25.10.2011 - 27.10.2011 24 °C
Fes, Thursday October 27th
The medina in Fes is surely one of the closest experiences on earth to being inside a living medieval city. Although there are obvious modern conveniences, such as electricity and flushing toilets, the daily existence and way of life of thousands of people in the medina can hardly be much different from the lives of their ancestors, hundreds of years ago.
As a visitor, there are aspects of life in the medina that seem unbelievable, as if they had been carefully crafted by the local tourist board to impart that medieval verisimilitude. Coming into the medina from one of the main gates, Bab Boujloud, there are several restaurants and cafes, with the usual tables and chairs and Coca Cola awnings. Fair enough, but round the corner and you find yourself going down a small alley, too narrow really to deserve to be called a street, although in fact it is one of the main thoroughfares of the medina. The street is lined with small shops, most no wider than two or three metres and usually no deeper than three metres, although the occasional storefront opens into a large store space. There are several shops in a row, all selling the more or less identical selection of handmade Moroccan slippers, very colourful and touristy. But the next set of shops is not in the least touristy and they are clearly geared towards serving one of the basic everyday needs of the locals – meat products. Think of an animal. I’m thinking of a goat, since small herds of them tend to be gathered along the rail line. Now imagine all of the various parts that make up the goat. Yes, naturally, the usual parts are available, spread out in a nice neat row along the unrefrigerated countertop of the store in front of you. These look like the various animal parts you’d find at Thrifty’s. Now start imagining some of the parts that you’d probably have to look further afield for, if you wanted them. Here we clearly have a collection of legs and associated hooves, for what purpose I can’t conceive, but what about all these other, unrecognisable but clearly animal parts. All of them, hanging from the ceiling, draped over the counter, gathered together in bowls, spread out on newspaper, with the flies in the air and the street cats below the counter looking up hopefully. There are no obvious sources of refrigeration, and hygiene is clearly not high on the list of topics at the local butcher school. OK, perhaps this isn’t necessarily medieval, and such a scene may have been common in western cities not so long ago, but to modern western eyes (and noses) the scene is positively strange. And yet clearly these stores provide meat for the medina locals, families who have been living in the medina for hundreds of years.
We stopped in at one location that was listed as a spot of interest, having had the same function for hundreds of years. It was essentially a small factory for creating a piece of traditional Moroccan furniture made out of leather, very much like bean bags, but stuffed to make them very firm and used as stools or footstools. The entrance hallway opened onto a small courtyard where, outside one room, there was a large pile of the interior parts of animals. Inside the room, a man had an animal skin stretched out before him, and he was scraping the interior animal goop off the skin. The next room was a showroom, with a large wall of traditional Moroccan slippers, and a French woman with her friends was bargaining for a pair. The next room was a very large storeroom, with hundreds of “poufs,” as Susan calls the stools, a wealth of different designs and colours displayed neatly in rows on the walls, and scattered in large piles throughout the room. At the back of the room, three men were working silently, stitching by hand, creating the poufs. It was easy to imagine that these men were making the poufs in exactly the same fashion as their great great grandfathers, perhaps with a few more modern, tourist-oriented designs thrown in.
However, turning animal skins into leather is apparently an exercise requiring considerably more effort than a single man scraping animal goop. Our trip to the tannery required us to venture a bit further afield than the main shop-lined streets, and the map that we had ripped from the pages of the Lonely Planet was woefully inadequate. We had seen people wandering around with gigantic, probably detailed maps, however these were being given out by the Tourist Information Office somewhat inconveniently located in the middle of the Ville Nouvelle, several kilometres from the medina. With a bit of good luck, some careful avoidance of some less helpful and slightly more aggressive than usual locals, and some helpful directions from a couple of more helpful locals, we found the tannery. A man invited us up through his shop to the roof, which was an excellent vantage point.
