“Special price for you, ladies!” the vendor shouts as a group of tourists pass his stall: a collection of lamps, teapots and carpets. He seems to have a sixth sense for guessing where people are from, although their looks help: the tall Dutch family that wears zip off pants, the unshaven Spanish tourist with dark hair and eyes, the sunburnt English girl that looks somewhat scared. They all willingly enter his obscure shop, debilitated by the charm of meaningless phrases in their own language. I hurry on, determined not to fall in that trap.
“The big square is that way,” a Moroccan boy shouts at every tourist that looks lost in the souk. He is talking to me now. “Actually I am looking for the tanneries,” I explain him. Being in the land of leather has made me curious as to how it is made. I want to find the origins of that rugged scent with hints of cedarwood, spicy cardamom and warm amber that makes me picture a cowboy riding off into the sunset. The boy shrugs his shoulders. “The big square is that way,” he insists, pointing his finger towards the bustling heart of Marrakech. The look on his face says it all: why visit the tanneries for gods-sake if nearby you can marvel at snakes?
I soon find out that to locate the tanneries you do not ask questions; you simply follow your senses. An undefined whiff enters my nostrils and sets me on the right track. As I leave the souk behind me, the streets become wider and the smell stronger, almost noxious. Even though I hold my nose, it filters through my skin and makes my stomach turn. This does not smell like cedarwood. Or cardamom. Or amber. Nor does it provoke images of cowboys at sunset, more so of dead animals. “Welcome to the tanneries!” a man exclaims in French while pushing some leafs in my hands: mint. I sniff at the refreshing herb and miraculously manage to oppress the need to shove a handful of this green relief up my nose while I follow the man that is apparently going to be my unofficial-official guide.
At first glance, the tannery looks like a big smelly blanket. Then I realise that below these covers there are dozens of big pits filled with pungent liquids, used to treat camel, cow and goat skins. The colours of the pits range from pure white, to dark brown, to deep red and their shapes vary from round to square. Young boys are working, their hands covered in gloves and their feet in Wellington boots, their faces rough and tanned. Some hold their balance on the edge of the pits like acrobats; others stand knee deep into foul fragrances.
While moving between these holes, praying not to fall in, I learn that these men soak the skins in lime, to remove the fat and the hair. I learn that pigeon poo and urine is used to make the leather supple. I learn that the skins are left to dry in the sun, like they did centuries ago. My mint leafs no longer smell like mint and so I let the stench of feces and decaying flesh wash over me. When I look through my eyelashes, the scarce modern features of this strange place blur into the reddish background. I can almost imagine being in a different era: a dark era without sunsets and cowboys. The guide impatiently pulls my hand. “Madame, are you listening?”
The big square is that way,” a Moroccan boy indicates as I leave the tannery. I follow his finger. Bit by bit, I return to the wombs of Marrakech. Donkeys pull carts through the zigzagging streets, women dressed in long garments carry heavy baskets and ancient men sip their mint teas. Green leaves, next to deep red henna, next to white beans, next to yellow flowers. Voices mix with the smell of exotic herbs and the smoke of scooters that rush by.
As I stroll along something catches my eye. It is a small chestnut-coloured handbag, begging me to touch it. The material feels slightly rugged, but at the same time strangely soft. With the image of the tannery burnt my mind and the smell of poo and pee alive in my brain I hesitantly approach my nose to it. It has a mild leather smell, a pleasant relief for my abused nostrils. I tell myself I can even appreciate some cedarwood. And some amber. Maybe even some cardamom. I think I have found my cowboy at sunset. “How much?” I ask the vendor that emerges from the shop. “Special price for you lady,” he answers smiling while rubbing his hands together.