The Difference Between Arabic and Berber Tanneries
Before heading out on a new adventure I like to do a bit of research on Pinterest and Youtube to figure out what there is to be seen. You might think this would happen before buying an airplane ticket to get there but honestly I tend to find a cheap flight first and just assume there is something cool to be seen once we arrive. So far this has worked out pretty well for us.
In my pre-Morocco infohunting I kept seeing people mention these amazing tanneries that you could go check out. These posts were pretty much always accompanied by some epically cool picture of the tannery itself or some of the giant dye pots inside. The photographer inside of me was just itching to get there and check it out.
After a big Moroccan breakfast (more about those here) the girls and I headed out into the medina for a bit of exploring while Johnny got some work done. It was pretty obvious that I was wandering in a direction that most tourists don't go (on purpose anyway). Along the way I talked with some very kind shopkeepers and after explaining to them that "No, I am not looking for the big square." they let me know that it was in fact a Berber holy day (could have been a holiday, but it sounded like two words) and that I should keep going to find the tanneries. Perfect, I was headed the right direction.
I found out later that it was the day that they have the leather auction to sell their wares. After spending a few more weeks in town I am fairly sure it is something that happens every Friday. Perhaps the holiday they were speaking of was just the weekend?
As I continued along I politely declined the offer for a friend of the shopkeeper to show me the way. Most things that I had read about visiting Marrakech had warned against people acting like "guides" and demanding payment. This was not the case here (but it did happen another time), he was very nice and said he didn't want any money so I agreed to walk with him. On the way toward the tanneries he explained that there were the Arabic tanners and the Berber tanners, how to tell them apart and how to ask if I could come in and see what they were doing (which I repeated a couple times but can't for the life of me remember).
As we got closer we saw lots of donkey carts and tiny trucks that were getting loaded up with leather to be sold at the market later that afternoon.
In the front of an Arabic tannery my new friend introduced me to a man from the tannery then went on his way. I was invited in and given a large handful of mint leaves to hold to my nose because the process of tanning hides is actually pretty gross and smells really bad. Basically, a hide is taken from through the various steps of tanning (which involve soaking in ammonia, getting rubbed down with pidgeon poop, and other less than glamorous things).
We walked a little ways further to a Berber tannery to see how they work (basically the same). Essentially the only difference between the two tanneries was that in the Arabic tannery they work with sheep skins and goat skins and in the Berber tannery they work with cow skins and camel skins.
After a quick peek inside I was herded to a leather co-op where artisans make the leather into products like shoes, belts, bags and poufs. I wasn't ready to buy anything just yet but it was still cool to see a lot of the makers in the shop working on their goods. I noticed that when you buy a pouf they come empty so they can be transported easily (makes sense) and asked the man working there what you are supposed to fill them with. To which he replied you can fill them with anything - old blankets, scraps, rags...I smiled because that was not at all the answer I expected.
I'm fairly sure this whole process of quick tours happens all day, every day to get people ready to buy the leather goods. I'm fairly sure I didn't just luck into meeting nice people who just wanted to show me around but it was cool and informative nonetheless. Normally, I don't care too much for most souvenirs but in Morocco, I wish I could just ship a little bit of everything home. I love the leather and colors and textiles of Morocco and would happily furnish the majority of a future home with them (so who knows perhaps their efforts weren't in vain).