Fes and Marrakech

My first couple of days in Morocco, in the medina of Tangier, were a bit of a shock. Coming from a city where people hardly even make eye contact or speak to strangers, it was a very different experience being stared at, called out to, sized up, and constantly solicited for my attention and business. As I wrote in a previous post, Chefchaouen was much more laid back. I was a little nervous to go back into the fray in Fes, but it was a totally different vibe this time.

The Medina of Fes, called Fes-El Bali, was built in the 9th century and is home to 156,000 people, has over 9000 individual streets and spans 220 hectares. It’s also considered one of the largest contiguous car-free urban areas in the world, a big part of the reason I was interested to come here. It also has the world’s oldest continuously operating university, Al-Karaouine, founded by Fatima al-Fihri, an Arab Muslim woman who wanted to give back to the community that helped her family as refugees from Tunisia. Today, in addition to being an educational and cultural centre, Fes is known for its community of artisans including leather workers and tanners, potters, metal workers and carpet weavers.

In Tangier I felt afraid of being targeted and taken advantage of, but this time I tried to change my outlook to assume the best rather than the worst (with some healthy caution of course). Having had the introduction to the scene already, for the most part I now felt bemused instead of annoyed, and occasionally responded to the classic “where are you from?”. I discovered they weren’t *always* trying to sell me something, sometimes they actually pointed me in the right direction or just wanted to chat or show off their town. 

As a result, I had some interesting conversations and was invited into homes on two occasions to share tea and a family dinner. Another time, a guy showed me a famous mosque, the Bou Inania Madrasa, built in the 1350s, along with an ingenious water clock (currently under restoration). He also showed me the former home of the well known Jewish philosopher Maimonides. I wouldn’t have had any of these experiences had I kept my fear-based armour on. 

I can also appreciate the community that exists in the medina, despite – or even because of – the tight quarters. Anytime I walked with a guy, he greeted dozens of friends and neighbours along the way. I saw men constantly greeting each other with kisses on the cheek and hugs. I assume the women have their community too, it’s just not as public. Kids were a common presence too, walking with their parents, playing in small groups, emerging from school in a noisy gaggle, and helping in their parents’ stores. I’m sure there must be social codes and cliques, but from my perspective, everyone seemed to be accepted. There’s something about the Fes medina that’s different from any other neighbourhood I’ve been in, and from the other medinas I visited in Morocco (Tangier and Marrakech) which seemed more commercial. Maybe because there are no cars and the streets are so narrow, there’s a stronger sense of a knitted community. 

Speaking of knitting, there is no “dress code” here. Some men wear the traditional Berber long wool tunics with pointed hoods, sometimes with a flat-topped knitted cap; but most dress in casual western clothing – a lot of track suits. The women’s clothing is more varied. A few wear the full niqab; some wear a long, hooded dress and head-scarf. Some wear head scarves with western style clothes, and many are dressed fully in western clothes. 

This article gives a little more background on the Fes medina from an urban planning perspective, including the challenge of building with such limited access for machinery. Indeed, I saw a small motorized cart (the only vehicle I observed in a couple of days) carrying about a dozen bricks and a few sacks of cement. At that rate I can’t imagine how long it would take to complete a major project! I’ve heard that even thus type of motorized vehicle is not allowed, but they must make exceptions for construction. 

A little hard to see but these guys are riding a motorized cart to building site with like six bricks in it

Marrakech to Ourarzazete

After a little hesitation for “indulging” in vacation.(and putting off my return home to work), I decided to follow my heart and embark on a horseback tour in the desert. I took the train from Fes to Marrakech, and just spent one night there, followed by a 5 hour bus ride to Ousrzazete. Marrakech’s Medina didn’t capture me as much as Fes. For one thing, it’s a lot more chaotic, with motor vehicles throughout except in the narrowest of alleys. But I took my bike out for a ride around its periphery, which was quite a rush, weaving and dodging buses, scooters pumping blue smoke, donkeys, bikes, food carts and crowds of pedestrians. As usual I got a lot of second looks and encouraging comments – I didn’t see any other tourists crazy enough to ride in this mayhem! These pics don’t do justice to the craziness, since I had to find relatively quiet places to pull over to take photos.

Here are a few shots of the mountains from the bus to Ouarzazete. There was fresh snow and locals out enjoying a picnic and playing in it.