Our eyes started watering and nose hairs singed as we slowly distanced ourselves from the hustle and bustle of the world-renowned Marrakech souks, the smell intensifying with every step.
A local Moroccan boy, whom we were introduced to after speaking to numerous locals, led us, like a determined and energetic guide dog, through a labyrinth of narrow alleyways.
Looking about 12 years old, our makeshift guide spoke English with confidence and was noticeably excited about the prospect of escorting us to the tanneries, a place unlike anything I’ve ever experienced.
After about 20 minutes of navigating the backstreets, we knew by the pungent stench, that we were getting close. Our young, entrepreneurial guide said farewell and handed us over to an ageing man whose steely gaze was matched only by his stoic disposition.
An attack on the senses
Presenting us with mint cloves, which I first thought to be a gift, the hardened Moroccan was actually offering us a way to combat the omnipresent, fetid odour.
Immediately putting the mint clove to work, I stuffed it as close to my nose as possible without penetrating my nasal cavity. Unfortunately Chris East, my good friend and travel companion, doesn’t take kindly to the taste or smell of mint. In this instance, however, mint was most definitely the lesser of two evils.
Crossing under an archway to enter this unfamiliar world, it felt like we had been transported back to a medieval time, the barbaric setting actually adding to what would be an invaluable, albeit smelly, educational and cultural experience.
Wearing mint cloves as moustaches, we embarked on a bewildering journey, one involving an indescribable – and at times inhumane – attack on the senses.
The way tanneries process cow, sheep, goat and camel hides to produce high quality leather products have remained almost completely unchanged since the Middle Ages.
How tanneries process cow hide
Using hundreds of concrete vats to process thousands of animal hides, I watched in awe as workers stood knee-deep in pigeon excrement, cow urine and other miscellaneous liquids and dyes. Taking a moment to reflect on my life back in London, I felt truly lucky, for the first time in recent memory, to have the pleasure of staring at a computer for 10 hours a day.
Life is all about perspective. Some people are blessed with the opportunity to go to university and enjoy all comforts and luxuries the western world has to offer.
Others wake up every morning to the prospect of scrubbing raw animal hides in litres of shit and blood, the stench so pungent it could induce a gag reflex on even the most stomach strong. To top the shit-bucket off, tannery workers endure stifling conditions, the unforgiving heat further magnifying the almost intolerable working conditions.
Passing by hundreds of hanging hides, we were taken aback by the sheer immensity of the operation. It was quite humbling to see the production in motion, enabling us a surface level understanding of how, and where, souk vendors obtain their leather handbags, Moroccan slippers – known as babouches – wallets, furniture and other accessories from.
Inevitably the ghastly smell synonymous with tanneries worldwide overpowered the mint cloves’ defences, breaching my nasal cavity with devastating effect.
Nothing comes for free
And while perspective building, we were hoping for a timely conclusion to the tour. Thinking it was free of charge both of us, like criminals fleeing from the scene of the crime, made a beeline for the exit. Our gangly, salt-of-the earth tour guide piped up, almost speaking before our intentions to leave were made clear.
“Where you going? You pay money.”
Looking back, it was a bit naive of us to think that anything in Morocco could possibly be complimentary, even if we’d spent the last half hour battling the urge to vomit.
In the spirit of self-preservation we dually obliged, handing over whatever nominal, accessible change we had at our disposal.
Transaction complete we dashed off in a flash, yearning for a breath of fresh air. In an attempt to rid ourselves of the lingering odour, we inhaled cigarettes like recently fallen-off-the-wagon addicts.
We don’t ordinarily smoke but it was, paradoxically, just what the doctor ordered.
No matter how severe or squalid the conditions, neither of us would have changed a thing. Exploring the Marrakech tanneries was as culturally enlightening as it was eye-wateringly unpredictable.
Just remember to bring something stronger than the clove of mint that you’ll surely be presented with.
(This piece was originally featured in Kiss from the World)