the fez tanneries

among the wonderful and hardworking people of the chouara tanneries in fez

a top view of the main tanneries area, with the vats filled with colours and chemicals to treat and colour the leather

a top view of the main tanneries area, with the vats filled with colours and chemicals to treat and colour the leather

The Chouara tanneries in Fes are probably world famous. Millions of tourists flock to the many balconies, passageways and shops with clear view of the tanneries every year and most of them come away with stories about the smell, the colours and the sights they were able to witness, luckily from a safe distance…oh, and I’m sure some of them come away with various leather goods they never knew they needed…;-)

And it is true! The Chouara tanneries is an amazing place. You don’t need to be a worker or even a local to see just how incredible it is. I mean, just think about it: this is a place where leather has been processed in exactly the same way (and we do mean in “exactly” the same way) for almost 800 years! Where else in the world can you find this? Even in some of the more manual tasks - think coal-mining, agriculture etc - the last 100 years alone have brought massive changes in how they are done, sometimes to the point of transforming them completely. But not in the Fes tanneries. Inside the high walls of the medina, leather processing is done exactly as it was 800 years ago. Stepping through the low door is as close as you can ever get to time travel - and you don’t even need a Delorean!

Let me briefly try to explain. Four things happen inside the tanneries: first, animal skins come in. Let me stop here for a while and explain what I mean by “skins”. I’m talking about skins just removed from the animals, some of them still with bits of flesh, hooves and even horns, stacked sometimes up to 8ft high. They are brought in by small traders, sometimes on donkeys and camels, and dumped on any free area of the floors and corridors until they are sorted and the next stage of the process begins. Skins are sometimes left there drying for days before processed - days in a very humid environment and under the blazing Moroccan sun. I will let you imagine the smell coming from them after just a few hours, let alone days.

leather pelts are placed into earthen vats along with dried pigeon droppings (to bleach and soften them) and then moved on to vats containing vegetable dyes. they are stirred and pressed by workers jumping in with them and using their feet

Second, various really unusual chemicals also come in. You have the usual - potassium, calcium and various other smaller items - but by far the strangest one is pigeon droppings. Yes, you heard me right, pigeon droppings. Not in some processed, organised, form, but scrapped from ledges, window sills, balconies, pavements, roofs etc, and dumped in massive burlap sacks (for which the workers pay approximately $30 each - a massive amount considering their salaries). Now, ideally, the droppings need to be dry to work properly, but given the sheer amounts needed on a daily basis, that is not always the case, leading to some truly horrible smells.

Third, vegetable dyes come in. Now, I know most of you are thinking “yeah, they are natural so what’s so bad about them?” but, have you ever smelled a sack of unprocessed ochre powder? It bears absolutely no resemblance to your idea of ochre as you may have smelled it at a bazaar or anywhere else - it is pungent, strong and, when combined with the humidity of the place, it is enough alone to hit your nostrils like a sledgehammer. There are about two dozens of different types of powders, each chosen for their colouring capabilities (and therefore, the stronger the better) stacked in pretty much every storage nook and cranny.

Finally, you have water. Now, the water does come from the mountains. I was lucky enough to be taken to the very depths of the tanneries and I saw the main area where the water comes in and yes, it is crystal clear…when it comes in. It becomes something completely different within less than a few minutes. And this water is everywhere…it forms a thin film covering every single floor surface, it forms really stinky and slimy pools you really, really, don’t want to get on you.

So, by now, you must have some vague idea of what the overall situation is - smell and all. This is why, after all, all the shops offering viewing balconies and areas around the tanneries, also offer plenty of mint or basil to the tourists to keep under their noses while viewing the work in the tanneries. Let me tell you, most of them keep those tiny bunches of mint pretty close. But, if you manage to get past the smells, the near-certainty that whatever clothes or shoes you wear will end up probably ruined, and the instinct to retch from the various slimy substances that are everywhere, and you come down from the balcony and spend some time among the workers and the vats and the huge piles of processed and unprocessed skins, a whole new world opens up to you - a world pretty much unchanged for more than 8 centuries.

The tanneries are indeed amazing, but it is neither the process nor the colours which make them so. It is the people. In one of the harshest working environments on earth, in a place where people are in a constant health risk, in a place where none of us would ever dream of being - let alone working - for more than a few minutes, dozens of men of all ages, spend more than 10-12 hours a day working at a level of camaraderie most likely almost forgotten in our “developed” world. It is both a wonder and a joy to see.

I was lucky enough to be able to spend a couple of days with the people down at the vats and I can tell you one thing: despite the truly horrendous conditions they work in, despite some of them actually working bent over for more than 10 hours a day, despite the smell which doesn’t leave you for days (imagine how it must be for those who spend their lives there), I did not meet a hostile person. Yes, some of them were not accustomed to seeing a stranger moving among them, carrying tons of camera gear, standing in various corners observing them and taking pictures, not a single person treated me with hostility. True, there were times when you could see the questions in their eyes - it is only natural after all - but I never, ever felt like a stranger. There are not that many places in the world one can say that - there is a component of intrusiveness into photographing people's harsh lives which can easily make things ugly. But that was never the case in the tanneries (oh, and mind you, I was not paying them for being there...!)

I went from the external vats, where most of the dangerous and horrible work is done, to the inner areas, the places where massive wooden cylinders (I would not be surprised if those were of the same design that was used 800 years ago, with parts being replaced over time) wash the skins, to the lower levels where men who rarely ever see the sun scrape hair and other bits (for lack of a better term) from the newly cured skins with their fingernails. I saw things I never thought were possible in our day and age and, much as I tried to capture it through my images, I don’t think it is possible to convey the true sense of the place.

once the pelts have been bleached, they are places in giant tumblers, filled with stones, to soften them even more and remove the last undesirable elements. most of the vats are now mechanical, but in the chouara tanneries, there are still a few manual ones, relying on pedal power!

I will return to the Few tanneries very soon and I will spend more time with Omar, Walhid, Muhammad and Unan. I will try to spend even more time with the people who select, sort and prepare the skins - there’s an art there that’s very hard to capture. And I want to be there when the skins are dyed blue (this is rarer and happens either very early in the morning or later in the afternoon, before the sun is overhead and can alter the physical and chemical properties of the dye). I want to capture this amazing process through the eyes of the people who live it AND, at the same time, show them, from my eyes, how the rest of the world sees them. Because I can almost guarantee you, they don’t know.

They probably never think about this, but I think they would love to see just how poetic, how colourful beyond words and how truly amazingly different their lives and work is. I don’t think it will make them happier, but I think it will somehow justify the millions of eyes they feel on them, without any interaction, for nearly every working day of their lives. We owe it to them and they deserve it.

To see more images from Morocco and the tanneries, click here.