Suppressed guilt

Small industries in the Medina of Fez pollute rivers and drinking water

Katharina Fiedler & Mohammed Assaf

Ayad Alkhammari uses a long wooden stick to fish his smoking trousers from the hot water barrels in his workshop. Purple-coloured water drops fall onto the stone floor as the dyer carries the wet trousers to the drinking water fountain. He washes the surplus colour from the trousers in a plastic bucket with fresh water. Clear water turns purple. Drinking water becomes waste water. The waves gush into the drain of the fountain.

For 50 years Ayad Alkhammari has been dying clothes in Fez, the oldest of the four imperial cities of Morocco. For 50 years Ayad has poured the coloured waste water into the drain next to the drinking water fountain. From where it flows unfiltered into the nearby river. At a bridge, only a few metres away from Ayad´s small dye works, brown water foams when the waves break. Food remnants, plastic bottles and a piece of wood float past. Yet, the dyers defend themselves: The river in Fez is polluted by the olive oil industry ten kilometres further north, not by them. “That is not water pollution here”, says one of the workers. Behind him an older lady shakes the contents of her rubbish bin into the river from the bridge.

Plastic rubbish in the puddles

Every day, thousands of tourists crowd through the Medina of Fez, the famous medieval old city. A frenzy of flashing cameras, traffic in the narrow streets, a quick look in the many, small shops: copper pots, golden maps from Arabian nights, carpets, leather bags and shoes. Almost everything sold here is produced by the local people. In the back streets, women and children sit in badly lit rooms, sewing together leather bags or zip fasteners. Cloths are woven on huge looms. A man without teeth uses engine oil to polish an old silver tray, the oily water trickles into the drain in the ground.

Cars or mopeds are forbidden in the Medina. Too narrow are the passages between the sand-coloured walls of the houses, too steep is the incline of many paths, which for tourists is reminiscent of a hike in the mountains. This is why the locals rely on their own physical strength to pull their carts through the Medina or donkeys haul loads, some animals with weeping wounds or swollen tongues. At a stand with raw meat, a camel´s head hangs at the door, dried blood still sticks to the fur. Food remnants and plastic rubbish collect in the puddles on the corners of houses.

There were many attempts made by the city to contain industrial water pollution in the Medina. Even though new sewage plants on the outskirts of the city relieve the burden on the river somewhat – the administration seems powerless in the face of direct water pollution, say locals. There are too many people working illegally here for Fez to control.

The famous old city of Fez, the Medina, is considered the largest of its kind in North Africa. In the year 859, the al-Qarawīyīn university was founded within its walls, the oldest still existing educational institution in the world.

Bab Rcif – a gate that opens up a world of 1000 alleys. It is not only countless tourists who get lost daily in the labyrinth of Medina. The old city of Fez is home to 550,000 people.

Copper products, silver trays are polished and leather bags and shoes are sewn in front of the many small shops as well as in the myriad of back streets. Many children work here too.

Ayad has been dying trousers, jacket and blouses in the Medina for 50 years. A plethora of tourists visit his shop each day. If anyone wants to photograph him at work, he fiercely cries “money, money”, and scares the curious people away.

Red, purple, blue, green, and black. Ayad dyes his customers´ clothes with seven different colours.

The waste water of the craftsmen flows directly into the nearby river.

Locals empty their rubbish bins in the river. The water quality of the water in Fez and the drinking water is bad.

From above, the Chouara tannery looks like a large paint box. The craft of the tanners has a long tradition in Fez. In the filled clay basins, the cattle and sheep hides are washed, soaked, dyed and then finally hung up and dried.

Khalid Chalif, 28, has worked in the tannery for 17 years. In summer the filled clay basins can be smelt hundreds of meters away, and the coloured water inside is ice cold during winter. The waste water from the dye works and tanneries is very damaging to the environment.

It smells of decay and waste. The acrid smell of leather tanneries in the North East of the Medina attack the nasal passages many streets before you reach the Chouara tannery. Young men cry “tannery, tannery”, who for a few Moroccan Dirham want to attract tourists to one of the terraces from which the oldest leather tannery in the Medina can be seen. Tour guides hand out mint leaves against the stench, which tourists hold under their nose.

However, those who want to see the Chouara tannery from the inside need more money and a “local”, who knows who you have to ask. No entry without contacts.

Leather has been tanned and dyed in the same way since the 14th Century: The tanners coat the hides with ammoniac, soak them in cow urine and wash the hides in a large cleaning drum. Then comes the hard work: For hours the men stand in the various clay pools that are filled to the brim with lime water, dissolved pigeon droppings and coloured water, and knead, mix and stamp on the hides. The stench is most pungent during the summer, with only rain and cold weather providing some relief.

“All completely natural”

Khalid Chalif puts on waterproof work trousers and wades into the clay basin with pigeon droppings. He repeatedly reaches into the ice cold water with his hands, immersing the hides. The pigeon droppings make the leather soft. “The tannery is our mother, it puts food on our tablet”, he says.

Even Khalid´s grandfather and father were tanners. When he started at 11 years old, he could not imagine a better place to work. Today, 17 years later, the salary is lower than before. The work is slow. The leather needs up to 100 days until it shines in one of the strong colours, and then bags, belts and shoes can be sewn from it. In order to be able to feed his wife and eight-month old son, Mohammed Islam, Khalid Chalif also sells orange juice and kebab meat in the summer.

Khalid quickly balances over the slippery edges of the basins and carefully jumps into the red coloured water. The red dye residues collect on the floor of the basin: Pressed petals from Brazil, the dye that then turns the leather bright red if it swims in the clay basin for long enough. After 25 days, the water in the clay basin loses its effects and needs to be exchanged. Then the waste water is simply redirected into the river. “All completely natural”, explains Khalid, due to the flowers and the pigeon droppings. He says nothing about water containing chromium and ammonia as well as the acrid fumes. Yet, the Chouara tannery is one of the least dangerous tanneries in Fez.

Over the past decades, modern tanneries have sprung up in the industrial quarter on the outskirts of the city. Sulphur, calcium, sulphate, methane acid, sulphuric acid and chromium help to tan the leather quicker. Up to 2000 sheep hides are processed here each day. Even though there is now a chromium recycling plant, a large part of the waste water flows unfiltered into the surrounding rivers.


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