Hello Morocco, where the four “Imperial Cities” of Fez, Meknes, Marrakesh and Rabat have all been the country’s capital at least once in its history. They also all have in common an ancient medina, first built as a model Islamic community, where daily life can seem unchanged for centuries.
It is always easy to get lost in Fes. The narrow alleys lined with shops at the center of the medina give way to even narrower cobbled paths that meander, take sudden right-angled turns or end suddenly at a wall. Of course I can ask anyone for directions and they will happily point me the way or even show me to my door – perhaps at the cost of a detour to their cousin’s shop. A cousin who will not take “no” for an answer. “If I didn’t try to sell a carpet to everyone who says they do not want one, I would never sell a carpet,” as one salesman says.
Children shout that the way ahead “C’est fermé!” perhaps hoping for a tip to help with any detour I am foolish enough to make. One day, my random explorings take me to a narrow alley that actually is shut, ending in a long archway so low and dark it is as if a race of dwarves lives there. My pocket torch illuminates only a multi-locked black door and I have to retrace my steps through the kids who have gone back to playing another game in the sun.
Hemmed in by mountains all around, by the new city and by its own ancient city walls, the medina of Fes is an inward-looking place. Even the buildings turn blank walls to the outside, their dilapidated state bearing little relationship to the glories within. Half-open doors offer glimpses of mosaic tiling and ornate furnishings but any windows are high overhead and barred with tight latticework. “Traditionally, men are responsible for the outside, the women for the inside,” says 42-year-old teacher Abdul al-Fazazi, who has lived all his life in the medina.
“They used to say: ‘A woman leaves home only twice. Once to be married, again to be buried.’ The men even went to the fountain to get water, a job only women do in the countryside.” Abdul studied literature at university and is passionate about the poetry of “Thomas Stearns” Eliot and, this being a French-speaking as well as Arabic-speaking country, Baudelaire. But he is also passionate about his place of birth. “This is the biggest medina in the world and one of the largest car-free areas of any city,” he says. “There are more than 200,000 people living and working here.”
The human color of a hissing paraffin lamp
The shops cling together in specialized sections, from shoes or clothes, to spices or pirated DVDs. They vary from the neon-lit glass and steel boxes of jewellers in the center to piles of misshapen seasonal fruit laid on a plastic sheet, lit by the human color of a hissing paraffin lamp, out on the dark muddy fringes where trade is slow. Scattered throughout are workshops where the goods are made: workers of leather and wood, hammersmiths beating copper and tin into pots, pans and ewers, weavers whose looms spill out into the street.
I see thread being woven into cloth, cloth cut into robes, robes being embroidered with silk, a man pointing out a robe he wishes to see among a stack high behind a shopkeeper’s shoulder, another shop where secondhand ones are for sale. The medina is the cycle of life, a labyrinth, like those the pilgrims walk in the great gothic cathedrals of Chartres or Reims. Keep your shoulder to the right and you will find your way to its heart and, eventually, back out to its end. By then, you may need the places where grave stones are chiselled with neat Arabic calligraphy.
Animals join the same cycle of life and death. In the food section, live chickens await a broken neck if chosen for someone’s meal at home. The donkeys who are the favored beasts of burden – preceded everywhere by calls of “Balak, balak!” — Make way, make way! – carry in piles of hides. I look into an empty room, its workers gone off to afternoon prayers, where wool still clings to fleeces being flensed after a soaking in cow urine, quicklime, water, and salt. In the 1,000-year-old Chouara tannery, vast clay tanks hold a pungent mix of pigeon poo where the skins are made supple, helped along by hours of kneading with bare feet. Other tanks hold dyes, all organic I am told by a leather-seller who worked in the pits for five years (“The lime pits were the worst: very dangerous.”). “Red from poppies, blue from indigo, green from mint, brown from cedar, black from kohl, yellow (the most expensive) from saffron,” he says. “Goat makes the best leather – you can iron it – but we say ‘sheep is cheap’.”
The skins of sheep, cows, goats and camels go to make leather shoes, bags and coats, while wool is woven into cloth and the meat is sold by the butchers. Cats pick through the scraps, scavenging for meat. “We have no dogs,” says Abdul. “Dogs chase away the angels.” As we walk through the streets, he greets friends and pats the head of a boy blocking the way to steer him gently aside. On a wall, panels are painted and numbered for election posters. “We have more than 30 political parties here,” he says. “People call them Ali Baba and the 40 Thieves. But too many people saw Independence as a big party, with celebrations and a lot to eat, not as an ongoing process.”
