Monday, January 30, 2012

Getting Up Close with Fez Artisans

Sefrou-based artist Jess Stephens has created a new, up close and personal tour of the medina, which bridges the divide between tourists and local craftspeople, writes Vanessa Bonin.
Called Artisanal Affairs and offered by Culture Vultures, the new tour gives you the chance to meet and talk to the artisans of Fes, pick up their tools, have a try at the potter's wheel or feel the weight of a wood carver's hammer.

We set off from R’Cif and plunged in, starting at the street of the dyers. I was accompanied by a friend, Kirsty McBeath, who was a first-time visitor to Fez - so our experiences were quite different but equally astounding. For me, having lived in the Fez Medina for two years and seen the sights with many visiting friends and relatives, the opportunity to take it slowly and chat at length with the true artisans of the medina was a revelation.

Kirsty said she was amazed to meet people who have had their skills passed down through generations of workers, using methods that remain unchanged for centuries. “It was incredible to interact with the local artisans and to gain a more in-depth insight into their craft,” she said. “The experience allowed me to be a participator rather than a spectator.”

With a local guide, Hakima, as our translator and go-between, we met and interacted with these proud and talented craftspeople, who, once given the chance to be more than just a passing photo opportunity, were only too pleased to tell us their stories. Old photos came out, problems and worries were shared along with achievements, traditional working songs were sung and histories related.

An old metal worker in Place Seffarine showed us a picture of himself as an apprentice aged fourteen (above). He related the time he was invited to a conference of artisans in Germany and his amazement at meeting a female metalworker from Austria who used the same tools as he did. He left us with some sage advice: “Handicrafts – if it doesn’t make you rich, it makes you good,” he said.

Another metalworker proudly showed us a photograph of a giant hammam water heater he had made after three weeks of labour. He also confided that some of the workers suffered from hearing difficulties after a lifetime of working amongst the repetitive banging sounds of hammers on metal.

Another highlight was visiting the tanneries – and this was no ‘elevated viewing platform clutching a sprig of mint’ experience! We entered from the river side, behind the giant wooden wheels that churn the water for washing the skins. The smell, initially overwhelming, was quickly forgotten while we concentrated on negotiating our way between the gullies of lime and sludge and workers carrying piles of dripping skins.

Men in work-worn shorts with wiry legs nimbly scurried along the edges of the dye pits, while we cautiously edged our way in, having visions of ourselves ending up half submerged in a pool of red, yellow or brown liquid.

The extent of the backbreaking labour involved is only apparent when you get this close. The sight of a man using his full body-weight to flay skins with a giant blade will stay with me for some time.

Shortly after getting our feet dirty, it was time for our hands to follow suit. This was during an out-of-the ordinary visit to the potteries where we got to handle the clay and try our pot throwing skills. Alas, despite being tutored by a ‘mallam’ (master craftsman) my efforts were unlikely to see the inside of a kiln.

The tour finished at the modern Artisanal Centre in Batha, which gives an opportunity to see how these ancient techniques are being carried into the future in an environment that is better for the wellbeing of the craftspeople. Master wood-workers, embroiderers, saddle makers, painters, rug-weavers and cobblers fashioning babouches are all here passing their expert knowledge on to the next generation of artisans. 

Part of that knowledge is the songs that are traditionally sung to pass the time while working, and we finished our visit with an impromptu rendition of some of these folk songs by a roomful of babouche makers. We learned about poetry called Ghalnassi and heard a recitation from the poet Gnoun.

Jess Stephens (or another Culture Vultures representative) accompanies the tours as a facilitator, to bridge relations between artisan and visitor. “The Fes-based experience is the first of two Artisanal Affairs tours – I will also be starting one in Sefrou,” Jess said. “In shaking hands with the craftspeople I hope that the visitor will also discover the experiences, lives and traditions such as the songs, poetry and tales of their trade.”

Jess Stephens, right, with a master carver
So, for those who prefer wellies to stilettos, and are keen to get down and dirty with the real people of the medina, this experience is for you. It did leave me wondering however, how many more generations will continue these traditions? Will the time capsule that the medina artisans inhabit last? Here’s hoping the amazing skills, songs and histories of the master craftspeople of Fes is not lost.

For more information on the Artisanal Affairs tours click HERE.


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