In Morocco’s imperial city of Fez, magic fills the air
The Moroccan imperial city of Fez is a treasure trove of history, culture and science.
As soon as visitors view the towering Bab Bou Jeloud — “The Blue Gate of Fez” — they feel captivated by the medieval city’s magical past. The smoke of freshly barbecued meat fills the air and golden samosas made with almond draw tourists to taste authentic Moroccan pastries, which can be savoured with a freshly brewed mint tea.
Walking down Talaa Sghira street, the Bou Inania Madrasa is unmissable. Founded in the 14th century by Abu Inan Faris during the Marinid rule, the madrasa was both a school and mosque. Its architecture reflected the Marinids’ construction grandeur and attention to details. Stucco adorns the arches and niches and the wood is carved with complex patterns of stars. Its minaret can be seen from the Bab Bou Jeloud.
The narrow alleys of the medina take visitors away from the hectic suburban life. Shops compete for customers with their range of products, such as leather bags and jackets, slippers, woven shopping bags, fine embroidery, traditional male and female dress for festive occasions, spices, homemade sweets, dried meat and fruit, honey, carpets, pottery and souvenirs. Haggling is a must as prices differ from one shop to another.
As I headed to the city’s largest and oldest tannery, I was abruptly stopped by a man in his 50s asking me to visit his shop. At first, I thought he was a conman but I was wrong. Abdelouahab Abou Rachid is a craftsman at a fabric-manufacturing shop.
As soon as I walked up the narrow stairs, which can be a nightmare for claustrophobics, I started photographing history. Three sweating craftsmen were making fabric on traditional machines. Wearing sleeveless shirts on a very hot day, their toned muscles were a clear reflection of their physically demanding job.
The shop was built in 1373 and was restored five years ago.
“We produce various traditional fabrics for djellabas and curtains,” said shop owner El Ouarti Abdelilah. “We make up to two djellaba fabrics, if we work very hard. We are struggling to survive in the face of modern technology and [products] made in China,” he sighed.
A few metres away sits Fondouk Kaat Smen — “The Butter Market.” The Fondouk, which dates to the 17th century, is home to the finest butter, Khlea (dried meat) and honey. In the past, merchants would pack products in large clay jars, preserving their flavours. The blue plastic barrels now used are an indication of how local traditions are being modernised.
The making of dried meat has persevered throughout generations at some shops. Abdel Aali Bencheikh’s is one of them. “We’ve been here for 50 years. I inherited this job from my father,” said Bencheikh, who sells a kilo of dried meat for 100 Moroccan dirhams ($10).
He took me to the adjacent shop to show off the types of honey he also sells.
“Every type of honey can cure a disease, from kidney failures to a sore throat,” he said, referring to the Quranic verse: “From inside them comes a drink of varying colours, containing healing for mankind.”
I headed to Zaouia Moulay Idriss II at the Green March Square to rest after a long walk. The Zaouia, which was built by the Marinids around 1440, bears the name of the founder of Fez.
Hundreds of Muslim visitors journey to the mausoleum every day in the hope of seeking good fortune and a trouble-free life. Some women reportedly visit it with the intention of becoming fertile.
“Visitors light the candles in the hope of making their wishes come true and lighten their paths,” said Youssef Agouti, one of the guardians of the mausoleum.
Non-Muslim visitors are not allowed in but take pictures from the entrance.
When I reached the colourful Chouara tannery, I had to walk up to the terrace of a leather shop to have the perfect view of it.
The first thing that caught my attention was the strong smell coming out of a string of stone vessels filled with dyes and various liquids. It was midday in a scorching heat and workers were soaking the hides of cows, camels, sheep and goats to turn them into high-quality leather products. The process is long and physically demanding. Once the leather is dyed, it is laid on covers to dry under the sun.
Saad Guerraoui is a regular contributor to The Arab Weekly on Maghreb issues.