Marrakech Tanneries: a sketch and a tale

18 July 2014 By ian

Marrakech tanneries

If you’ve been following this site for any length of time you’ll know I’m a huge fan of handmade leather products, so when I was in Marrakech for my honeymoon I felt I had to visit the famous tanneries.

Now, I must admit, I had got them confused with the even more famous tanneries in Fez, which are a riot of colour. I haven’t been there but I can tell you for certain that what I saw in Marrakech wasn’t anything like the photos I’d seen of Fez.

It’s one thing knowing intellectually that leather comes from animals but it’s another matter being faced with the brutal reality that it’s the skin of a cow, or horse, or pig, or (in Marrakech) camel. To get to the tanneries we had to follow complete strangers through the baking-hot back streets of the poorest parts of the city (no-one wants to live near the stink of the tanneries) and then, having been handed sprigs of mint to ward off the stench, the first area we walk past is the slaughter pen. Behind the corrugated iron ramshackle fencing we could hear a horse, obviously distressed. Unsurprisingly.

There are two tanneries in Marrakech, one for the Arabs, one for the Berbers. We saw both and both are equally brutal. Men spend hour after hour up to their waists in pits full of skin, urine and pigeon droppings, in the full heat of the African sun. There’s no shade out there. Around the pits there are tiny dark hot rooms where men and boys scrape the skins. Everywhere you look there are bits of animal and huge skins stretched out.

In the West most of us are detached from the realities of where our goods come from. We know that sausages start with a pig being slaughtered (I live surrounded by farms). We know that leather is animal skin. We know that someone, somewhere, has made a silver necklace. We appreciate, abstractedly, that bees make honey or that oats don’t start off in a box. In Marrakech there was no way of avoiding these realities. Men (always men) spend their days in the dirtiest hottest tiniest workshops banging metal into the most beautiful jewellery, stalls sell every part of every animal, men spend their days squeezing oranges for juice, men spend their days keeping the most ancient of motorbikes just about working, and men spend their days in the heat of the sun turning the skins of dead animals into leather.

Staedtler 308 pigment liners (review next week), Tombow ABT dual brush pens, Pink Pig sketchbook