Tiles, a Loom and a Tannery in Fez…

As of May 2021, I am migrating most of my travel journals to Daveno Travels where I am reissuing them as Director’s Cuts, with full text and previously unpublished photos. This is an excerpt from my time in Fez, Morocco in 2017.

Fez is the second oldest city in the world after Jerusalem, and was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1989.  It lays claim to the first psychiatric hospital in the world, as well as the first surgical hospital, the oldest university and library, and the world’s 3rd largest mosque behind Mecca and Medina.  A US flag marks the veterinary hospital, which was also founded by a woman.

We’re off to see the Souk! But there are several stops in store before we get there. We visit a Jewish cemetery and visit the Royal Palace. We see an outdoor mosque with a view of the city. You can read those details at Daveno Travels.

We visit the Art D’Argile Tile Factory, where Ahmed, the manager, gives us a guided tour. They produce wares mostly for restaurants, from a white lead free clay which is very hard to break. We watch a potter with an electric kickwheel, pull small goblets off of a mountain of wet clay at the rate of one every 45 seconds. He then whips out a small tagine, the size that Moroccans use for mezze dishes, with a perfectly fitting lid, without the aid of a template or any form of measure beyond his hands and eyes.  

I stop to watch a craftsman painting a pot, nearly freehand with the exception of equally spaced vertical pencil lines on the outside of the piece. The flourishes between the geometric shapes were completely freehand and as even as could possibly be.  I bet he’s done that design a million times… 

Past the glaze room and the kiln that was tall enough for a man to stand in, were the mosaic tile cutters. Ahmed explains that Roman mosaic work has 4 shapes, compared to Zellige – Moroccan mosaic – which is made up of 700 shapes.  I learned at the madrassa museum in Casablanca that the white clay is hydrated, kneaded and rolled out before being cut into tiles.  The tiles are fired at 1000 degrees Celsius, and then enameled and fired again at 800 degrees Celsius. 

The tiles are then marked and cut with a hammer.  Ahmed led us to the pair of tile cutters, who cut precise shapes (called ‘froma’) at an alarming speed, using a hammer with a flat chisel where the claws would be on a carpenter’s hammer. Piles of cut pieces and shards were at least a foot deep on the floor at their feet. The froma are chiseled on the back, which is also different from tiles I have seen everywhere else.  This allows the froma to butt up against each other, with the mortar (called ‘hamri’) filling in the backside to produce the panel with minimal mortar seams on the surface.

We pile back into the car and we are at last, off to see the souk.  Mohamed drops us off outside the medina wall, and we enter the snake-like labyrinth of alleyways, some dark with filtered light, others open to the sky, twisting through open courtyards and then back into covered alleys.  Wafi says its really easy to get lost here…

The souk, in addition to being the ‘shopping mall’ of the medina, also houses several historic sites. The first one we see is also the one I’ve been most excited about – the Qarawiyyin Library, the oldest working library in the world. Established originally as a mosque by Fatima Al-Fihre in 859, it houses 4,000 rare books and manuscripts, and was at one time attached to a university which has since moved to another part of Fez.

We enter via a staircase, a beautifully restored building that was either originally a caravansary (traveler’s rest) our or a fondouk (another form of lodging for traders and their mules). It now houses a women’s weaving cooperative.  At the top of the building I find a woman at her carpet loom.  The back of the loom faces the room, so I peer around to get a glimpse of the rug, and the weaver invites me to sit with her on her workbench.  (Photos courtesy of Mark Charteris)

She shows me how she ties the knots, and then hands pieces of wool to me so I can try.  I expect to get a couple of pieces, but she continues to hand them to me until the row is finished.  She hands me a pair of barbers shears to trim the pile, but I decline as I am terrified of ruining her work.  She hacks off the yarns with some abandon, and starts her next row.   What an experience that was!

The next flight of stairs takes us up to the top of another shop, this one filled with leather goods. The top floor is open to the air, and overlooks the Choura Tannery, one of the three largest in this souk. There are dozens of vats, with men scraping hides from goats, sheep and cows.  Although we were warned of the stench, and handed sprigs of mint to hold under our noses, I don’t find the aroma that overpowering, and ultimately I just eat the mint.  

The vats include mordants made from lime, salt and pigeon droppings, and there are cages of pigeons nearby to supply the droppings.  Colors are only derived from natural organic sources, and there are several steps in the process of tanning, ending with skins in every imaginable color, grade, suppleness and sheen. This shop sells handbags, coats and leather ottomans made from the leathers dyed in these vats.

After lunch at Restaurant Asmire, we find another leather shop where I buy a pair of turquoise shoes.  A nearby textile shop draws us in, and after a few minutes, we are seated and served tea. The shopkeeper teaches us about fibers, and shows us an agave leaf which is stripped for its fiber and blended with cotton to make scarves, shawls and other garments. He then starts unrolling lengths of woven goods in a process similar to buying a carpet in Istanbul.  I excuse myself from that process but I find a traditional fez here for my brother, and try on one of the conical hats that our waiter was wearing at lunch.  I buy the fez, and leave the conical hat behind.  But it gets presented to me in the car, a gift from Mark and Catherine, whose generosity seems to be endless.  I wear it to breakfast the following day.

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