On my last day in Marrakech I did what my mother always told me not to. I went down a dark alley with a strange man. Worse, he was a strange man with a toothless grin, brandishing a suspicious armful of fresh mint. And he had lured me away with the promise of showing me his tanneries!
That afternoon the Medina had lost its magic. In the oppressive heat, drains exuded odours of dampness and danger. The narrow passageways felt dark and claustrophobic and the holiday hordes had turned the friendly locals surly and menacing.
Back in the Djemaa el Fna square, I avoided eye contact with the charmless snake charmer as he banged his slipper on the ground to agitate his motionless reptile. His pipe whined and insinuated itself into the unconscious and performed its magic more on the passing crowds than the snakes. I watched a hypnotised black cobra and wondered whether it was really plastic. Around the edges of the square, Nightboat to Cairo stall holders called out, clamouring and persistent, while fortune tellers and henna artists murmured, “Good luck, Madame, good luck,” with contemptuous expressions.
As my head began to throb to the rhythm of the drums, the square, whose name means the Assembly of the Dead, felt sinister and threatening. I slipped down a side alley to escape.
And found myself with my toothless companion walking along the dusty alleyways off Bab Debagh. We had met at a mint stall.
“My family have fourteen tanneries,” he grinned, “Behind the big doors – you will see.”
As I followed him I had visions of those big doors closing behind me and never reopening. I eyed my Morocco guidebook and wondered whether it was big enough to ward him off. But, like a camel to the slaughter, I followed, allowing curiosity to get the better of me. I wanted to see this attraction listed under the Worst of Marrakech.
We stepped over cabbage leaves and random entrails of animals which lay scattered on the street. The air was thick with the ammonia fumed aroma of pigeon droppings. Laughing at my screwed up nose, my guide thrust a sprig of mint towards me.
“Gasmask,” he explained holding it to his nose, feigning Victorian lady delicacy.
We had reached huge wooden doors carved with Arabian Night exoticism. I almost expected him to exclaim “Open Sesame” but he pushed instead and they creaked open.
Up on the rooftop we balanced between great vats of quicklime where animal skins are soaked and stripped, then softened with the chemical content of pigeon droppings, before being laid out to dry in the sun. Among the sepia tinged monochrome, vats of natural dyes gleamed– calico, saffron, indigo, kohl and mint used to create the spectrum of colours that hang in the souqs.
A sad looking donkey flicked flies away with his tail. Otherwise he was as motionless as the cobra in the Djemaa El Fna and I wondered whether he was drowsy from inhaling the fumes. The workers laboured on, deep in their pits, randomly moving around skin of cow, sheep or camel ready to be made into Berber tents or babouches.
“How long have your family worked here?” I enquired.
“For always,” he replied. And squinting into the sun, his walnut-shell wrinkled face surveyed his kingdom. I thought about the Tannery pub back in my home town and reflected that in Mediaeval times this is what stood in every British town. In the part of town whose sinister reputation lingers on.
Afterwards my strange man took me to the factory where the leather was formed into handcrafted objects. He handed me a camel skin cushion.
“A work of art,” I commented politely.
“More than a work of art,” he said with passion, “For it is useful too and made to the glory of Allah.”
As I took a final walk through the Djemaa el Fna, I paused by a display of soft leather babouches. The stalls now seemed to sparkle with rich treasures, ornate lanterns, conical towers of exotic spices, and colourful kilims. This was the art of Marrakech, its creations useful and sublime.
Dusk was settling and the first aromas of roasted sheep’s head were drifting on smoke clouds mingled with the sweet sickly fragrance of mint tea. The drums were playing with urgency now and with their rhythm in my step, I moved towards a group of Gnaoua dancers who performed their mystical Moroccan form of line dancing, heads swirling and tasselled fezzes spinning. I watched for a while, conscious that their trance like state was an illusion, likely to be switched off in an instant if I was to lift my camera. I fumbled for a coin and a hat reached out. Tossing in the coin with a smile, I marvelled at Marrakech’s relentless ability to cast its spell.