Travelling, one accepts everything; indignation stays at home. One looks, one listens, one is roused to enthusiasm by the most dreadful things because they are new. Good travellers are heartless.Elias Canetti, The Voices of Marrakech
Death hangs constantly in front of us as we visit the Chaouwara tanneries in Fez. In the West, we rarely see where our food comes from, or our leather products come from. But here in Fez, we confront the truth directly as an aspect of life in Morocco.
We wind our way upstairs through the leather shop onto a large terrace overlooking the tanneries. Our guide/salesman gives us a bit of mint to hold in front of our noses to mask the acrid smell of skin, lime, urine and pigeon dung. What’s transpiring in the tubs below is far less glamorous than all the colorful leather products on display inside.
The process of tanning leather by hand is arduous and toxic. Hair and flesh is removed from animal hides (mostly goat, from what we can tell) through techniques like soaking, salting, liming and scudding (trimming). Hides are submerged for hours or days and treated with enzymes and acids. In a sort of morbid, closed-loop production process, the natural byproducts of life — salt, urine and dung; from numerous sources — is applied to the hides to preserve them, make them pliable, and condition them for their end use.
Only some of the men working these tanneries wear gloves and boots. Others are submerged thigh-high, unprotected into watery contents of every color. No one wears a mask. This is a job that endangers and shortens lives.
What looks like mad chemistry to us surely has order and process from centuries of practice. Each man carries out his task alone. Hides go in, hides come out. Hides are dyed in various hues and set aside to dry. Nature holds an entire palette of plant-based, natural dyes but these days many colors are achieved through the use of unhealthy synthetic chemicals that pollute bodies and environments.
Dry hides are carried out and somewhere in some room within the labyrinth of Fez, workers are busy sewing the skin into shoes, skirts, jackets and handbags — made to order if you can’t find exactly what you’re looking for in the shop.
Wandering through Fez the following day, we meet a boy on the street who offers to show us another tannery. We follow him down a few narrow paths to a sturdy wooden door. Behind the door we find more death — enormous piles of hides with the hair still attached, somehow seeming more alive than the hides from yesterday.
This tannery is a smaller operation. The tubs sit at ground level surrounded on all sides by stairs, balconies, drying racks and doorways leading to the unknown — maybe housing for the men who work here. Most men working the tanneries are born into the job and carry it out for a lifetime. But many of them suffer from exposure to toxins through their skin and lungs. Breathing at a tannery for just ten minutes is proof enough that this a dangerous job. But for these workers it’s a way of life in an industry that shows increasing worldwide demand for beautiful leather goods from companies like Coach, Hermès, Louis Vuitton, Prada and even VF Corporation (a company I used to work for).
We climb the stairs for an overhead view into the stewing maze below us. Two men seem to be debating an issue in one of the tubs. “What do you think? Is it ready? I don’t know. Do you like the color?”
At the top of the stairs we emerge onto a rooftop where more skins are drying but the view of the blue sky feels hopeful and fresh. Our young guide shows us the bags of pigeon dung on the way out — collected and sold to the tanneries from a town nearby.
As always, traveling has taught me another lesson: be aware of the lives you affect by the choices you make. Do I really need a pair of those blue Moroccan slippers? Judging by their pretty design, one would never suspect the pain behind the product.