Space, Time And Fez

Monday, August 8, 2011

He shrugged at me.

“It’s Berber silver, sir.”

“It isn’t though is it? Because it isn’t Berber, and it isn’t silver. Therefore, not Berber silver. Anyway, you didn’t mention the Berber bit when you sold it to me. I think the word you used at the time was ‘Sterling.’ I want my 200 dirham back.”

He smiled sweetly.

“Look, you lied to us and I want my money back. You can deal with me now or you can deal with me when I come back with the police. Up to you.”

I wasn’t sure if anything I’d said had had the slightest effect until I said the word police. He wasn’t smiling anymore.

“Sir, there is no problem, no problem . . .”

Walking back to our riad with the recovered dirham, we felt as triumphant as we had downcast the first time he fooled us. Dammit, we had been so careful not to get caught up in anything like this and in fact had had a very positive experience so far in the souks here in Fez, Morocco — very little of the hassle and pushiness we had been warned about so effusively by people who had never been here had materialized. Some polite enquiry, a bit of banter — nothing more. But there’s always one, isn’t there?

We had lists. My fiancée, K, wanted a leather bag, sandals, the aforementioned silver bracelet. I was after an antique print of the city if I could find one, a pair of Ray-Bans (questionable origin) and one of the little round, flat-topped hats that come from here and share the city’s name: Fez.

Not surprising, I suppose, to find a bad egg in amongst the crush of vendors that line this sloped, serpentine alley. Each shop is barely a hole in the wall — two meters wide if that — and the street is long; it leads all the way from Bab Boujloud, one of the old city gates, to the heart of the medina.

And in Fez, that’s a long way. The medina here is the largest intact medieval city in the Muslim world; home to over 200,000 inhabitants and around 9,400 streets, not a single one of them wide enough for four wheels. We find ourselves frequently hugging the walls to make way for charging beasts of burden or men with carts, or taking shelter in one of the shops and negotiating the verbal skills of yet another vendor, hard cases who sell their wares about two inches from your face — redefining your sense of personal space even as they overcharge you for the little mother-of-pearl inlaid box you never knew you wanted.

The tight squeeze, the sales pitches, the thousand and one smells and sounds, they all make the return to our tranquil courtyard a welcome one. Riads are usually restorations of typical bourgeois Islamic homes and follow a standard pattern. Very few — if any — windows face out onto the street. The Muslim home is instead turned inward and is built around a patio, usually with a water feature of some kind. Sunlight makes its way into the home through this inner sanctum — from above. Bedrooms and salons surround the patio on a number of levels.

It’s the opposite in both feel and dimension of the streets outside, and in fact goes a long way to explaining those narrow lanes: space was prized here and hoarded in the home rather than squandered in squares, public parks or wide streets.

The visitor to Fez is at a disadvantage. Where the Muslim resident can escape for prayer, when we ventured out again we were restricted to the dizzying and at times panic-inducing crush of the souks. The city is home to several mosques — the Qaraouiyine Mosque, the Jamaa Andalous — that are major in terms of both importance and scale but you wouldn’t necessarily know it even if you were standing right outside; in this warren of alleys looking up reveals little more than a blue crack of sky. The presence of the mosques is betrayed only by peeking through the doors at the airy courtyards and ablution fountains — sky, billowing breezes, flowing water, space. A sacred and reserved place; this is as far as the non-muslim can go.

Though, we weren’t entirely without options when it came to escaping the mayhem. Attached to any self-respecting Mosque you’ll find a madrasa, or medersa as they are called here (an Islamic school). They tend to be tranquil spaces, and in Fez there are a number of historical and spectacularly beautiful examples. Best of all — the non-muslim may enter.

The Medersa Attarine was built between 1323 and 1325 and is a treasure of Andalusian-Moroccan art. If you have been to the Alhambra in Spain you will know what I’m talking about. Seeing this place has the effect of expanding one’s sense of Andalusian space. There is a little of medieval Spain here just as there is a lot of medieval Morocco in Spain. The place has a calming and uplifting effect and we lingered before heading to the Andalusian Quarter — the most ancient part of the medina — founded by refugees from the Reconquista in Spain.

