Sunday, April 17, 2016


Let's get one thing straight at the beginning of this post. The name of cylindrical red hat is "fez" (pronounced "fezz") and the city in Morocco is Fes (pronounced "fess" with a very short "s" sound). They are not the same thing.
Am I the only person in the world who thought I'd be seeing fezzes all over Morocco? They actually belong in Turkey and were introduced in 1829 by Sultan Mahmoud II to replace the turban in the Ottoman army. Maybe they were easier to put on in the morning for those who had early battle duty. Anyway, the only fezzes I saw in Fes were made-in-China versions for sale in a couple of booths frequented by gullible tourists.

Okay, on with the show.

After our drug-induced first night of sleeplessness in our beautiful room, we were picked up at our riad by Hassan, a wonderful tour guide Bob had booked months before our trip through the tour company Naturally Morocco. 

A few words here about whether or not to book a guide. Yes, it's fun wandering around in the medina (the old, walled portion of the city), but think of this:
and then multiply it by 100, and that's the medina. I'm not talking about wide streets with landmarks and street signs. The medina is mostly alleys, solid mud walls with an occasional doorway, and no street signs, at least not in a language I could read. Hassan told us that 120,000 people live in the Medina, but I've also seen figures as high as 250,000. It is the world's largest automobile-free pedestrian zone (although there are plenty of scooters and donkeys). You need to spend some serious time in the Fes medina to become comfortable with all its twists and turns. Sure, you can wander around until you get your bearings, but another advantage of hiring a guide is that you get to interact with a native resident who knows and loves the city, and who can share its culture with you on a personal level. If you want to see the "real" Morocco, see it through the eyes of someone who was born there.

Of course, you will want time to wander around on your own, and I think that we could have enjoyed one more day in Fes to do just that. Unfortunately, our days were limited and we had to squeeze in what we could.

One of the first things Hassan pointed out was a door hinge. In Arabic culture this design is "the Hand of Fatima," and for Jews it is "the Hamsa." Fatima was the daughter of the Prophet Muhammad. The more familiar version is on the right, but you can see that the hinge on the left has the same five "fingers," which represent the five pillars of Islam. It is used to ward off the evil eye, among other things.

We made our way through the labyrinthine streets. Some were dark, cramped, and foreboding,
. . . but others were light, ornamented, and much more inviting:

Just as each neighborhood in Utah has a Mormon chapel (or two), every neighborhood in Morocco has its own mosque, identifiable by square, towering minarets that we caught occasional glimpses of as we walked.
No two are the same:
Occasionally a minaret soaring overhead was the only clue that a mosque was on the other side of the blank brown wall we were walking next to. No entrances were visible (at least not by us).

Another clue for locating mosques were random bump-outs on the alley walls, much like bay windows but without any glass. They are the site of the mihrab, or the semi-circular niche that indicates the direction of the Kaaba in Mecca towards which Muslims turn when they pray:

Hassan told us that all the minarets in North Africa are square, as opposed to the pointed ones more common in the Middle East (the kind we were more familiar with). You can tell where the Muslims that settled a country came from by the shape of the minaret. For example, in other Muslim countries we have visited--Kosovo, Albania, and Turkey, for example--the minarets are pointed spires, so the Muslims who settled there most likely came from the Middle East rather than from North Africa.

Another important thing about the minarets in Morocco, or at least in Fes (we didn't notice it so much in other Moroccan cities), is that the minarets all use the same emerald-green tile. Apparently green was the Prophet Muhammad's favorite color, and the green on the minarets is a way of honoring him.

Occasionally we got to share the road with a heavily laden donkey. Notice the bag tied under the donkey's tail. Owners are expected to keep donkey poop from landing on the street:

Now and then we walked past an open door and saw a man at work. It was always a man--never a woman. Anyway, if we seemed interested, Hassan took us inside. This artisan was making facades for buildings. He cuts shapes out of clay and paints them:

Then he mounts the finished designs on long strips of some kind of backing material:

He uses his painting skills on other items as well, such as this shelf:

This next shop was the door and shutter shop:

. . . followed by the knife and tool sharpening shop. I've seen large whetstones like this in living history museums, but this whetstone was living (and working) TODAY: 

The machine shop had its own mascot, a luminescent rooster, tied by the leg to a table so it couldn't run away:

We came across the copper pot makers spread out in one of the more open areas:

. . . and watched them melt tin to coat the inside of the pan:

. . . and then polish it to get it ready to sell:
Silly me. I should have bought one. When will I ever again get the chance to buy a copper pot from the man who made it?

What I got out of watching these men at work is an immense admiration for the craftsmen of Morocco. Everyone seems to be able to do something with his hands. We have moved so far away from craftsmanship in the US that most of our children and probably most of our adults have no practical skills. We buy everything ready made, including something as simple as a salad. We have no area of expertise to pass down from one generation to the next. Don't get me wrong; I don't want to go backwards in time--I like my modern conveniences. However, there is something lost because of both our inability to work with our hands and our lack of desire to learn a trade.

