Written in 1989 for Gourmet
You tell me you are going to Fez.
Now, if you are going to Fez,
That means you are not going.
But I happen to know that you are going to Fez.
Why have you lied to me, you who are my friend?
— Moroccan saying
I’d last visited Morocco nearly four years earlier. Four years adjusts a country in one’s imagination: the place that most gripped me from that visit was Fez, the labyrinthine city that, centuries ago, was among the great centers of learning, culture, and wealth, a North African Florence. The unceasing tribal wars that beset the rest of the nearly lawless country had spared Fez; like a cunning uncle it flourished even as its country fell. When the French occupied Morocco so unsuccessfully for the early parts of this century and built a modern Fez (la Nouvelle Ville) beside the two imperial ancient ones, it condemned those earlier versions of the city to poverty and ruin. Yet today it is those one visits: and I know no place that more strongly captures the imagination, with the complex intelligent disorder of its medina, possibly unique in the world. Old Fez seems to be time itself made corporeal, given a local habitation and a name.
I stayed at the Palais Jamaï, the classic hotel on the edge of the medina immortalized (under a different name) in Paul Bowles’ novel. The Spider’s House (1955). The peacocks I remembered from my earlier visit were gone, but the hotel, formerly the 13th century pleasure palace of the Jamaï family, was as splendid and calm as ever, the staff as kindly. There are few hotels for which one can feel genuine affection—especially the grand hotels—but the Palais Jamaï is among them. With its gardens on many levels bisected by blue-tiled canals, its royal and date palms, the terraces, the flowers, the enormous shade trees and the paradisial hum of water meandering everywhere, it too seems displaced in time, waiting and at rest.
Nobody has written more eloquently than Bowles of the trance that falls over you, the imposed hypnosis that takes command upon entering, being captured by, losing yourself in the medina. "Its topography rich in prototypal dream scenes: covered streets like corridors with doors opening into rooms on either side, hidden terraces. . . streets consisting only of steps, dark impasses, small squares built on sloping terrain so that they looked like ballet sets designed in false perspective, with alleys leading off in several directions; as well as the classical dream equipment of tunnels, ramparts, ruins. . . ."
I'd visited Bowles at his flat in Tangier. A friendly, modest man, at seventy-eight one of the most original American composers and writers of this century, he first came to North Africa in the Thirties. He said, "In Fez you can get an idea of what much of this part of the world was once like, since it has so miraculously— " He paused. "Perdured. One reason is because cars can't enter the medina, the ways are too narrow." The Spider’s House remains among the great political novels, a true novel of ideas set in the middle of the independence upheaval, and written virtuosically from both an American’s and a Moroccan’s points-of-view. I was astonished to learn, though, that Bowles had not been back to Fez (a few hours' train ride from Tangier) since 1972—since the Palais Jamaï was renovated and expanded, in fact.
"Had Fez changed since you'd written about it two decades before?" I asked.
"For the worse," he answered. "The people had changed." In an introduction to a recent edition of The Spider's House, he wrote: "When France was no longer able to keep the governmental vehicle on the road, she abandoned it, leaving the motor running. The Moroccans climbed in and drove off in the same direction, but with even greater speed."
And Fez el Bali, Fez the Old (circa 9th century), the medina, struggles on, haphazardly, as much due to tourism as anything else. It is in decay and has been decaying for at least two centuries. Trees sprout from walls, smoke drifts in from the surrounding hills, houses lean, doors cave in, stairways and streets totter. It is perhaps the most complicated square mile on earth, and you need a guide for the first day or two, at least to fend off others.
It didn't take any effort to dislike the official guides, those who'd bought their status from the government. All day long they lurked outside the better hotels in their fine robes, their official badges highly visible, and they could be insulting in several languages if you declined their services. Careful to steer their charges to this carpet shop or that ceramics emporium, they grow irritable if you demonstrate that you don't wish to buy; and on no account should you buy accompanied by an official guide, for he often receives 50% commission on a sale, which is why your timid bargaining is accompanied by glycerine exclamations at your expertise. "It's as if," a student told me, "the carpet dealers work for the guides, not the other way round."
