16 September 2006
I woke today and had the 21st century step on my foot – the internet connection that had been working so well, just whizzing along since our arrival – just buggered off. I rebooted the main computer, adjusted, readjusted, and fiddled with everything I could think of in French and English! No joy. I decided the only thing for it was to leave for the 15th century.
I recruited Q to join me in my jaunt to the Medina in the heart of Fez, “the oldest and largest” repeated ad naseum in all the guide books, and we took with us sweet Alif. She is a darling child of Kashmiri parents, who now live in New York – there’s a picture, but the weather is right. Her father is an Internist and her family, except for her and according to her, are devout Muslims. She explained to us, her tiny elf like face intent in her sincerity that in Islam there were three levels of prayer. You prayed because you were afraid and did not wish to go to Hell, you prayed because you want to go to Heaven, and the third and highest level is that you pray just from the love of God. With her face glowing in pride, tinged with what can only be called awe, she said her mother was at the third level.
I later admitted to Q I had some hope that someday she could describe me in such glowing terms as to my spiritual progress. “I say other stuff about you.” she said with her usual literal irony.
As we made our way out of the Villa and rounded the corner three blocks away to flag a Petite Taxi we spotted the fattest cat with the biggest balls in all of Fez. You have to understand, all of Fez is overrun with cats, they are everywhere – like the monkeys in India, but much less aggressive I must say. The Prophet liked cats, so…they are on the streets, in the restaurants, haunting the garbage cans on the corners of apartment complexes. They stake out territory like their much larger relatives to the south. The Villa has two cats, a mother and her large and tetchy son. They are well fed and it shows; and the mother cat guards her territory with all the attentiveness of a mother lioness. This is prime territory and she knows it. You see the ones on the streets, and in the fish market some doing fairly well, not so well, and some with their ribs sticking out, and the ones at the Central Market in better, but not prime shape. But never have I seen a cat in all of Fez like this chap. There he sat, licking his chops – literally, in the doorway of the live chicken shop. Now, our question was this, did this big orange tom get so sleek eating the eggs that dropped through the cages or was he there to pick off the weakest of the herd? It was a phenomenon, and a portent of the day to come.
We flagged our tiny red taxi from the flock swinging to the east, and as I settled myself in the back seat my eyes met the laughing black eyes of the driver in the rear view mirror, as he said, “Ah, cowboy!”
Oh man, first Scotland and football, now this yokel (cute as he was, and he was) mistakes my very proper, battered, beaten, and broken in, climbing hat for a bloody Stetson! It was a good laugh for everyone as he continued on, nodding and saying, “Oh yes, “Dallas.””
Inwardly I moaned.
We arrived at the great Blue Arch on the Medina. The gateway into what one must wax eloquent about as to mystery, and winding stone streets enclosed with walls that soar five and seven stories above you. At times the walkways close in so closely that you must walk single file. No street in the Fez Medina is wide enough to permit an automobile of even the most compact size, a few Vespas have made their way in, but the main mode of heavy transport is still by donkey, the occasional mule, and the muscled back bent to weight.
Passing under the arch, we see the shops at the entrance of the Blue Arch are larger with hawkers out front to bring you in through the narrow dark twisting hallways – that open suddenly onto a sparkling vastness that soars some six to ten meters overhead with arches leading like catacombs onto some endless underground construction of rooms never-ending.
In the front room of the shop there were boxes of every size and level of decoration, made from camel bone and cedar wood, shelves floor to ceiling some seven meters above filled with brass and silver trays and tea services. Sitting behind the counter with a cocksure youngster looking on in his Nike jacket, in counter weight to the agelessness of his craft, was the artisan of all this beauty. We watched as he patiently etched the design into a tray of brass, silver and tin with a tiny awl and hammer. We watched as the design came alive under his hands, and he smiled as Q spoke to him of his work in Arabic. I told him how much I admired his work, and his patience.
The slick salesman into whose hands we had been delivered by the hawker from the street was a pro. I love a man who loves his work. “You look around, for you, everything you see is 50% off!” Uh huh, you betcha’.
