On my first afternoon in Marrakesh, I decided to go for a wander as I had a few hours to kill before a scheduled evening food tour. I didn’t feel like being inside a museum or restaurant, so I opted to wander the souks. As I did, I came across a sign pointing towards the tanneries. At this point, I realized I had two choices – I could continue wandering aimlessly or I could head towards what the internet had promised to be a scam-infested area. The fact that this blog post exists, you can guess which option I chose!
Getting to the Tanneries
The tanneries lie in the Bab Debbagh neighbourhood of Marrakesh, still within the medina. From what I could see, the area was mostly residential. It was pretty quiet and of the people I saw, it was mostly men. Nice ones, too! They kept telling me, “The tanneries are that way!”. So helpful. And “Today is the last day of the Berber tanning festival! Quick, they close soon!” Wasn’t that nice of them to make sure I had the chance to see this rare opportunity?
Seriously, though. I couldn’t get very far without someone being “nice”. The most persistent was a young man on a motorbike. First, he drove past me saying where the tanneries were. About ten minutes later, we both pretended surprise when we saw each other again. He hopped off his motorbike and started walking with me. That was when I fully committed to letting this scam play out. We discussed his Berber heritage (which may or may not be true), he asked me questions like how old I was (I told him he was impertinent for asking), and I said I have no money just to see what he would say (“no problem! I am not asking for any” – technically not a lie, it turned out).
After winding down some quiet residential streets, we soon stopped in front of a door where a skinny man, about my height, waited. Friend #1 handed me off to Friend #2, explaining that this new guy was going to show me around the tannery. This is where I made my mistake – I will get back to that later. For now, Friend #2 shoved a bouquet of mint into my hands and led me to the next phase of this adventure.
Touring a Tannery
These tanneries are allegedly many centuries old. Many of them even have had the same family working in them for generations. Tanneries aren’t pretty looking places but they can certainly stimulate your sense of smell! The stench can get fairly strong (hence, the mint to sniff) partly because things like bird dung are used in the treatment process. What I found most interesting about my little tour was the opportunity to witness age-old techniques to turn animal hides into usable leather. The treatment process also included soaking hides in various vats both to prep them and to dye them. All in all, my tour lasted about 15 minutes. Once we were done, Friend #2 beckoned me across the street to a shop and handed me off to Friend #3.
Shopping for Leather Goods
Friend #3 was quite different from Friend #2. The latter was quiet, only talking when he had to. Friend #3 was very gregarious and engaging. Exactly what you want if you’re a salesman! The shop was pretty large; the first floor was filled with random leather goods and the top floor displayed a wide variety of leather coats. All were made (allegedly) in the surrounding tanneries and there were no price tags to be seen.
I enjoyed wandering around to a certain extent. Friend #3 kept a close eye on me, however, and if there was anything in which I seemed interested, he wasted no time to tell me about it. The leather coats I saw were stunning – the colours were vibrant, and the leather was wonderfully soft. As much as I wanted one, I was scared to find out the price, so I refused to entertain the idea of one. I did end up picking out a camel leather poof, though. Just when I thought I was finished shopping, Friend #3 said, “Wait! You must come see this other part of the shop to get the whole experience.” I shrugged and followed him to what turned out to be the carpet section.
Shopping for a Carpet
I was plunked into a chair, was brought mint tea, and then given a mini Darija language lesson. Friend #3 sat next to me while someone else started showing me myriad carpets in myriad sizes, patterns, and colours. The two men chatted in Darija while I admired the lovely textiles. Friend #3 would sometimes translate things like, “My colleague thinks you look part Moroccan” and “You’re just like him” meaning we were both black. After saying “Lla!” multiple times (no), there ended up being one on which I hesitated and Friend #3 pounced. I didn’t mind because I actually really did like it and only would have said no because I didn’t need a carpet. But really, who actually needs a carpet?
Now that I have a leather poof and a carpet as my purchase options, it was business time. Friend #3 explained that he would write down a price on a piece of paper and I was to consider it. Then I was to write down my counteroffer. Friend #3 and I got down to bargaining. His first offer almost made me choke on my tea. We went back and forth a couple times and eventually, he told me, “You bargain like a Berber girl”. I wasn’t sure if that was racist or if that was supposed to be a compliment? No idea. We finally ended up with a price that made neither of us gleeful, so I guess that was a sign of a good compromise. I hope so anyway because who knows; Friend #3 could just have had really good acting skills.
Once we shook on the deal and I paid via credit card, Friend #3 had his colleague wrap up my purchases. I’ll give them that – they were wrapped up as small as they could go, very tightly, and with layers of protective plastic and tape. I said goodbye to the shop folks and stepped outside.
As soon as I walked out, I saw Friend #1 and #2. Because I am ridiculous, I smiled and thought to myself, “Let the shakedown begin!” It was all civilized, though. Friend #1 told me I needed to give some money to Friend #2. Just to be facetious, I repeatedly told him, “But I told you I had no money! And you said that it was okay!” He finally said fine, just give him 100dh. I told him I didn’t have that. He asked how much I had and I responded 20dh. Apparently, that was a shocking answer and oh, consider the poor people! We quickly settled on 50dh. I knew it was still too much, but I wasn’t going to fight to the point of making them angry. Annoyed is fine, but I prefer to avoid outright anger.
After I forked over the money, I fully expected to be left on the street to make my way back to the main square. But no! Friend #1, who was a little cranky by now, had me hop on to the back of his little motorcycle and he whizzed me down narrow windy streets to where I needed to go. That was nice of him. I definitely enjoyed that as the cherry on top of this experience!
Do I recommend this experience?
If you’re looking to experience all sides of Morocco, if you’ve never seen how leather is prepared, or if you have nothing else to do, sure, why not. But if you don’t like bargaining for your purchases, if you get intimidated or skittish easily, or if you don’t really care for leather, I say skip the tanneries. If you do skip it but are still looking for good quality leather goods (and pretty much anything else you can think of), check out the Ensemble Artisanal not far from the main square, Jemaa el Fna. Stress-free fixed price shopping in a lovely historic building!
Tips on Visiting the Tanneries
- I went late in the afternoon, so it was pretty quiet. Going earlier in the day means you’ll see more people working the tannery.
- Technically, the person who shows you around the tannery probably is doing something illegal because guiding in Morocco is heavily regulated. But if you do accept the person’s services to explain the tanning process, do pay him for his time (and negotiate the amount before the tour). Ask your hotel/riad what the going rate is at the time of your trip.
- If you’re going to buy something at a shop in this area, be prepared to bargain hard. Also, take a whiff of your choices before buying them. The internet has tons of stories by people who end up with strong smelling purchases and they have a rough time trying to get rid of the smell.
- If you are on a tight budget, bring what you’re willing to spend in cash and leave the credit card back at your lodgings. Otherwise, you’ll find yourself spending more than you planned!
- If you want to see the tanneries but are a little skittish about it, go in a group or hire a local guide ahead of time.
- Just in case you do end up being shaken down for money, keep some dirhams (multiple small bills or coins) in your front pocket so you don’t have to pull out your wallet in the middle of the street.