I found an unofficial guide on the train south from Tangier, or rather he very acutely found me. His name was Mustafa Tagla. He was in his mid-twenties, studying for a degree in economics. He looked rather like a handsome extra in a ’60s Italian film, and he was fluent in English and French; he also had imagination. He understood right away that I had no interest in buying anything, and he took the trouble to show me obscurities no official guide would’ve bothered with. Even though he lived with his family in the New Town, he'd spent one summer as a mailman in the medina, so he knew half the population and all the narrowest lanes.
If most Westerners come to North Africa in search of (let us say) a vague sense of romantic mystery made up of equal parts palm trees, slippers, robes, casbahs, spies, muttered prayers, and other sets from old movies, they usually find much of what they seek in Fez. At first it appears to be a tangible, living past only; and it is a shame the city doesn't have a dirham ($1 = 10 dirhams) for every travel-writer who's inaccurately called it "medieval." Here the contemporary jostles the very old—the man in flared slacks and leather jacket who listens to Madonna while seated beneath a Brooke Shields poster, spinning wool as it was spun six centuries ago. They speak of something as "new" here if it belongs to last week; "old" might be from last year, thirty years ago, or ten times that. To people living in a perpetual age of faith (one sees this throughout the Islamic world) time has little degree.
Thus old descriptions of Fez can seem current. Walter Harris, the Times of London correspondent in Morocco for his adult life, could write at the turn of the century, "There is scarcely a view of Fez that is not beautiful, scarcely a glimpse that is not sad. Its very colouring, or perhaps lack of colouring; its amazing alleys into which the sun never shines; its ruined mosques, rich in fast-falling mosaics and wood-carving, in rotting arabesques and grass-grown roofs; its damaged drinking fountains, from the broken tiles of which the water still splashes to where once a basin caught it, but now only to form a channel of mud in the narrow thoroughfare; its stately caravanserais with their galleries of arches and trellis of wood that has turned purple and grey with age; its garden quarter from which rise the modern palaces of the viziers, bought with the people s money and the people's food—all add a mysterious charm to a city that stands alone as an unspoiled example of former prosperity and existing decay."
Fez el Bali continues to crumble and be repaired. It survives due to a natural Moroccan genius for urbanism and a water support system that is still good after eight centuries. But no one lives there out of choice; its population is mainly country people who have not yet succeeded and can't afford the New Town. "How's Casablanca?" I asked somebody in a café. "Beautiful," he replied. "No medina." True Fezzis, local wisdom has it, have already moved to the Nouvelle Ville, or to Casablanca—for the profits, the good life, and the outward view.
One is endlessly astonished by the physique of the medina. Narrow lanes are spanned by wood beams that literally hold the buildings apart. Here you see a door, half-submerged by the ground as it swallows a house; there walls six feet thick that have lasted centuries. One day last year several old houses simply collapsed to rubble. Despite what the carpet-dealers claim, leading you into their restored mansions, most houses are a century or two old, not "Genuine 12th century, sir." A very few date back four or five centuries; the oldest tend to have ventilation slits in the walls, which are of old bricks fortified fundamentally with earth, and they often have beams protruding and studded cedar doors. Those that were once harem houses can be identified by a wooden appendage on an upper story, like a lantern cage, for the women to spy on whomever was down below without being seen.
Every other moment in the medina someone behind you yells, "Yellah!" (i.e. get moving) and you flatten yourself against a rough wall so a heavily-laden donkey can clip-clop its way past. Nowadays all the donkeys wear numbers, rather like license plates.
At every consecutive twist and corner of the ever-branching lanes through the maze of the medina, one is confronted by life out of some oddly unfixed past. A weaver works a great crashing loom with his feet, sending a small cradle of thread shooting through the sheaf of cords holding the flowering fabric while another man squats alongside and pulls like a sailor on the cross-cords. Wood-workers sit in small shops fragrant with the cigar-box cedar smell, spinning and shaping the wood with their feet. Great metal-decorating stalls resound as boys hammer, engrave, polish, and batter sheets of brass and tin. In what had been a fondouk (a caravanserai, or inn: there were once two hundred such, run by men dressed as women), men weave reeds into long sturdy floor-mats, while in the corners more bundled reeds wait, piled high. A bird market chatters in a dusty square—wooden cages with doves and carrier pigeons for sale. A bakery hums; more like a public oven, because each family brings its cakes or dough to be baked and picks them up later, so that through the labyrinth there is always the hot emphatic odor of fresh bread, wafting as it is hurried home.
