A tapestry of colors, sounds and scents greets the visitor to the meandering alleys of this ancient city’s medina, where the breadth of time and tradition offers the explorer a heady experience.
1 of 11
Lahsen pours mint tea, the preferred drink of Moroccans.
2 of 11
View of Fez from atop Riad Zany.
3 of 11
Colorful zellij (tiles) encrust the courtyards of Fez's riads.
4 of 11
Long hooded robes called djellabas are the traditional clothing for Moroccan men.
5 of 11
Local artisan hand-weaving a textile.
6 of 11
Surprises found behind one of the Medina’s many doors.
7 of 11
Each open door reveals a new character in the fable of Fez.
8 of 11
Souad of Café Clock leading a cooking class.
9 of 11
Dates in one of Fez’s overflowing souks.
10 of 11
Donkeys transport goods through the Medina’s narrow streets.
11 of 11
The Bab Bou Jaloud (Blue Gate), built by the French in 1913.
Built in the 9th century, the Medina, the old city, of Fez, Morocco, looks dehydrated when I see it from outside its medieval walls—inert and sun roasted to a golden hue the color of sand. But once inside the bulwark, a Pantone palette of colors, sounds, smells and sights courses through the ancient city, stitched together by the nearly 400,000 people who live there. Their histories are imbedded in the 1,300-year-old stones, but their stories are told and reinvented in real time.
The tinny, indecipherable call of the muezzin inviting Muslims to prayer rings from the mosques and minarets that rise over the Medina. Filigreed lanterns flicker their stardust light on glossy blue, white and green zellij (tiles) of the riad—a traditional Moroccan house built around a central courtyard, often converted into hotels—where I’m staying, and a smiling man named Lahsen, dressed in a long red robe and slippers, pours me mint tea from a silver pot. Meanwhile, I lean against the purple embroidered cushions and pull at the enigmatic threads of Fez.
Getting lost in the serpentine streets of the Medina, all 540 acres of which were declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1981, is a daily objective for me. No outing is ever the same, each a turn of the page of an enchanted atlas that twirls me into sensory orbit around a fable of a city that thrums even in its most static state.
I’m armed with a good sense of direction and a city map that looks like someone dropped spaghetti noodles on a piece of paper, representative of the 9,000 streets, alleys and dead-end lanes that twist and pucker through portals, and dive deep into souks (markets) where only the filtered fingers of sunlight through latticed ceilings remind you there’s sky above. I am disoriented within minutes. I look for non-existent signposts or any possible breadcrumb to guide me. Wooden scaffolding crisscrosses many of the passageways, buttressing precariously slumping edifices, and in one alley I stretch my arms across and place my palms flat against the opposing cool walls that reach six stories high.
Though I’ve come in March, the sun is already hot, and the city’s sheltered seams provide relief.
From somewhere I hear rock music, its source literally a hole in the wall, as if a cartoon superhero punched his giant fist through the stones. Inside, a boombox blares next to a 30-something-year-old man working an archaic loom that clacks and slides over colorful fibers.
There are over 10,000 shops in the Medina, most simple stalls too small to walk into, selling anything from jewelry, musical instruments and soccer jerseys to spices and argan oil to pointy hand-sequined babouche slippers in candy colors. In one, I pull on a white djellaba, the typically long-sleeved hooded robe worn by Fassis, the men and women of Fez, and I buy it, succumbing to the flattery of the shop owner who says I resemble the King’s wife, Lalla Salma, who, he says, also has “long, beautiful red hair.”
Bargaining is expected in the Medina, but I’m not good at it and pay too many Moroccan dirhams, I’m later told.
Another day, I set out for the Bab Bou Jaloud (the Blue Gate), the most well-known and ornate entrance to the Medina, a tiled keyhole built by the French in 1913 and a remnant of their 44 years of colonization.
Trying to be more efficient in my traverse of the Medina, I stop to ask the way, speaking in French to a man dressed in jeans and a leather jacket who appears from the shadows on my left. He asks me where I’m from, and when I tell him the U.S., he puts his hand on his chest and says, “Moroccans and Americans are great friends. One thousand welcomes.”
It’s a gesture and a phrase I’d hear many times from strangers during my stay in Fez. He points me up a set of broad stairs and instructs me to turn left at Rue Talaa Kebira, a main shopping artery I apparently can’t miss.
“Shukran (thank you),” I manage to say in Darija, Moroccan Arabic, the only word I’ve managed to memorize so far.
In certain pockets of the Medina, at busy intersections and along main shopping corridors, a veneer of modernity is pasted like cheap paneling over what is a very traditional society, perhaps thanks to the Internet and Western television shows that have also found their way through the medieval gates. I see teenaged boys in logoed T-shirts and jeans gazing at their smartphones, and shop owners in trousers and button-downs listening to music—some Moroccan, some clearly not—or watching a TV hung in a corner café. The deeper into the Medina I go, however, the more antediluvian the scene becomes.
Donkeys, the main mode of schlepping supplies around the Medina, clatter along the cobbles. Their owners yell “Balek (watch out)!” the Medina’s unofficial horn, and I press myself against walls to allow them and their hulking loads to pass. Every now and then, along a nameless narrow street, I see several dozen silk threads stretched 40 to 50 feet along a wall. These are Moroccan buttons, I’m told when I ask, or will be. A boy using a motorized hand tool attached to one end of the threads spins them into a tight cord, then bundles it into a knot of silk, to be sewn onto traditional clothing.
Even before I arrive in Place Seffarine, known as the Copper Market to tourists, I hear the arrhythmic clang of metal being pummeled and plied with hammers and picks by metal craftsmen whose families have been doing the same work in this exact spot for seven generations.
