How Many Camels? An Adventure in a Moroccan Tannery - My Family Travels

The leather Souq and tannery in the Fes medina is one of the biggest and oldest of its kind in the world. Hundreds of workers wake up early each morning, before the Moroccan sun has risen in the sky, and start their day, running around and through the giant, colored vats of liquids, curing and beating leather until the sun reaches its peak and then finally falls into evening. In the nighttime, they can rest, only to start again the next morning. They have been working the leather like this for the last 9 centuries, and to the wide-eyed tourist, it doesn’t seem like they’ll ever stop.


This routine doesn’t amaze the owner and cashiers of the adjacent leather shop, who see it from a balcony of their store every day. The owner, a small man who calls himself Ali-baba, casually handed my family mint leaves – to cover the smell – and walked us through the four floors, pointing out jackets, wallets, boots and even pillows that he thought we might like. Each time he took out something to show us, he would point out some small detail and, in his limited English, say, “Look! It is very well made,” while motioning to the tannery out back. The products, lining the walls and the ceilings, seemed to insulate the place from the busy Fes medina, giving us sanctuary from all the donkeys, winding roads, and screaming little kids of the marketplace. After our own close examination, we saw that it all was indeed very well made, so by the time we reached the lowest floor, laden with merchandise, my mom and I were preparing ourselves to bargain.

Meanwhile, while my brother was getting excited about a jacket he had found, my dad struck up a conversation with Ali-baba.

“You have kids?” my dad asked.

“Yes, naam, six! sitta!” he responded proudly, saying ‘yes’ and ‘six’ in both languages.

“I just have two, ithnaan” said my dad, partly in Arabic as well, pointing to us.

“You are lazy!” Ali-baba remarked.

Next, my dad thought he heard Ali-baba ask, in his own Arabic/English mesh, as he pointed to me, “How old is she?” He responded promptly, “Sixteen! Sittat ‘ashar!” Then the whole room burst out laughing.

After a couple minutes of laughing, one of the employees explained what had happened. My dad, eager to learn Arabic and to teach Ali-baba some English, had completely misheard the question. Instead of asking “How old is she?” Ali-baba had actually asked, in the spirit of trading, “How many camels?” and my dad, in his response, had accidentally sold me for 16 of them.

We laughed and laughed, holding on to our mint leaves for dear life and trying not to breathe in too much. Ali-baba grinned cheerfully, standing in front of the breathtaking view that was the historical tannery, in a moment that I never expected to experience in my lifetime.

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