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Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Day 5 -- Fes

I woke up about 4:30 this morning, which allowed me to write my blog from yesterday.  Although our guide will give us a wake-up call at 6:45, the call to prayer began at 5:30.  We have not yet experienced this until now.  It is a horn-like sound that goes on for about 15 minutes.

The last time I experienced this early morning call to prayer was in Thailand near the border with Burma around this time of year.  The moon was a quarter moon, and the quiet of the city, cool breeze, and dark blue sky made it a sacred time.  For me, the sacred is being someplace in the world that is not my home and experiencing another culture.  It arouses feelings of awe and wonder at the different ways people live and the different ways they express themselves and their beliefs.  Travel, for me, is a sacrament.

Someone once asked me what my passion was.  If I could name anything, it would be travel.  It's not about restlessness or unrootedness in my home, for I recently realized that I could move away from Kalamazoo and live anywhere I wanted.  I made a decision, at least at this time, to stay in Kalamazoo.  But my town gives me access to anyplace in the world that I want to go.  I happen to be in Morocco right now and I love it.  I feel aligned to it in some way.  Maybe a past life?  More certainly, it is my inclination to travel the world, see its sights, meet its many peoples, and come to know many different ways of life.  Then there is my sharing it through writing and speaking with others.  Again, travel for me is a sacrament and it is really all I wanted to do with my life.

I first began travelling in Michigan with my family.  Leaving Detroit to go Up North was a big deal for an eight-year-old at that time.  My mother used to say that she would love to live out of a suitcase and travel.  When I began to make cross-country and international trips through my fellowship with the W.K. Kellogg Foundation (1984-87), I began to fulfil both her dream and mine.  As I sit here in my room at a riad (family home that is rented out to visitors) in Fes, I feel the spirit of my mother.  She died of cancer in 1970 before she could realize her dream of travelling, but had she lived, I'm sure we would have gone on trips together and enjoyed each other's company and curiosity.  (My father was a homebody.)

I also have to say that my sixth grade teacher, Mrs. Williams, also inspired me.  She introduced me and my class to National Geographic Magazine as well as the Kiwanis travel-lecture series.  At home, we watched George Pierrot on Channel 4 (NBC) whenever he featured Italy.  His program was at 5 p.m., our dinner time, and that was the only time we sat in front of the TV.  All these experiences came about the same time and it was then that I knew then that I wanted to travel the world and tell others about it.  And now I am.

We began today's tour at one of seven gates in the Medina. The seventh gate is covered in green (representing peace) and blue (representing Fes) mosaics. (Each city has its own color. The taxis abide by this color as well.) We were not allowed to go through any of the gates, but the government is looking to opening them to the public as it develops tourism in Morocco.

The seventh gate is the entrance to the Mellah, the 600-year-old Jewish section of the Medina, which goes back to the fourteenth century. The oldest building there was built in 1337 and it takes on a Spanish style. On the main street there were also several buildings that had balconies; the very rich lived there. This is an influence of Andalusia where the Jews lived before they were kicked out of Spain.

We stopped at a cemetery with old tombstones—and new ones as well. There were small tombstones for children and I was reminded that in the “old days” babies—and women who bore children—did not always survive. One couple from our group stopped in the chapel there to look up a name of someone they knew.

Jews played a huge role in Morocco and many of them lived in Fes. There were 800,000 before the 1960s; 600,000 left to go to Israel, Europe, or the USA. Morocco suffered greatly from this loss because many of the Jews were business owners, so people lost their jobs. The Jews also contributed to the culture of the country. Two hundred families still live in Fes today.

We went to a synagogue and entered by the door that had the Hand of Fatima imprinted on it. The hand is a good luck charm as well as protection from the “evil eye.” The Jews believed in this idea as much as the Arabs. 

A 300-year-old handwritten Torah is there at the synagogue where the men sit on the main floor and the women sit in the upper level. A water receptacle is located in front of the altar. The water comes from rain runoff that is collected below the main floor, which is where the brides purify themselves. The building has been there since ____. At one time it was one of 25 operating synagogues in Fes.


This is the oldest building in the Medina.  It is in the Spanish style with a balcony.


Mohammed was our city guide. He is a retired international law professor of 27 years, and he had the poise and charm of a knowledgeable diplomat and politician. In fact, he was running for parliament, whose elections will take place in 2014.

