La Prisa Mata: Morocco 101 (3/4)

(part 3 of 4)

Fez was quite a shock after Chefchaouen. We had gotten quite comfortable in the little town in the mountains. Chefchaouen, like our crusty little extremeñan town of Plasencia, has a population of roughly 40,000. Fez, on the other hand, is a massive, chaotic city of non-stop sensory overload with a population of over 1 million. We got the car as close as possible to the medina and pulled over to call the owner of the riad we had booked so he could lead us there on foot. Riads are mudbrick courtyard houses built around a garden or an internal courtyard which have been converted into guesthouses. In an email the owner assured us that we would never find the place in the insane maze-like streets of Fez el-Jdid (aka: “New Fez” because that part of the medina is only  700 years old).

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view of the medina, Fez

We called a few times and he didn’t answer. Lucky for us a handsome, clean cut, smartly dressed tout in his early twenties materialized out of the crowd and offered his services, again, in perfect Spanish. Abdul claimed to know where the riad was located and he seemed pretty legit so we told him to hop in the back seat with the ladies. He led us to a little dead end street full of kids who were not at all happy about us disrupting their soccer match. A few of the kids were wearing Spanish soccer jerseys. (They were Barcelona fans.) Abdul introduced us to one of the local hustlers who kept an eye on this particular street. Neighborhood Watch said, for a mere 25 dirhams a day, he would make sure nothing happened to our car. Toño made a counter offer of 40 dirhams for 48 hours. Neighborhood Watch countered with 45. Handshakes and smiles all around.

As we were unloading the car we noticed two small boys handling two long strands of fibre connected to a wall by a nail. They were winding the two strands together very carefully with a small handheld device that looked like a battery powered plastic fan that Lola’s mother uses in summer. They were amused at our looks of bewilderment. They motioned for us to follow them. A few doors down we entered a dressmaking shop where half a dozen men and women sitting on plastic chairs were making colorful dresses and long, delicate gowns. They warmly greeted us with handshakes and the bowing of heads. The handshake, which is more like a light tapping of hands followed by touching your heart, is a truly beautiful thing. They held up various works-in-progress for our inspection. There was a basket full of orange blossoms on a table. One old fella with no shoes (or teeth) very delicately picked up an orange blossom and handed it to Lola. It was such a strange, surreal, beautiful moment that I nearly got choked up. I don’t know what it was, but I had to turn around and step outside. It was all so overwhelming…

Back out in the street I said to Toño, “Imagine if back in Spain a group of Moroccans were peering into a shop window like a bunch of idiots… like we were just doing… The shop owner would have his phone in hand ready to dial the police. In Morocco, in a large city, we are warmly invited inside, welcomed with open arms and given flowers.”

“And they weren’t selling dresses, they were making dresses,” he added. “It’s a workshop. Nothing is on display or for sale.”

Abdul led us to our riad which we never would have found in a million years. One of the streets he led us down was so narrow that two people couldn’t pass each other. At one point my backpack was scraping the walls on both sides of me. (I’m pretty sure there was a less complicated route to the riad, but Abdul was most likely trying to impress us with his navigational skills.) We tipped him and as Lola was about to knock on the heavy wooden door he stopped her. “Please give me a moment to get out of sight before you knock. The owner doesn’t like it when people like me bring people to his hotel. He has a boy who helps him show guests around the city.”

“Well, he should’ve answered his damn phone!” Rosa said.

He couldn’t resist one last business proposition and right before we parted ways he asked, “Would you be interested in purchasing some hashish during your stay in Fez?”

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one of the streets in Fez el-Jdid

The owner wasn’t in, but his assistant Yusep, a shy teenage boy, let us in. His Spanish was rusty and our French was even rustier so he communicated with Lola in Italian.

“How did you get to the hotel?”

“It wasn’t that difficult,” she lied.

“No. Somebody brought you.”

“Honestly, we found it ourselves.”

He eyed us suspiciously. “Well, you are the first clients ever to arrive without a guide.”

The owner arrived. He was all apologies.

“I’m sorry about my phone. The battery is dead.”

He and Yusep spoke in Arabic for a moment and then he turned to us, “Who brought you to the hotel?”

“We found it ourselves.”

“I don’t think so. One of the touts brought you and he asked you not to tell me.” Busted.

The owner’s brother, Jules, made us some mint tea while we poured over a map of the city. Toño asked Yusep the name of one of the streets while pointing to the map.

