Within Moroccos’ artisanal economy leather is the country’s largrest export to partners like Spain, France and India.and exports up to 100 million slippers annually. Much of the leather production is carried out in factories to keep up with export standards however Moroccos ancient tanneries are still very much in working execution. Fez, is the heart of where it all began centuries ago.
The city of Fez was founded in the 9th century and is now home to over one million people. . In 1981 the Old Medina was designated as a UNESCO World Heritage site. The Old Medina is specifically home to three ancient leather tanneries, the largest being the Chouara Tannery, which has been washing, treating, smoothing, and coloring animal skins into soft, leather goods for over a thousand years.
The start of the tanning process begins with the collection and sorting of the raw animal skins. The types of animal skins used are sheep skin, goat skin, camel skin, and cow skin with the best quality leather coming from goat and camel skins. These skins are soaked for two to three days in large specialty vats that contain a mixture of cow urine, quicklime, water, and salt. This mixture will loosen excess fat, flesh, and hair that remain on the skins. Once the soaking duration is done, tanners then scrap away excess hair fibers and fat in order to prepare the skins for dyeing.
Once the skins have been cleaned, they are laid out to dry on the surrounding rooftop terraces. Dried, the skins are taken to a different set of vats where they are washed and soaked in a mixture of water and pigeon poop in order to make the skins supple and soft. Pigeon poop contains ammonia that acts as softening agents that allows for the skins to become so malleable and to some exten the animal hair loosens. The tanner then uses his bare feet to knead the skins for up to three hours to achieve the desired softness.
At this point, once the leather has reached its desired softness, the skins are moved to a select set of vats for the tanning (or dyeing) process. Within the Old Medina, the tanneries continue to use natural vegetable dyes, such as poppy flower (red), indigo (blue), henna (orange), cedar wood (brown), mint (green), and saffron (yellow). Other materials used for dyeing include pomegranate powder, which is rubbed on the skins to turn them yellow, and olive oil, which will make them shiny. However it is not stated by tanners or tannery shop workers but one suspects that chemical products are also used today for a better quality and longer lasting color, along with a less pungent odor.
When fully dried, the edges of the finished skins are cut and used as fillers for other products. The leather is then sold to other craftsmen who make the famous Moroccan slippers, known as babouches, as well as wallets, handbags, furniture and other leather accessories. Many of these products are making their way into the European markets are suddenly becoming a sought after commodity.
The life of a tanner is not an easy one. Not only is it considered to be one of the hardest and dirtiest professions within Fez, it is also incredible labor intensive. The art of tanning is run and carried out by men. Many of the families and workers live around the tanneries and their skills are passed down from generation to generation through the male lineage though a tradition less and less evident as schooling becomes obligatory and horizons broaden. In response to this and to keep traditional skills alive a new artisanal school has been set up on the edge of Fez medina to see traditional handicrafts through to the future via Morocco s youth.
Since the tanneries are one of the main perpetrators contributing to river pollution, Aziza Chaouni and LA-based urban planner Takako Tajima, are proposing to move the tanneries that exist in the Old Medina closer to the newer ones in the industrial parts of Fez. The goal of rehabilitated the tanning facilities are to create a green space within the Medina. Aziza Chaouni proposes that the vats be transformed into botanical gardens, workshops and studios, community center, education center, and other communal facilities shared by leather workers and visitors to the leather district.
However there is quite a bit of backlash in regards to removing the tanneries to a different location and installing a botanical garden. Many feel as though that is Western “beautification” concept would be imposed on Fez and wouldn’t speak true to the organic nature of the Medina. Many are concerned with the replacement of an economic infrastructure with one that may not be as economically viable. When speaking to workers at the tanneries there is much skepticism as to how much of the tanneries will actually be moves. Watch this space.
Many thanks to Chouara Tannery and http://www.ouche.org for much of the insights for this article.
Images by Jess Stephens
To visit the tanneries at ground level and meet the tanners book at tour at http://culturevulturesfez.org/artsianalaffairs/
Browse jewelry inspired by the Moroccan tanneries http://www.etsy.com/shop/Jessiculture