We made our way there using one of a number of colored walks — the blue one — that the city authorities have provided for the visitor. They aren’t always that easy to follow and getting lost in the medina is always just a corner away even with them, but they make a nonsense of the claim you will often hear that a guide is necessary to explore Fez.

The walk took us past the Chouara tannery, a 14th-century construction of pools and basins used to dye camel, goat, sheep and cattle hide with indigo (blue), poppies (red), saffron (yellow) and henna amongst other materials. One of the largest open spaces in the city and an impressively timeless sight — it stinks to high heaven. We could observe the tannery workers from a terrace to which we were guided for a small tip; sprigs of mint thoughtfully provided to take the edge of the smell.

Across the river in the Andalusian Quarter we lost our way — several times, and not in a fun way. The day was a hot one and the souks here shabbier, the streets dirtier, the fake guides more insistent. When we finally found what we were here for — the Medersa Sahrij — we weren’t exactly thrilled to find it closed for restoration . . . for the next five years.

The mood switched when it became obvious that the attendant would be amenable to a little bribery. Payment made, he unlocked the massive wooden doors for us and warned that we will have to be quick. We stepped in and down into the sunken entrance; he unlocked an inner door of mashribiya (wooden lattice) and retreated.

This place had been high on my list and I had never expected that we would have it to ourselves. The medersa is named for the pool that takes up most of the courtyard and that was empty. A puddle at the bottom and a few weeds grew in and around it, sprouting up between deteriorated tiles. The whole place was unkempt and in disrepair and was without a doubt the most beautiful space I’d seen so far in Fez.

There was something about being there alone, on a clandestine visit and seeing the art and architecture in this state — pre-restoration — that made it a glimpse of something hidden. We felt much closer here to the people who had built it than we did in restored sites elsewhere. The distance between us and them was mapped out in the crumbling plasterwork and the sun-baked mashrabiya. I was looking at the original work and could touch with my hand what a 14th-century artisan had made with his.

Back to the alleys. We followed another walk, or tried to. The green one, which is all about palaces and gardens apparently — but not for us. For us, it was about hunger. It didn’t seem to be particularly big on restaurants or cafes, that part of town, until we spotted a hole in the wall adjacent to one of the palaces highlighted in our guide.

There was nothing to distinguish the hole (a hatch in the wall, a few steps down, a bearded man frying an egg over a solitary hotplate) from someone’s kitchen except for a baffling sign overhead that announced tea and panoramic views from the terrace. We concluded that it must have been referring to the palace and I gestured to the man to ask him. He indicated that we should descend the few steps into the sunken opening. Like the gentleman I am I asked K to precede me.

“No, you first”

We were led through a narrow and bafflingly disused galley kitchen behind the hatch’s hotplate, up a slender flight of stairs at the back and into what appeared to be a small family living room, if a little over populated with tables. There were sliding doors at the rear and the view was indeed panoramic — over the medina with its minarets and the more distant hills crested by Merenid Tombs. It was the widest vista we had been presented with, the most enormous open area.

Storks and larger birds of prey hovered over the city as we surveyed the walls and the koranic script and photos of Mecca that hovered over us. This was not what it had looked like from out front. Neither was it our only elevated dining experience in Fez; just the previous evening we had eaten on one of the city’s many roof terraces, just beneath an ornate blue-green minaret, watching the pair of kestrels that nested in one of its cavities.

We were served up a simple potato omelette — the single item on offer — and when we went to leave, down the small stairs and through the tiny kitchen, we were prevented from doing so by the proprietor who was blocking the exit with his prayer mat. When he finished he stood, thanked us for waiting and accepted an improbably small amount of money for the meal.

We squeezed out though the hatch, back into the crush and rush of the claustrophobic souks, the wide open spaces of our discovery.

By Robin Graham



Robin Graham has written for In Madrid, The Expeditioner and the Matador Network. He regularly contributes to The Spain Scoop and blogs at the award-winning Alotofwind. Follow him on Twitter: @robinjgraham.

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