Moroccans consider Fez to be the original seat of their culture. It has, depending on who is telling you, the best food, the best art, the most beautiful women, the most ingenious craftspeople, the cleverest politicians and public servants, the best schools and the most revered mosque. The king’s favourite palace is there, and his wife was born there. Tourists consider it to be the site of the world’s most confusing Medina.
La Ville Nouvelle, the intimidatingly modern and in parts upmarket new city is of little interest to tourists, and amazingly many Fassis who move there from the old city are always homesick for the medieval byways of old Fez. Or so they say anyway.
The “old city” comprised of two ancient Medinas, is the largest motor vehicle free urban area in the world. An astonishing 136,000 people actually still live inside the walls, not to mention the thousands of others who go there daily to work in the commercial and artisanal enterprises which clog its maze of narrow lanes. Finding one’s way to its many hidden areas is reputed to be the work of years.
However, armed with a spiderweb map from our riad and Doug’s great memory for twists and turns, we managed to feel quite confident in our ability to navigate after the first day. Of course in 6 days we merely scratched the surface I am sure, but one of the most fun parts of untangling the maze was surrendering to the unexpected — or at least so I was at pains to convince my more logical partner.
We have now explored several Moroccan Medinas and in many ways they are all similar. Stalls and small shops line narrow cobbled paths filled with an abundance of goods, from daily necessities like produce, meat, spices, household goods to once in a lifetime requirements like wedding clothing and festive accoutrements, and coffins and grave markers.
The souk where metal workers clang their hammers and polish their wares is two lanes over from the silk kaftan and embroidered slippers for brides souk, so as you meander along sniffing spices or whatever, you turn a corner and holy crow! There is someone selling rosary beads and korans next to a row of cobblers making Moroccan slippers from ancient wooden lasts. Of course, around EVERY corner is a carpet seller with just the best deal for you, lucky you, first customer of the day, or last customer of the day, or the only Canadian to come by this month or….
The medina of Fez is our very favourite on this trip. Not all of it is commercial, a great number of people live in it too as I said, and it was fun to figure out how to go from one part to another using the small intersecting streets whose house doors betray nothing of their interiors, could be rubble, could be opulence, the deeper you go the mustier it gets, and the more little boys tell you to let them guide you back to the Blue Gate…for whatever you want to give sir…or in our case, nothing since we would rather be lost than at their mercy. Good fun.
One morning we crossed from Fez el Bali, the older part, to the relatively new part of the Medina, Fez el Jedid containing the former Jewish quarter and a mere 700 years old. At one time a prosperous quarter full of jewellery makers and teeming with people, it is now just an extension of the market area with modern day clothing and various daily necessities, but still a centre for gold jewellery of modern type. Most of the Jewish population has left for Israel, Spain, and Casablanca. We managed to find the historic synagogue, but it is no longer in use and not well preserved. Interesting though is the main street of typical upper class merchant houses of hundreds of years ago with verandahs hanging over the street so that women could keep an eye on the neighbourhood without venturing into the melee.
Donkey and man powered carts are the only way to move merchandise from one place to another through the maze, and the only way to get construction rubble out and bring new building materials in. The centre of the medina must be at least an hour or more by foot from any edge where it meets a roadway so the logistical nightmare of provisioning shops and doing repairs or rebuilding can only be imagined.
We did not think about another issue until our very last afternoon as we were returning to our riad and found a man collapsed on the foot path having suffered, as it turned out, a seizure. Doug went to his aid which consisted of preventing a gathering crowd of people from doing him harm by trying to stand him upright although he was unconscious. For some unknown reason, people all over the world try to do this. He was a young traveller but fortunately he had a Moroccan English friend with him who knew his medical history and so on, and was willing to stay by his side. When he came around Doug insisted he needed to be checked at a hospital before they returned to their hostel which the friend also wanted to do. Fine then, let’s get him to a taxi or an ambulance….but how?
We were a good 20 minutes walk from the nearest gate, not nearly as far as it could have been, but in this teeming beehive of thousands and thousands of people there was no way to get someone to medical attention except to load him onto a donkey or dump him into a vegetable cart. Someone went for a cart, a man appeared, he put some plastic bags over the detritus from the previous load, someone from a nearby shop ran out with an old carpet to pad the bottom, and four men lifted him up and deposited him like a sack of potatoes into the bottom of the cart. Horrible!
Fortunately Doug felt he would be okay like that til they could get a cab at the gate, but what if it had been a broken hip, or horrors a coronary! With all the out of control carts weighing thousands of pounds ricocheting through the crowded lanes accidents must happen all the time. Every day there are tour groups comprised of people more geriatric than we are, some of them must have medical mishaps. The young men in our riad just shrugged when we asked them… Some things it is better not to think about.
On a more cheerful note, this disturbing event happened as we were returning from our appointment at a Hammam. Traditionally since people did not and often still don’t have hot water in their houses, Moroccans visit a Hammam once a week for a steam bath and scrub down. These are communal but unisex, with different times for men and women, and heated with wood, so people take their bread there to get it baked and large dishes of couscous or tagine to be simmered. We went to a modern one in a riad, so that we could go together. The Hammam in this riad was constructed in the 17th century and possibly they had not updated the drains since, as I found the pervasive stink of sewer gas to be a huge distraction from the experience, however, not to quibble, it was very interesting.
We were sent into a tiny room to remove all our clothing, and since we were not equipped with our own traditional skimpy Hammam underpants we were given paper ones to put on. The two young female attendants did not bat an eye as we emerged from the changing area straight into the marble mausoleum style room which had already been heated to bread baking temperature. We were told to lie like corpses on the marble slabs on each side of the room which were boiling hot to the touch especially at first. The women ordered us to rest, closed a crypt like door and disappeared. Perhaps fortunately, the steam mechanism on ours was not functioning as I think the claustrophobic effect would have been even worse for me if the air had been completely fogged in. We seemed to lie there forever, basting in our own juices, as the perspiration streamed from our bodies and pooled on the slabs beneath us.
Finally the door opened, at least a little fresher air came in, and each woman took a ladle and began sloshing hot water from a gushing pool in the centre of the room all over our naked bodies. Out came their abrasive mitts. You should have your own which you take to the Hammam each time but as we didn’t they supplied them and then gave them to us at the end which was reassuring considering the potential contamination.
Beginning with our arms they began stripping layers of skin from our bodies. It was comical to see, fortunately the light was very dim or it might have been more nauseating than fascinating. The skin came off in great strips, as if we were burn victims. The ladies were quite gratified with their results, especially the one doing Doug, who kept exhorting me to “Look madam” as she stripped an especially spectacular area of his back. We were flipped back and forth until every surface was bare, then directed to stand under a shower to get the rest of the debris off.
After that came an hour long massage with orange blossom scented Argan oil (remember those gobbling goats in trees) and we were left limp and baby bottom smooth. Maybe a one and only experience…but fun.
The days in Fez went by surprisingly quickly and our trip to Morocco is winding down. Off for the weekend to a nearby tiny troglodyte village in the mountains, quite the contrast to teeming Fez I imagine. More later from Bhalil.