A loud shout behind us, and we looked behind just in time to see a donkey, fully loaded with a stack of clothes, barreling down an alley that would have been barely 5 feet wide. They had a job to do, and we were being the ass standing in the way.
As we learned very early in our trip, donkeys were the main form of transportation in the central areas of all towns in Morrocco, and they had the right of way in every situation.
Hustling through the bustling alleys, minding the oncoming and speeding donkey traffic, it was very difficult to pay attention to what our tour guide was saying. Quite suddenly, I heard the phrase “Gas Mask” and my ears perked up. He had a smile on his face, saying, “you can be without the gas mask, but its totally natural, and I highly recommend them.”
We were heading towards the Chouara Tannery , right smack in the middle of Fes el Bali, or the dense downtown of Fez. Apparently, this is located right next to the river that flow through Fez, but no GPS could tell you where you were. Out of all the cities in Morocco, one needs a guide for sure in Fez.
Soon enough, we were at the foot of a flight of stairs at the side of a nondescript leather store, facing a courtyard. “After you please”, the guide said, waving us up the stairs. A foul smell was stenching the air. Where were we headed? One could get murdered in a place like this and no one could tell. There might be a thousand bodies rotting somewhere in that courtyard.
As we walked up the flight, we entered an old, dusty, highly packed leather goods store. Bags, purses, wallets, shoes, jackets, belts, chairs. Whatever one could make out of leather. In every color. “Walk around, and see if you like anything, but you are under no pressure to buy anything.” We had heard that before, but unlike other places, there was truly no pressure at all in buying anything. Maybe these guys got decent business without the pressure. Maybe it was written on our faces.
We were asked to go one floor higher, and the stench became worse. It was at this point that we were handed a bunch of mint leaves. “Gas Mask!” the guide exclaimed, grinning ear to ear. “Hold it up constantly near your nose as you walk out into the balcony to your right.” And the door opened to the balcony. To snap pictures of this process, I had to unmask my gas mask periodically, and caught jolts of the bleaching solution and the drying leather, and faced a bad headache in the following hours.
It was a pretty sight. Hundreds of vats lay below us, with workers walking on them carrying sheets of cow, camel, sheep and goat skins. A set of vats where white – where the bleaching process took place. They were filled with a mix of cow urine, pigeon feces, quicklime, salt, and water. The rest of the vats were used for coloring the leather, filled with poppy flowers for red, indigo for blue, and henna for orange. Once dyed, they are hung to dry in the sun and then sent to local crafstmen.
The entire process is manual, and has been unchanged since the 11th century. The tannery workers were constantly immersed in this day after day, year after year. A donkey was being caned for not being able to carry its load, and was yelping in the distance. The copper metal workers clanged away busily on the side alleys. And all of this was engulfed by the thick human hum of the city. This was everyday life for Fez.