The medressas were the university dormitories in centuries past, mainly for students from outside Fez. Classes were held around the largest mosques, but study went on in the medressas, really the equivalent of Oxbridge residential colleges. Now the important university in Fez is located in the New Town—which resembles Berkeley, California with its wide avenues and placid life—and the old medressas in the medina are empty, lovely relics. The Medressa Attarin (14th century) was the most beautiful: an enclosed world of delicate, undecorated marble columns and highly decorated tiled pillars, along with checkerboard flagstones, a circular marble fountain, and cedar lattices like wooden veils. The ornate plaster work was covered endlessly with a nearly Art Deco system of black looping script. Inside an anteroom an official guide was explaining to a group of French tourists how to bargain for a carpet.
The Souk el Henna—the spice bazaar, increasingly taken over by ceramics dealers—was a leafy square dominated by two great maple trees. Centuries ago it contained a madhouse. A gigantic scales, bigger than a man, stood in the shade. Merchants with immaculate stalls sold shampoo in the form of pebbles; mascara in its original rock form; poisons, aphrodisiacs, health potions, perfume extracts, essences of jasmine and musk, ambergris; and cooking spices by the hundreds in tiny bottles, all richly-hued and carefully-labeled.
Every morning it became customary, after Mustafa met me by the Palais Jamaï gate leading into the medina, for us to stop at the first café and fortify ourselves for the walk ahead with several teas. Moroccan tea is drunk from a glass, filled with hot water and thick with mint leaves: it is simultaneously soothing and exhilarating. One morning Mustafa set a deck of tattered, highly decorated cards before me. Some bore abstract geometric designs, others the images of horsemen, swords, fruits, drums, princes holding gold. The cards were numbered from one to twelve, but missing the eight and the nine. The game was complicated, with the usual borrowing and discarding; I 'd seen men playing it endlessly in cafés, passing long hours. It had twists and turns and a labyrinthine possibility of going on and on, and it made sense that so many people whiled away their days in the fumes of mint tea and cards.
In Fez's labyrinth there are mosques at every turn, three hundred fifty in all, remnants of days when the old town was divided more strictly into fifty "quarters": for brass-workers, coppersmiths, dyers, leather-workers, silk merchants, etc. Each quarter, corner, and cranny had its mosque, children's school, bakery, public baths, caravanserai, and fountain. I have never visited a city with such a subliminal sense of running water. Mustafa said, "People come here for the waters, you know." (Unlike Casablanca.) "Outside Fez, there are three very powerful springs. People come to them from all over North Africa. One is good for your kidneys, one for your skin, one for your entire body."
A Moslem is required to pray five times a day, and in Morocco, more than in most Moslem countries, they generally do. Because in Morocco nazarenes (Christians) aren't allowed in mosques, in a sense a visitor is excluded from the dominant ritual of everyday life. The best you can do is peer in, and try to find what makes it individual. It may be something simple, like its proximity to a wool market, or a hammam (public bath). And try to be present at least once when the muezzin sounds, and the faithful come flocking to pray. To watch that concerted event, to hear the power of Allah calling over the centuries to his believers, to feel it in your spine: this gets you closer to understanding their world than any history.
I went into one old hammam during the men's hours (days are split between men and women). It was like a rough palace, with stone arches everywhere. Baskets of cedar wood waited to be burned—next door an old man was feeding the fires round the clock. The floor was tiled; fresh air sent steam rolling across, as it had for the last four centuries. Light streamed in from high portholes near the domed ceiling. Men scrubbed themselves down, always modestly dressed in undershorts. Any visitor should try a hammam. More effective than the shower at any hotel, after a half hour you emerge refreshed, your pores steamed open and your skin wide awake.
The heart of the medina was a series of souks (bazaars), from used book stalls to flower, fish, meat and vegetable stalls; to tailors and leather-dealers, to a man selling old orchestra uniforms and broken lutes, to antiquaires selling teapots, ornate lamps, and complicated dangling jewelry.
