The sound is like a drum band, heavy on the cymbal. A perfectly syncopated rhythm. But instead of beating a drum, two young men are hammering out the bottom seam of an enormous brass cauldron, the type that will be used at a wedding to prepare the banquet. To keep both rhythm and bowl moving, the lead hammer gives a double beat to the centre, adding a base tone as he moves the bowl in a circle to the left. They never miss a beat until, with a triple base tone, the work comes to an end, and the music echoes away up the narrow alleys.
The ‘drummers’ work outside a tiny workshop below the enormous plane tree that shades Place Seffarine, by the southeast corner of the Qaraouiyine Mosque, one of Fez’s oldest artisan areas, and home to the makers of teapots, trays, bowls and cauldrons of every size, lamps of filigree decoration, stills that are hired out for the annual distillation of orange blossom. If it is made of brass or copper, you will find it here, or have it made for you. The metalworker’s souk is close to the river, where most of the earliest artisan workshops began, some going back to the time Fez was founded, twelve hundred years ago.
Aziz sits in the same place he has for twenty-three years, his glasses perched on the end of his nose, carefully tapping a design into a large tray, using a set of punches that would be recognisable to a metal-worker at the time of the birth of Christ. Patiently he revolves the tray, each sharp tap repeating the design of the one before, until he chooses a punch of a different design and begins to create another pattern, but all in perfect symmetry.
The river was the life blood for many of the tiny workshops, most no more than twenty or twenty five metres square. A few minutes walk from Place Seffarine, the street of the dyers has the permanently damp air of a squalid riverside etching of Victorian London. Water sloshes everywhere; in the heated cans used for the dying; the large metal drums where the clothes and yarns are dumped to flush the salts away, and the huge trough halfway down the alley where the fabric is given it’s final wash.
Anything small, a jacket, a shirt or a pair of jeans, is dyed in a fifteen-litre can filled with hot water; skeins of fine cactus thread will be boiled in a zinc dustbin. Clothes are simply hung on a hook in the wall of the alleyway to dry, looking like a Technicolor clothes shop where everything needs ironing. The finer cactus thread will he hung from the roof beams, before being bundled onto the back of a donkey and taken to the weaver’s souk.
In the weaver’s souk, large wooden looms weave rich and colourful silk scarves and bedcovers, and the fabric that will be used for the finest djellabas and robes, from silk and fine cactus thread. The Bougeddach family all work together, weaving, sewing, displaying and selling their fine quality products, and son Nourddine loves describing the whole process to his visitors – even in English.
Where you have tools you need someone to make them, and Driss pumps his right foot up and down on the treddle that turns the grindstone, a metre in diameter, that was brought from the Middle Atlas Mountains. The stone turns on a metal spindle, which is kept lubricated by occasional globs of soap. Today he’s making a knife for a slipper maker, it’s blade a wide curve from the handle to a rapidly tapering point. Despite the roughness of the stone, Driss delicately hones it to razor sharpness. The walls of his minuscule space are covered with framed photos of is favourite football team, MAS football club, the local boys.
Many of the artisans work in full public view, but an equal number are hidden away. Walk into a small, cramped space where someone is carefully brazing a brass lamp stand, and behind you might find an even smaller workshop, where the slipper maker is quietly working away, snipping at the soft, coloured leather – perhaps with a pair of shears made by Driss – and sewing them together on and old treadle sewing machine. In a curious role reversal, Khadija, one of the few women slipper makers working under the public gaze, has just received an order for specially designed shoes for China. It is a strange concept to grasp, that the world’s biggest manufacturer is having footwear made in a two-metre square rustic workshop in the medieval heart of the Medina.
To a western mentality it might seem strange that someone can sit cross-legged in the same place day-in, day-out, year-in, year out, spending a life time reproducing the same small range of products. Abdellatif, might not agree with you, even if he were ever to give it any thought. At seventy-six, he has spent most of those years making decorative combs and long slim hair pins, a skill he learned from his father, the way in which most artisans learned their trade. He sits cross-legged with the piece he is working on resting on the heel of his right foot, as he carefully files away the horn to create the delicate shapes of his combs. His friendly smile is that of someone perfectly at peace with his work.
Probably one of the best known of Fez’s artisan trades is the Tanneries, and at over nine hundred years it is the oldest tannery in the world. The process of moving the sheep and goat skins through the honeycomb of vats, from the lime and pigeon droppings compound that breaks down the hide and helps with the absorption of the dye, through the watercolour palette of vats containing the dyes, is what most people see and photograph from the terraces of the shops that surround the tanneries. But role your trouser legs up and get ‘down and dirty’ at ground level, and you find tiny rooms when men use the same tools and methods as their forbears did in medieval times. Freshly died and dried skins are laid over a horizontal pole, and the worker uses a wide curved blade attached to wooden bar to scrape away the excess wool. The man will spend most of his working life bent double, seeing nothing much more than the blade he guides over the skin.
Sadly, most visitors to the artisan workshops of Fez treat it, unintentionally perhaps, as a human zoo. They will vaguely watch someone working, take a photo and move on. But stop, offer your hand, smile and ask their name. You have just begun to scratch the surface of the Fez Medina.
Story and photographs: Derek Workman
Derek toured the Medina with Jessica Stevens from Artisanal Affairs.