Fes el-Bali, the walled medina of Fes, is a car-less, labyrinth of over 9000 alley-ways crowded with merchants, lamb kebab, and all things leather. Entering the maze-like souq from the surrounding hillsides feels like navigating a small medieval universe. It is a place where artisans hail from long lineages and where people prefer tradition to modern convenience. The vibrancy of traditional arts makes Fes the cultural capital of Morocco and a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Tucked in every corner of these crowded lanes are locally-sourced, grown, and crafted items. The entire souq is a patchwork of artisanal brilliance, from mosaic-tiled fountains, to painted doorways, and mud-brick mosques. It is a city where hand-woven carpets might even outnumber people.
Founded in the 9th century, Fes is the kind of town that would make anyone feel creatively handicapped by its artistic superiority.
Here, in the midst of the old town, the ancient Chouara Tannery sprawls out like the colored pots of a watercolor palette. Between the three tanneries in Fes, it is Chouara -- built in the 11th century -- which is the oldest and largest. As I amble through the warren of lanes, a teenager solicits me to come into a leather shop which claims to have a grand view of Chouara. I can’t resist the temptation to join other tourists in ‘tannery voyeurism’, but as I peer down on it from above, I realize that I need to be on-the-ground to have a truly visceral experience. Back in the street, I follow my nose towards the inner sanctum of Chouara until the smell is overwhelming. As I cross the threshold of the tannery I pull the edges of my scarf across my face. The men, who are waist-deep in murky water and carrying hides stacked upon their shoulders, take little notice of my presence. Most are shoeless and none wear gloves. I feel cruel for gawking at work which makes me want to regurgitate the tajine I had for lunch. I walk along the edges of the dye vats and every mouthful of air I choke back feels like it’ll poison my insides. The pungence of cow urine and pigeon poop -- the classical recipe for loosening fat and hair off of the skins -- burns through my nostrils all the way to the back of my throat.
How do these workers survive being constantly covered in animal waste?
The high stone walls of the medina obstruct sunlight and the damp seeps into my skin like the acrid odor of the tannery. I navigate my way through sewer-like backroads, peering down dark passages for people in the industry. After a few days of getting hopelessly lost, I eventually encounter each part of the long assembly line involved in the process of turning an animal hide into a product. There are those who slaughter; the ones who deliver skins; the men who strip them in a caustic bath; there are dyers, artisans, and shopkeepers. While most of the leather products are made to export, the markets are bustling with local shoppers too. As much as I am repulsed by the foulness of the tannery and concerned for the health of the people who work in it, I am also enchanted by a cottage industry which shows no sign of yielding to corporatization.
I find a quaint cafe where I can sample lamb with plums and almonds; I’m seated on a bohemian leather pouf and the menu is bound in a colorfully processed hide. While I wait for my food, I can’t stop thinking about a bag I have seen in the souq. It is made from an antique carpet and the brown leather has a vintage patina. I have returned to the stall four times to haggle with the young shopkeepers who refuse to lower the price, sensing the desperate desire that causes myself and so many other shoppers to finally relent.
Like everyone who visits this historic city, I can't leave without a souvenir.
Though I wish to forget the stench of the thousand-year-old tannery, I will forever remember the courage of the men who work in it.