“I don’t know… I can’t read.”

Toño instantly got on his case. “¡Chico! You have to learn to read and write. You’re an intelligent guy. You speak French, Italian, Arabic… I don’t know anybody you’re age in Spain who can speak three languages. With a little effort I know you can learn to read and write.”

“I don’t have time,” he complained.

In the interior patio Lola was admiring the enormous wooden doors.

“They are the original doors,” said the owner. “They are over 600 years old.”

Two college students from Cádiz were also staying in the riad. They arrived after a full day of sightseeing. Jules made them some mint tea. We were going to venture out for dinner soon so we asked them if they could recommend a restaurant.

“You’re going out at night?!”

“Of course.”

“Not us.”

“Aren’t you going to eat dinner?”

“Jules is going to cook us something here. We’ll see if it’s any good…”

“The food isn’t very good here,” whispered the other gaditano.

“In Fez?”

“In Morocco in general. We had lunch at a McDonald’s today.”

That pretty much ended the conversation.

Yusep offered to take us to Fez el-Bali, the heart of the medina where all the action is, but we told him we’d find it on our own. We left the riad and after four or five turns, we were completely out of sorts. A young boy pointed up a steep hill and told us to follow him. Yusep appeared out of nowhere.

“No! This way! Don’t follow him!” Yusep had a few words with the boy, then turned to us, “I know him. He’s going to take you to a shop where he gets a commission for bringing in tourists.”

Yusep disappeared down an alleyway and we changed directions. Five or six more twists and turns and we didn’t know which way to go next. Yusep appeared out of nowhere again and, slightly exasperated, said, “Follow me. OK?”

We walked past a hammam which is a traditional bathhouse something along the lines of a Turkish Bath. There was a low door slightly open with smoke pouring out of it a few steps from the main entrance. Yusep said something to the guy inside.

“Come. Look.”

We ducked inside. There was an old man dressed in what can only be described as rags, covered in soot and ash, feeding wood into a giant oven that heated the hammam. It was another medieval moment that left us all speechless.

A few more twists and turns brought us to the R’cif Market where we were greeted by the depressing spectacle of a few camel heads hanging on hooks outside a butcher’s shop. Yusep pointed up ahead to a large gate, Bab Sid L’aouad.

“Now you go that way.”

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camel head in a butcher’s shop, Fez

He offered to meet us here in a couple hours to lead us back to the riad, but stupidly we said we’d find it ourselves. During the time it took to pass through the gate, stroll across the bustling square and cross a footbridge over the Bou Khrareb River leading into Place as-Seffarine, three different boys had offered to take us to a very good restaurant.

We strolled around a bit, but most of the shops were closed at this hour and some of the streets were kind of terrifying. There were narrow tunnels you had to pass through that plunged you into total darkness for long stretches of time. You could faintly make out the silhouettes of cats tearing bones out of plastic bags beneath your feet in the darkness.

“Watch the donkey shit!”

One of the boys we saw earlier reappeared walking slowly ahead of us. Every now and then he’d turn around to make sure we were still there. We turned a corner and a restaurant came into view. He sprung into action. “My mother is the cook here. The best food in Fez. There is a terrace on the roof. The views are very beautiful.”

Well, he wasn’t right about the food, but the panoramic views of Fez at night – even through the endless sea of satelite dishes – were spectacular. As we were eating, the muezzins started the call to prayer which, from up on the terrace, was nearly deafening. There were at least three mosques in the neighborhood. (I was getting good at spotting minarets.)

After dinner we made it back to the R’cif Market without a hitch. We recognized a few more twists and turns after that and then… we were lost again. In the medina after dark there seems to be a guy at every blind turn just standing there looking like he’s up to no good. It’s a bit unnerving. And having read Alan Moore and Eddie Campbell’s From Hell shortly before our trip all sorts of horrible Jack the Ripper scenarios were playing out in my mind. We came to a fork in one of the dimly lit alleyways. As we were discussing which way we should go –  left on Albert Fish Avenue or right on Charles Manson Lane – one of the guys that looked like he was up to no good asked us where we were going.

“Riad Mikoh.”

He yelled something in Arabic. At the next blind turn down the street another guy appeared.

“Mikoh is this way!”

We followed him deeper into the maze until we entered a small square that we recognized.

“Jules, I found your Spaniards!” Jules was leaning against a wall smoking and chatting with some friends.

