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Memories of my travels between 1972 and 1982

Tuesday, 24 May 2011

May 24th: Fes

On May 24th 1977 I was in Fes, the ancient city of Morocco.

I stayed in a little hotel just inside the Medina at a point before the road started to descend more steeply.  There was a stork's nest on the roof and there was always the noise of clattering beaks when the birds returned from feeding.  From the window I could catch a glimpse of the road: women going shopping, old men from the country on business, ponies, donkeys taking goods in or out or building materials or coca-coca bottles, the men who drove the animals, "Balek, Balek" they called.  I even saw a cow being taken down.  The sounds were of Moroccan pop music and busy voices.  It was a modern world, part of the attraction being that it was without cars.

The first evening I recorded some initial impressions:  
The Tannery:  My picture
I headed down into the Medina and got beautifully wandering there, avoiding tourist shops, very smart here, and the touts and pickup kids.  I went way out to the other side then back to the centre, glancing in mosques, much prayer, holiness and chanting going on, saw a few artisans, particularly the metal workers, one lot of dyers.  Stood on a little bridge over the foul river away from the hassle, watched a freak couple getting some metal-beating done, then managed to return without making a mistake.  Some very fine shops, you can see some traditional crafts being made to modern Moroccan tastes as opposed to tourist tastes, mirrors and brocades for women's clothes stand out in my mind, also the large cauldrons they make.  And it's a real city, so much available here.  I remember one shop full of pickles,  nothing else, the shops much more specialist.  It's also huge.  I had a quick look in the Kasbah, different style Arab shops.  On the journey here, one nice country market in new buildings.  Lots of donkeys in an arena, ponies being shod and having their nails chiselled; people coming and going on donkeys, riding with both legs on the left.  Ovens outside the houses, women working bending over.
The Medina was a difficult place for an outsider.  There was nowhere for instance where you could sit and watch what was going on, not for any length of time or in an interesting place.  I remained a spectator, walking through, trying to avoid undesirables or causing offence.  Others too seemed to be doing the same.  Just to walk down the hill attracted a small army of hustlers; to avoid them I had to protect myself and so protected myself from everything else.  Yet the Medina, Old Fes, was the primary attraction, the huge area growing organically from the middle ages, without cars, but rich and modern in many ways, the commercial heart of the country.

Later as I got to know the city a little better I tried to record with a bit more immediacy:
I am in almost the only cafe I know of in the centre, having expensive orange juice in dull surroundings.  But resting enough to see more souks before climbing the hill back up.

Fes Medina;  My picture
The Medina was swarming with tourists this morning, more than I've seen before , but it wasn't as busy as I've seen it before.  I spent a while sitting in the tannery, and got stung for a dirham, then wandered through the residential districts across the river, still not attractive from the outside, but different, quiet, unfrequented, and out into the car area with donkeys strolling past the cars in the parking lot, people selling mint, it felt Morocco.  Men sitting against a wall, selling eggs and ducklings.  An area or souk for second-hand radios and so on, and some dealers pocketing money.  In the central area, there had been an assignment of second-hand clothes arrived - the passion for Western clothes and goods is overriding - and that was in the area of jewellers and fancy clothes.  I saw a new lot of shoes arriving, and leather wallets and that was a time for major excitement.  Some of the better bits of the medina are those long roads under bamboo shading  where they sell mainly food, meat, milk, everyday things.  And the fine souks in the centre, brocade, shoes, cloth, blankets, gold and silver, candles, brightly coloured thread, pottery.  Some strange spices, people hunched up in the street over a piece of cloth with strange smelling things on it. 

Covered Souk in Fes Medina:  My picture
Not much that is very exotic.  It's the country people who wear the strange clothes and they're not around in Fes very much.  Yesterday I saw in the supper restaurant a young girl of 13 or 14, kohled eyes and colourful mirror-work clothes, reds and yellows, an older woman also brightly dressed in red cloth with blue and white patterns, a short-haired man in a roughish djellabah, and a strong man who was doing the ordering, he didn't eat but controlled it all, white turban and dark djellabah.  Dancers or some such trade or performers? 
Square in Fes Medina:  My picture

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