Tuesday, July 1, 2014

Travel Deep

For over two years now my friend, Jess, has been conducting artisanal tours of the medina. I have heard her talk about the artisans and seen stunning photos of the craftsmen at work. Today, however, was the first time I accompanied her on a tour and the experience was a real treat, even for someone like me who has lived in the medina for over seven years. As Jess said, her tours allow the participants to travel deeply as opposed to travel widely. With the exception of the tannery, each artisanal workplace was little more than a cubbyhole packed with personalities the average tourist rarely gets to meet let alone commune with, observe in action, and learn from. I felt like I was on scene at the making of a documentary film. 

Our day began at 9:30 when we wound our way down Talaa Sghira to a lovely restored riad to collect a mother and daughter from South Africa who had booked a tour. After acquainting the pair with the itinerary, we set out on foot to our first stop of the day; a shop where wool, cotton and silk thread, clothing and fabric are hand dyed. The artisan explained what flowers, vegetables and plants were used to achieve each vibrant color. Our questions were translated by an official guide who patiently interpreted the English questions into Arabic and the Arabic answers into English. Questions about environmental and health issues, the process itself, how long the artisan had been practicing his trade and so on volleyed back and forth so seamlessly we felt like we were speaking one-on-one to the artisans. When a donkey arrived to cart off skeins of thread we took our leave and headed off to the next stop.


Around the corner from the dyers was a shop filled with aluminum trays. Here the artisan etched designs of his own creation into the large tabletops, platters and trays found in every Moroccan home. Using a compass and a ruler, he told us he meticulously lays out each design in the comfort of his home and then brings the aluminum back to his shop to begin the etching and polishing that makes each hand-crafted item a unique yet utilitarian piece of art. His workspace gleamed with the results of his labor. My particular favorite was a tabletop with camels marching around the circular surface. When asked which design was his personal favorite, he showed us a very intricately designed platter that contained the symbols seen on many doors and inside palaces throughout Morocco. 


Moving on we headed to the last remaining wood shop of its kind in the medina. The floor was softly padded with layers and layers of wood chips. Rounds cut from bark-covered trees were stacked here and there, smaller pieces that had been stripped of their bark and planed into a smooth surface challenged us to imagine what they were destined to become. Our artisan sat in a corner with a large mallet in his hand. Various pieces, all within arm's reach, were pulled into his lap to show a stringed instrument in the making, a form for making shoes, a farmer's tool. This father of six sons told us a little bit about each one, including pointing out the flat rock, half-buried among the wood chips, that marked the workplace of the one son who was following in this footsteps. 


The coziness of the wood carver's cubbyhole was then replaced by the cacophony of Place Seffarine where metal workers pound copper into kitchenware and meditatively hammer dimpled embellishments onto pots and pans. The work is loud and rhythmic and to me the worker's seemed to embody their craft as they were both boisterous and focused. 


Our next artisan had an inner glow that seemed to be a reflection of the horns he cut and polished to make animal-shaped combs, key rings and buttons. Using his foot to rest a piece of horn on, he stroked the horn with a tool that not only polished the horn but shaved the calloused skin off his feet as well. Unable to fit worktable or bench into his shop as his workspace was so small, he sat against one wall and offered up his story with humor and generosity.


But the best was yet to come. The slipper maker of the rich and powerful sat in his tiny shop and regaled us with stories of his life and his work. Eighty-four years old and clearly intent on performing his craft until he takes his last breath, this artisan has a twinkle in his eye that makes you smile and an immense pride in his work that you want to emulate in your own life.


No trip, artisanal in nature or not, would be complete without a stop at the tannery. And while I have been on many a tour of the tanneries found in the medina, I learned a lot on this particular tour. Our host told the story of the artisan tanners as we stood on the platform of a leather shop, high above row upon row of vats. The tanning process is quite amazing as is the system under which tanners operate. This information had never before been revealed to me. It's really quite impressive. If you have the desire to do so, you can descend down to the level of the many vats to get a first-hand look at the aromatic workplace. Once there, you cannot help but wonder how anyone can actually perform this work day after day, but most especially during the long hours of fasting that were being observed on this hot, mid-summer day.


We were now hours into our tour and still had two stops to make; the weavers where we were educated on the intricacies of setting up the looms, and the neighborhood oven where hundreds and hundreds of rounds of bread were being shunted in and out of a cavernous oven. At both stops we were treated to something; at the weaver distinctly different styles of wrapping a turban were demonstrated. Soon bedouin and berber turbans were wrapped 'round our heads and somehow the styles managed to capture our personalities. At the bakery, hot, fresh bread was proffered to those who were not partaking in the fast. 

All-in-all, this artisanal tour was not your typical view of what the medina has to offer and left me feeling privileged to have been a participant. 

I encourage you to learn more about The Original Fes Artisanal Tours and other Culture Vulture projects by visiting http://culturevulturesfez.org. Once there you can start your journey by clicking on 'artisanal inspirations'. Travel deep. 

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