Photograph — amazigh

With 1.5 million inhabitants, Fez is Morocco’s second largest city and one of the oldest. It is already the country’s culture and spiritual capital. It has a high wall that is 1,200 years old called Medina, home to some 9000 historical houses and 176 mosques.

But there’s something else. It is renowned for its tanneries, where all the famous Moroccan leather is made. Now, with Morocco’s other major cities of Rabat and Casablanca known for automotive and tech businesses, the country is hoping to trademark Fez as its leather capital after concluding plans to host the first leather craft show from July 12-21.

In the first quarter of 2019 alone, Morocco had 2.5 million visitors, with Agadir and Marrakech claiming fifty-nine percent of “nights spent” while Casablanca and Tangiers saw improvements, leaving Fez with a depressing three percent. Taking three percent from a city that wasn’t doing the most glamorous numbers in tourism would only have one outcome.

The Moroccan tourism ministry had said in March that it wants to refurbish Fez for tourist purposes. This is because it noted that tourists who visit the country only ever trickle down to Fez, preferring to confine their stay to the lavishly urbanized cities. In fact, the few who go to Fez are historians, art enthusiasts, and religious people. This spurred the ministry to design a plan to “give back to the city its old attractiveness.” That is, reclaim its medieval elegance, and find something else in Fez that visitors can flock to see. Those 1,200 handicraft workshops, for instance.

Of course, things are not exactly rosy in Fez. When the tourism ministry organized a media meet to expose the city to press and boost publicity, Fez’s municipal authorities slighted the occasion. Local newspapers said the city felt abandoned and was not convinced about the government’s genuineness when it talks about making the city attractive to tourists.

So the government promptly doubled down on efforts, with some MAD 583 million forked out for a flurry of urbanization projects, including reconstruction work to make the medina more accessible. Now, with this craft show, the government will hope to make a bigger impact statement, as more than 120 professional attendees are expected, probably leather enthusiasts, wearers or sellers, who will both be keen to learn of Fez’s history and its place in leather making.

Also, unlike the ill-fated media meet, this craft show is jointly organized by the artisans’ chamber of the Fez-Meknes region in collaboration with the Moroccan tourism ministry. The craft show will hope to build on the success of the city’s first metal-craftsmanship show held in January this year. There’s also a ceramic show in the works.

The tourists who do come to Fez for the leather are most enthused about taking pictures of the many circular pits filled with deposits of dyes and chemical products which is used for leather treatment before they’re made into bags, clothing, shoes, and furniture. Maybe this time, they’ll come for more than just pictures. And maybe they’ll come again.

The Moroccan authorities seem to be saying if the world’s oldest university isn’t a big enough tourist pull, if medina, a UN World heritage site isn’t, if the Merenid tombs aren’t, maybe the Chouara tannery will be. There are also plans to relocate the leather craftspeople, following the relocation of more than 6,000 potters, brass, and copper workers to a modernized location, where tourists can feel more comfortable visiting and staying longer.

Caleb Ajinomoh

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