on May 30, 2011
We hadn't planned to go to the tanneries. If I'm honest, I hadn't actually realised that Marrakech HAD any tanneries. We had been looking for the Ben Yousuf Medersa when a passer-by had spun us a line about the medersa being shut on Sundays (it isn't) and before we knew what was happening he'd flagged down a friend and told him to take us to the tanneries. It was a cold, damp Sunday afternoon and we didn't have anywhere we really needed to be so we just went along with it. Sometimes you just have to relax and go with the flow. Something worth knowing about people who take you places in Morocco is that they always walk like they're in training for the Olympics and since my sister and her girlfriend are both very short, and have little legs, they were struggling to keep up. Our friendly guide apparently worked at the tanneries and was going that way. He told me he didn't want money, that he wasn't a guide and that he only does it "for Shukran" (a thank you). We chatted about football – always a safe topic – the weather and he gave me a bit of an insight into the tanneries. He warned that it smelt horrible which was not great surprise.We seemed to have walked a long way by the time we finally reached the tanneries. We'd really not been in the right area when we started so we'd gone a long way and didn't have a clue where we were. Our non-guide handed us over to the tannery manager who spoke a lot more French than English and handed us each a bunch of mint leaves to crush and hold up to our noses. "Eez like gaz-mask" he advised. Clutching our mint to our noses we followed him around the tannery. He explained it was a Berber tannery and that Berbers only tan cow or camel skins in contrast to the Arab tanneries who mostly do sheep. This Berber/Arab distinction is something you pick up a lot in Morocco. Never ask a Berber if he's an Arab or an Arab if he's a Berber. If you aren't 100% certain, it's best to keep your mouth shut. He explained the tanning process. The skins spend their first seven days in lime, then one day in "pigeon poop" and then finish the process in the dye pits. As we stood watching a few men walked past in leather waders prodding a few of the pits but the dying vats were not in use because it was a Sunday. There are few attractions that I'd recommend seeing when they are closed but this is certainly one. Go when it's cold, damp and on a weekend when there aren't many people there. You can get used to the smell but really it's not very nice.In total we were led round three different tanneries, two Berber and one Arab. I can't entirely claim I understood what was going on or fully appreciated the subtle difference between them. They all stink but we didn't really care. It was clear that the tannery man wasn't doing this just for his own entertainment and we weren't surprised to find we were led to a souvenir shop where presumably he would earn lots of commission. We stayed so long that I hoped he'd have given up on us but when we came out of the shop he was waiting for us. He wanted to take us to other places but by that point we'd had enough and wanted to head back to the hotel. We made sure he told us which direction we'd have to take to get back to the city centre before getting into a rather lively negotiation over what we'd tip him. It got a little heated but eventually we settled on something like 120 dirhams (about £10).The tanneries in Marrakech are interesting but less visually exciting than those in Fez. If you aren't planning to go anywhere else on your trip that has tanneries, go and have a look but be prepared for a pretty stinky time. This isn't a place to go with fancy shoes or open toed sandals. I'm not sure what you might end up stepping in but it's probably going to linger.
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