Shops surrounding the square sell the forged cooking pots, lanterns, mirror frames, door knockers and other items produced here. The beating never abates and fills every cavity of the square and my head, a contrast to the silent serenity of the henna souk, where vendors sell Moroccan cosmetics and ceramics under shady plane trees.
Atop one of the myriad leather goods shops strung with purses and wallets, I look down at one of Fez’s ancient tanneries. Men stand knee deep in vats, pressing animal hides into red and saffron dyes mixed with pigeon droppings and cow urine. I’m handed a sprig of mint when I arrive and told to hold it to my nose to mask the eye-watering stench, which hangs in the air in this part of the Medina.
I was encouraged by a friend who’d visted Fez years ago to sign up for a cooking class at the popular Café Clock, a former riad turned restaurant that’s also a gathering spot for expats and locals, with a smattering of café tables in the courtyard and a roof deck to which servers climb up and down all day balancing trays of tajines and tea.
Souad, the chef, greets me at the door with a huge smile that crinkles the corners of her eyes when she laughs. Souad is little, the top of her head barely reaching my nose, but she has more energy than two of me. I’d guess her to be in her mid-to-late 30s, though I don’t dare ask, and even though she’s in western-style clothing—pants and a Café Clock T-shirt—her hair is wrapped up in a scarf.
Most Fassi women wear headscarves like Souad’s, often brightly colored or patterned, wrapped tight around their olive-skinned faces accented with perfectly arched brows and oiled lashes. Young or old, their almond eyes stare warmly back when I look into them, and Souad’s are no exception. She pulls a long, loose tunic over her clothes and tells me, in accented English as we head outside to the market, that I’m her only pupil.
Faint of heart, be warned. In the food souks of Fez, there are parts of animals you may not want to see up close. Bull testicles come to mind, as do severed beef hooves and strung out spongy innards and fleshy strips of unidentifiable animal parts. Live geese waddle freely, and cackling chickens await their fate in stackable wire cages. I notice a skinned lamb carcass hanging by its back legs and watch as small drops of blood drip into a red puddle on the white stone slab underneath.
“The butchers slaughter at midnight and it hangs out in the morning,” Souad explains. “This way everyone knows it’s fresh.”
Like markets around the world, this one, too, is as much a social affair as it is a provisioning mission. We squeeze heaps of eggplants and tomatoes, and hold fresh parsley to our noses.
“Olives are the eyes of the table,” Souad explains as we wander. “A table without olives is a sad table, or a blind table.”
At another stall, Souad says, “Dates are happy food. We always serve them with a big smile,” which she does when she hands one to me.
On the way back to the restaurant, Souad sees a woman she knows and squeals. The two clasp arms and kiss cheeks. “That was my son’s teacher,” Souad says. “My son dreams about her.”
Back in the kitchen I work alongside three other women and a matronly dishwasher whose face I never see, but whose shoulders move up and down from time to time. Though I don’t understand what’s being said, the camaraderie is contagious, and I find myself laughing, too, as I peel oranges, separating them into segments and sprinkling them with sugar and orange blossom water forour dessert.
Souad shows me how to make Chermoula, a classic Moroccan herb-spice marinade typically brushed on fish, with garlic, fresh coriander, olive oil, lemon juice, paprika, ginger, cumin, salt and pepper. For me, this would be the taste of Morocco.
Eventually, I feast on the fruits of our (mostly Souad’s) labor, laid out on blue and white dishes and bowls: a carrot salad, Zaaluk, a spicy eggplant salad, and chicken tajine, a typical North African spiced meat (which could also be fish, lamb or squab) stew that is also the name of the two-piece earthenware pot in which it is cooked. There is the requisite bowl of olives on the table, lest it be left sad or blind.
Though it’s a lifestyle completely inside out from the one I know, I understand the appeal of living here permanently, like Suzanna Clarke, the Australian author of A House in Fez does with her husband, Sandy McCutcheon, who writes a popular local blog, “The View From Fez.” They are two of only a few dozen foreigners who live inside the Medina, and they have invited me, along with a few other writers, to their home, Riad Zany, the 2007 renovation of which was the muse for Clarke’s book. On their roof, I look out at what has to be one of the best views of Fez.
Its buildings are square cubes with flat roofs that serve as laundry rooms and playgrounds for families, as well as gardens for the slew of satellite dishes that sprout like sunflowers, incongruous on a cityscape that looks cut from ancient parchment. I can see the mosque of Fez’s oldest university, Al-Karouine, founded in 859. The call to prayer bellows its methodic summons once again.
Seated in the tiled courtyard of Riad Zany, surrounded by candle light, the fountain bubbles and glows blue and green below an orange tree and the night sky, a scene that looks popped from a genie’s lamp. The familiar scent of cumin from baking tajines swirls in the air. Clarke tells us that when they bought the house, she was presented with a scroll 2-meters long, on it a list of names to which she and Sandy added theirs as the newest proprietors of the riad.
“It gave me the sense that we were merely custodians of the place, rather than owners.”
An awareness of my own impermanence suddenly washes over me. Like the names on Clarke’s scroll, I, too, feel like a guardian of this miniscule moment in time; just a small dusty stone in the story of a place that will eventually crumble to dust and blow away through a keyhole gate.
Fez has been like this for more than a thousand years and it will likely be like this for a thousand more. Its tastes, sounds, colors, smells, people and stories plait together in a living tapestry, whose silk threads alone might appear flimsy and unremarkable, but knotted and loomed together create something intensely beautiful and enduring.
Something not meant to be unraveled.
Where to Stay
Where to Eat
Fez Café Restaurant
Riad zany and Fez Info