Funky Cold Medina

Fes, Morocco
September 2014

The tanneries of Chouwara are a tourist trap. The young tout from the cooperative flags me down and leads me into his shop. To see the famed tanneries in action you have to pay someone to let you view them from their terrace. About 10 dirham is the going rate. On the way up, I ask him, “How much?” “You decide,” he replies, as I fumble with the coins in my pocket.

Fes Medina

Fes el-Bali Medina

Up on the terrace, he shows me the yellow skins that are stretched out on screens both on the terrace and the ledge below us. They are stained with pigeon poop, he explains, to soften the hides. From there, they are put in a giant washing machine, and afterward, they are taken to the vats to be dyed. They dye the skins different colors on different days: red from poppies, blue from indigo, and yellow from saffron, he tells me. “Saffron is very expensive,” he says. But those who know these things assure me they use turmeric instead.

He shows me the men standing in huge vats with their pants legs rolled up, working the hides. It’s afternoon, so there aren’t many of them working — the best time to see them is in the morning when scores of men work the vats and the dye water pours down from the rooftops. By now, I’ve had my photos, and I’m not into it. Besides, it smells terrible. Across the way, I see a big tour group on another terrace, and that’s when I realize I’m definitely on the wrong terrace. Behind me, a middle-aged tourist is coming up the stairs with another man from the cooperative. “How much?” I ask my guide. “You decide,” he responds.

It’s a souk. Everything is negotiable.He takes me down some stairs past rooms where the men are stretching hides on a rough board to soften them further. Then we descend into the shop. There are hand bags and slippers and lots and lots of belts. “You can touch,” he tells me. I give them a bored perusal. He takes down a brown belt and wraps it around my waist to show that it fits … badly. Then he tries another. Each time, I take the belt off abruptly. I move toward the hand bags, closer to the stairs. I thank him for showing me around.

Medersa Bou Inania

Medersa Bou Inania

“How much to see?” I ask. “You decide … one hundred, two hundred,” he says. “It’s for the cooperative.”

The first rule of damage control is deciding how much you are willing to pay to get out of a situation where an unreasonable payment is expected. It’s a souk. Everything is negotiable. I hand him a twenty dirham note and a couple of one dirham coins. That’s all it’s worth to me. Then I head down the stairs, with him on my heels. “It’s for the cooperative,” he calls out. “They are poor.”

It’s not a matter of poor. Poor does not give you the right to bait and cheat. It is simple: The mosque charges ten dirham to see the medersa. The museums are twenty dirham. Why should the tannery cost more?

He follows me down the narrow lane. Offers to show me where the men work as well as other crafts, free of charge. But I keep going. “I give you back your twenty and you see,” he says. “Then you give me forty for both, if you want.” I keep going.

Place Seffarine

Place Seffarine

It was such a great day up to then. A leisurely breakfast, a sunny day, an excellent morning visit to the Musee Batha and its gardens. The stately Bou Inania Medersa near my guest house, with its ornate cedar doors and trim, its calm courtyard with sweeping arches and columns adorned in intricate Islamic scripture. The more compact al-Attarine Medersa, which filled me with such peace upon emerging from the souk. The great Musee Bois in the Neffarine district and its perfect views of the Kairaouine Mosque’s minaret and the rooftops of the medina. Having a juice on the Place Seffarine to the steady rhythm of the workers beating out large metal bowls. Even the souk vendors I spoke to were nice, although I wasn’t ready to buy. Go see David Abraham by the Medersa es Seffarine restoration site. He’ll give you a good price.

Tonight, pigeon pastilla on a terrace, a pleasant respite. It’s too late for the hamann now. I’m not in the mood for getting worked over.

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