Walking inside the Fez medina was like stepping foot in another world. We navigated through narrow alleyways that could only be accessed by foot or donkey, past shops of metalwork, scarves, robes, spices- anything you could possibly imagine. We passed a butchers, and a camel head cut off at the neck hung as a greeting out front of the shop. Its neck was completely skinned but the head was fully intact, as if we needed a reminder of the product they were trying to sell.
We turned a sharp right into a staircase I could barely fit my shoulders through with colourfully tiled steps. Once at the top, it opened into a larger room and we were each handed a vine of mint leaves without explanation. One room led into the next, all dimly lit. The walls covered by an array of Moroccan slippers, bags of all sorts and leather jackets. Each room was for a different garment. The maze of rooms led us to one with natural light streaming in coming from a balcony. A viewpoint of the central tannery in the medina met our gazes as we put our sunglasses back on, the midday sun hot on our faces.
It took about thirty seconds to recognize the stench, like an open sewer. I suddenly noticed a group of Asian tourists with mint leaves stuffed up their nostrils, only the stems sticking out. I then realised their purpose. We were explained that the tannery was their way of producing high-quality leather, and it was where the skins were processed. As a foreigner, it appeared like the men were working in human excrement, not with animal hide. We held our mint vines strictly to our noses, and it made the aroma bearable for a few more minutes until we took shelter inside where the smell wasn’t as pungent.
The man who owned the leather shop explained that there were different types of materials for their products- camel, sheep and cow. Camel was the most soft and therefore most expensive whereas the cow was the roughest and the cheapest. After our lesson we scattered to browse and a few of us bartered their prices to a more affordable level, convincing ourselves the products were worth the money. We’d pay the same in our home countries anyways, we were just relying on their promise of quality and authenticity. As we left, the few people who hadn’t made a purchase were followed out with prices being shouted at them in desperation. They tailed us as we paraded down the steps, and only gave up when we were back into the bustling medina.