In the tanners' quarter I was given a sprig of mint to hold to my nose. Mustafa led me through a mud-brick wall to a courtyard where men and boys were washing animal hides. We followed stairways up. From the roof we looked down on a scene that resembled a child's paintbox: a hundred colors in great round tiled baths, reds and indigos and yellows and greens and all colors between, with boys and young men sloshing around and dipping and stamping the hides. In other baths they washed themselves clean. The white houses behind them were blinding in the sun, with yellow hides spread on the roofs to dry and the jumbled jigsaw-puzzle town rising geometrically all around, studded with occasional palms. The call of the muezzin went up, but the tanners kept at their work.
Moroccan cuisine reflects the country's tribal past as well as its importance as a trading destination, a link between Europe and Africa. Its national dish, couscous, probably has its origins to the south, in the Sahara; the spicy, hearty meat stews, cooked in clay pots called tajines, are likely Bedouin in origin; complex pastries, like the pastilla filled with chopped meat and sweet spices like cinnamon and cardamom, came from the Levant. And some of the sophisticated soups, or the more formal meat and chicken dishes, come probably from the Spanish influence.
The Palais Jamaï has for many years had one of the best restaurants for Moroccan food in the country (though its belly dancers seem lackadaisical in comparison with those to the south, in Marrakesh). I also ate splendidly at Lanmbra, a restaurant in a high-ceilinged private house going toward the New Town, run by an old and esteemed Fez family. An enormous back room was filled with a fine selection of Moroccan jewelry and antiques; the prices fair, with some real treasures chosen by expert eyes.
In Morocco you must learn to enjoy the atmosphere of theater that prevails. The search for a taxi, with a guide as intermediary, is likely to provoke a series of arguments. One driver must think about taking you ("We wait while he constructs a building in his mind," said Mustafa); another asks too much money ("Leave us tranquil!" Mustafa hissed). A third driver waves his arms at the first two, yells, remonstrates, goes over and shakes them by the lapels, pushes a fourth into the driver's seat and glares at you as you get in. You must learn to enjoy the fact that your presence, your simple desire to get from a to b, can cause so many disputes.
Fez is preeminent in Moroccan history as a center for artisans, especially in tile work and ceramics. At the ceramics quarter, several miles outside town, the ovens are caverns burrowed into the ground. One man descends, another hands in the potteries, and wood to be burned is brought in, then the man escapes and the oven is closed tight. After a day of baking and a day of cooling, the potteries are decorated, then baked again. In a workshop I watched a plate's progress. One man sketched in the patterns, an old man added the fine filigree work, then two young ladies filled in the colors.
Next door a shop sold the results: enormous bowls and plates for display on walls or low tables, pitchers, egg-cups, jewel boxes, vases, umbrella stands, amphorae, tajines, teapots. There was more originality and variation here than in the medina's shops, so deviously narrowed to reflect tourists' average tastes Still, the designs are all old. Their shapes alone are sometimes less traditional. They are beautiful, but few are alive.
In a tile workshop a boy took tiny, rough, already-colored tile-squares, drew lines dividing them into quarters, then handed them to older boys who accurately divided them with pickaxes against a shaping stone. Men then shaped the small squares into triangles or petals. To make a square meter of intricate Fez tile work can take from 900 up to 5,000 separate pieces.
At the Fez "Dar Batha" Arts Museum you can see, in the ceramics collection, the originals of the plates for sale in the souks. The chief difference is that the new ones aren't old, and the originals have more finesse. Other museum rooms house embroidered robes, inlaid wood chests, enormous oil lamps, and collections of musical instruments brought up from southern Africa by slaves: drums, lutes, zithers, violins, tambourines, and a simple cello. This is probably the best exhibition of Moroccan crafts in the country (though the choice of rugs is better in Tangier's museum), and it includes a magnificent exhibit of Berber jewelry.
To visit, though, wasn't easy. Twice I'd found the museum closed during its posted operating hours. This time the museum attendant chased me from room to room, barring the doors behind me, forty-five minutes before it was to close for lunch. He said he had to go pray, though the fact that I was the only visitor may have had something to do with his religious fervor. (He hadn't warned me of this when taking my money a minute earlier.) I have journeyed through some of the world's countries most closed to outsiders, but nowhere have I encountered people as inhospitable and disputative as Moroccans—among themselves as much as with any foreigner. To quote a 19th century traveler, "These people pray five times a day and act as if they never pray at all." Too bad that some Westerners visit Morocco and go away thinking all Moslem countries are like this.
