“I can smell it. We must be close.”

So I was excited and stressed.

I desperately wanted to see a tannery in Fez, Morocco but I did not want the sales pitch that is attached. To get the best glimpse of the men working in the tannery, you have to be high enough to overlook them. This is where the sales pitch comes in. Leather shops enclose the tannery like armed security guards and so like a sitting duck or a smelly one, you have to walk through the shops in order to get a look at the tannery. Kind of a necessary evil to get what you want.

So we go up the long narrow winding stairs to the leather shop, try to quickly walk through to get to the terrace that overlooks the tannery. It doesn’t disappoint. Despite the harshness, the toxicity, the stench of the job, the sight of the stone vessels filled with an array of coloured dyes was breathtaking. I might be alone in this opinion as I look around for my family, who has vanished into the store, to escape the smells pervading from this gorgeous watercolour scene. I stayed, mesmerized at the sights, and breathing in my sprig of mint. The mint makes this a “doable” activity for the observer but clearly the workers go without. They have much hardier noses than us.

These stone vessels are filled with cow urine, salt, quicklime and water (just to make it a bit healthier). The hides from cows, goats, camels, you name it, are soaked in these vessels to remove all the crud like hair and fat. Makes you want to run out and buy a leather purse eh?

Then the hides are placed in vats that contain the oh so delectable smell of pigeon poop. Yes, there is a reason for pigeons I guess. This softens the hides so they can later absorb the coloured dyes. This process is helped along by the workers who stand inside the vessels, knee-deep (it might be a huge benefit to be taller in this occupation) and stamp and knead these hides with their feet until they are ready to go to the next step. More soaking, more stomping and finally the vegetable coloured dyes made from henna, pomegranate, mint, saffron and poppy flower transform the hides from hideous objects into bright and spectacular colours. Then the hides are set out along the roof tops of the surrounding buildings to dry.

If in Morocco, you need to see this. It is one of those Moroccan experiences that borders on an “India” moment; smelly, spectacular, stinky and sensational all wrapped up into one piece of leather; ready for my family to buy at said shop.

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