Back in the narrow concourse, the way leads up stairs and through a narrow opening into a rainbow of leather goods and an odor they are quick to stifle with a sprig of mint held gratefully close to one’s nose. This is the medina’s famous medieval leather works, started in the 13th century and certainly aromatically original. Brightly dyed purses, belts, bags and shoes thatch its walls.
A far room is a veranda overlooking the famed leather making process. Visitors look down to behold a tableau of vats, each lined with tile and placed and anchored like a precision mosaic, covering the ground below. The hundred-plus vats, about five feet across, hold a concoction of tannic acid, pigeon droppings and lime. In the preliminary phase, camel, goat or sheep hides are soaked in lime to separate hair from the leather, visitors are told. Men stand in the vats to soak and work and scrape the hides.
Where do they find that number of pigeons? The concoction colors their skin. One young man with unstained curly black hair pours water over himself but seems dissatisfied. This is, they say, the world’s third hardest job, behind mining and something else that doesn’t matter to the men with hairless legs, tanning their own hides in the precisely placed vats below.
Tough-skinned salesmen, perhaps trained in tannic acid, haggle over prices. It is whispered elsewhere that some guides who bring tourists profit (more specifically, receive a kickback) from what tourists buy. Who knows? Visitors notice that the smell of tanning skins accompanies each item, no matter how beautiful. Never mind. A few days in the sun will reduce that smell.
Outside, a vat worker sharpens a bayonet-length knife and with it deftly scrapes a hide of its hair. Nearby, another man lifts soggy, dripping hides from a vat and heaps them on the side to drain. The hides are ubiquitous: drying hides carpet knolls around the city, curing hides heap up small mountains on the backs of mules. Leather products dot the walls of the medina. There are so many ex-camels, ex-goats and ex-sheep.
Visitors file down narrow stairs to leave the leather works and are at once re-enveloped in piquant relief by the Medina’s normal pungent atmosphere.
Because Muslims are covered from head to foot, cloth is prized in the medina. Inevitably, another back-way workshop finds silk-weavers looming, with brilliant cloth hanging above them in vivid bolts. Their small hand looms could be from Latin America or Africa, but they work a much finer thread, a silk taken from a cactus. A young man with his back to visitors whirls fibers into thread. A woman next to him handles huge rolls of thread. On the other side, a man guides a shuttle in the hand-operated device with a familiarity engendered over a lifetime.
The way next opens to a plaza with copper artisans seated on its various steps. Tapping on curved copper or brass, they do not look up at the camera. Their varied notes of hammer-on-copper add scale and harmony to the beat of this artisan symphony. A fountain’s rush of water and beating footsteps blend into the audible texture. As though choreographed, a modestly dressed, head-covered young mother rhythmically packs on her back a precocious toddler in a baseball cap.
Here the careful hammer shapes trays, plates, pitchers, teapots, vases, elegant ewers with necks like swans, samovars, couscous steamers and a dozen other items.
Dinner in the medina is an event not to be forgotten. With the Ramadan (religious daytime fasting) underway, guides graciously vanish before the table. This July night, visitors are alone in the magnificent courtyard of the once-residence-now-restaurant where sultans strode. A rich blue-tiled reflecting pool centers the courtyard, flanked by a single table against a pillowed silk couch. There are no chatty waiters here — drinks and food seem to silently glide to the table.
As olive trees pervade this hilly country, olives materialize on the table in all their glory: pickled and picante, dark and green, stuffed, clothed and plain. Breads, seven salads of Medina vegetables, including couscous, follow. The entree is a magnificent quarter chicken landscaped in a topography of rice hillocks. Dessert is a flaky half-pastry, half-pie that disappears before it can be categorized. Pricey? A bit, but not all restaurants are this exclusive.
The medina is not a tourist destination for the faint of foot or scanty of budget. It bears serious study before traveling during the preferred time in April-May or September-October. Fez itself offers many other entertainments, including camel trips. But a visit here etches itself quickly into memory and is of the stuff that digs itself into dreams.
If you bargain, start low. Remember that you are on their turf, and they started in A.D. 808.
After all, the medina is a voyage into Arabia’s past.
John Hart is a retired writer for the Church News.
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