Tuesday, March 7, 2000

Fez, Morocco

For the true connoisseur of medieval labor practices, Fez is a hard place to beat. You can watch 12-year-old boys running metal lathes, hauling inhuman loads and spinning miles of thread for lovely Berber rugs. Or like me you can assuage some measure of guilt by giving one five bucks to show you the sights. Mohammed el Cous-cous, as he liked to call himself, led me through the maze-like old city of Fez el Bali with a pleasant tourist patter. Eventually we found our way to the highlight of any city tour; the leather tanneries where jobs have been passed from father to son for centuries.

You smell the place long before you actually see it. Cow, goat and occasional camel hide are all brought dripping to the tannery, where vats filled with a fragrant brew of cow piss, pigeon shit and lime await. Once rendered suitably soft and hairless, they are hauled to nearby vats for dyeing. Henna for brown, saffron for yellow and poppies for red. Men stand waist deep in the mix, stirring and stomping the skins for a week or more. For their trouble, the men earn as much as $15 a day, a princely wage at local standards. All the while tourists peer down from surrounding balconies, smirking while holding their noses, pointing cameras at the spectacle below.

I spent the better part of two days photographing here, walking among the men and vats carrying $10,000 worth of cameras and I was greeted with nothing but kindness, smiles and generous offers of kif. Why they didn't flay me alive, divvy up my belongings and turn my sorry carcass into a carry on bag I know not why.

Friday, March 3, 2000

Marrakech, Morocco

My unhealthy attraction to fire is well documented in family lore. My brother still delights in describing the time I set myself alight with gunpowder in 1977.

Since that time, I've tried to channel this obsession in directions that do not involve emergency room visits. Djema El Fna square lies in the center of Marrakech's ancient medina, and I joined the generations of tourists have come to watch snake charmers, story tellers and musicians perform. I thought it showed considerable restraint on my part to wait until dusk to go visit the fire-breathers.