His amazement and joy at Q’s proficiency not only in French, but in Arabic as well was surpassed only by his love of the sound of his own voice. We spent time looking at his quite extensive collection of Berber knives and short swords. After some time in the shop, Q told me later he said to her, “You must teach your mother Arabic. She must learn to speak Arabic as well as you.” Like there are not thousands of bloody English speaking tourists that pass through the Medina every day! But Q says he said I am special, alrighty then.
Going ‘downhill’ deeper into the Medina, it seems we pass further back in time. The passages become more and more narrow. We had made our way off the main passageway and out of the normal stream of tourist, as was our intent.
As we passed hamut after hamut full of all the items you would expect, such as djellabas, hookah pipes (not really indigenous, but hey it is for the tourist), rugs, blankets, and pottery. We also see shop after shop displaying in shocking colors and prominence, lingerie that looks fresh from the shelves of Fredrick’s of Hollywood! There are shelves of the pointy toed shoes in row after row, in every color imaginable – plain and with bangles.
Passing into another byway we passed a dull wooden door set into the stone slightly ajar. From within we heard the sound of the sing-song of small children reciting numbers in French. As we leaned in toward the sound that was physically pulling us in, the door opened to reveal sitting on three benches nine beautiful little children. The teacher invited us in to watch the children recite their numbers in Arabic. The teacher told us these were orphans. That was it for me, I forked over the biggest bill I had in my wallet and left before I made a fool of myself by crying, or trying to take them all home with me.
As we continued on we came to one of the many forks that open into a souk. This one was pottery – everywhere! Slipped in between the bowls and platters was a perfume and oils shop, with henna and all the accoutrements. The owner was a charmer; all he needed was a snake. When sweet Azif offered him a 100 dirham bill and waited for change he said, “I will take it and you come back later for the change.” Completely deadpan. Azif feel for it completely. The look on her face was priceless. We loaded up with White Musk Oil, and Azif got her henna.
I wandered down to the next shop to look at the pottery while the girls were paying for their purchases. The introductions at the shop were moving along, and then, “You are Scottish? I saw the football! Scotland and the football, very nice.”
What? What is this? Again with Scotland and the football! “Q, get over here and find out what is the deal with Scotland, football, and Morocco.”
After a conversation in a mixture of Arabic and French, she found out that – apparently long ago Scotland managed to field a team that made it to the World Cup and defeated the team from Morocco. Morocco has not forgotten.
Around and up another lane and up the stairs to shoes. Shop after shop of shoes. As the girls were filling up their eyes with the possibilities, I turned a corner and looked into a shop two stories tall filled with – thread. Every color, in every shade I could imagine, the shops were a story tall, and nothing but shelves of the tread; and then I continued down the street to shop after shop with more colors of more thread than I have ever imagined in existence. It was like wandering around on an artist palette.
Passing down and around we came up behind a young girl of eight or nine pulling a Barbie backpack up the cobbled street; it was surreal. Looking up into the shop windows we saw djellablas of every color in the most beautiful material, with embroidery and sequins. These were the wedding djellablas and kaftans for parties and special events.
We stopped at a hamut with a kaftan of extraordinary blue-green material and fancy embroidery on the border of the bell shaped sleeves and around the hem. Watching the little Moroccan and Q haggle was the one of the great joys of the day. It is hard to say which of them was having the most fun. Q got him down to 60% of the price as he was leaning over the counter, holding her hand, pleading “You are so beautiful. You are robbing the tears from my eyes.” He said as he kissed both her cheeks.
Q’s eyes were shining as I handed him the money.
And the mules, the donkeys. The ever present danger in the small enclosed streets of getting ‘muled’.
There was a noticeable slowdown in traffic around noon, by one the bustling streets were almost deserted except for the stray tourist and the restaurant traffic. At three the maelstrom began again.
We passed through souk of leather where there were stakes of drying and tanning hides. Turning a corner I saw what was barely an indentation in the wall with an old man squatting in the cubby hole inspecting the hides. He attention on the hides was absoulute.
