Fez

July 24, 2007 at 10:24 am 1 comment

I awoke in Rabat Friday morning. Morocco’s capital is on the coast, and much cooler than Fez.

It’s also a good respite. I thought Fez would be one of my favorite cities. It was a hugely important political and intellectual center for successive governments, including those who had gone on to rule Muslim Spain. But from the time we arrived in the city through the time we left, we encountered young men intent on acting as “guides,” insisting on taking us to carpet shops, showing us the tanneries, walking us to the best restaurants. On one hand, I am fascinated that this informal information economy seems to work to provide income and encourage language skills in what appears to be a huge number of young men. On the other, I found the “welcome” to be completely overwhelming and the men to be more ubiquitous, persistent, and impossible than any I have ever met.

We did get to see (and smell) one of the places they tan and dye leather. Walking without a guide, we ended up actually on the tanning floor, with the huge vats of “natural” chemicals and the overpowering smell of animal hides. We were invited further in, but politely backed out and found our way (with half a dozen “guides”) to the terrace overlooking the work. It reminded me of the Met’s film on Al Andalus, and I wondered if this part had been filmed in Fez. (A nice man with a basket of mint stalks hands them out to visitors on the way up the stairs. Thank you!)

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The old city is huge and quite amazing. One of my unsung skills is getting lost, and Katie insisted on taking advantage of it before we left. The two of us started out heading down into the suq, then wandered off onto side streets, an hour and a half of wrong-directional walking that took us into dead ends and terrific courtyards. It seems the “guides” stay on the main road, and quite nice people actually live in the city. We were offered a ride by an old man on a donkey, who grinned at us and said, “Taxi?” We giggled with two 10 year old girls who thought we were hilarious and tried to speak to us in brand new French. Katie called me over to look in an open window in an otherwise completely blank wall–someone’s breakfast was laid out in a nicely tiled kitchen. After being consistently harassed by street men, it was wonderful to see that there really is a city back there. (There are truly advantages in this talent of getting lost!

The best part of our time in Fez, though, was spending the day with William’s Arabic teacher and his family. They live in NC during the school year, and spend many summers in Fez and surrounding towns with their families. Muhammad walked with us in the morning (the “guides” even hit on Moroccans!) and, with his wife, picked us up in the evening to take us to his mother’s house for “tea.” “Tea” includes coffee, mint tea, pancakes, croissants, doughnuts, and a huge array of cookies. We were delighted to get to meet Muhammad’s mother and sister, his wife and two children, both completely bilingual. They took us to the main street of the new city, quite crowded with Fassis walking up and down the streets, enjoying the cooler evening and the city’s wide streets and many, many impressive fountains. A local band played music at a street festival showing off some of Fez’ traditional crafts, and one could even buy tickets for a miniature train ride through the streets. We were all thrilled to get to meet William’s teach, a quiet, kind, and religious man–I’m told he is also a terrific teacher. And I really loved his wife and was grateful for the whole family’s kindness.

The other high point of our time in Fez was the local restaurant-in-the-wall. Just at the entrance of the suq, there are a whole series of little “restaurants,” more like storefronts with a sink and a couple of burners. It is amazing what they produce from such minimal equipment. We all love street food, and this man’s cooking was terrific! We managed to have three meals he cooked during our four days in Fez.

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We hired a car and driver one of those days to go see the Roman ruins at Volubilis (Walili), the tomb of Moulay Idriss (great-grandson of the Prophet, credited with bringing Islam to Morocco), and the former imperial capital, Meknes. All three are in the mountains west of Fez, set in beautiful country that is also incredibly fertile. It seems most of Morocco’s wine is made near Meknes. This was the only place we had seen large-scale wheat farming. And the olive and orange groves were quite impressive.

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Katie is touring the edges of the old Roman empire (thanks, Cecil!), and Volubilis made an impressive addition to her list. There are actually mosaics still left on the ground, between the fallen-down walls. The city remained in use until the huge earthquake in the mid-18th century finally destroyed it.

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We couldn’t see much of the tomb, Lyautey’s influence again, but the town was quite nice. In Meknes, too, the chief site was closed to us (the one day a year that marks the death of the saint), but we did get to wander the city some and visit the remarkable structure that used to house the 12,000 horses of the ruler. The place feels as if it is air conditioned. Our house in NC is heated by heating water that is pumped through pipes in the floor. This place is cooled by sending cold water from a nearby spring through pipes under the building.

Yesterday we walked through Rabat. The old city is quite small, and it leads to the old kasbah overlooking the Atlantic and the river separating Rabat from Sale. Lots of people enjoying the water, swimming, surfing (Californians would be pretty dubious about calling it “surf”), sunbathing. We walked through the overgrown but impressive Andalusian gardens, then all the way from the northern tip to the southern end of the city to see the Archeological Museum and the Shallah (Chellah), the old Roman city.

 

Like Fez, the new city is crowded at night. Throngs of people walk through the main streets. There is a thriving “informal economy” of people who spread out their blankets selling books, jewelry, shoes, clothing. A stage had been set up, and a sound system. A DJ was creating techno music while a very enthusiastic man with a microphone was doing a call and response performance with his audience.

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Entry filed under: Food, History, Middle East, Morocco, Travel.

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1 Comment Add your own

  • 1. Roadrascal  |  July 25, 2007 at 6:04 pm

    Better than Moon over Morocco!!! I look forward to each new chapter.

    Besos y abrazos,
    Robert from Hopiland
    (Still trying to get hold of Chouki. He seems to have disappeared).

    Reply

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