Repost: Into the Tanneries of Fez

Hides at the tannery

Hides at the tannery

January 4th, 2021

Today we’re going behind the scenes in Fez to see the raw origin of Morocco’s leather products. The tanneries present the unpolished reality of an industry using the byproduct of what’s served for lunch and dinner around the country — which is no different than any other country in the world. The difference here is that technology has not yet improved or replaced the process of tanning leather so the age-old techniques are still in use for all to see. Working in the tanneries is a tough and toxic way for men to make a living but for now, the worldwide demand for Moroccan leather products keeps the operation going.

More tomorrow,
Kelly

Repost of the Day: Adding a bit of light to the darkness as we get through the pandemic together. This series features travel photos from my archives, shared with you while staying close to home.

***

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.

Chaouwara Tannery :: Fez, Morocco

Chaouwara Tannery :: Fez, Morocco

Chaouwara Tannery :: Fez, Morocco

Chaouwara Tannery :: Fez, 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.

Soaking the hides

Soaking the hides

Pulling the hides from the tub

Pulling the hides from the tub

Pulling the hides from the tub

Pulling the hides from the tub

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.

Tannery :: Fez, Morocco

Tannery :: Fez, Morocco

Pulling the hides from the tub

Pulling the hides from the tub

Soaking the hides

Soaking the hides

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.

Trimming the hides

Trimming the hides

Trimming the hides

Trimming the hides

Tannery :: Fez, Morocco

Tannery :: Fez, Morocco

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.

Tannery :: Fez, Morocco

Tannery :: Fez, Morocco

This tannery is a smaller operation. Hides hang like t-shirts drying in the warm air. 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. 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?”

Business at the tannery

Business at the tannery

Do you think it's ready?

Do you think it’s ready?

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.

Every color of the rainbow

Every color of the rainbow

Do you know where your pouf is from?

Do you know where your pouf is from?

19 comments

  • As with the silver mines in Potosi, I am uncomfortable visiting and taking pictures of these places where some people are damaging their health by processes that are now outdated. Returning to your post of 2018 and the quote from Elias Canetti, I am not sure I can be satisfied with it. Anyway, thanks for this disturbing post.

    Like

  • This tannery is one of my all-time favorite places we visited. Just the rawness of it — the conditions under which the men work, the color, the odor — it all made an impact. I’m not sure the practice should be continued, but I stood spellbound watching it for almost half an hour or more. Very dramatic.

    Like

  • Sad but thoughtful post. I skimmed this time, knowing the feelings I had last time. In a strange way, a few of my own posts about uncomfortable places and topics have been my favorites from a critical standpoint, and I feel that way about this one, too. It bears documenting, but it’s tough to write and read.

    Like

  • Wow, thanks for sharing. I wasn’t aware of the processes involved. It’s always such a conundrum with things like this… of course you want to support people’s livelihoods but at what expense? I don’t think I own anything leather but if I ever decide to purchase something I now know to do some research and learn where it’s from and how it was made.

    Like

  • I wouldn’t want to visit this place, but appreciate your detailed account. I like the idea of holding a mint sprig in front of your nose!

    Like

  • Thank you for indirectly highlighting the injustice of this whole process.

    Like

  • This is one I am very glad to experience second-hand through your words and lens, Kelly. I remember Rusha’s post on the same subject. Tanneries were always kept in the poorer parts of towns in the Old West because of the smell. I’ve skinned animals in the past, including deer. And for a while, my brother ran a trap line. It wasn’t serious, but we did tan a few hides amateur-style. No more. 🙂 –Curt

    Like

  • Pingback: On to the Blue Pearl |

  • I visited the tanneries in 1980. I bought a leather overnight bag in Marrakesh. I didn’t even think about it. Now I’m acutely aware of such things. Reading this, and looking at your photos I am so aware of the lives of those men, of how hard it must be. Travel really does change us.
    Alison

    Like

    • Great thoughts, Alison. I think the times have changed too. Knowing where products come from has informed the way we spend our money. In some ways it’s a good thing, in other ways we come face to face with hard truths we wouldn’t know otherwise. And yes, travel does the same. Enjoy the weekend!

      Liked by 1 person

  • Oh, this is a grim picture how the tanneries work. It is such depressing to watch how they work, and your remark in the end about lives we effect through the choices we make is so meaningful. Leather almost always results in beautiful products, but to picture where it comes from and how!
    There is a small town called Vaniyambadi near me, renowned for its biryani, and leather exports. We often visit for the biryani, yet you can in many parts of the town “feel” the presence of the tanneries. If it smells such from far, how must it be to work inside! It takes spirit to visit and document the place, and thanks to your efforts, we know what it’s inside…

    Like

    • Oh, biryani. 🙂 I can see why you venture to Vaniyambadi, but it’s also hard knowing the other side of the story in conflicting places and situations such as these. I’m not sure what the answer is but educating ourselves and understanding the cause and effect of our choices is a good place to start. Thanks Deb! Hope you have a nice weekend.

      Like

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s