Travel G-spots

POV {+Travel Tips}: Dar Debbagh, Tannery Gate of Morocco

Sprigs of mint. That’s their anecdote.

I of course greeted the giver of the mont sprigs with suspicion. And this had nothing to do with my short term memory of being ripped off time after time over the last 48 hours since my arrival in Marrakech, but rather my long term memory of paying off a gypsy gang of women and children in Seville, Spain that were hitting a branch of rosemary over my head and shoulders repeatedly while murmuring some chants with stoic looking eyes.

Good thing was I stuffed the crushed mint leaves deep into my cargo pants pockets while I tried to keep up with my “guide”s pace.

The guide? A random teen I had picked up for 50 dirham to show me the way to the tanners.

Prior to this trip I had viewed aerial views of photos of colourful pools of liquid taken from some roof tops. They were like “bowls of curries” – bright tumeric yellow, marigold orange, persimmons pink and chili red.

Nothing like that greeted me when I finally got to Marrakech’s Dar Debbagh. If anything, the tanners reeks of a combination of ammonia and animal waste miles before the gates are even visible. Piles of wet fur, some infused with mud and/or dung lies all of the place in a heap. Decaying pieces of torn mats used to close the “bowls” of liquids to avoid bird poo and other waste from contaminating the liquids contributes to the lingering smell of rotting vegetation.

Digital photo © {p}.Haque – All Rights Reserved – click to enlarge

Despite having compressed mint leaves shoved as far in as my nostril would permit before inducing self asphyxia, my temples were throbbing and my lungs exploding. To make matters worse, visually everything was brown (poo). There was nothing to photograph.

If I had thought Moroccans were hard to photograph on the streets, the workers at the tanners were hostile and aggressive. I was sure none would hesitate lifting the mats to submerge my camera. I wonder if they would stop short with my camera.

pHaque_Tannery_Morocco

Digital photo © {p}.Haque – All Rights Reserved

What I had not not known then was working at the tanners is considered a disgrace.

What I had learned from the visit was the colourful photos were from Fez; but even then, the colours are seasonal.

Makes sense really. Economies of scale. Extrapolating Economics 101, it also makes sense that the most common colours of brown and tan would pervade, being the most sale-able colours of leatherwear around.

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The tanners are the only craft corporation to have a gate named after them – Dar Debbagh. Believed to be the first to settle in Marrakesh, not only did their prosperity give rise to an old adage ‘Dar Debbagh, bab dehed’ – Tanners’ Gate, golden gate’, there are numerous legends surrounding them that gives the tanners a mysterious clout.

One legend claims that seven virgins (sisters of the seven protector saints of Marrakesh) were buried in the gate’s foundation and women who desire a child should offer them candles and henna, while another popular legend has it that Dar Debbargh is inhabited by Malik Gharub, a genie who dared to lead a revolt against Sidna Suleyman, the Black King, only to be condemned to tan a cowhide and cut out belgha soles for eternity as his punishment.

Whatever the truth that may have given rise to the legends, the tannery has long been considered a dangerous place; the entrance to the domain of the ‘Other Ones’ with the tanners spending their days in pits working and facing only skins – the unseen world of the dead.

On the other hand, built as the eastern gate into the (old) city, the Dar Debbagh is said to be a symbolic representation of the rising sun which is akin to the skin being reborn as leather. In this context, the men who are in daily contact with the skins are revered as masters of fertility, capable of ‘breathing’ a second life to dry, dead skin, which skin in itself is a symbol of preservation and fertility.

Despite the various and occasionally contradictory legends, one fact remains clear. The tanneries in the Dar Debbagh continues to attract attention; though not for its legend, tourist flocks the tanneries with mint leaves shoved into their nostrils to witness the tanning processes that have existed since antiquity as follows:

  • First, the skins are soaked in a ‘swamp’ – or iferd – filled with a fermenting mixture of pigeon guano and tannery waste for 3 to 6 days, then dried out before scrapping off hair followed by further soaking of the skin into pits of lime and argan-kernel ash for 15-30 days to remove remaining flesh and hair as well as preparing the skin for the actual tanning process.
  • Then, the skins are thoroughly washed and placed in a qasriya – a round pit with more pigeon dung and fresh water. This stage is undertaken with great care by the tanners as they believe that a djinn lives in the qasriya and has the ability to ruin through over stretching and thinning, if the skins are left too long in the solution.
  • This is followed by soaking in wheat fibre and salt for 24 hours to remove any traces of lime and guano.
  • The actual tanning process then begin, using only plants – roots, barks and certain seeds and fruits. Acacia and oak bark are generally used in Marrakesh, along withtakkut (the ground-up fruit of the tamarind) with water, where the skins receives three soakings.
  • Finally, the skins are prepared to receive the dye where they are scraped with pottery shards, beaten and coated with oil, alum and water before being hand dyed.

Such primitive process applied is not only labour intensive, but uses approximately approximately 30-40 m3 of water are used per t of hide processed and generates a large quantity of effluent – a mixture of biogenic matter of hides and a large variety of organic and inorganic chemicals that contains high levels of salinity and pollutants.

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