June 18, 2011

Morocco: Tanneries

I shoved the sprig of mint under my nose as we peered over the balcony onto the pools of pigeon poo and natural dyes, the stink of potassium too much for my senses.

“Is this safe?” Christina inquired as we ascended the cramped spiral stairwell to the “viewing pod” of the tannery, “These steps definitely wouldn't meet English building standards!”

We were lead in to this building by a man on the street who claimed this had been his family business for many years. “Moroccan leather, and more particularly the Fassi leather produced in Fez, has for centuries been highly prized as amongst the finest in the world. One type of leather, a soft goat skin used mainly in bookbinding, is simply known as “morocco”.” - (Lonely Planet)


We were lead to a terrace which overlooked the tannery, an ancient courtyard with large pools. On the left are white pools, filled with water and pigeon and camel droppings because the potassium is used to cure the leather (can you imagine being the guy who has to collect the droppings? Possibly the shittiest job in the world. Had to be said). The best leather is camel, followed by goat, mule and sheep. After some time the hides are moved to the coloured pools to be treated, dyed and beaten by hand, using natural dyes such as saffron, henna, poppy, mascara and indigo. There is also a large “washing machine”, an enormous wooden wheel used to rinse the leather, which was man powered up until recently. The leather is then sundried on the rooftops and terraces before being loaded onto the mules and carted off to the shops in the medina.


The tannery is a step back in time; the methods used haven’t changed over the centuries and this ancient tradition is a reminder of Morocco’s contrast of East meets West, old merging with the new. Sadly, the poor conditions under which these men work means that their life expectancy is very low. Is keeping up an old traditional method worth the disregard for human life? Absolutely not, and I hope that the Morrocan government can figure out ways to implement laws that respect human rights whilst also preserving the Moroccan culture and traditions.


As we made our way back downstairs, I stupidly slipped away from the group and entered a sideroom filled with beautiful carpets. I couldn't help myself - I was totally distracted by the prospect of photographing these beautiful works of art but didn't give my personal safety much thought...


Within seconds, I heard a weird grunting from behind me and turned to find a man standing in the doorway touching himself as he looked straight at me. I felt the blood drain from my face, and I panicked when I realised that he was within 5 feet of me and blocking my only way out of the room. I scowled at him and screamed "CHRISTINA!" as loud as I could, only to hear her muted response from the bottom of the stairwell. Luckily, my scream then alerted the tour guide to my location, and he must have said that he was coming to find me, because the creepy man slipped away as quietly as he appeared. I was completely shocked and disgusted, and only had the courage to say something to Chris once we made it back outside... 

This wasn't my first encounter with a creepy man when traveling, but situations like this are always shocking and disturbing no matter the circumstance. It was the scare I needed to take my safety more seriously on this trip, especially as a white,blonde woman who stuck out like a sore thumb in this country.


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