If there’s any rule that can be applied to this city, it’s the idea of never moving forward if there’s a way around it.
Despite all warnings, we ventured alone into the Medina of Fez. We’re convinced that we won’t get lost, that we won’t be intimidated by a simple 9th-century labyrinth of nearly ten thousand roads, backstreets, lanes, squares and alleyways, some of which haven’t seen the sun for centuries. We set off from R’cif Square which, as one of the many entrances to the Medina, actually lies right in the middle of the medieval city of Fez. A guide could have told us that (as we were to discover later) the Al-Attarine madrasa, our first destination, is situated close by.
In front of us, a small square leads onto a wide road, but we take the more difficult option. We turn off to the left, then right, right again, then left. Veiled women laden with shopping bags pass us by, kids playing football, Berbers sporting djellabas, with the hoods hanging over their eyes. Donkeys waddle along the roads, their cargo rocking from side to side on their haunches, forcing passersby to pin themselves against the walls for their own safety. They carry silks, rugs, bread, vegetables, tanned skins, multi-coloured bundles, spices that leave the sweet smell of a tajine in the air. In the world’s biggest pedestrianised area, donkeys and mules are the only way of getting goods to each of the shops in the Medina.
A good 30 minutes pass before we admit that we are hopelessly lost. The roads are becoming narrower and narrower, until one of them comes to an abrupt end. We turn back. Shortly afterwards we see an arrow indicating our destination and we think, naively, that we’ll soon be back on the right track. We retrace our steps. Surely, we just need to turn right twice and we’ll be there. Was it to the right? Wasn’t it over there? Where’s that tiled door? It’s no use. The roads are all different, but they seem to change places as we pass through them. It’s as if the city wants to swallow us up, a labyrinth conspiring against the arrogance of brushing aside the guide.
Admitting defeat, we stop to ask for directions. At the door to a rug shop, a man holds mint tea. We know that the request incurs a cost: hours of conversation, first insisting that we don’t want to buy a rug, then haggling the best price to the point of exhaustion. Buying a rug in Morocco (whether in Fez, Marrakesh or in the foothills of the Atlas Mountains) is an experience. Our eyes and feet are introduced to rug after rug, of all different colours and sizes. So many colours. Fez is, after all, a feast for the eyes. From bright pepper red to golden cinnamon brown, from saffron yellow to mint green, from the honey colour of dates to the blue, green and gold of the thousands of stones that decorate the doors of the mosques, from the intense green of the ceilings of the Al-Attarine and the Al-Qarawiyyin University (said to be the oldest in the world still operating) set against the sharp blue winter sky.
The mosque and the university are off limits to foreigners. We peer through the mosque door onto an immense space, covered in mats, the doorway open between prayers. We’d visited the Al-Attarine madrasa; an old religious school built in the 14th century, it’s a solemn example of the magic of Moroccan craftsmen. A magnificent mixture of tiles, marble and cedar cut into flowers, stars and swirls, in a minute detail that seems to convey something of the divine. In the small cells on the first floor, the silence still carries the echoes of the students of the Quran.
The medieval city has few sights to see, and most of them can only be seen from the outside. But none of this deters us because, free from the obligation of running around ticking things off an imaginary list, we do what people have been doing in Fez for thousands of years: we walk around its hills and immerse ourselves in the city.
We make our way down a road, with beams supporting the walls, because someone has told us we’ll find good mint tea here. The road is little more than a tunnel, but there’s light ahead. We continue. T leads the way and goes down the first steps of some stairs next to an open door. He is confronted by a woman, kaftan and white scarf. The French of both parties is enough to understand that we’ve taken a wrong turn and are about to walk into a family home. We repeatedly apologise, she laughs and we retreat. We should already know that the narrowest roads always lead to dead ends
We eventually come across the café belonging to Abdellah (aged 62 and wearing a cap). The space is minimal, about six square metres, and seats no more than four people. But the tea is the best that we’ve had in Fez. Abdellah has been here since he was eight years old, boiling water on a hob in small kettles and then pouring it into cups rich in herbs: mint, verbena, sage, wormwood and, on top of all this, sugar. So much sugar. It warms the hands, the body and the soul. Abdellah’s café is a stone’s throw away from the Al-Qarawiyyin, on a road where craftsmen work brass until it is transformed into a plate, a tray or a candlestick. It’s easy to imagine that everything here happens in the same way as it did a thousand years ago.
Fez has always been a land of craftsmen. There are men working goat or sheep skins, others carving wood or clay. Parts of the Medina are divided according to ancient practices. The tanneries stand out particularly, thanks to the penetrating smell that rises up from the water tanks where the skins are treated in the open air. Even from the distance of a first floor, you need a sprig of mint under your nose to survive. We imagine that the souks, which to this day house craftsmen or traders according to their business, be it fruit, vegetables, skins or poultry, have always been this way. Full of colours, smells and people.
If there’s a rule that can be applied to Fez, it seems to be the idea of never moving forwards it there’s a way around it. Getting lost is part of the process.
text and photos Hermínia Saraiva /// video by Tiago Figueiredo
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