Sometimes you land in a place that takes you back to another place and another time. It could be something from your childhood. Perhaps a place you have left behind in the past. A place that has changed, but you find it existing in the present, thousands of miles away in another continent, not in its entirety, but perhaps the ordinary features we remember.
As we exited through Fez airport in Morocco after travelling for fourteen hours by air, it felt as though I had travelled back fourteen years instead, to Chittagong, the beloved port city in Bangladesh. It is a sense hard to justify. In so many ways are the cities vastly different, and yet, in so many little ways, are they similar.
Perhaps, it was in the unobstructed view from the open parking lot sliding down the main airport platform. Or maybe it was in the roundabouts painted in red and white, in the two storied buildings waiting to be painted, in the undeveloped, grassy or sandy plots between the unpainted buildings in the outskirts of the city, in the unpaved sandy footpaths beside the paved roads, or in the bright billboards that hang above the shops on the ground floor of a residential building.
It is a sense that is rarely evoked. Of the many countries that I have visited over the years, few have brought out this much unjustified nostalgia. But when my partner said, “Kayenat, we have landed in Chatga (Chittagong)”, my nostalgia was seconded. If Fez were to choose a twin city in Bangladesh, it would have to be Chittagong.
With that first impression, on the first afternoon of 2018, we began our 32 hours in Fez. The third largest city in Morocco was the first stop in our 10-day travel, where we planned to hit seven Moroccan towns. From Fez, we would go north to Chefchaouen, then down south to the Sahara desert to spend a starlit night. From the desert, it would be a 10-hour drive to the famed Marrakesh, east of Morocco, making an overnight stop at the gorges of Boumalne Dades on the way.
Fez is the still the spiritual capital and the once capital of medieval Morocco. Thus its medina is one of the oldest preserved cities in the Maghreb region (Northwest Africa, also known as the Berber world). Among the cities in Morocco that attract thousands of tourists, Fez is known to be authentic and intimate and it does not take long to feel that.
Hicham was sent by our hotel to pick us up. I told him he shares the same name as the Libyan author of the most recent book I had read, to which he replied that it is a common name there, meaning generous. We went by the road that connects the outskirts of the city to the Ville Nouvelle (new city) and medina (old city).
Life seemed slow during the holiday. Palm and orange trees lined the road-- I had never seen orange trees bearing so much fruit on the roadside. I wondered if citizens plucked them. As we passed through the Nouvelle Ville, we saw many men sipping mint tea or perhaps spiced coffee, both of which are Moroccan specialties. Everyone sat in the café faced the road, watching the day pass by. Whether it is a French influence or the other way around, but the similarities are unmistakable. I came to know later on that what seemingly looked like leisurely idling with friends was more than that. Business is done here throughout the day.
The scenario changed quickly from the scattered low buildings in the outskirts with frequent police checkpoints, to the roundabouts in the Nouvelle Ville, where passersby and cars all wanted to cross the road at the same time, to the first glimpses of the medina up on the hill. Coming close to the medina, named Fes al Bali, my anticipation of the famous twists and turns of the narrow, winding alleys, where it is quite common to get lost, rose high. A representative from our hotel, Zekariyah, met us at the point beyond which vehicles cannot go. It was not a long, overly confusing walk to the hotel, or so it seemed while following Zekariyah.
Our abode in Fez was La Casa Espanola, a “riad” or traditional Moroccan house with an interior courtyard. It didn't give me a good first impression as it was cold. It was not as cold as the northern USA where I came from, but sunshine and warmth were what I was expecting. I was obsessed with the realisation that I had not packed well enough. So, as soon as we checked in, we headed out for a 10 minute walk to Bab Boujeloud (Blue gate), or BouJneoud, an ornate purple Moorish style gate built by the French administration in 1912 to mark a grand entrance into the city. The original medieval gate still exists near it.
We plainly stood out as tourists, and soon enough, a young man, posing as a student, appeared out of nowhere to help us out. Most often than not, they are simply hustlers trying to get you to their commissioned shops or restaurants. I must say that the first night was the first and last time we got lost getting in and out of the hotel. Sooner or later, you get accustomed to the twists and turns, avoiding the eyes of the touts, and use your visual senses much better. It just takes a lot of wrong turns, and striking up conversations while asking for directions.
Fes el Bali is enclosed within 8 kilometres of fort wall. Within the fortress lies the maze of 9,400 winding, narrow alleys. So narrow are the alleys and so densely populated is the maze that it is known to be the largest car-free urban zone, walked only by humans or donkeys. It seemed like a location straight out of Agrabad of Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves story. There were two distinct roads- Tala Kebira (big road) and Tala Saghira (small road).
Starting from Bab Boujeloud, the Tala Kebira on the left hand side goes downhill, giving direct access to the souk (market) and exists at the other end of the medina. On the other hand starts Tala Saghira, near the beginning of of which was a line of tightly knit small outdoor restaurants. They are so close to each other that it is hard to distinguish until you notice the different colours of the tablecloths for each. As everyone is busy with their duties, don't expect formalities, and you will share your table with other travellers, leading to interesting conversation. And this is where we had tagines (meat and vegetables slow cooked in a conical clay cookware) and couscous of the same quality as some indoor restaurants for half the price at Café Rachid. With that, some warm mint tea in the cold weather, a few conversations with travelling couples, a few pictures at Bab Bajeloud and getting lost on our way back; we could call our first evening in Fes quite entertaining.
