Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Marrakech: Faux Guides and Leather Tanners

Locals Selling Goat Hides in the Souk

He was an elderly Moroccan gentlemen, quite distinguished looking but for the missing teeth, and wearing a silky cream and yellow coloured djellaba and skull cap. He smiled generously and said hello to me as I passed through the souk. As most do, he also asked where I was from. Thankfully when I said “Canada”, he didn’t burst into a rousing rendition of Celine Dion’s My Heart Will Go On (the teenaged food-stall tout did just that in the square last night – he was pretty good.) Beware, if you answer even the most innocuous question asked by a Moroccan in the souks, they will be stuck to you like duct tape. He tells me that the Berber market is in town today and that not many tourists know about it. The prices in the square are much too expensive he warns, as he tries to establish trust. Next, he shows me that his hands are yellow and explains, in French, how this comes from working in the tannery, but I suspect it is from saffron. He tells me that it’s a holiday for most of the tannery workers so if I’d like, I can see it today. At least I think that is what he said. It’s nearby. He’ll show me.

My spider senses had gone off long ago. I’ve read about Marrakech’s un-official guides, but since I’m at liberty, open to experiences, and not on a timetable, I cautiously let him lead the way. The narrow, winding pathways of the souk are behind me in moments and there is now a lot more room to dodge the donkey carts. I’m the only non-Moroccan in sight as we’ve entered an industrial looking area of the medina. All around me are darkened repair shops and moped graveyards. Evidently this is where old bikes go to die. Soon the parts will re-emerge in the form of cobbled-together creations capable of scattering tourists another day. We duck down an alley and behind a wall, where my ‘guide’ introduces me to Tannery Man.

Tannery Man speaks English quite well and immediately gives me a handful of formerly-fresh mint, gesturing that I should hold it under my nose to cover the disgusting smell of the various processes used to produce the finished leather. He narrates a tour (though one absent of much to see) and walks me through the tannery I’m now in, past the huge concrete vats, while explaining the four steps in the process of tanning the leather (soaking in lime and water; soaking in pigeon shit; soaking in flour and water; soaking in something that I forget. It’s not important.) Next, he tells me to duck my head and we step down into a pitch-black room that should have scared the crap out of me. My eyes adjust and with the help of a single beam of sunlight jutting through a ragged hole in the wall I see a rather weathered-looking man in the corner. He is sitting alone, behind a wooden frame of stretched skin and handily shaving the hides with an enormous crescent shaped knife. This is what he does all day long. Tannery Man tells me to take a picture but without a flash on my iPhone, it would have been a waste of effort. Of course, today was the first day this week that I left the Riad without either my video camera or my DSLR. Figures.

The tour continues past the other end of the field of vats where cowhides are stretched out and presumably waiting to be dyed. Two men are waist deep in some sort of noxious substance working on a hide as I pass – I guess they didn’t get the day off. Tannery Man then leads me out and after dodging more donkey carts, we cross the alley to another section where camel hides are piled up. In the midst of this industrial wasteland of smelly tannery and little else, I keep wondering to myself, how much is this sojourn going to cost? I know they’ll want money. Everyone wants money. I didn’t need to wait long. Miraculously, as I step through the next doorway, I find myself in the middle of an out-of-place showroom, well lit and lined with finished leather goods and it is finally clear how this entire money making operation works. When I say no to the leather (there is a better selection in the souks), I’m ushered down the stairs and into a room full of carpets and brightly colored kilims. Unfortunately for them, I wasn’t in a buying mood and dispensed with this phase of the tour quite quickly. Then comes the time to pay off Tannery Man. I hand him a 10 Dirham coin (about $1.20), which was met with the usual overly dramatic expressions of disgust. “No! No! 150 dirham is how much people pay for this special experience.” We debate this for a moment or two, before out of nowhere a ‘passerby’ appears and confides in me: “That is only worth about 1 euro. This man has three children. Give him more.” This is part of the game in Marrakech, as I’ve experienced a virtually identical approach on four other occasions this week. I toss him another 10 MAD and silence his protests with a firm “No more. It’s okay. It’s okay.” and turn away. Of course, my guide has now returned and wants money too. I’m perfectly okay with this, since by now I am completely turned around and have no idea how to get out of the tannery, through the souk, and back to the main square, so I commit to paying him but only after he gets me back to where I wanted to go.

So this, folks, is how it works and what may happen when that helpful Moroccan says hello in a souk. If you have the time and the interest, go along for the ride. You can write about the experience in your blog. You might be wise to bring a traveling companion though...


  1. What a fabulous experience!!!

  2. So cool. I'm not sure I,m brave enough to go with the flow...

  3. Wow! Love your blog- you can open yourself up to some pretty interesting experiences... I was a little nervous reading this particular one... no way I'd be doing something like that! Looking forward to hearing more about your trip.