Breathtakingly beautiful, exotic and tantalizing, Morocco is for many the epitome of all that is alluring and unforgettable about Northern Africa. With its raucous spice markets, ancient cities, shimmering sunshine and warm, hospitable people, it is one of the most unforgettable places in the world.
Intriguing Scents and Colours in Fes
Welcome to the medieval city of Fes in Morocco. In its ancient walls thousands live, work, worship and go about their daily business without ever needing to leave the medina. The absence of motorized traffic (it is banned) gives one a deceptive sense of safety. An unwary visitor like me was in constant danger of being run down by trotting mules, or crushed against the wall by donkeys with humongously oversized loads across their backs.
Following The Smells
Commerce in Fes is organized into traditional guilds of craftsmen. Each guild has its own geographical boundary within the town and each guild-dominated area can be identified by a distinctive scent or smell. You could say they are demarcated by it.
When I began to twitch my nostrils in repugnance against an overpoweringly acrid odour (of pigment, I’m later told), my guide grinned and confirmed that I have just entered Dyeing Street. In Carpenters Street, the pleasant scent of cedar wood shavings fills the air – I don’t mind that at all! Tanner’s Street is permeated with the strong smell of leather.
Then we come to what I’m sure are many visitors’ favourite streets (they certainly are mine): Nougat Street, with its fragrance of freshly made nuts and candy, and Butchers street, where I’m hit by waft after waft of what could easily be mistaken as the smell of ‘satay’ on the grill. Here, the meat is lamb and camel.
An Ancient Tannery
My guide leads up a flight of stairs at the back of a building and and beckoned me to look below. I did and was greeted by a most spectacular sight. Before me, I saw a honeycomb of some sixty stone vats, each some 5 feet across, filled with pools of richly and differently coloured liquids, much like a child’s paint box, you know the one with those little circular paint containers arranged next to each other. The colours ranged from sheer white to grey, from pale pink to blood red, azure blue and deep yellow too. Only here, the paint box could have been used by a giant.
I am looking at a complete mediaeval tannery. Water is hauled up the Fes river by an ancient, massive wheel and distributed to the giant vats, where young men mix the dye, water and hides using their feet. Or their legs rather, because it takes the full strength of their whole legs to get the job properly done. They lift their legs high and then stomp them down again and again, ungrudgingly for hours, as did their fathers and forefathers before them.
The young tanners have no protection whatsoever – not from the sun, which could bring temperatures above 50 Celsius, nor from the putrid stench of the materials used to set the dye – pigeon shit and sheep urine, literally tons of it are used every day at the tannery. I am told they just get used to it. 9As for me, I couldn’t bring myself to get close enough for some good photo shots. I had just eaten and was afraid my lunch would end up in the open again.
A Timeless City
On the way out a donkey slipped and its load of hides fell, causing a minor jam of sorts. The owner tried to load it up again, stack by stack, but the whole bundle just slipped right off when he was just about done. It should have been funny but no one laughed at his attempts. No one lost their temper, cursed nor gave any indication of impatience.
For this was no ordinary city. This was Fes. All that happens here are part of life at Fes. Unchanging. Locked in mediavility. Noted the Tharaud brothers, French travellers who came through here in the 1930s: “In Fes there is only one age and one style, that of yesterday. It is the site of a miracle. The suppression of the passage of time.”