Arriving at my riad mid-afternoon, my knock sounds frail against the B&B’s heavy, cedar door. A man in camouflage pants, scruffy shirt and baseball cap leads a ragged donkey and cart up the alley. I move closer to the door to give way. Listening for sounds of movement on the other side of the mass of wood, I notice three electronic buttons on the wall and press them all. The door creeps open like a vault and a young woman lets me in. She offers me a mint tea and a tour of what was once a family home – perhaps a wealthy merchant’s.
Windows from each floor open out to the interior courtyard, which is typical of riads. Themed rooms, stairways and hallways of the four stories are laden with mosaic patterns and color-coordinated with tile and marble floors. The subdued illumination of hanging lanterns and brass floor light fixtures, carved wooden blinds, etched marble and decorative iron grilles create a sense of the exotic. I find my bags in the uppermost room that steps up to a private roof patio.
The riad is calm, cool and beautiful, but I’m anxious to get into the nearby souks (bazaars) to see as much as possible before the day is out. Fez is the oldest of Morocco’s imperial cities, over a millennium, and the Fes el Bali medina (walled city) is said to be a labyrinth with an ancient market atmosphere that I can’t wait to investigate.
I pass hostels, shops and al fresco cafés under awnings before I pass through the Bab Bou Jeloud city gates into the medina. A line of withered old men in ragged clothing squat against a wall leading off the plaza. Behind them is a string of square wheelbarrows parked end to end. Delivery boys? I pass a figure clad in red: a felt sombrero with yellow pompoms, long sleeved smock, billowy pantaloons and stockings. He wears a necklace of brass cups, a fur satchel that resembles a bagpipe across one shoulder, and a studded leather satchel across the other. He’s a water seller in traditional garb and looks like he should be melting in the heat, but he isn’t. I follow the general direction of human traffic, which leads me down some stairs and into the maw, at last.
The First Step is a Big One
Multi-level buildings form an alley with tributaries – unlit tunnels that lead to homes, courtyards and shops. Wooden crates double as tables for wilting greens. Plastic bags of produce are set in rows, two deep: a white sack of henna powder, a yellow sack of rice, a purple sack of corn, a beige sack of soap pieces, a blue sack of coriander, then a stack of toilet plungers. Labels and prices are handwritten in Arabic and French on pieces of cardboard.
As the twisting stone pathway slopes gradually downward, lattice adjoining the rooftops above blocks the sun to create a shaded, cooler environment. The scent of mint is detectable before the piles come into vision. The earthy smell of the vegetable section is interspersed with the redolence of sweet, sticky dates; apples, melons and citrus fruits fill tables set under hanging bunches of bananas. Narrow, deep stalls provide vendors with work and storage areas.
I stop in front of a riot of bold colors – a shoe shop that seems out of place. Leather slippers stripe the walls in yellow, pink, red, blue, orange, purple and brown, pointy and round.
A young man steps forward and says, “You’re welcome.”
“Thank you,” I answer, confused, and move on.
The meat section is darker yet, with a typical butcher shop aroma. Light bulbs hang above the countertops that front the stalls; meat hooks border the windows thus created. The head of a camel hangs there. It’s at least three times the size of a human head. Mint hangs in bunches around it, while other larger cuts of meat hang beside it. The camel head, with its long eyelashes, looks sad. A woman in a black caftan and scarf rides by with a dead chicken tied to the front of her motorized bike. The heads of three brown goats, eyes open, teeth showing, lay on a stone countertop beside chunks of translucent, white meat on a tray. Cats lounge on the dusty floor waiting for scraps, and chickens, each tied by one leg, stand atop cages. A young man approaches a counter and places his order. The butcher, in his blood-stained apron, grabs a chicken. He folds the neck around to the legs, holds them in one hand and then saws through the neck with the other. White feathers turn quickly red.
The next stall’s shelves are filled with jars of pickled onions; heaps of olives in shades of green and black fill large metal bowls on the counter. A donkey loaded with propane tanks is led by. An old man pushing a square wheel barrow up the incline maneuvers around people and tables, yelling, presumably, “Look out!”