Before we got into the Medina, we saw a panoramic view of it from a lookout point on a hill overlooking the city. It is the most famous and most complicated medina in the world. It is 6 km long and takes a mule 3 days to traverse it (a little Fes joke). There are 9,000 alleys and seven gates. The Medina was built in the ninth century. The walls were built in the 11th century and they have undergone several restorations through all these years, that is, such work was planned from the start. When the Jews came in the 14th century, they contributed to building walls around the Medina, not to create a ghetto, but rather to control traffic, especially foreigners who had no business getting in.

The morning was fresh and relatively quiet in the Medina because the shops do not open until 11. They close at 1 p.m. and then re-open from 5 to 7 p.m. so that people who work all day can do their shopping. What do they do the rest of the day? They talk, have tea, and discuss important issues of the day.

These towns and cities that we visit are as authentic as you can get in both style and purpose—and the people want to keep it that way. They are for the people who live there, not for the tourists. Tourism has not taken root here—yet. Morocco is working on that as an economic opportunity. On the other hand, now is especially good timing for Morocco to make a bid toward the tourist trade. The Arab Spring of 2011 has diverted the tourist trade away from Egypt and Tunisia (main centers of tourism in North Africa) to Morocco. As a result, more and more Americans are discovering Morocco. Europeans have visited the country over the years, but the economic decline has slowed down tourism.

Mohammed, our guide, took us to the oldest street in the Medina. It was barely 2 feet across. People who live on this street have to be good to their neighbors, he said, because if they want a refrigerator put into their apartment, it has to be carried over the roofs and down into the apartment. They need their neighbors' help.

Balak!! Balak!!  Donkey coming through.
foot washing before prayers

The Medina is a ninth century structure that people want to keep to this day. It provides visitors with a flavor of what it must have been like in medieval cities. The hustle and bustle, the buying and selling, all the life going on there. At prayer time, the men go to the Mosque, wash their feet, and take their place in a row in front of the niche where the immam stands. Kids from school rush about. Babes in mothers' arms cry or sit agog at all the stimulating activity surrounding them. There is a meat section, a fruit and vegetable section, a dry goods section, a precious metals section (gold is a fixed price). There are beggars sitting on the street and all sorts of people. I saw many blind men, some more disfigured than others. But everyone who visits the Medina quickly becomes a part of it. Life is vibrant but no so intense that I tired of it. Perhaps it is an extrovert's dreamland—and I wasn't feeling all that well! I loved it.

Fes is known as the crafts capital of Morocco, and today it is home to half a million craftsmen out of the 2 million people who live here. Another 70,000 people from surrounding areas come to the city every day to work or study here. 

We visited a couple shops like the ceramics factory. It is a cooperative with apprentices who work four-hour shifts—one in the morning and the other in the evening. An apprenticeship lasts 5 years. The people there were busy at work there molding clay, chipping mosaic, firing the pottery in the kiln, taking orders from visitors, or hauling truckloads of pottery away to markets. 

Our guide took us through the process for making ceramics out of clay and out of marble. I bought some gifts here and a flower vase for myself. Blue is the color of Fes. These artisans, as all artisans in Fes, are descendants of Andalusia (Spain) when the Jews and the Moors were kicked out in 1492 when King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella were the rulers of a new and united Spain.

We later went to the tannery to see the fine leather jackets, vests, pants, purses and other goods. Making leather from goat skin is a very smelly process. The trick that keeps the leather flame-proof, water-proof and soft is pigeon droppings. As we went up a long series of steps to get to the observation tower, we passed the blessed pigeons and sniffed on the mint leaves they gave us to shield us from the bad smell. Luckily, we weren't here in the summer when the odor is especially bad.

After we finished our tour we went to the showroom. It was filled with different colors of leather from black to saffron yellow, the most expensive color. If they don't have the color you want, they will make it for you. I had the opportunity to be with Barbara and Art and to serve as a go-between the two of them and the dealer as well. Barbara wasn't in the market for a jacket, but she tried some on anyway. They started out at $525. Then she wanted to look at purses. The one she picked out was $225. The dealer, who was as suave as a diamond merchant, offered her various prices and she kept saying she didn't want the coat because it didn't flatter her. I told her that it DID flatter her and that if she wanted it, she should get it. After 20 minutes or so, we got down to her price of $450 for the jacket and the purse. 

