The Chouara Tannery in Fez, Morocco
The tanneries in Fez, which are a must see, were about a 20 minute walk from our Riad. There are three in total in Fez. We ofcourse chose to visit the largest – the Chouara tannery – which was built in the 11th century and in the oldest quarter of old Fez. The walk there was relatively pleasant as it was on a Friday afternoon and most shops in the medina were closed for Friday prayers. As we got closer more touts approached us asking us to use the balconies of thier shops to see the tanneries. I knew there was no other way of seeing this so eventually we had to succumb to the pressure. The first rule in Morocco as we learned in Marrakesh was to refuse offers of help to find directions or free mint teas. They all came at a cost including insults if you refused to tip. This time though we had to hope for the best as we readied ourselves to break the rule.
We were led up some narrow stairs where we came up to a somewhat hidden shop of leather products. We were both given a sprig of mint apparently to dangle around our nostrils to mask the smell from the tanneries. Personally I didn’t think the smell was as bad as people make it out to be.
Finally after going through the shop we were ushered onto a viewing platform where we could clearly see the Chouara tannery below us.
The tannery is 900 years old and the techniques used here in transforming hides into some of the world’s best leather products hasn’t changed. Hides of goat, sheep, cow and camel are first put in vats with white-ish water. These white vats contain a mixture of water, limestone and believe it or not pidgeon droppings.
The amonia in the pidgeon droppings soften the hides whilst the limestone removes as much of the fur on the hide as possible. The skins are washed and transferred, after a few days in the white vats, to the brown dyeing vats. They then undergo a colouring process using natural products such as cedar wood (brown), poppy flower (red), indigo (blue), henna (orange) and mint (green) to mention a few.
As I started snapping away I was politely interrupted by two guys who asked if we were from Ghana. It turned out that Aki and Kay, both Japanese had just flown in from a tour of Ghana. They proudly showed off their Ghana flag bracelets and photos of Ghana. They had been to Accra, Takoradi and Cape Coast and were still beaming about their culinary experiences in Ghana.
The Chouara tannery experience didn’t have to take up too much of our time. After about 10 minutes we’d seen all that was needed to be seen. We tipped 20 dirham which was way too generous and descended back down the narrow stairs of the shop back onto the narrow street.