The Occasional Tales of Ailsa B du Bois

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Inside the funky, cool medina…

Posted by Ailsa B du Bois on May 28, 2009

Yesterday we spent the majority of the day within the 16 (distinctively un-) square kilometres of the ancient medina in the oldest part of Fez.  Fez was settled in 808 A.D. and it really does show: there are 9,400 known streets within the medina, and it is a medieval maze of the purest surviving type.  These alley-ways are very narrow, and often covered or semi-covered with an ensemble of bric-o-brac wooden planks.  The walls that enclose each building within the medina tower up about 3 to 4 stories, at all sorts of irregular angles.  Everything is crumbling, and the pathways are cobbled and uneven with broken and dishevelled sections underfoot.   One must tread even more carefully than in a New York street, and putrid waste is often under-foot.  It is a step way back in time, to a genuinely medieval way of life that you rarely witness elsewhere; except maybe Cairo or Calcutta by memory, or possibly also Damascus, I’m told.

I could not tell you how many thousands of people live their lives in there, but I can report that every little merchant shop is 2 metres-wide and maybe 2.5 metres deep, and they go on and on beyond the stretch of imagination, each competing for the surely finite local consumer dhurum.  There are an enormous range of goods and services within the medina; whole alleys of the most ornately embroidered and glittering wedding jalaba’s, and huge glitzy wedding chariots and oversized thrones for the married couple, made of tin, it seemed to me, but covered in the sparkliest of adornments.

The Moroccans are oustanding artisans and craftspeople, and countless people toil by hand on the most detailed of repetitive tasks: some highly skilled, and others not so skilled.  We observed carpet makers, tanners (sulpher and natural dye), silk threaders, ceramacists, tailors, barbers, jewellers, goldsmiths, tile makers,copper-smiths, dentists (eek…),  sweet-makers, cherry sellers, nougat-makers, nut and spice sellers, fish-mongers with their unrefridgerated seafood crawling with flies, chicken and pidgeon breeders, butchers with whole marinated raw ram’s heads hanging from their stalls, and so on and so on…  Merchants, vendors, tradespeople, and the poor, all sênd their lives in this congested environment, scratching a living together.

As you trudge through the medina, up sloped paths and around sudden corners and down steps in the dark, and momentarily out into a shot of blinding sunshine, and back into the yellowed half light again, one must be ready at any moment to stick quickly against the cold, dank, side walls to avoid the poor, wretched mule or donkey that charges past, wobbling with a body loaded with potatoes, or carting a large metal carriage of bags of rice or cous-cous, or one must make way for the grisly motor-bike laden with bags of fresh mint, or tobacco or whatever else they may be carrying along somewhere in a great hurry, to service someone.  And be careful not to step on an old one eyed cat, or a litter of adolescent kittens, that slink about, keeping the potential rat problem under wraps.  Elderly Berber women with their facial and hand tattoos indicating tribal affiliation and marital status sit cross-legged under foot, peeling vegetables or stringing beans,  and all in all this is a very fascinating place to visit.  The Arabic music plays and the aroma’s of all varieties, add to the experience.  So many people living their lives inside the medina, down darkened alley’s and behind grand closed wood and metal gates that are often over 1,000 years old.

Gorgeous, dusty looking children run past you constanatly, some saying ‘Bonjor Madame’ as French is taught here as the second language fro, Grade ” onward.  Blind men beg of course, and some entertain in traditional Berber dress, with swirling bells on their lttle hats, hoping for baksheesh.  Many women of the veil wear their scarf over their face often to protect themselves from the dust it seems to me, as many carts clatter past with loose plaster and concrete dust aboard, and you never know what you might inhale next.  Most of the homes here do not have internal water, so women and children collect water from the communal pumps.  You could get seriously lost in the medina, and frankly anything could happen to you.

I could type on for hours about the medina, but this tri-lingual key-board is rather challenging: part French, Arabic and English in lay-out and conventions – It’s a bit of a brain-twister for me.  And so, I conclude that the funky, cool medina is a sincerely fascinating place to visit, and everyone should do so, at some point, to get things into perspective!

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