Tel Aviv: A Night in Fez
December 6, 2016
I bought a bunch of cheap charter plane tickets when I saw that I had 10 days off of school in Israel, where I am currently living for the year. Because I study the Middle East and some of its many languages, histories and cultures, I figured I had better get myself out to see more of this part of the world — to meet the people, practice the language and get to know what it’s like to live in another part of this region. I heard that Morocco is a must-see, so I decided it would be my destination of choice.
When October came I was off to Marrakesh, an inland city near the High Atlas Mountains where I spent another two nights before taking the train to Morocco’s capital and port city, Rabat. In both cities I slept within the old medina, walled cities full of souks (markets), madrassas (schools), thousands of intertwined doors leading to locals’ homes and traditional riads. For my final night I caught another train north to Fez, the country’s previous capital and home of the world’s oldest and largest medieval medina.
Founded in the ninth century, the medina of Fez reached its height in the 13th and 14th centuries under the Marinids when it replaced Marrakesh as the capital of the kingdom. It is the oldest of Morocco’s four imperial cities and is considered by UNESCO World Heritage to be one of the most extensive and best-conserved historic towns of the Arab-Muslim world.
I arrived to the home of the family I was to stay with on a Friday afternoon, the Muslim day of rest that in Morocco traditionally means a family meal of couscous at lunchtime. Children and parents leave their work or school for a few hours to meet at home for the meal, which usually lasts from around 1 to 3 p.m. When I entered the wooden gate of the traditional home, a steaming plate of meat tagine, a traditional dish cooked in a clay pot, sat waiting to greet me over a large bed of fine couscous. The dish is typically eaten with the hands, the entire family grabbing fistfuls of the shared food and smashing it into a ball before tossing it into their mouths. I was simultaneously disappointed and relieved when my host mom handed me a large spoon to eat my portion of the meal.
The room I stayed in on the second floor was fairly plain, with a full-size bed covered with a colorful sheet, a window and a table with an archaic desktop computer and printer piled on top. The room was considerably large, about the size of a bedroom that typically sleeps a five-person family in Morocco.
Full of couscous and met with good company, I set out to begin my day exploring the medina. Everywhere I went, I was greeted by calls of “madame” and “bonjour,” the local shopkeepers assuming from my western-looking face that I could speak French. Because it was a Friday, many of the shops were closed, which meant that I could explore without as much hassle from the owners who wanted me to stop and look into each and every one of their stores. Wandering through the tangle of covered streets, I let myself get lost in the medieval city, taking in the sights, smells and energy.
Eventually I ran into a man named Muhammad who claimed he knew the way to a lookout of the entire city. My first reaction was to respond that I could find my way on my own, thank you, because I didn’t have any extra dirhams to spend on his kindness in leading me there. But he insisted that he didn’t want any money, just conversation and to do something for me out of the good of his heart. I decided to follow him. My choice was affirmed when, as we passed through the residential streets in the back alleys of the medina, a man passing by yelled out, “He is a good man!” It’s true that as a traveler you will inevitably encounter people who want to hassle you or use you only to make a buck, and I couldn’t help feeling like many of the locals looked at me more as a moneybag than as an actual human being. But traveling has taught me that there are also people who are full of light and kindness in every corner of the world, and we will find them if we are willing to open up our hearts only a bit.
Muhammad led me through a long maze of side streets until we reached a giant hill next to what looked like a very old cemetery. Climbing up the steep ancient stone steps, I looked around and found the entire sprawling city laid out around us. Muhammad and I sat on the top of the hill taking in the view for a while, my new friend sharing his faith with me and discussing how difficult it has been for him to find a wife who is also loyal to God and to Islam. I could tell as he opened his heart to me how much he truly loves and is committed to his faith.
Next I wanted to see the famous Fez tannery. Fez is known as the leather capital of the world, mass-producing the hides in large ancient tanneries using the exact same method that has been followed for a thousand years. Upon arriving at the unsuspecting doorway of the tannery, I was handed a bushel of mint leaves that I could smell to counteract the pervasive stench of animal hides being turned into tanned leather. A local salesman led me up a few flights of stairs to a balcony that overlooked huge vats of natural dyes and pigeon excrement (pigeon droppings, I was told, contain ammonia that is used to burn off the hair from the animal hides).
When the medina turned to night, I set out again on a mission to find some dinner. I decided to leave a more touristy cafe and instead sought out local street food, a quick favorite of mine that I had begun to explore in the other medinas I stayed in during the week. A ways up the main street, I found a small shop that offered what was labeled as “mix sandwich” for only 15 dirhams, the equivalent of about $1.50. The food was so good I almost wanted to cry. I washed down the chicken and lamb sandwich with a few delicious balls of fried potatoes and swore to myself I would come back next time with a video camera and Guy Fieri to make these guys famous.
Later as I sat in the common room I joined my host family for a plate of warm pasta balls soaked in milk that tasted a bit like the mac and cheese I eat back home. Then the two youngest boys pulled out a board game and motioned to me, asking me eagerly if I wanted to play. The game looked as if it were printed on an old piece of square paper that was enclosed in a glass frame. Trying to pick up the rules of the game with only their dialect of Arabic fused with French phrases to guide me, I soon realized the game was played much like a version of Sorry!, a board game I spent plenty of time playing in my own living room growing up.
I ended my visit with a trip to the neighborhood hammam. The sister of my host, a woman of about 30, joined me, walking quickly ahead of me as she led me to the entrance of the public bathhouse. Upon entering, we stripped down and walked to the back of a tiled hot-room, where we filled up plastic buckets with steaming water that we organized around the mat we would sit on as we washed ourselves. First came a layer of black soap, a sticky dark material made of olive oil that you can find in heaping mounds for sale around the souk. As is custom, we then exchanged back massages before scraping the sticky soap off our bodies with coarse gloves. Next we washed ourselves with regular bar soap, shampooed our hair, poured more of the warm water from the buckets onto our sitting bodies, threw our clothes back on and were on our merry way. During the walk back home I told her that my skin was smoother than it had ever been — the dirt and sweat of days of traveling washed off completely, leaving my body to feel almost as if it had been born again.
Email Hannah Benson at email@example.com.