I called upon a friend who's lived in Fez for two decades: the architect Jean Paul Ichter, a genial, bearded Frenchman with an agile face and a persuasive manner. Four years earlier, he'd run an international organization called Hadara, one of whose intentions was to save Fez. Ichter had attracted numerous architects and students worldwide to visit, examine the problems, and avail themselves of his knowledge. At that time he'd seen the problems of Fez as surmountable.
He'd also pointed out to me that most Moroccans, despite what tourists saw, were leading modern lives. (In fact Fez, or the Fez that visitors rarely see, is the second most important industrial center in the country.) He alerted me to beware the facile notion that the life one saw in the fantastic medina was really the Middle Ages. "People come here," he told me, "they see a veil or two, they realize how beautiful the medina is, and they assume it was always men working in stalls in darkness. People see the past as suffering. But it wasn't that simple, or that overworked." For centuries, he explained, the medina had held a proper balance: of merchants, craftsmen, wealthy, and servants, as well as the poor. Now it was only the poor.
At his architectural firm's office we spoke less optimistically of the future of the medina. I was saddened to see that Ichter had gotten little support, in the end, from the government, and Hadara was no more.
"For many decades Fez el Bali has been protected by its site. It’s set in a slanting valley, unlike Cairo or Damascus. They too had great medinas, but they were on flat plains, so they could be knocked down, built on, and expanded. Fez is protected, because there's little else you can really do other than the buildings that are there now. A negative repercussion of tourism would be if the medina, as in Marrakesh, became a victim of tourism, a kind of parasite. At the same time, it would permit you to recuperate some magnificent houses. The vulnerability of Fez is partly like that of Venice. Fez houses all rot if they're left empty for two years—because of the material, not the climate. A possible alternative is that Fez will simply collapse, overloaded with people.
"The truth," he continued, "is no one wants to be bothered with the medina. It's like an old man, bent over from the weight of what it has to carry. I'm a realist: you can't go backward in time. The craftsmen you see here, the tanners, the weavers, are all bettered by machines. They can't survive for long. There are many lovely mansions in the medina. Most are still reparable, but who wants to live there? Who would live there now, with money? These people want the same privacy or comforts as you or I. You mustn't look at the place with touristic eyes—I have no use for this impractical idealism. A city survives and thrives when it reflects a balance: so many poor people, so many rich, so many merchants, so many artisans. No young people want to live there, it takes too long to get in and out. The life there is too uncomfortable and unreliable.
"If we could open up the medina a little, so it didn't take a half hour to get into its center, but fifteen minutes, it might become again an attractive place for people to live. Remember,architecture dictates a social life. To give you an example, we paved one street in the medina and it changed totally the women's way of dressing-up, because suddenly they weren't walking in the mud, they could wear high heels. Then they began wearing shorter skirts. And they were able to window-shop, so the stores changed."
Fez el Djid, which dates roughly from the 13th century, was built as a political stratagem against Fez el Bali. It is the site of the present king Hassan's second palace (the capital is at Rabat) and of the mellah, the former Jewish quarter. On the edge of the mellah the "Israelite cimitiere", lined with pines and a few palms, was a blinding-white miniature village of elongated humps. Some tombs were recent, the elderly few who'd stayed on; most Moroccan Jews had left in 1956, with independence from the French. The main street of the mellah, parts of which Ichter had carefully restored, were of an entirely different architecture, belonging more to Cairo or Istanbul or even the Caribbean: wooden balconies and slant roofs; tall, intimate stone-and-wood houses on straight streets, with shops below. In the old days, most were jewelers'.
In solitary grandeur outside the mellah stood the palace, like a winking jewel on the edge of a sandbox. An enormous (810 hectare) property, closed permanently to the public, its ramparts are spiked concrete and its entrance, with imposing carved gates, is highly decorated with blue and green intricate tile work and marble columns. As modern Moslem palaces go, compared to those of Arabian monarchs its exterior design is so lovely that anyone well-read in Moroccan history might well wonder if a future inheritor of the throne might not level it straight away. It was a favorite photo opportunity of Japanese tourists, whom I rarely saw in the medina but were here posing in droves.
