In a cramped, dilapidated workshop, a weaver is hunched over a ramshackle wooden loom seemingly held in place by the very threads it’s meant to loop together. The room’s walls are sturdy, made of stone and mud, but unevenly formed, as though they could have use the services of an architect with an eye for perfection. Mounds of completed fabric are piled up in one corner of the dimly lit space, while spools of colorful thread and yarn are within the worker’s reach. It’s a workplace setting that seems unchanged from centuries ago — until the weaver pauses mid-design to answer his cell phone. Welcome to Fez: where the 11th and the 21st centuries collide in unexpected ways.
It’s something of a cliché to call Fez a city from another era, but evidence of this abounds in the narrow alleyways, the historic riads, and most of all, in the studios of artisans who continue to ply their ancient trades. The medina is filled with workshops and ateliers, some barely big enough to comfortably seat a craftsman and his wares, who continue to make silks, ceramics, and leather the way their forefathers have for generations. It’s something you can’t help but marvel at as you meander through the winding lanes, confronted with producers of tiles, jewelry, pottery, and cutlery at every step.
But I wanted better access. I wanted to understand how the world of these craftspeople has persisted in these days of machine-laden factories and assembly lines that spew cookie-cutter products by the millions — and within seconds to boot. To get that kind of access, I turned to Culture Vultures Fez. They offer a half-day artisanal tour of the medina, giving a level of intimacy and context that most travelers never get to experience.
I’m met at my riad one morning by Culture Vultures facilitator Christina and interpreter El Ghali, my guides into this fascinating realm. Our first stop is Atelier de Brocart, a brocade workshop where Abdelkadr Ouazzani has been weaving fabric for lavish brocade caftans for more than 50 years, even receiving a medal from the Moroccan king for his efforts. In true form, his son, whom I pass stationed at a loom near the entrance on my way in, is following in his footsteps. Another operation where skills are passed from father to son is Mohammed Bouguaddach’s nearby factory. There, in a 14th-century caravanserai — an inn for merchants who would tie their camels in the entry courtyard before retiring to a small room for the night — his family uses wool, cotton, and silk to craft material for colorful djellabas, scarves, turbans, and bed covers. This is no easy task: it takes 3,600 threads to make one meter of fabric.
I can smell our next stop long before I see it: Fez’s famed tanneries, where leather has been made from camel, cow, goat, and sheep skins using the same method for more than 700 years. Dozens of leather shops line balconies overlooking mammoth vats overflowing with skins and dyes, proffering racks and racks of candy-colored babouches, sleek jackets, and supple cushions all crafted from leather made just feet away using organic dyes — natural indigo, poppy, and saffron. A raw, noxious odor looms over us, and is quickly explained by Rachid, the owner of one of the shops: the age-old method involves the use of plenty of putrid ingredients, not least of all pigeon droppings.
The stench is strong enough to make me lose my will to shop — no small feat — but Rachid and his cohorts aren’t done with me yet. I’m led along a series of hallways, down some stairs, up some others, out a door, through some twisting and turning alleyways, and suddenly a handful of mint is brusquely thrust at my nose. We’re going in, I’m told. Ground zero of the tanneries, where the vats are all lined up, is off limits for tourists — unless you’re with Culture Vultures, that is. The sprigs of mint are meant to shield my nose from the fumes, but they accomplish little. The miasma is so overwhelming I fear I might pass out, but as I squish-squosh my sandaled feet through various puddles, skirting stacks of unnamed animal carcasses, avoiding looking down while still trying hard not to trip, I know this is definitely not a place I want to collapse. My delicate constitution can’t handle much more than a cursory tour of the vats, and as much as I acknowledge it’s a privilege to be there — and, after all, access is what I’ve come looking for — I can’t wait to make my way out. I gasp for air when I finally stumble out.
The rest of our tour is hardly as eventful: a tiny closet where a knife-maker sharpens his iron knives on a stone wheel; the dyers’ street, where I watch a man in a plastic apron dip strands of cactus silk into a bucket of brown dye; and the studio of a bonework master, who proudly shows off his combs, keychains, and makeup bottles fashioned by hand from cow horns and camel bone. My favorite moment is a visit to the coppersmiths of Seffarine Square, a lovely cobbled plaza shaded by a massive plane tree. You hear the men at work on their massive copper pots from blocks away: the square is known for the never-ending sound of hammers pummeling away at metal in a percussive rhythm. We have a break at Restaurant Seffarine, a no-frills café overlooking the square, and drink freshly squeezed orange juice to the live sound track courtesy of the clanging going on below.
The final stop on the Culture Vultures tour is a world away from the medina’s workshops. At the Centre de Formation et de Qualification dans les Metiers de l’Artisanat, a sprawling, modern campus, students are trained in age-old crafts to make sure the new generation continues on these centuries-old traditions. It’s an amazing effort, and shows the love Morocco has for its crafts: in an era where it’s often easier, cheaper, and far quicker to outsource to China, the artisanal arts of Fez are thriving.