“I knew you’d turn up sooner or later.” We followed him back to the riad and he made us some mint tea.

April 1: Fez

I woke up the next morning to the sound of one of the gaditanos in the interior patio saying, “No, no more pizza. Ugh…” By the time we rolled out of bed they had hit the road. In search of the next McDonald’s, no doubt. Fatimah, Jules’ wife, had prepared an enormous breakfast for us. There was a massive, heaping plate of pastries, fresh orange juice, some seriously strong coffee, and the most interesting thing of all: a plate of flat, square Moroccan crepes which have the unfortunate name of msemen. They’re kind of a mix between a crepe and a pancake. They’re savoury, fried, spicy and filled with onions. And they’re heavy. When Fatimah brought them to the table she said, “It’s like pizza!” The girls each took one bite and decided to pass. So Toño and I had the difficult task of eating all five of them. (We were up to the task.)

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breakfast at the riad (the plate of msemen is behind the napkins)

Msemen are made with flour, semolina and dry yeast and are fried in a mix of butter and oil. Later in the market we saw shops selling plastic containers of various sizes filled with a lard-like substance called smen which is salted, fermented butter. This is used for preparing couscous and tajines and I suspect it’s what was used to fry our msemen.

Just when we thought breakfast was finished, Fatimah brought out a heaping plate of fried eggs sprinkled with lots of spices and a large glass of mint tea for each of us. The girls couldn’t eat another bite so Toño and I were put in charge of the eggs. (Again, we were up to the task.)

We made our way back to Place as-Seffarine (Brass-worker´s Square), this time in the daylight, where men were sitting in the street banging out copper and brass pots, pans, plates, bowls… you name it. One man was turning a large pot over an open flame in the middle of the square just a few feet from the entrance to the library of the Kairaouine Mosque and University which claims to be the world’s oldest university. It was another mind-boggling medieval moment, to say the least. The mosque is large enough to accommodate 20,000 people. Unfortunately, non-Muslims are forbidden from entering.

We followed the crowds to the famous Chaouwara leather tanneries. There was a helluva traffic jam involving tourists and donkeys in the claustrophobic alleyways here.

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near the tanneries

Balak! Balak! ” As far as I can tell that means, “Get the hell out of the way unless you want to get trampled by a donkey with a hundred kilos of leather strapped to its back.”

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Chaouwara tanneries

At the entrance to one of the tanneries a man was handing everybody a sprig of mint. I politely declined, thinking he was one of the dozens of people attempting to sell trinkets and junk to the tourists.

“Take it!”

He forced some mint into my hand. As we climbed the staircase to a viewpoint over the dye pits I dropped the mint on the ground. Up at the viewpoint – which has to be seen with one’s own eyes to even begin to comprehend such a monumental scene – I had to cover my nose with my hand due to the stench.

Lola asked, “Where’s your mint?”

“I threw it on the ground.”

“That was smart.”

“I thought he was a hustler looking for some spare change.” In Spain old gypsy women walk around smiling at tourists and offering them bunches of rosemary, thyme, wildflowers, etc. If you unwittingly accept what they’re offering, thinking it’s a gift, you’re in for quite a battle. They name a price and when you try to hand it back to them they refuse. A whole song and dance ensues which usually ends with a defeated tourist handing over a few coins or an angry tourist throwing the herbs on the ground and looking around for help from the police. Lola gave me some of her mint which was fortunate because I was starting to feel a bit woozy.

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Chaouwara tanneries

The foul odors at the tanneries are caused by a mixture of pigeon poo and cow urine – both important components in the processing of skins – as well as some nasty chemicals which cause lots of health problems for the workers who are up to their knees and elbows in the limestone dye pits all day long.

Back out in the street, where I was delighted to be breathing in the relatively fresh smell of cat piss and donkey shit again, there was a loud crash. A big-bellied, white-bearded tourist took a bad step and fell backwards. His camera, which looked like it was worth more than our car, smacked against the street. A dozen shop owners ran over to help him up. The street went completely silent, a rare occurrence in Fez. They dusted him off and inspected his camera. I think he was more shocked by all the strange hands slapping at him and brushing him off than he was by the actual fall.

We worked our way over to Talaa Seghira, one of the main streets running through the heart of the medina, and followed it west to the main gate of the old city, Bab Bou Jeloud. The ladies, having passed up all that msemen and all those fried eggs at breakfast, were getting hungry. Mar ducked into a restaurant to check out the menu.

