Photo: Man working in the dying vats in Fez
Prior to 10 months ago, the only time I had anyone utter the word fez was on Happy Days. I’m sure that you all remember Mr. Cunningham and his Grand Puba group – as a member of the Grand Puba, he had to wear a fez hat which depicted his membership into the group. That image of the red hat and the tassel had stuck in my head for my lifetime…one of my few experiences with the exotic Arabian culture to date. The second time I ever heard the word fez was at my going away party last year. One of my friends gave me a book about 1000 places to see before you die and everyone at the party was browsing through it. My friend, Todd, stopped at the entry for Fez. He excitedly asked me if I was going to Fez on this around the world adventure. Visions of Mr. C came to mind and a confused look came across my face. I had no idea what or where Fez was – but I was pretty certain that it wasn’t in Milwaukee! He said that he had heard about Fez and that it was one of the best places to visit, a very authentic and mystical town. I still had no idea what country it was even in – so I just nodded and said “who knows where I’ll end up, but if I end up in Fez, I’ll let you know.” The next morning in my hung over state, I grabbed the book and looked up Fez to read about it…it was in Morocco.
Photo: The famous Fez hat
For some reason that conversation stuck with me throughout my travels…maybe it was the Mr. C image, or maybe it was the exotic sounding name, or maybe it was Todd’s enthusiasm about the place – whatever it was, I felt like I needed to see it. When I decided to change my plans and travel through Morocco, I knew that I had to make it to Fez. I chose a tour route that led me through Fez for a few days as I felt that it would be one of the highlights of Morocco.
The draw to Fez is that it is the most in tact medieval city of the Arab world. It is suspended in time somewhere between the modern world and the Middle Ages. Modern World: electricity; Middle Ages: everything else in Fez. Here are the numbers: there are about 800,000 people living in the medina, 9,500 streets, aprox. 250 mosques, 10,000 donkeys, and about 100,000 satellite dishes. These are unofficial numbers of course – but they are my best guess.
Photo: The Doors to the Palace…the original Golden Arches!
We arrived in Fez after an 11 hour minivan ride through the Moroccan countryside. This was a doozy of a road trip – it was well over 100 degrees out and air conditioning that could be only used for short bursts of time in order to not overheat the car, brakes that overheated, and just a long, long journey. The longest time I’ve spent in a car since living back in the Midwest when I used to be too poor to take a plane! We arrived in Fez in the evening and our lodging was in the new city – a little more modern with internet cafes, bars, and a McDonalds…yes, a McDonalds. I have to admit – one of the things that I am really starting to miss is a good American burger. I’ve tried ordering a few and they are never the same. So when I heard there was a McDonalds in Fez, I knew that I could quench my craving. Yes, yes, yes – I’m sure many of you are appalled by this – as McDonalds is not necessarily the epitome of American burger. However, until you’ve set foot in my
Photo: Phone home…satelites dishes in the medina
First we went to a great panoramic point high above the old Medina to get an overview of the maze that we were about to enter. The first thing I noticed as we stood on a high hill looking over the medina was the number of satellite dishes on the buildings. Strange things catch my eye sometimes, and I had never really seen so many dishes occupying so little space – each beaconing in the same direction…as if they were calling ET to come home. Each building has no less than 8 satellite dishes on the roof. Photo: Woman painting pottery At this point, the old medina felt more extraterrestrial than medieval to me. However, I guess the satellite dishes didn’t surprise me too much as most of the world’s undeveloped, poorest cities and towns even have satellites. It’s how the majority of the 3rd world is able to view the world around them these days. It is likely that all of the Fassis (people of Fez) are watching old episodes of Happy Days and are getting a good laugh out of Mr. C’s Fez hat! After I got past the dishes, I could focus on the thousands of buildings that were displayed in front of me. It was huge and a bit disorienting. If you really focused your eye, you would see all of these towers sticking up amongst the buildings – the 250 some mosques that were intermixed in the medina. You could also see puffs of dark smoke coming from certain areas which indicated that pottery was being fired there…which is where we headed to next. We went to go see the intricate art of pottery making and mosaics. We saw how everything was made by hand – in painstaking detail. Each mosaic piece was cut by hammer and chisel and then pieced together as if it were a giant jigsaw puzzle. This was one of the few places that employed women. Some women intermixed with the men in the painting area – but this was a relatively new development. The majority of the pottery work was difficult manual labor, so the only place tat the women were allowed to work was on the more artistic side of the creation.
Photo: Stacks of colorful shoes in the medina
Before entering the medina, Hakima first warned us about the usual pickpockets and urged us to stay together the best we could, and to not be discouraged by the begging children that would be following us around. Since the medina was still really a functioning medina for locals, we would stick out rather blatantly…7 Caucasians, toting camera and backpacks – of course we were going to stick out! She also warned us to listen for the word “Ballack!” meaning “watch out/move out of the way” which we would hear when the numerous donkey carts were trying to get around the medina. The medina did not hold any motorized vehicles due to the narrow, curvaious streets and alleys. The only mode of transportation was donkeys and carts. Basically, we learned that we needed to keep on our toes.
Photo: Man holding silk thread to be dyed shortly
The moment you entered the big arched gateway you inhaled the smell, taste and sound of the markets. We were surrounded by the sounds of people and music, we could smell the rich spices intermixed with the smell of olives, and your eyes were entranced by the rich colors and textures that surrounded you. I think I honestly walked for the first 20 minutes with a dumb stare on my face as I took it all in. We entered through an area of food/produce/butchers markets – which is always a site. The shops themselves were normally very small – no bigger than a bathroom and they were all connected with no space in between the buildings. The only space to walk was the narrow ‘road’ which we were sharing with a multitude of locals and donkeys. Many of the shops specialized in just one thing to keep things simple. There was a garlic shop, across from a tomato shop. Imagine if you owned a store the size of a closet and only sold garlic…only garlic…for your whole life. Personally – I would go crazy…but that’s life in the medina. The men that sold olives were also artists. They would slowly put together these elaborate olive displays intermixing patterns with the various colored olives. Seriously, these men should be running the olive department at Fairway…the olive displays were so pretty that you really didn’t want to buy any olives for fear of ruining the display!