Fes el Bali

0 Commentsby   |  04.22.10  |  Weblog, adventures, Weblog

Fes is never still and never quiet. From the first white light of the day to the hazy thickening dusk, people with heads held straight, are moving with purpose and urgency. Some are carried swiftly by skates or mopeds, all ages ride bicycles, and a Berber strolls along the pavement on his grand white horse. Packs of well dressed children are manoeuvred and cajoled by djellaba clad women. Over at the bus stop, a small boy throws cartwheels as a scooter carrying three, a toddler held firm between her windswept parents, buzzes past leaving blue smoke hanging in its wake.  The movement is swift and graceful, the sounds more gruff and violent. They say here that a still head is a stone – dead. They have no saying for a silent head for they have never encountered such a thing.

Fes, for a brief ten years of the twelfth century, was the world’s largest city. Now, straddling the banks of the Fes River, it still wears the confidence of that history; a solid physical rootedness behind the mountains that keep the Sahara at bay. The Berber is the indigenous people, Muslims with their own language, coming down from the Atlas Mountains to settle in the valley that is Fes. The Arabs came in the ninth century and the French in the nineteenth and so Arabic and French are spoken and interwoven. Once at the centre of seventeenth century Morocco, Fes was a major trading post of the Barbary Coast of North Africa. Historically Fes is a city of refugees, one of the oldest mixed cultures anywhere. There is tolerance somehow, an equality, everyone is trying hard to survive here. The Karaouine Mosque at the heart of medina was founded in 857 by a Tunisian woman to offer education and religious safety to the constant flow of Tunisian and later settlers. Nowadays it is a library, university and mosque still receiving Muslims from afar. The mix is good for the food, abundant produce and farming feed the million or so residents of the city: fresh crunchy salads and charcoaled meat or simple bread, with boiled egg, tuna, onion and chilli sauce, made fresh for fifty pence. In everything, even for the poorest, there are fresh ingredients grown nearby.

At Babrcif, the medina gates, sits the transport terminus, daily awash with taxis and buses, mopeds, carts, donkeys, street vendors, cats and chaos. People are swallowed or spilt to the brim of the dusty Square, as locals drink coffee and smoke outside the cafés. Boys are climbing gates and walking, arms spread, on precarious walltops under the blinding noonday sun. And at midnight amongst the charcoaled giblet sellers, there are shouts of young men playing football, passing the ball between passing cars. This is the border between old and older. This is where the tarmac turns to cobbles and leaves the automotive twenty first century firmly outside the wall and its Moorish arches. Here is truly a portal in time and space.

On the inside, it feels a lot like Dickens, dirty and dark, sinister yet compelling. Full of urchins and poverty. And in the gloom the most vibrant colours glow, on fruit or linen, yellow slippers, hanging pastel bras and rainbows of leather, sequins and silks. Hammered copper and tin catch the sly shafts of light in the mostly sunless maze. The walls are sad and robust, like the elders, like old oaks. So much has happened within the weave of twisting turning paths and alleys. All human life is here, babies are born, men and women fall in love, people and animals live and die. Inside and outside the medina, Fes is a place where day and night, everyone is going somewhere and nothing that can be done standing still, can’t be done better in determined forward motion.

Within the labyrinthine medina, voices warp and echo from somewhere within the nine thousand passages, haunting as the ancient ghosts of this medieval city. In the corners and doorways, and from wooden shuttered booths like caves in the crumbling white stone of the buildings, voices chatter and swarm. Frantic arms gesticulate, rising defiantly above the din to be heard. It is less of a market than a throbbing ants nest, an intense hum of activity. At each turn, the experienced hustling lads hover like wasps around the sweet mint tea of tourist euros offering hammam or manger or hashish, anything for a price and always negotiable. To every stallholder you are my friend or my brudder, and this very special service or deal you are wanting, is for you and only you and one time only, right here, right now. And a barrow passes, its wheel buzzing loudly at the mudguard as all are forced to the wall to let it pass. Luckily, and unlike Marrakech, the Fes Medina’s alleys are too narrow for scooters and their choking fumes.

Warmth that is more than just the North African climate can be felt in the narrow shady lanes that amble and twist and yet there is always a tremor of invisible menace. Cool guys sit in twos or threes, talking sport and watching girls whilst selling cigarettes from a cardboard box. Holy men count beads, still and absorbed on doorsteps and filthy tortoiseshell cats, all skin and ribs, forage hungrily amongst the refuse.  Women greet women and men greet men, with kisses on both cheeks. Never the genders shall kiss. Despite the seedy Arab sexiness, these Moroccans are almost prim, almost innocent. Here women keep house and men work. Surrounded proudly by secondhand shoes or primary coloured ladies outfits (sic), fluttering like newly hanged cadavers on the whitewashed walls, leathered market traders make eye contact. Dark Arabic women look demure and don’t. Children smile and say, ‘bonjour’, and not all of them ask for money.

The rooftops are a safe retreat, though the web continues in the sky with turnings and connections from roof terrace to roof terrace. There are cushions and rugs and endless cloudless space above, the sun blazes harsh and fierce. In every direction there are satellite dishes, carpets hanging, laundry and tiny ant people about their business. From high up, the medina almost seems to make some sense. Cockerels cry out intermittently against the rhythmic hammering of constant repair and renewal, the basin of the medina repeating each knock and tap. A dog is ever barking. Several times daily the call to prayer reverberates throughout the city. To the untrained ear, the hard-wired megaphones seem to sing and answer each other from east to west, across the layered rooftops. Gossip is endemic, the grapevine fast and thorough; they know you’re coming before you do in an everlasting soap opera with regional variations … live! Here is an air of perpetual transaction; the staccato flow of give and take between sun baked people from sprawling families, familiar with God and good fresh food, hard lives and so many other opinions.

Rooted deep in the Moroccan psyche, pulses a deep and ancient calmness born from connection to each other, their common needs and a solidly pragmatic approach to survival. The land here is wet and fertile, more mouth watering than an oasis; it’s a huge larder at the top of the Sahara Desert. This is why Fes is here, it is needed. Relationship is primary here and strangers welcomed. Food is respected and valued, little is discarded and everything has a use. It is eaten attentively and served as to a special guest; with gilded plates and silver trays and chilli sauce, cardamom carrots and shredded radish, with humility and perhaps because good hospitality is a tenet of Islamic law.

The way of life for this collection of communities, occupying different regions of the medina (with its sixteen miles of perimeter wall) each with its own mosque, home bakery and fountain, has not changed so much over the past millennium. People here are not so busy arguing with their place in the scheme of things; they are mostly working, sleeping, praying and reproducing. This quiet, insistent continuity is palpable in the fabric of Fes, the structure of the medina is too tight, too set to permit much sudden change … and it is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Fes el Bali is a hard place to arrive in, hypnotic, repellent and magnetic. The air is finer here and warm, the atmosphere rapid and intoxicating. It calls for alertness, and rewards with the minutiae of cameos, unfolding action and a slightly increased pulse. There are always more surprises. It bewitches and entrances before it exhausts; there is nowhere like it. And so it is harder still to leave behind, for in the heart and mind of any traveller, a part feels just like Fes Medina.

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