A man approaches me to point out a fifth-generation herbalist shop up an offshoot of this main artery. I head up the long alley shaded by its walls and realize there is no lattice above, no blockage from the clear, blue sky. I make a left into the store. The lights are out to keep the temperature down.
“You’re welcome,” says the herbalist.
“Um, thanks,” I say. A large man stands behind a counter. The countertop and the shop walls hold jars of remedies and spices, herbs and oils. Animal hides, cow horns and baskets and pots of dried herbs sit on shelves, and dead lizards hang from the ceiling. He shows me his cures for snoring, arthritis and stress and his aphrodisiacs and elixirs for beauty. I ignore the implication and buy some argan oil – which he says has no cholesterol and whose tree only grows in Morocco – and some of his special curry. The herbalist is gabby and friendly, and soon I have booked a guided tour of the medina for tomorrow.
Returning to the main corridor, I continue to browse the stalls. Dusk comes early and quickly to these passages within. The streets also empty quickly. It’s good that I’m not prone to panic as I wonder and wander until I find an exit. I’m miles away from where I entered the medina. I take a cab back to my riad, eager for tomorrow’s tour, Fez’s famous tannery in particular.
The Secrets Behind the Walls
Arriving at the agreed point, I meet my guide, Mohammad.
“You’re welcome,” he says, and starts my tour off with a few facts. The medina has about 9,400 streets and 45,000 stores. Every quarter must have a public bakery, bath, school and mosque. I hadn’t noticed any schools during my visit so far. Mohammad points to a low wooden door and opens it to reveal a small room a few steps below ground level. By the door stands a young woman in a caftan and headscarf – the teacher. She smiles and says nothing. Mohammad suggests I take a picture of the class. The walls are covered in striped cloth, red, yellow and blue. A row of six blue tables runs the length of each wall with an isle between, two children per table. The room is full. Each round-faced 6-year-old has his/her own mini chalk board, and each one wants to see the picture that I just took of them.
Mohammad teaches me a couple of phrases that he feels will be useful. The first sounds like “mooshi mooshki” (no problem). The next sounds like “yella” (let’s go), which I think is more to his benefit for me to know, and “baraca” (good luck). Then, he takes me to all the key medersas (colleges) and mosques recommended by every guide book, including the restored Medersa Bou Inania from 1350, with imposing plasterwork and wood carving, and the Kairaouine Mosque and University, a key centre of Muslim religious learning. He takes me through the carpenter souk, where bridal carriages are crafted, through the spice market and through the various artisanal sections to witness craftsmen at work on carving and engraving wood, stone, marble and metal.
He points out details I wouldn’t have noticed, like the entrances to the public bathhouses, separated for the sexes, doors with two knockers to serve people on foot and on donkey, and carved window blinds so women can look out, but no one can see in. He takes me on the shopping circuit to a carpet co-operative for an impressive explanation, presentation and glass of mint tea, and to a weaver of cottons and silks.
Finally, Mohammad takes me to the tannery. From the fifth-story platform of a leather shop, I look down upon the open air factory. Row after row of tubs cover the ground like a giant honeycomb, each vat soaking an animal hide in a different colored dye after the white vats have tenderized them in lime over days. Men in rubber boots and gloves work in the lime vats; men in shorts use hands and legs to plunge the skins into the tubs of dye; men with big knives scrape excess residue off the dyed skins before they’re laid out on the flat rooftops to dry. At the far end, hides of cows, goats and sheep are piled high against a wall, waiting to start the process.
The tour is over and Mohammad leads me back to a main artery. I wander until dusk with a new appreciation for the leather shops’ wares: purses, ottomans and slippers, and I have a keener eye now for picking out concealed entrances and public buildings in this bizarre bazaar that is endlessly captivating.
Tomorrow, day three, I have reserved for shopping. Now I know my way around the souks, what I want and where to get it, and I have an idea about bargaining Fez-style. I’m ready to fill my second suitcase – the one that came empty – mooshi moshki. I won’t need baraca – I’m welcome. Yella!
This article was previously published at ©WorldGuide 2010.