Morocco is known for their leather exports.
So when in a medieval city like Old Fez, a popular tourist attraction is often to take a tour of a Moroccan tannery. What are tanneries? A seven century age-old way of making leather products from belts to bags, cushions, etc…through the skinning, shearing, drying and dyeing of animal skins with the help of laborious manpower and big vats of all-natural dyes.
Now guide books will be-cry the relationship between the tanneries and “its smell” as a forewarning, such that a post-911 New York resident and vegetarian like myself, immediately began drawing notions of the deathly odor as being from rotting carcasses. I admit, I was a bit reluctant to tourist this territory. Nevertheless, my curiosity is stronger than fear or stench, and pinching my nostrils and breathing through the side of my mouth held work-around solutions for opening this bejeweled Fez-ian Pandora’s prize.
Well, honestly,… the smell was nowhere near the scariness I had imagined.
The first thing that hits you before you even step foot in the area of the tanneries is the whoof of smell.
But it’s not what you’d expect- it’s not rotting meat. What produces the funky smell is the ammonia produced from whalloping vats of pigeon excrement. Yes, bird shit. And while fowl poo (in exponential amounts) can surprisingly create an unpleasant stench- we were given sprigs of mint leaves to put to our noses to make our viewing tolerable and tourist-able. Perhaps what is a bit disheartening to see aside from the animal skins is also the fact these tanneries employ young children as part of their work labor. Given the state of opportunities some of these youngsters choose in order to make money for their family- risking criminal punishment for being caught as an illegal guide or laboring under the hot desert sun and bird-toxic fumes, it’s hard to tell which is the greater evil. The tanneries in Fez, however are still interesting and worth checking out as a way to understand how leather products are made- I wouldn’t let the pigeons scare you away.
There is one curiosity I wished I had thought to ask about however… How do they generate and collect such large quantities of pigeon shit? Are pigeons held in cruel and gruesome captivity and trained to poo on command? If anyone knows the answer to this, please let me know.
Beare of Possible Scams at Tanneries
Many, many scams arise out of tourists love for visiting the tanneries. Most tanneries are surrounded by leather shops, which will offer you a view from their rooftop. Sometimes, your guide get commissioned to bring you there and after you’ve had your fill of viewing, you are then led into their shop. Passing through a leather shop, after you’ve seen the tanneries is almost unavoidable.
Once inside, they will pressure you into buying something. This typically tends to be worst it gets, although one should always be on their guard. I once had a man dressed as policeman lead me around because I was lost. He ended up taking me to a small and seemingly fake tannery in order to get me to buy something from a commission shop. He has quite agressive and this was the grand tip-off to me that he wasn’t an actual policeman.
Note that haggling is expected. Never pay the price that’s first quoted. Usually there’s been a markup, it’s your job to be a saavy bidder. This is how Moroccans do business.