Many shops now cater for tourists
He stops to buy a single finger of chocolate from a stall, sharing a joke with a passing gaggle of book-laden schoolgirls, some in veils, most without. “The biggest change is how many shops now cater for tourists,” he says. “That place there used to be a barber, now it sells leather slippers. If there are no tourists, the shops are quiet or shut and that creates a very different atmosphere than in the days when the streets were full of local people.”
In the morning, I awake to the clang of gas cylinders being carried past my room on donkeys, making early deliveries before the streets fill with people. They are the only beasts of burden capable of negotiating the narrow ways, although they add their own smells of animal sweat and poop to the rich mix of the medina. Looms clatter from behind ancient wooden doors, buzz saws scream, a TV soap blares out, baking bread wafts its yeasty aroma and the cries from the minarets punctuate the day from dawn to dusk.
At Fes train station, I walk past banks of solar-powered phone chargers into a smart modern concourse where the ticket clerk tries to short-change me in the most old-fangled of ways. “Are you sure?” he asks when I point out his mistake, then hands over the 100 dirham note he still owes me with a big smile.
My sleek, modern train hums on welded rails through a flat, rolling landscape broken by neat stone walls, olive orchards and fields of green crops. A thin forest of pine trees clings to a meandering stream. Pylons march to the horizon. As we enter Meknes, we pass a rusting graveyard of old diesel locomotives. A concrete wall is littered with graffiti in Arabic and English. No city puts its best side to the railway tracks.
In Fes, the shared petits taxis are red, the buses blue. In Meknes the taxis are blue, the buses red. But the differences run deeper. The air is calmer, the people more tranquil, giving Meknes the air of a provincial backwater. The medina here is much smaller, easier to navigate and, with fewer tourists, caters mostly to locals. Judging by the merchandise on show, the men must dress almost exclusively in sports tops and trainers, the women in varying degrees of bling over sexy underwear. The number of stalls selling ornate wedding clothes, including golden slippers, implies both sides like the result.
A gentle hand reaches out to guide him past obstacles
I break out of the medina into the sun, stumbling down steps into a souk that has taken over a road. Bright with Chinese plastic and clothes, makeshift stalls line both sides with others filling in random gaps between. People make their way though with polite good humor. Even a blind man keeps to the pace, cane tapping. From time to time with a gentle hand reaches out to guide him past obstacles in his way: a barrow of DVDs, a donkey laden with mint being sold to shop keepers for tea. I follow the road to the end where Africans in colorful robes sell gold and designer handbags from plastic sheets laid on the ground.
I find another entrance to the medina and enter the food section, seeing glistening displays of raw meat, live chickens, eggs still bearing feathers. Men stand smoking with friends. Women stop randomly to block the passage, sorting through misshapen piles of vegetables whose varying stages of ripeness are a striking contrast to the uniform blandness of my hometown supermarket. At a café, I watch passersby drop by just to chat to the staff. An older waiter sweeps the floor while four young men behind the counter watch Greek singer Yanni in concert on a large LCD TV. Next to me, an old woman and a young couple eat with their fingers from a communal plate, sitting in companionable silence. They leave a table littered in cous-cous and chicken bones.
Leaving the medina behind me, I pass through the huge Bab el-Mansour gate, whose columns come from the nearby Roman remains of Volubilis. I walk for two kilometers past the high walls of the Imperial Palace to the stables and soaring storage vaults that held enough grain to feed the city for a year. They are as impressive as the underground dungeons that a guide says once held thousands of Christians, captured by pirates along Morocco’s infamous Barbary Coast (the guide books say they are another food store). Near the granary is the tranquil Agdal Basin, an artificial lake by whose banks teenagers do what teens do the world over: pair off and whisper sweet nothings to each other. I watch a police patrol on horseback disperse any who head for the shadows.
Abdelouahed el Hirech has been a guide to Volubilis for 40 years and he shows me around the Mausoleum of Sultan Moulay Ismael, a former mosque just outside the palace. “Moulay Ismael ruled from 1672 to 1727 and during that time he moved the capital to Meknes,” says Abdelouahed in his rich French. “He used 25,000 slaves to build a palace to rival Versailles. Those clocks you see were a gift from King Louis XIV. The Sultan was a member of the Alaouite dynasty, claiming descent from the prophet Muhammad. He had 500 wives and fathered 888 children.”
