Fes - I did everything but the henna

The title is for my roommates Danielle and Brigitta, who were there at the end of each day and heard more stories than can be chronicled in a blog. Danielle, the Irish gypsy, who sometimes soothed us with her magical flute playing when we all appeared back at the room, hiding from the hot afternoon sun, and Brigitta, German, but living in Australia, who was happiest dancing with the Sufis and spent her free time on Facebook saving the world.

I bought a first class train ticket from Tangier to Fes because all of the travel literature said it was essential if you didn't want to be robbed and otherwise compromised. It didn't cost much more and first class was cleaner and air conditioned. When I got on the train, I couldn't find first class, but I found an empty eight person coach and figured that if it got dodgy and crowded, I would ask the ticket collector where first class was when he came along. Besides the train and the platform were nearly empty...for a couple minutes. Then there was a surge and four generations of female Muslims crowded through the tight door.

Through charades and sketches, we quickly became fast friends.  They had passed down their skill of etching henna from mother to daughter and gave me a phone number, inviting me to their home to be stenciled.  I bet you can guess which one was going to do it.  By the time the ticket conductor came around, I had decided to stay.  

But after awhile the sun started shining intensely into the coach over the face of the youngest and they wanted to pull the shade. I wanted to see Morocco.  They were sad to see me go and offered to keep the shade up, but I was uncomfortable with that so I moseyed on up to first class, which was actually a bit more cramped. The young man I had to face across the small table was morose even before I took his leg space.  The car was quiet and boring and generally had an unhappy vibe, so I started back to second class, which was a much merrier scene.  

I never made it back to my friends however - navigating a train passageway clearly designed for The Little People, past small children running up and down and their supervising parents lounging against the sides, proved too difficult with my oversized load, so I just sat down in a grimy seat with more legroom and laughing conversations about me and watched the changing scenery until we pulled in to Fez and I had to start with the cab driver in what would be a week of almost mandatory haggling for any transaction to take place. I didn't always haggle.  Things were sometimes offered at a ridiculously low price and people worked hard there. But the cab driver was demanding an obscene amount for a short ride just to see if he could get it.

He drove at breakneck speed to the medina, which was actually kind of fun. 

It wasn't until I took the taxi to the airport at the end of the trip that I saw the commercial district of Fes, where the money is and where it looks more American in its offerings of goods.

I went directly to the Blue Gate of the Old Medina, where my hostel was, a splendid Dar (nice house), in the labyrinth of 9,000 alleys filled with a surprise around every corner.


Yes, those are propane tanks


Apothecary. He will decide and then prepare what you need.


Musicians.  He played his at (wool) stringed instrument, both of the guys sang, local folks leaning against shop walls or walking past often joined in, and the other fellow clapped as well, while I just chimed in with my bracelets.


Friends.  He was a neighbor with a restaurant that made an insane pastisa.  After he first saw me wearing my jalaba, he asked for it every time I walked by.  He also got into a pattern of flipping the peace sign to me.


The girls at the hostel  liked to help me with the headscarves.  I was honored by those who seriously asked me if I would stay 'because I had the light of Allah in my face.' After a day or two, I felt immodest even with bare arms. Still, it was simply too hot to routinely wear a jalaba even if the men found it "hot".  This is me at the Blue Gate heading out to the King of Morocco's palace for the opening soirée of the international sacred music festival.

Here are a couple shots of the dar.  My girlfriends are hanging out the window.  My only photo of the hostelkeeper, Abdul, is blurry, so I will post it when Danielle sends me her photos which of course put my shaky iPhone snaps to shame.  It was a wonderful crew there.  





An afternoon pitcher of mint tea on our bedroom window ledge.

This cost somewhere between $8 and $11 a night, breakfast included.

More delights of the medina:



Often the fruit stands were next to meat stands and honeyed sweet stands and had literally hordes of flies, but I got hungry enough a couple times to buy dates, cherries and almonds.



Around the corner from the dar, there were three of these tables piled high with sweets drenched in honey. In between was a dentist office.


Of course there were beautiful rugs


And more beautiful rugs


and weavers making them


 in this building and similar old buildings.