We started heading ‘up’ which is always the way ‘out’ of the Medina and came to the stand of succulent dates, so large and luscious the syrup oozed out of them when you ate one. We bought four liters of dates; two for us, two for Azif. At the date stand there was the man with friendly hands, who pestered us up the street until I used the ‘imperial No’ – works every time. The girls were amazed. “How did you do that?”
“Age and experience ladies, age and experience.”
As we passed on through the food souk, we were offered figs, dates, nuts, and apricots on a beautiful silver tray by a hawker making the rounds. We then passed several *hamuts* filled with yellow, brown, pink, and green soft looking candies. “Come, you try this.” said the wiry looking chap in a brown djellaba .
“Oh Mom you have to try this. It is great.” Q encouraged.
“Alright, but I am getting quite full.” I said walking over to the stand and taking a piece of the candy from his tray. Oh baby! Oh my, oh so yummy; like clouds of caramely soft sugar melting in your mouth when you chew it; and the brown pieces have walnuts and almonds ground to fine consistency. Yea, right fine; so I bought a container! Oh my teeth. Oh my waistline!
We walked through the tailor’s souk. Men were sitting in the closet like shops with yards of material laid out over their laps as they stitched long French seams. WE passed shop after shop. They are about three feet by ten by twenty.
As we started to fade with fatigue and hunger, the streets were becoming more deserted, darker, and with less people; the hawker appeared from the darkened street in front of us and motioned into the **street behind him. I looked at the girls with raised brow. “Well I am hungry. Let’s try it.” Q said.
Azif and I were less certain but willing to take comfort in our number. Unknown to Azif and I, Q had looked – up – and seen the sign for the restaurant, recognizing the name from Lonely Planet.
Having no such assurance myself, I was making my emergency plan as the street became darker and more twisted following the hawker.
“Alright” I was thinking to myself, “if the burlap bags come out and go over our heads I will kick out to the front knocking Azif to the ground and out of the grasp of whomever. I will then give my “bagger” a good elbow to the face and turn to shove Q back so she can run.”
This entire intricate plan is running through my head, thinking of backups and refinements; when the passageway ends and we are standing in the sunlit huge open space of a palatial Medina house turned restaurant. There are blonde, white, well dressed, obvious non-natives in the corner ‘table’ – Table being every romantic idea you ever had of a Moroccan restaurant in the Kasbah coming true. Huge cushions of deep purple and gold, cedar tables with red carpets lay out on the marble floor. There were huge silver urns at the corners of each eating space, and the iron grills that allowed a glimpse into the private dining rooms in each of the corners.
As Azif and I sighed simultaneous breaths of relief, we began to laugh; and Q looked at us like we had gone bonkers. We then told her our theory of the white-slavery-sold-to-the-Berbers.
“Oh I recognized the name right away.” She said.
“Now you are telling us?” I ask as I fell back into the luxurious cushions.
To the Kasbah – so much wonderful food. We were stuffed. The fountain, blue tiles, cushions, silver urns, private rooms all invited us to languish for hours.
A young boy – so beautiful – guided us to the Blue Arch, to the taxi . Yes, yes I knew perfectly well how to get there. Q gave me one of her, “mom!” looks.
“So, I paid him because he was pretty. So what!? He showed us his school…”
I am in love with all the young boys of Fes, with their laughing eyes and smiles of sunlight and amber.
WE passed a singular hamut, as it was not in the leather or tailor souk per se, but on one of the endless corners across from a fountain. The man inside caught my eye as he was stitching with the most enormous needle; it was the size of a teaspoon without the spoon part. He was putting an intricate design on a belt. The lining of the belt was in place, I could see that. He was making the stitches through the leather, but under the lining – with the huge needle. I stood and watched in fascination for a few minutes, but time and the need to get home pulled me away.
It was a day of joyful decadence. There is no other way to describe it. We returned to the Villa, and I am smugly satisfied to report the two girls hit the sack for long naps while I stayed up and did three hours work at my computer. Ah the young – no stamina.