I felt as though I was living vicariously through Barbara's purchase. I would have liked the blue jacket or a brown jacket with a belt. These coats were gorgeous! I also felt as though I were with my mother. Since she died in 1970, I have not had the luxury of shopping or traveling with her, as we would most surely have done. It suddenly struck me after our jacket shopping ended that this might have been a scene between Mom and me. It was a precious moment.

Mom has been with me on this trip from time to time. Whenever I am in a place where I can't believe I there, I feel Mom's presence through a skipped heart beat or a feeling that starts in my stomach and wells up into tears in my eyes. It's a good feeling as I also feel she is watching over me, too.

We had a very nice lunch in a very nice restaurant in the Medina, and it was quiet compared to the business of the marketplace that surrounded it. So there were little oases like this in the Medina that perhaps gives people a break. Nevertheless, today I was not feeling very well and I longed to go back to the hotel and sleep. We had a tagine and it was very good, but I couldn't even bring myself to eat the delicious fruit.

We don Moroccan fashion wear.  I'm in the striped jiliba

After lunch we went to a textile shop and were show kaftas and jilibas. The dealers were very slick. They had a few of us try on the garb, including yours truly. I wanted a wool, hand-crafted kafta and was given a striped brown and white one. The price started out at $439 and I told him I could not pay it. He asked how much I would pay and I said I was too embarrassed to say because it would be so much lower. He pressed me and I told him $100. He said no and I walked away. Then he came back to me and said he'd give it to me for that price. Do I have a knack for this or should I have gone lower?

Our guides were very cautious with us and kept close watch that we didn't get lost or that a pickpocket didn't assault us. There were no incidents. I had heard of the Medina and was a bit afraid at first, but soon I saw we were safe. We learned a new and important word as we entered the Medina: balak, which means watch out. We got our first taste right away as a man drove 3 donkeys through the streets. They seemed to assume that they had the right of way or at least, as beasts of burden that they should.

In the Medina there is something going on around you at all times. There are the other shoppers, almost all of whom are native Moroccans doing their shopping. There is no set pathway of yielding left or right. As it was, we were passing through the streets on the left! Shopkeepers don't generally bark at you as the street sellers do. If you make the mistake of looking at them or worse, talking to them, you cannot shake them. I encountered a street vendor who tried to sell me some cheap silver bracelets. I knew they would stain my arm and I don't wear such bracelets. His price started out at 500 dh and he stuck with me, even after I went into stores. We talked a bit. He told me his name was Mohammed and that he had a wife and two sons. He was trying to make a living and that I didn't understand that. The shopkeepers are all rich and I buy from them. Why not from him? Since he was following me a long way from where we first met, I told him he might get lost in the Medina. He denied that. Finally, he was about to go away when I said I felt guilty and then he started trying to sell me again. Just before we left the Medina and got onto the bus he offered me all five bracelets for 100 dh.

I found this hard selling difficult to turn away from—and he knew it. So long as you interact with them or don't use the words smah lee, which means sorry, they don't go away. In this case, a policeman chased the man away. However, even though I did this wrong (and my travel mates told me all about it the next day), I'm glad I had the experience. If anything, it was training for me to be with my Middle Eastern students some of whom tend to bargain for grades. I now have some Arabic words I can use on them, which will astonish them, and I know a bit about the bargaining culture.

When we returned from the Medina and I took a much-needed two-hour nap for my terrible cough and cold. It helped revive me a bit so that I could participate in the home visit of a middle class family.

Nada serves rice and meatballs
In the evening Yemni split us into three groups so that we could make a home visit to a middle class family. My group visited a woman and her son. Nada is a part-time nursery school worker and her son, Ahmed, is working in computers for a German company. He got the job through an internship with the same company. He is studying for his MBA at night and in fact, had to leave us before we had dinner. There is a younger son who is in France studying computer programming. 

We sat in the dining area on long couches and had a meal of soup, bread, and meatballs/rice. It was a little stiff but we broke the ice when we started talking about children getting married. Nada said that marriages are no longer arranged by parents (at least in the city), so whomever her sons choose, “not my problem.” 
area where we had dinner with adjoining living room

I went to bed at 9 p.m. exhausted and not feeling very well, but satisfied with this wonderful day. I have to get well before we go to the desert where it will be colder and we will be outdoors.

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