The medina – a 250-hectare honeycomb of 9,400 streets and alleyways;a warren of dog-leg passages and dead ends; 320 mosques, 5,000 furniture shops and 400,000 people. A map is no help at all. We saw an Italian man trying to scribble his own map at every turning – impossible – so many Mohammeds and Jalils wanting to show you the way, so many souks, shops, and hole-in-the-wall eateries. There are no street names, no ground plan. Better face it – you’re on your own.
We dived in headfirst. Part of the enchantment is getting lost. Looking for the Mokri Palace, we discovered nothing in reality corresponded to our map, and the three maps we had didn’t correspond to each other. Two little boys ran up, schoolbags bouncing on their backs, all grins and eagerness, bounding puppy-dog bundles of energy. ‘Where are you going? What are you looking for?’ At the words ‘Mokri Palace’ they were off, shouting ‘this way’. I followed laughing, Jim gritted his teeth and followed me. Slowing a little, one of the boys asked my name in charming Franglais. He inclined his head slightly, placed his hand on his heart and murmured ‘enchante’ at my response. An eight-year old who will surely break many hearts in the future. They deposited us on the steps of the palace and ran away giggling, satisfied with MAD 3 each.
We turned to find a burly man with folded arms blocking our way. ‘Is closed. Go to Riad Mokri – is very nice’ – he said pointing to the left. Back into the labyrinth. But being lost here has many rewards. We stumbled across mesmerising mosques and medersas. A riot of zellij bedecked walls, stucco and marble; mashrabiya windows, curling calligraphy, gigantic brass-studded portals and intricate carving. Grand riads, courtyard mansions of the rich and famous with painted cedar ceilings, ironwork balconies and song birds singing in orange and lemon trees. Historic fondouqs, courtyard complexes buzzing with working artisans. Old men sell bundles of fresh herbs, the smell of freshly baked bread drifts from farrane (communal ovens), and kids balance trays of khbooz (flat, round bread) on their head. Around the next corner a camel’s head hanging on a hook might announce a specialist butchers shop, or maybe there’s a beautifully tiled fountain, with stucco as delicate as lacework where men and women draw water, and passers-by rinse their feet. In Achebine Souk a man points to a chicken and the butcher deftly slits its throat and plucks it bare. The caged turkeys, ducks, pigeons and doves might be in the pot before lunchtime. The streets are crowded and cobbled underfoot. Cries of ‘Andak!’ and ‘Balek!’ mean you better move out of the way sharpish – there might be a heavily laden donkey or a sky-high piled hand-cart behind you.
And wrapped around all of this are the souks. Shop ’til you drop takes on a whole new meaning here. Broom-cupboard-sized stores brimming with goods. Riotously coloured wedding gowns rub shoulders with dates and figs. Rainbow-shaded bars of nougat sit next to votive candles and incense. There are babouches, and gaudily clad pouffes, henna and honey with wild rosemary, couscoussiers and caftans, silver tea-pots and sandalwood, Fassi ceramics and flower waters. Argan oil, ouds, and frankincense. In these streets women embroider table cloths and napkins by hand, and men chisel marble, tan hides, paint pottery, carve cedar wood and shape copper basins – working as their fathers and grandfathers before them worked, in dark cubby holes with tools and techniques passed down from generation to generation. Watching the hands of these maalems (craftsmen) is spellbinding – sure, patient and steady – with a certainty that can come only from years of experience and a staggering intuition.
It can easily become too much; when the cries of ‘souk this way’, ‘just look my friend’ or ‘a thousand welcomes’ from the hustlers and hasslers became too persistent, too loud, we dipped out. The streets are full of hole-in-the-wall eateries. Men grill brochette and kefta, and fry tiny fish and chipped potatoes at smaller-than-small restaurants. We ate like princes for a few dirham, tucked away behind the counter chowing down on fresh bread and spicy harissa watching the parade of life stream past. And finally, when we were full of just looking, seeing and smelling, and needed to know something about what we were experiencing, we hired a guide.
‘Even people from the new town get lost here. I was born in the medina. I ran up and down these streets when I was a boy’, Abdul said, leading us down a clean, narrow alleyway a few meters away from one of the main thoroughfares. The atmosphere of the old town changes in these streets – becomes more private, veiled and secretive. Everyone knew Abdul. They called out to him and greeted him with smiles. He kissed men on the cheek, patted shoulders, slapped backs and gave great big bear-hugs. When I asked him if there was anything he missed now that he no longer lived in the medina he said without hesitation ‘the warmth’. Did he think the medina had changed at all during his lifetime? ‘Only with security’ he said. ‘Before I could go anywhere, at any time, now even I would not come into these streets after eight in the evening – too many people from outside, too much crime, and too many drugs’.
With a guide the streets yielded more of their secrets. Cafe Ba Bouchta is an age-old institution, but there was no outward sign of it’s existence. ‘Come, come’ urged Abdul, taking us up a flight of stone steps, to where two blue-tiled pillars stood sentinel at the entrance to an ‘L’ shaped room. Men sat smoking pipes and drinking glasses of steaming mint tea. Walls that had once been peppermint green were stained with flecks of dirt and dregs of nicoteen, and the cracked tiled floor revealed patches of concrete. Two old, weathered men brewed tea in a gleaming copper urn, occasionally blowing air into the fire underneath with a pair of ancient bellows; it made a barely perceptible wheeze as they pumped. Glasses were washed with a dribble of water and a rub of the fingers before being stuffed with fresh mint. ‘When I was a boy I used to come here to fetch tea for my father. These men know my brother, my father and grandfather and they’ve known me all my life’. For a moment we could pretend that we too were part of the fabric of the medina, part of a cycle of tradition and habit that has gone unchanged for centuries.
With or without a guide, the medina of Fez is fabulous; a journey through time, at times frustrating and daunting, but always a revelation. A thousand and one delights just waiting to be discovered.