A moment later she returned. “There’s a rooster strutting around under the tables.” That was all we needed to know. Table for five, please…

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Bab Bou Jeloud

After lunch we followed the other main street, Talaa Kebira, back through the medina, stopping to duck into the patio of the 14th-century Medersa (or madrassa) Bou Inania with its impressive green-tiled minaret. We could hear children chanting passages from the Koran inside. It was such a peaceful, shady spot that we lingered there for ages.

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Medersa Bou Inania

In the street once again, we attempted to find a 14th-century water clock that was supposed to be visible directly opposite the entrance to the madrassa. The clock, designed by clockmaker / magician Abou al-Hassan Ibn Ali Ahmed Tlemsani, consists of brass bowls that mark the time with the help of weights, metal balls, ropes and a water tank. When he died the secret of how the device works apparently died with him.

We asked a few people on the street if they knew where the clock was located. The first two people we asked, who owned shops right next to the madrassa, didn’t have the faintest idea what we were talking about. Then a guy chatting with another shop owner eagerly said he would take us to the clock.

Toño said, “Amigo, I don’t want to end up at your uncle’s carpet shop along the way.”

The shop owner laughed hysterically. “You know all the tricks!”

His friend wasn’t impressed with Toño’s remark and simply pointed up the street, “Café Clock is up that way.”

Unfortunately, this wasn’t what we were looking for, although it was surprising to find a hip coffeehouse that would be right at home in any U.S. city right in the middle of a medieval marketplace.

Lola said, “Maybe they took it away for cleaning or restoration.” We later found out this was indeed the case. The bowls and the clock mechanism have been removed for reconstruction. Looking through our photos later, we realized we had taken one of the facade where the clock should have been.

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where the 14th century water clock should have been

At Souq an-Nejjarine, or the Carpenters’ Souq, I had what the guide books describe as a moment of “medina rage” in the middle of the covered market. We were admiring the intricately carved thrones used in wedding ceremonies when two little street urchins started harrassing Mar. The older of the two would whisper something in the smaller fella’s ear, then he’d step in front of Mar and repeat what he was told to say.

“Money!”

“Stupid!”

Mar was doing a good job of ignoring them. Then I heard the little fella shout what sounded like, “Whore!”

I lost my cool. “¡Tú! ¡Fuera! ¡Estoy hasta los cojones! ¡Coño!” Either the little guy was a brilliant actor or I really scared the hell out of him.

Lola said, “They’re just kids.” I felt like a complete jerk for the rest of the day.

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sweets for sale in the medina

Back at the riad Jules put the kettle on once again while the owner drew us an incomprehensible map to his favorite restaurant. Toño left at some point in the afternoon to get something out of the car. He ran into Yusep hanging out with some friends.

He decided to break his balls a little bit. “Chico, I thought you said you didn’t have time to study… and here I find you hanging around doing nothing with your pals.”

Yusep smiled timidly. “I’m working.”

“Working?!”

“Yes. We are waiting for some tourists who want to buy hashish.”

“Well, in that case…”

After sundown we returned to Bab Sid L’aouad once again as it seemed like the best place to start off for the restaurant. We were strolling through the square watching an acrobat do some amazing contortionist stuff when two very tall, very white, very blonde, twenty-something tourists came running out of the gate which leads into the medina – right where we were headed. They were surrounded by dozens of street urchins. As they ran past us I saw the guy was holding a towel or a jacket to his head. His face was covered in blood. As they ran past I saw the back of his shirt – it was soaked through with blood. We tried to remain calm.

“He probably just tripped and fell.”

“Yeah, I’m sure it was nothing.”

The street urchins led the couple to a police station across the square. More and more kids came pouring out of the medina as word spread of the mysterious incident.

Rosa said, “Did you see the look of fear on that poor girl’s face? I’m going to have nightmares.”

The crowd around the police station kept growing and growing. We decided it was best to go search for our restaurant. We crossed the footbridge and entered Brass-worker’s Square again. On the footbridge there was a large blood stain in the street which somebody had dropped a sheet of newspaper over. We were the only people in the square. Dead silence. There’s no such thing as an empty square, or dead silence, in Fez. It was eerie.

“What the hell’s going on?”

“This is really creepy.”

We were standing there trying to decipher the incomprehensible map when the hordes of street urchins started returning, accompanied by dozens of secret police. Of course, they weren’t very secret as they all had walkie talkies and were all dressed in black. The street urchins, the eyes and ears of the streets, were all talking at once and pointing the police down a couple of dark alleyways. The police spread out in all directions. We were getting a lot of strange looks from everybody.

