seven centuries long tradition
By Andrea Gamba
17 Apr 2010
That day I've been following the smell, which came from the tanneries. Through the alleys to the open-air market I ended up in bedlam of people close to blind continuous walls of buildings in row, which bound a narrow street. Sun in Morocco is always strong enough to enlighten everything even the most shaded porch so I could recognize all the faces and the entrances of the workshops at the sides.
On the both walls of the street dark faces were waiting for visitors in order to show and hopefully sell local leather products and some other stuff among which herbs, spices and craft rugs.
That guy saw me since I move my first step in that street and quickly grabbed me up with a particular ability that only the Moroccan dealers are specialist to do and he pushed me to the entrance of the first workshop. Approximately he was my same age although the job and the environment leave a visible traces on the faces even in the young people.
The ground floor of that building was full of colourful leather products and people inside were busy in a frenetic industrious back and forth, pushing unaware visitors to buy something. The smell of the treated leather is something really indescribable for who hasn't been in that place.
We quickly reached the top by a tiny staircase and from the terrace I could finally enjoy the first panoramic view on the tanneries.
The smell got through the nose till the brain and I realized that I've already been at that place several years ago however nothing was changed since that time.
Surrounded by building, the tanneries of Fez are one of the most important touristic destinations in its old Medina. The Fez tanneries are the oldest leather craft factories in the world and the Moroccans boasts about the use of natural old techniques for the treatment of the hide. Actually since 14th century we can find the first traces in the history of those tanneries. Groups of tourist are used to go there in order to see how the leather is treated before being sold on the shelf of common Moroccan boutiques.
The process by which the hide is treated is really easy understandable as the guy told me. He was really remarkable due to his skill to change the language according to the tourist. I heard he speaking Spanish, Italian, English, French and German.
Everybody in the tanneries works under a cooperative, which selects people for proper jobs according to their skills. There is somebody who is good in language and fit in public relationship and somebody who has to work directly in the tanneries.
Generally they work on three different hides: goat, donkey and camel ones, which are more precious along the order I mentioned. Usually the leather gets the tannery already free of flash and other imperfection, nevertheless the first treatment works in order to remove fat and hair. The rough hide is collected in vats and then watered and treated by lime, which takes at least a day to perform its process of cleaning.
Next process is the stickiest one therefore the guy recommended me to pick some mint plants at the entrance. Hide is taken out from the lime and dip into an ammonia solution in a different vat. Ammonia can naturally be found from pigeon drop or human urine in the time past. Nonetheless lately they use chemical solutions to soften the hide. That's why the tanneries are famous for its acrid smell.
At last the leather is place in another container where it is soaked in natural colour solutions, which are from plants or spices according to the tradition and after days dried in the open air on the surrounding terraces.
What's really interesting in the colouring process is the use of the natural pigments. The guy showed me different plants from which they use to extract colours. For instance yellow is from saffron, green from mint and brown from henna.
Before say goodbye I've been forced to have a look on the products that they use to sell. Sleepers, any sort of bags and poufs are just a part of the rich and colourful assortment of products. The price has to be dealt as always by a careful contractual ability.
Once again, that smell and that noise disappeared and I found myself again lost in the Medina...