chairs from one of the darker salons de thé and a bunch of young men explodes into the square, shoving and shouting; fingers are jabbed, Arabic consonants coughed up and spat out. You expect knives to be pulled and glasses to be smashed and tables and chairs knocked over. But, again, you are not at home any more and all that happens is that one of the men slaps another on the arse and they stop shouting, start giggling and go back to finish their tea.

Chinese motor-trikes with pick-up bodies rattle down the street as you sit and sip your tea; a man walks up it, towards the Grand Socco, holding a small flock of quacking ducks upside down. A truck stops to make a delivery and a cat curls up in its shade for a nap; her excitable kittens scamper underneath to swipe at the breather tube hanging behind the cab.

A little after midday, muezzins across town start the call to prayer: Allāhu akbar. Ash-hadu an-lā ilāha illa allāh…. When the first one starts, another takes it up straightaway, as if suddenly reminded, then a third, a fourth, a fifth, until it echoes across the rooftops from every corner of the Medina and beyond, dropping off one by one, until there is again, finally, a single voice. It is spine-tingling the first time you hear it but it soon becomes part of the regular background noise.

Except, that is, for the first call to prayer, at dawn. “As-salatu Khayrun Minam-nawm,” the muezzin sings at half-past five in the morning: prayer is better than sleep.

I’ll be the judge of that, you think sulkily.

(c) Richard Senior 2015

*Fortified part of the Medina

**Ancient walled city