The mosque, with a fountain nearby
Sultan Idris II, who established Fes as the county’s first capital in the ninth century also claimed to be a great-great grandson of the Prophet. “On the death of Idris II, the capital moved to Marrakech before Rabat was built as a new capital in the 12th century,” says Abdelouahed. “After Meknes, Marrakech and Fes were both the capital again several times until the French Protectorate from 1912 to 1956, when Rabat became the modern capital it is now.”
He points out the five design elements of the mosque decor: tile, plaster, wood and marble. “There are five central elements to every section of the medina as well,” he says. “There is the mosque, with a fountain nearby, a Quran school, hammam and bakery.” The prophet Muhammad founded the city of Medina in Saudi Arabia as a model Islamic settlement, the first, and it has since given its name to the walled center of such towns as Meknes or Fes throughout North Africa. Abdelouahed explains how underlying the seemingly random structure of the medina is a religious philosophy that one’s contribution to society at large is as important as the rest of your life. The palaces and homes, mosques and bath-houses, schools and workshops co-exist as an organic whole. “Moving the political and administrative power to the new part of town, or to another city such as Rabat, steals its heart,” he says.
The train to Rabat pulls out past five- and six-story blocks of apartments, over which tower green-tiled minarets. Rows of satellite dishes pray to a new god, all pointing west. Solar panels decorate the roofs of newer developments whose walls shine with pastel paints. A field flowers with multicolored plastic bags blown from a rubbish tip. A Berber family camps beside the dump in a makeshift tent, waiting patiently – perhaps for progress – while egrets stand in the next field, keeping it spotless.
The man sitting opposite me chats on his mobile phone between reading l’Economiste and Le Temps. A refreshment trolley comes through the carriage, announced by the polite tapping of a bottle opener on the metalwork. We stop at a station where a neat orange tree stands outside my window. The train whistle toots modestly, apologizing for its modern ways as we pass quiet villages and isolated farms.
Coming out of Rabat train station, I face the tree-lined Mohammed V boulevard lined on both sides with modern buildings. It is a shock to be confronted again by traffic, although the shiny new tram system helps give the feel of a Mediterranean rather than a North African city. At pedestrian crossings, groups of young women cling to each other, warily eyeing the traffic for a break. This is the French system, as explained tongue-in-cheek to me once in Paris. The markings are not to help you cross the road, but to collect all the casualties in one place for the ambulances. The blue petit taxi I take to my hotel stops twice to pick up other passengers, one of whom greets the driver like an old friend, shaking hands warmly before climbing into the seat to join the other woman behind me. We pass sleek shopping malls, billboards from which women with no scarves on stare out boldly, and shining metal and glass apartment blocks.
Perhaps several families sharing one house
The new city highlights how wealthier people have abandoned the medina, adding to the loss of political power and meaning. “Country people have moved into the medina, with perhaps several families sharing one house,” says Abdul. “The men have more than one wife and many children. Such overcrowding puts a strain on water supplies, sewage and other resources.”
Marrakech shares the same modern suburbs as Rabat and Morocco’s other cities, with their detached European-style family homes, identical apartment blocks and unfinished air: buildings started in a flash of optimism that sit awaiting some final touches that may never come. It is a world away from the Djema el-Fna, the vast square at the center of the medina that comes alive at dusk with snake-charmers, itinerant dentists, story-tellers, magicians and musicians in exotic costumes. Orange sellers bring an extra splash of vivid color to the picture, their fruit made brighter by harsh neon lighting. All the world is a stage and everyone here knows they have a part to play, if only a walk-on role by the camera-snapping tourist.
It is easy to lose patience with the constant hustling – salesmen pushing carpets, would-be guides, waiters waving restaurant menus – but the solution is simple. I stand still for 15 minutes and start to be ignored, having become part of the scenery and not the action. Then I can watch the drama in comfort. The backpacker getting caught trying to sneak pictures of the shake charmer, the wealthy couple having a quiet argument about what to do tomorrow, the visiting rural Moroccans wandering in awe, mouths agape.
In an unlit cellar off an alleyway nearby in the medina itself, I stumble on a scene lit like a Carravagio painting and seeming unchanged for centuries. In the blackness, a man tosses handfuls of sawdust into an ancient clay furnace, heating the hammam above and throwing bursts of light onto his sweat-covered face. The sawdust is collected from the local wood shops, most of it cedarwood which sparks bright in the fire, giving off a rich aroma. Outside, the tourists walk by, ignoring the dark stairwell in which we crouch. Here, deep in its belly, the medina’s cycle of life rolls on as it ever has.