Life in the Leather District

Tanneries provide perhaps the greatest illustration of how resolutely some parts of Morocco have clung to practices developed in medieval times. Moroccan leather, and more particularly the Fassi leather in Fez, which is mostly produced using natural methods, has for centuries been highly prized as among the finest in the world and is often exported to Europe. One type of leather, a soft goatskin used mainly in bookbinding, is simply known as ‘morocco’.

It’s claimed that tanning leather in Morocco goes back several millennia, and little has changed since medieval times. Donkeys still labour through the narrow streets carrying skins to dye pits, which are still constructed to traditional designs (with the addition of modern ceramic tiles). Tanners are organised according to ancient guild principles, with workers typically born into the job. Unfortunately, health and safety principles are similarly old-fashioned, and health problems among the workers, who are knee-deep in chemicals all day, are not uncommon.

Rank odours abound at the tanneries, and the delicate tourists who come to view the work will often be offered a sprig of mint to hold to their noses to take the edge off the pong (rain also dampens the smell). Major components in processing the skins are pigeon poo, salt and lime (the latter accounts for the whitish colour of the processing pits); more delicate ingredients such as indigo, saffron and poppy are added later for colour.

The Fountains of Fez

It seems like you can barely turn a corner in the Fez medina without coming across a seqqâya (public fountain) – Fassis have historically had something of an obsession for them. It was largely the Almoravid (1061–1147) and Almohad (1147–1248) dynasties that were the great water engineers. To supply their cities with water they diverted rivers, created lakes and constructed vast canal systems. While they did this across the country, fountain construction reached its zenith in imperial Fez.

There are well over 60 public fountains inside the medina. Along with the hammam, they are usually located near the neighbourhood mosque. Many were paid for by princes and wealthy merchants. Some of these fountains are simple basins against a wall. The majority are beautifully decorated structures of coloured tiles, often under a canopy of intricately carved wood. One of the finest is the Nejjarine fountain. Built in the 18th century, it features zellige (colourful geometric mosaic tilework) and stucco that form patterns as delicate as lacework.

A few fountains are still used for water collection and washing by their neighbourhoods; at most, the water supply has been cut as houses gain their own water supply.

Changes in the Medina

Although visitors find medina life romantic, many residents have been happy to sell up to foreigners and swap their sometimes medieval living conditions for a modern apartment in the ville nouvelle. Certainly, years of neglect have taken their toll on Fez El Bali (Old Fez), and restoration and modernisation efforts have been a long time coming.

The medina's riads were the first buildings to receive some tender loving care, mainly fuelled by money from expats, but now the city's funduqs (rooming houses) and souqs are getting their slice of the action thanks to a government-backed drive to restore the medina to what it would have looked like in medieval times. The funduqs around the Kairaouine Mosque have been restored and can be visited; they are destined to house artisanal workshops.

In the souqs, metal doors have been ripped out of shops and replaced with the honey-coloured cedar wood that would have once been ubiquitous (a move that has caused the price of Morocco's most sought-after wood to skyrocket). Some workshops, little more than rough-hewn caves, are being rebuilt from scratch. The Chaouwara Tanneries have emerged from a year-long renovation to enhance the viewing platforms and workshops that surround it. Meanwhile, the river that bisects the city, for years virtually an open sewer hidden behind a high wall, is being cleaned up and revealed piece by piece. Riverside walkways designed to one day house artisan shops have been restored around Place R'Cif.

There is much to commend in this plan – for one thing, pollutants from the souqs (such as the newly restored Dyers' Souq) are now being diverted away from communities using the river to places where the water can be treated outside the city. Workers inside the medina are pleased to see Fez El Bali finally receive some loving care and, for themselves, an improvement in working conditions. Yet there is also a fear that visitors will see the medina lose some of its charm for the sake of (mostly) cosmetic enhancements. Let's hope the authorities can strike the right balance between progress and preservation.