The following morning, after a breakfast of bread, jam, eggs, and more mint tea, our first task was to get bus tickets to Chefchaouen, a town north of Fes. By then, our friend flew in from Marrakesh and joined us. The two main bus lines that tourists take are CTM and Suprator. A failed attempt to get CTM bus tickets from their counter at Nouvelle Ville pushed us to try other options at the bus stand near the medina. It was a 10-minute walk from Bab Boujeloud through the original medieval gate out into the outer section of the fort wall. On a bright sunny day, with petit red taxis running along the road, the world outside the fort wall seemed like another world. These taxis are shared taxis which run only within city limits and are hailed from the roadside. Each city has a distinct colour of its petit taxis and it is different from that of grand taxis (also shared taxis but bigger and can run inter-city). A petit taxi, despite having four seats for passengers, is only allowed to take three. The drivers will pick you up only if it is on the same direction of the existing passenger. Think Uber Pool or Lyft Line, but much cheaper.
After getting our tickets to Chefchaouen for the next day from Abdou Voyage bus line, we hailed a taxi to Borj Sud (South Tower), which itself was quite the hurdle what with my broken French and the driver's Arabic, a middleman and a translation app. Morocco was a French colony. The official language is Arabic, but most educated people know French, and English is spoken infrequently, but enough for tourists to get by. The main reason to get to Borj Sud on the southern hills of Fes was to enjoy the panoramic view of the city. The tower, along with its northern counterpart (Borj Nord), was built to monitor and protect the city. What now stands on Borj Sud are parts of the tower structure. On one side is the view of Fes el Bali. On the other side, against the backdrop of rising hills and clear, blue sky, is a meadow of grazing sheep as it overlooks the Muslim cemetery downhill. You can easily pass half a day here lying on the grass with a book.
Having seen the medina from the top, we went back to Bab Boujloud to explore the inside. The medina is home to residences, souks (shops), madrasas, mosques, and tanneries. While the souks in Marrakech are organised in sections by products sold, in Fes, it seemed much less organised, or so it seemed, given its maze like structure. You may compare the souks in Fes to our new market, albeit on narrower streets. Djellabas (long attires made of camel wool), leather shoes, metal lanterns, painted ceramic plates and carpets hang on the walls and from the ceilings. The shops are small and filled to the brim. You can easily get distracted on your way to the next madrasa. Don't be afraid to bargain.
Talking about madrasas, the first major one you find just two minutes into the medina from Bab Boujloud is BouInania madrasa on Tala Saghira. You are greeted by a huge arabesque door. Inside the madrasa, the walls were adorned with detailed woodwork, calligraphy, and colourful tiles.
Another ten minutes further down on Tala Kebira is the world's continuously running university, the University of Al-Karaouine. It was founded by a woman named Fatima-al-Fihri who had come to Fes from a city name Kairouan in Tunisia. It was not until 1947 that the madrasa was integrated with the state education system and became a university. The outer part of the madrasa leads to the largest mosque in Africa. The courtyard, where men do their ablutions for prayers, is simple and peaceful in green roof tiles and white arches. Resting in the women's section, I almost fell asleep in the tranquillity of the afternoon.
Al-Karaouine, as I understood it, opens during prayer times. If you do not arrive at the proper time and have to wait, don't worry as the neighbouring small restaurant Fassi Medina Delci serves delicious skewers. Each skewer plate came with five types of side dishes!
A typical check mark on the tourist itinerary in Fez is visiting Chouara, an 11th century leather tannery, which is the largest of the three tanneries inside the medina. Best seen in the morning, the tanneries have to be viewed from the balconies of one of the leather shops that circle it. You will be greeted by a strong smell of raw leather being tanned in hues. And to subdue it, you will be presented with a mint leaf to smell. The workers bear the heat to dye the hides of cow, sheep, goat and camel to perfection in stone vessels. The finished sun-dried leather is sold to craftsmen who, among many other leather products, make the famous Moroccan slippers called Babouches.
Old Fez really takes you back in time. It is intense; and yet manageable compared to the sprawling grandeur of Marrakesh. The food is definitely the best we had during our travels through the north to southeast Morocco. There are many other points of interest in Fez that you may want to explore i.e. Al-Attarine Madrasa (near Al-Karaouine), Nejjarine Museum of Wooden Arts and Crafts, Dar Batha (a former palace turned museum), Ibn Danad Synagogue (simple Orthodox Jewish synagogue), Andalusian mosque, and the Royal Palace to name a few. In hindsight, I wish we had stayed longer in Fez. I wish we had a chance to explore the city beyond the fortified walls. I wish we had an evening of listening to Arabian story-telling with the city as the backdrop.
Photo courtesy: Kayenat Kabir
This is the first of a 5-part series of a journey through seven towns in Morocco.