The buildings often look quite uninviting from the outside, but the interior world seldom disappoints. Often literally and always metaphorically, the interior world of Fes is rich.


This guy is trudging 


past this

and this.

Here are a few rooftop views of the medina


Imagine the call of the muezzin, the haunting call to prayer that peals out over the city from mosque towers five times a day.


How many called to me as a matter of commercial routine in the medina, "Madame, Madame.  Come in for tea.  You are always welcome in my shop.  You are part of my family.  Come join us for tea."  It is true that if you don't walk by, you will be lured in for a long sales pitch and worn down.  You will eventually come up with something you need, even if it is not a rug or a ceramic vase, but just a comb and the shopkeeper will be pulling you down the alley to his brother's shop or perhaps his cousin's.  The truth is that while they do often have very large extended families due to the number of wives a man can have, the shopkeepers are not always taking you to just the shops of family members.  They are also watching out for their neighbors, helping them to survive. There is not a lot of pick pocketing in the medina as the tour books would have you believe.  The locals would not allow it as they need the tourists if they want to eat.  They keep a sharp eye on what is going on, much sharper than the Turismo police ever could. And besides, many of them are from the south of Morocco and have that "Berber heart" I heard affectionately glorified daily.  That was another supreme compliment I received a number of times, that of having a Berber heart, a heart of compassion. 


This rooftop view is from a tannery. These tanning vats contains natural color dyes for leather.  The Berbers find a water source in the desert for their colors for wool and silk for weaving. The silk they use is vegetable silk from aloe plants.

Artisans of all trades can be found in the medina. Some of the wares are quite amazing, the intricate copper pieces, the metal and glass lamps, the mosaic ceramics, the embroidered tunics, the woven hats and saddle blankets, the leather goods.  The search can be a mysterious adventure, peering into dark doorways. 

Here and there is a seriously beautiful mosque, inside and out.

It seems too disrespectful to photograph inside.

It gets hot.  I drank a few liters of water daily.  These are popular local options.
The Water Man, less popular than in preceding centuries, but still commercially relevant. You can pay him to sip water out of those cups
or you can use the cup at a public fountain to quench your thirst.

I heard singing and peeked in the open door to see
school children.  We sang the ABC song together.

It is a culture of openly showing affection and singing. Three Muslim women came up to me one day, their eyes lit up when they recognized me, more than likely from the crowd at a public music performance. The youngest one said something I believe was "I love you" and hugged me.  The men often walk with an arm slung over his friend's shoulder. The women walk hand in hand and fix each other 's head scarves as they talk. It is an innocent culture without alcohol, though I can't say I wasn't offered the opportunity to smoke hash several times.  But it keeps them far more mellow and peaceable than alcohol.  Families come out to the plazas at night just to hang around.  Danielle and I played a fish game that had a circle of thirty or so patiently trying to drop a rubber ring at the end of a string from a stick on to the neck of a pop bottle.  No one could do it, yet everyone was content to just be with each other.

A friend translated a boisterous music performance for me.  It was a traditional song, as in hundreds of years old, that had come from the south.  There were five women and five men on stage dancing, each group dressed in costumes I had never seen.  And the crowd went wild.  They clapped and sang along to the Bee Dance, a dance celebrating pollination.  They knew every word.
I learned to love the gentle nature of their hearts, but there is always a dark side and admittedly, I was becoming increasingly confused about why young men were propositioning me.  

It had already been firmly established they were not seeking American citizenship. I found that even in the poorest of countries, people would not exchange their culture of love and support for the perception of ours: one where the emphasis is money and materialism and people worked ridiculous hours. That is their impression of America, that our notion of success is inhumane. That and that we are loud, pushy people. Still, I would ask. Is it that you want to marry me so that you can move to America? No, no, they would say, you can live here in Fes. 

When I received a marriage proposal from a man this young, I mean he's wearing braces, I asked him point blank: if you want money for sex, why don't you just say that?


He laughed.  That's not it, he replied. What we like is four things: 



(Well, that explained why men were forever reaching for scarves and wrapping me up; it had seemed a bit odd)

Henna (darn)

A wedding ring (bump that)

And airplane rides.  (I totally got that and so I had to believe him.)