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the medina at night

Rosa called over one of the little street urchins.

“What’s happening?”

Enter Omar.

“A tourist was attacked with a knife!” He ran his finger across his neck and stuck his tongue out, just in case we hadn’t understood. “Ffffft!”

Omar’s friends were gathering around us, excited to find somebody who hadn’t heard about the incident yet.

“He was Italian!”

“A man tried to steal his passport.”

“He said No!

“His throat was cut.”

“The thief was Argentinian.”

“No, he was Algerian!”

“Ffffft!”

One of the secret police yelled in our direction. The little kids scattered. A moment later Omar returned. “They don’t want us to tell you what happened. It’s bad for tourism.”

He looked around to make sure the coast was clear and ran his finger across his neck again. “Ffffft!”

He asked us where we were staying.

“Rihad Mikoh.”

“No!”

¡Sí!

“My mother works there!”

“Fatimah?”

“Yes!”

We asked him if he knew how to get to the restaurant. He stuck out his little chest. “Follow me. I will guide you.”

So off we went with Omar (and a dozen of his little buddies) as our personal guide, bodyguard and translator through the crazy, terrifying maze of alleyways once again.

When we arrived at the restaurant Omar came inside and sat down on the big cushions with us. When the owner spotted Omar he said something under his breath and Omar looked down at the floor ashamed.

The owner went off to deal with another table and Omar whispered, “He has two menus: one for the locals and one for the tourists. The menu for the tourists is more expensive.”

The owner came back and said some things in Arabic to Omar. Omar directed his eyes to the floor again.

“What’s the problem?” Toño asked.

“I don’t like these boys from the street asking tourists for money to bring them to my restaurant. It creates a bad image.”

“We never would have found your restaurant if it wasn’t for Omar.”

“I suppose. But please, take a seat. I will explain the menu.”

As the food was being prepared we told Omar he had to leave in a few minutes.

“No problem. But first, let’s take photos!” He was a real ham in front of the camera.

“This time with just the girls!”

“How do you write Omar in Arabic?” This was Toño’s way of making sure he could read and write. If he couldn’t, he was going to get a lecture. He wrote all of our names in Arabic (at least that’s what he claimed he was writing, how the hell would we know?) and then he posed for more photos.

He picked up Mar’s phone. “It’s locked. You won’t be able to…” Omar slid his finger across the screen like he was making the mark of Zorro. He had unlocked her phone.

“How did you do that?”

“I watched you do it in the street.” Clever little fecker. Seven years old. Speaking French, Spanish, Arabic and god knows what else… He abruptly jumped up, having scored enough spare change to keep him in chocolate and sweets for at least a month, demanded hugs from all the girls (cheeky) and slipped out the door.

When the owner arrived with the food he asked, “Where’s Omar?”

“He just left.” Despite his dislike for the street urchins he still had a bit of a soft spot. He had brought a big bowl of harira for Omar.

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Omar and Toño

After dinner the owner told us about all the changes he wanted to make to the restaurant. “We want to renovate the kitchen, inshallah, God willing… and we need to finish the rooftop terrace, inshallah, if Allah wills it…” Then somehow this turned into an extremely uncomfortable ten minute racist tirade against Algerians. The owner’s brother finally brought the check and then he led us back to the riad. As we got closer to our neighborhood, we passed a few teenage boys smoking hashish in a doorway. One of them looked up and said, “¡Los españoles del Mikoh! ¡Hola!” And it started to dawn on me that all the guys hanging around at night in the narrow, blind alleyways were the eyes and ears of the medina making sure everything was under control.

Back at the riad, you guessed it, Jules made us a big pot of mint tea. We told the owner about the stabbing incident. He seemed certain the police would catch the guy. “If I go to the police and tell them my wallet or my phone was stolen, they won’t do much about it. If a tourist has something stolen, in a couple of hours it will turn up. If it doesn’t, the police will make life hell for the touts and the street urchins until somebody turns it in.”

April 2: Fez – Volubilis – Assilah

At breakfast we excitedly told Fatimah we had met her son.

“Last night! Your son! Omar!”

She looked confused.

“Seven years old! This tall!”

Fatimah assured us she doesn’t have a son named Omar.

Clever little fecker.

to be continued…

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