Just nearby, I was barred from entering an intriguing passage into a carpet weaver’s by somebody whose only role was to exercise this small power. Possibly he didn't want a journalist to see how expensive "antique" carpets are churned out for tourists—I had only an official letter of introduction from the king's government (behind those palace doors), after all. A fascinating aspect of travel in Morocco is that short of banging on people's doors, you aren't allowed anywhere you aren't expected to spend money.
The next day I went exploring in the Ziyat quarter of the medina, probably the wealthiest for the last four centuries. The greatest palaces hid behind the most unlikely walls. I saw one grand 18th century house with an enormous garden, rather like an Italian villa, with stone galleries and tall pines; characteristically there was more light in its interior patios than in the streets. It had been a palace, and inside was the most sumptuous decor I saw in Fez, even in semi-ruin. It was only a glimpse, for even with an introduction the owner didn't want to let me past the inner courtyard. (For these great houses the entrances were always on the side.) Nearby I ambled up the Slope of Smiles and down the Slope of Lions, so-called because one palace-owner used to bring his lion up the narrow way to drink from the fountain.
Another 18th century house lay up a dour garden path just outside the Ziyat quarter. We went through a semi-comedy of looking for the servant who could in turn locate the caretaker who produced, with reverence, a giant rusted key. Enormous, shadowy doors creaked back. Inside was an incredible uninhabited palace, arch after tiled marble arch, empty fountains, balustrades, carvings, and a decrepit grand piano in a salon lit by red peacock-shaped fanlights. The floors were Italian marble; in those days you could trade a kilo of Moroccan sugar for a kilo of Italian marble. This nearly abandoned palace was used extensively in the film The Jewel of the Nile. Mustafa had been a staff driver for the film crew.
Just outside the medina, a cinema was showing a film about Zorro in French, an Indian potboiler, and an American export called Death Mission. It struck me then, watching the crowd enter, that in fact the better part of the populace wore Western dress; it was only the ones in djellabahs (robes) that an outsider inevitably remembered.
I said, "The movies seem very popular."
"Not as popular as before," said Mustafa. "Now everybody has a TV set, and even if they don't have electricity, they run it off batteries."
One afternoon I braved struggling crowds—who were being kicked into line by gendarmes—and climbed a stairway to a rooftop perch overlooking the Bab el Boujeloud. Here, at the Blue Gate, I could see the great celebration of the yearly Festival of Fez, an event not put on for tourists. The night before there had been folk dances at the arts museum. Now, as the day waned, I looked down on a procession of barefoot dancers in spangled robes, hopping urgently; gold-braided old men on white horses; ranks of whirling drummers and tambourine-shakers from the south, with complex counter-rhythms; a hot clamor of jumping, shouting people with crowds pressing on either side of a narrow street that led from the arched gate into the medina's souks. Patches of the crowd followed each successive wave of pandemonium into the medina. Then a woman came, shaking in a trance, supported on either side as she jittered and shook, crying out, now falling, now hurling herself out of control. The crowd roared at her.
It was wonderful, from up on the rooftop, to see the obsessive streak in the Moroccan character en masse. I thought: These people are a little crazy. "'Some will pass out," said a man beside me. To pass out signified an intensity of experience, but no one could explain a deeper meaning behind the procession. People could gather and whip themselves into a ritualized frenzy, but with no ritual meaning behind the excitement. But wasn’t it the equivalent of our Thanksgiving Day parades?
Anybody who travels ponders, necessarily, what it is we carry away with us of a place, which is in the end all that matters. I regret not having seen Fez four decades ago, the Fez that Paul Bowles so eloquently captured; but those who see Fez in the next ten years are seeing a place that will soon be gone. It is a miracle it has survived as long as it has, and it surely cannot sustain itself very long into the next century. Places are as vulnerable to extinction as any impractical bird or fish. When I saw Fez the first time I thought it stranger than any dream: unpredictable, unexpectedly beautiful and haunting, with its labyrinthine turnings like the sudden shifts of an imagination asleep. To go back was like returning to a dream. For Fez has about it a deep power: to be there is less like visiting a place than like plunging into the human subconscious. It confronts you long after you leave. In waking or dreaming, turning an unknown corner, you find yourself wondering where you are, and realizing you are again amazed, lost in that secret dying city.