At about mid-day we had our first, and perhaps best, of many similar "tourist lunches" at a restaurant creatively named "La Medina":
As we were to learn later, the standard practice is for guides to drop off their charges at these relatively expensive and generally unimaginative restaurants, typically advising them to "enjoy the cool air/view on the roof/patio." While we ate, our guide would get fed a free meal (paid for by our expensive one) of what we imagined to be real Moroccan food, or at least one with a little more variety than what we typically got, in one of the downstairs rooms. It's a pretty good gig for those tour guides. 

However, at this point we were blissfully unaware of this strategy, and La Medina was probably the best of all of the similar lunches we had anyway.  The setting was absolutely gorgeous:

Our meal began with a seven "salads," including (from top right and progressing clockwise): potato salad, tomatoes with peppers, white beans, cauliflower, olives, and egg plant, with something I can't remember in the middle.

I ordered the house specialty recommended by Hassan--pastilla. It is a meat pie or turnover with a crunchy pastry shell filled with chicken and vegetables and sprinkled with powdered sugar and cinnamon. Very clever to make the main course and dessert at the same time!  Supposedly pastilla was the favorite dish of the Sultan of Fes and has therefore been named the "national dish" of the city of Fes. 
It was good, although the combination of sweet and savory wasn't exactly my favorite. Still, how can one turn down the National Dish of Fes, the Sultan's own favorite? 

Bob ordered a lamb dish that had big chunks of meat on the bone and sides of couscous and pink olives. It was very good.

Our dessert was sliced oranges, strawberries, and bananas sprinkled with sugar and cinnamon. This was a more elegant version of the dessert we had every time we ate: an orange, an apple, and a banana, usually presented unpeeled and uncut.
It was SO MUCH FOOD, far more than we could eat. Our two meals could have fed four people.

Moving on. I'm not sure what this was--maybe signaling a mosque within? 

Note two things in the photo below: 1) the date on the sign at the top, and 2) the handwritten directions to a hotel below:

Every now and then we ran across a door like this one. As a child I used to want to knock on the doors of beautiful homes to find out who lived inside. That dream was rekindled in the Fes medina:

Here's another Mystery Door with a close-up of the lintel:

Occasionally we walked past an open mosque door and could steal a glimpse of the interior. Here, a young man is putting on his shoes, which he had removed when he went inside. The man in the hooded powder blue robe is likely a Berber, one two main divisions of Moroccans. Our guide told us that long hooded robes are traditional outfits for Berbers. The woman in the foreground is not putting on her shoes. She was walking like that. She must have some kind of degenerative disease.

The door below is likely a mosque entrance. It provides a bench for removing/replacing one's shoes, and the companion window is just as lovely as the door:

There are surprises around every corner in the medina, including musicians:

. . . beautiful patterns:

. . . and the Fes River:

This river used to be filthy and polluted. The story of its restoration by a visionary civil engineer and architect is told in a short Ted talk. Stop the video at 3:13 and you'll see her drawing of plans for the area above. It's almost a perfect match.

We walked by several pre-school classrooms, and Hassan stopped at one and asked the teacher if I could come in and see the room. There were about 15 children sprawling across a very colorful room complete with Dora the Explorer on the rear wall.
The children were learning basic numbering and reading skills (which doesn't look too basic to me!):
Every class has a ham, even in Fes:

We made another stop at the heating room for a hammam, or a Turkish bath. These are very popular in Morocco, and we saw them all over the place. Customers start in a room heated by hot, dry air, then move to an even hotter room, and then wash in cold water and receive a massage before ending in the cooling-room for a few minutes of relaxation. The hot rooms are heated by an underground stove. A man stokes the fire continuously, using special wood chips that are in bags stacked around the room.
Hamman Fire Tender just rose to the top of my Jobs I Hope I Never Have to Have list.

We saw so many things during our walking tour of Fes that I can't possibly include them all in a single post, so my next few posts will deal with some specific places and experiences in the medina.

I promise they will be shorter than this long-winded post.

Coming Up:
The Fez Souk (Marketplace)
The Bou Inania Madrasa and the Tomb of Moulay Idriss
A Rug Cooperative
The Tannery, a Silk Shop, and a Pottery Cooperative
Outside the City Walls: Berber Ruins, a Muslim Cemetery, and the Royal Palace


  1. Fun insights. I'd forgotten that the green was Mohammed's favorite color and I love the TED talk about uncovering the river.

  2. Thank you for the fez/fes clarification. I confess, I thought they were one was named after the other.
    I can't get enough of the beautiful designs of this country. How fun to go into the classroom.

    1. I couldn't either, Chris. I swear every Moroccan is an artist.

  3. Fasciating journey. That architect is terrific. . . and pregnant! Good for her in trying to change the course of the river. Next, she can do the LA river for us.

  4. Wow! I never knew Morocco is this beautiful. Perhaps I should make a trip here one of these days.