Fez El-Bali / Fez, MOROCCO / May 2016
On getting lost in the Fez medina, discovering its hidden corners and slices of life, and uncovering its long and storied history.
The alley we were walking down abruptly dead ended in a studded wooden door, marking an obvious private residence. We sheepishly retraced our steps and had to walk past the boy whose aid we’d rejected moments earlier. “Oh yeah,” he said, mimicking us with justified snark. “Mnarif.”1
After five days in the medina, the two main streets, Talaa Kebira and Talaa Seghira, began to reveal themselves with greater frequency, and certain stores and corners became recognizable landmarks.2If you take the same paths through a maze, you will find your way (eventually). But the joy of the medina lies in the deviations and detours that you encounter while lost: you may strike out for a restaurant, artisan or site, but where you end up going is inevitably better for its fortuitousness.
Sometimes the discovered gem appears at the end of a series of circles – it only took four passes, but you finally notice an intricately-tiled fountain in the corner of a square or stop to enjoy the freshly squeezed nectar proffered by an orange juice vendor. Or maybe you come across the misleadingly nondescript store front of the best sandwich shop you’ve ever been to, a mere five square feet in which a counter, sitting area, and stove is crammed and in which one cook,3in perpetual motion, churns out an endless stream of grilled delights. One refrain I kept hearing from Fassis4is that the best parts of the medina are hidden. In context, “hidden” largely meant finding spots off the well-trodden tourist trail. But to me this equally meant moments accidentally stumbled upon which I knew we were unlikely to ever find our way back to again.
In the alleyways behind the stalls on the main streets selling ceramic tagines, leather babouches and bags, brass plates and carpets, you can find fondouks with artisans grouped as if by guild and still making all of these items by hand. Since maps are for the most part useless,5you must follow senses other than sight. To get to the brassworkers in Place Seffarine, you can listen for the sounds of dozens of hammers ringing against metal. To get to the tanneries near Place Nejjarine, you can wait until you smell hundreds of hides drying in the sun, mixed with the pungent odor of the pigeon shit used as a softening agent.
One afternoon I was fortunate enough to go behind the scenes of one of these myriad specialized quarters within the medina. I took a class in brass etching and experienced the immense pleasure of making something with my own hands. I marveled at the secret geometry beneath the complex patterns, and at how, when you clang away at brass for several hours with various tools, your ear picks up different tones and pitches and assembles its own melody. We were making a tea tray, and after I’d etched the pattern we took it to an artisan who I was told “only makes edges.” In less than three minutes of hammering he had shaped my flat plate into a tray. When I hold handmade goods now, I cannot help but think of all the other hands that have shaped them, and the centuries of tradition that have been passed down in the crafting of those items.
The oldest parts of the medina – Fez el-Bali – were founded over a thousand years ago6and much of its monuments date back to the 13th-14th centuries.7But the city is no historical relic – it thrums with the rhythms of daily life as it has for centuries. Around any corner you may find yourself in the midst of a children’s soccer game or tangled in silk thread stretched along the walls to remove its kinks. You may run into a cart full of live snails, or be nearly run over by a pack animal. (The streets are barely wide enough for human traffic and yet they somehow seem to widen whenever a donkey or mule laden with heaps of skins, produce or water bottles trundles through, its owner shouting “watch out!” in darija.) You may see a woman stop by one of Fez’s many tiled fountains for a drink, or watch a diminutive tabby cat stare with unblinking intensity at a butcher dressing meat. Walking down an alley, you may happen to look into a doorway and see an elderly man jamming out to modern dance music, or a man shaping a huge wooden door with a (probably) state-of-the-art 3D printer. Fez is a city which is simultaneously medieval and gloriously alive.
Wandering through the medina yields hazards aplenty, which can make it hard to look anywhere but straight ahead. When you feel brave enough to look around, the medina is often covered with wooden slats or boards to keep crumbling walls in place or fabric tied over shops to create much-needed refuge from the sun or rain. It is thus difficult to get a sense of the size and scale of the medina without getting above it. On the roof of any building, usually reached by endless flights of narrow tiled stairs, the old city stretches out like a bowl, white walls in all directions cradled by a circle of hills. At the center lies the green-tiled roof and minaret of the University of al-Qarawiyyin, founded in 859 AD and often referred to (at least in Fez) as the oldest educational institution in the world. Around the edges, at the higher points, the babs or main gates lead into the medina. At dusk, purple shadows play on the walls, and if the time is right, the call to prayer simultaneously issues from dozens of minarets rising above the medina, producing a sort of reverberating surround sound which is hauntingly beautiful. If you wait long enough, the stars come out, the bustle of street level fades completely away, and you think: I can’t wait to get lost again tomorrow.
And . . .