The skins, he explained, are first soaked in ammonia (from urine) and pigeon shit for a couple of days. These were located right below his shop. After, they were soaked in large vats of dye for several days. The dye was renewed every couple of days. For efficiency, only a couple of colours were used at a time. Unfortunately, the colours this week seemed to be variations of brown, rather than the vivid blues and yellows we’ve seen in the slippers. There were men in gumboots and bare feet wandering through the vats, and we saw a couple of men picking up skins and wringing them out. Other than the essentially primitive and basic manufacturing methods, the most striking thing about the process was that it was taking place in exactly the same location as it has, once again, for hundreds of years. Although in this case, it has likely been there literally for thousands of years. But this nasty stinky chemically rich process is located right in the middle of the city. Manufacturing of this sort generally takes place on the outskirts of towns in an industrial area, but in Fes the manufacturing of many items takes place entirely within the city.
These are a just a couple of specific examples of how to a visitor, Fes feels so completely different, in a very ancient way. Really, the atmosphere, the ambiance of the place is so strange, so totally weird, it’s very different from any other place I’ve ever been to. Even having come from Marrakesh, which is also very old and very foreign, Fes still seems quite different.
The things that I noticed most about Fes were the winding roads, which were more like huge sidewalks, with lots of peoples on them, as well as donkeys, horses, and mules carrying stuff to all the shops. There is also lots of meat right up our street, just sitting on the tables, maybe for days. There is a huge camel’s head that we had to pass every time we wanted to go to dinner. The smell of Fes in that place seems to be mostly raw meat. There are lots of stray cats on “meat road” hoping to get scraps from the butchers. All the store owners seem to want you to come into their stores and buy lots. They say, “Looking is free, where are you from?” Lots of the stores sell leather goods, like wallets (both Sunny and I bought some), leather bags, and lots of shoes. Mom bought her two poufs for the living room at home, and I got a free small leather camel at the same time. All the restaurants seem to have the same stuff: couscous, tajine, omelette, soup, and salad. We visited the tannery, where they dye all the leather. First they dunk it in pee and pigeon droppings. Then they move it over to the dye of their choice, take it out, and let it dry. Our hotel is very nice, and it has lots of tiles.
Just a sidebar on the subject of walking. During this trip, team Karim has some minor friction with the pace by which we travel along when we’re just walking and sightseeing. It’s hard to find a pace that pleases everyone. Sunny often grumbles that Kas is leading too slowly, although sometimes it’s because we’re trapped behind a slow tour group or other slow walkers, or too quickly. I often walk even more slowly behind with Alison, especially if we have our packs on and it’s hot, cause she gets tired and slows down. Sometimes I’ll call up to Kas to slow down, or speed up. Sometimes Sunny and I like to window shop, which Kas and Alison rarely do, and then they disappear off ahead and we have to catch up. Sometimes we all stop and confer about where to turn or which way our hotel is, and then it’s hard to regain formation and momentum, until Sunny or I will say, “let’s GO” with impatience. We usually try to walk two by two, so we don’t take up the whole sidewalk, because we all know how annoying it is to get past a wide group of people.
Anyway, being in Morocco adds another layer of complexity to the whole “how fast should we go?” problem. In Morocco, walking slowly is a sign to the touts and shopkeepers that you are lost, or indecisive, or perhaps interested in buying something you have seen (and these are all conditions they can help you with, for a price). It’s not exaggerating to say that as soon as you slow down or stop walking, someone will approach you and attempt to engage you in a conversation you probably don’t want to get into. The best strategy if you want to be left alone is to walk quickly and with purpose, and for heaven’s sake, don’t pull out the map under any circumstances. However, with a group of four, little idea where to go, and all sorts of interesting things to look at, it kind of sucks to have to speed through the crowded alleyways as if you were late for something. If, for instance, I am in the anchor position and I want to stop and look at something, I have to shout up to the others to stop, which makes the shopkeeper think that my interest level is way higher than it probably is. Also, the two by two formation often doesn’t work here because the alleyways are so narrow and crowded, and every minute or two a donkey goes by with 12 propane tanks or a huge pile of animal skins strapped onto it, or a man with a giant wooden cart filled with cactus fruit needs to pass you, and you need to squeeze up against the edge of the alley and try to avoid stepping in the puddle of cat urine or the pile of animal entrails or on the blind beggar, while still holding Alison’s hand. It’s a minor miracle, really, that we manage to get anywhere and as an intact group. But it sure is fun.