Man in the presence of man is as solitary as in the face of a wide winter sky...
Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, Wind, Sand and Stars, 1939
The two hundred kilometres between Chefchaouen and Fès juxtapose with awesome beauty the rugged grandeur of the Rif with the calm serenity of the Sebou River's basin. Coming from the north, jagged black cliffs and misty snow capped peaks give way to gently rolling hills and great fields of all shade green, peppered with poppy, wild iris, and the prickly Barbary fig. Thousands of tiny rivulets, swollen from the fresh rainfall, splashed and gurgled down the mountains. High above, eagles soared on warm Mediterranean thermals, and below, the air bore the delicate perfume of red wooded fir in the dew, mingled with the intoxicating sweetness of manure. White egrets and swifts darted about clean, fish fed waters, and muddy clay tracks dotted with miniature blooms of lilac and royal blue, wound like dreamlines across orchards of olive and almond. Bees burdened with bursting pollen sacks hopped from flower to flower: glistening buttercups and dandelions, silvery green pikes of purple thistles, and the surreal paper-like blooms of cacti. Columns of worker ants struggled to create some order out of the kaleidoscope of petals strewn over the steaming soil. A solitary dung beetle scuttled from under a leaf to a rock, and then stopped as though it had sensed that my gaze rested upon it. Two butterflies fluttered past my head as I cycled, and I swore that I could hear the beating of their wings.
Always there is music in the mountains, a hypnotic weave of Nature's rhythm and song: distant rushing cascades; the eternal whisper of a gentle breeze; the rattle pulse of grasshoppers; the fine embroidery of bird song. Wild ducks honked and hooted, imitating the klaxons of the few buses and trucks that passed me by. Under their loads of leafy branches and hay, the latter looked like giant furry caterpillars as they ground up the winding roads. Now and then there were bursts like firecrackers from swallows, the cooing of pigeons and turtledoves, and the plaintive calls of cuckoos from ruined farmhouses. And between the songs of the heavens and the rhythms of the earth, the spooky heehawing of donkeys, the bleating of goats, and the howls and barks of the dogs that guarded them. Delacroix and Tennessee Williams, Truman Capote, the Millers, and Paul and Jane Bowles... I could easily see what had so enchanted them about Morocco, and it was similarly easy to sense the aura of simplicity and purity that had helped forge the hippie trails of the 1960s. The existentialists, the freaks, the beatniks and the bad poets, all were here, in addition to an inter-war community of pig-sticking expatriates. Chacun pour soi et à son goût. For my part, I was both happy and relieved to be back on the road, if only for a couple of days until Fès. Surprise was probably my strongest emotion surprise that I'd cycled from Manchester to get here, and surprise at my desire to travel on further south. From Chefchaouen, the narrow mountain road wends its way past the tiny cross-roads hamlet of Derdara to El-Had, through which the border of the Spanish and French protectorates used to run. The dilapidated ruins of the old frontier post still stand, in the form of dozens of crumbling and boarded up kiosks, their paint yellowed and flaking. Nearby houses lie half buried under landslides. Nothing stirred.
Out of El-Had, the road snakes its way along the steep sided valley of the River Lekkous. Sixty kilometres downstream is Ksar el-Kebir; 'the Great Fortress' where, in 1578, the twenty-six-thousand strong army of the young Dom Sebastião of Portugal was annihilated by the Moors. The Battle of the Three Kings, as it became known, rung the knell for imperial Portugal, which within two years had fallen under the rule of Spain's Philip the Prudent, the man who in spite of his name was to sail the Armada against England.
Further along the Lekkous, some seventy kilometres from Chefchaouen, is the mountain stronghold of Ouezzane, poised like a fat spider in the centre of a web of winding lanes, donkey tracks, and forbidding hedges of aloe, prickly pear, and bamboo. Ouezzane marks the ancient boundary between the Bled es-Siba and the Bled el-Makhzen: the 'Lands of the Treasury' over which the Sultans of Fès and their armies held sway. Founded early in the eighteenth century by local sharifs, within a hundred years Ouezzane had acquired a fearsome reputation as one of the most lawless towns in Morocco. Its inhabitants, a broad mixture of Arabs and Berbers typical of Maghrebi frontier towns, had the proud saying: we have no need of the sultan, but the sultan needs us. Like Chefchaouen, the town has a distinctly Andalusian flavour, but little of Chefchaouen's charm or beauty. Half built buildings shrouded in crazy wooden scaffolding mingle with ugly colonial period villas, flapping yellow and blue tarpaulin hoardings, corrugated metal roofs and unpainted walls. It started raining again and, despite the physical effort of cycling, I grew cold. In addition, the rain shrank my shorts so much that even pedalling downhill became difficult. The wind, too, picked up, at times gusting so strongly that I was obliged to stop cycling merely to prevent my being blown over.
In spite of the weather, I saw children everywhere. Or perhaps it was because of the weather the all enveloping mist and rain that whenever I did see people or things that might be considered unusual, I remarked all the more keenly on them, for they appeared out of the downpour like ghosts materialising on a haunted schooner's deck. All along the road, if they were not busy playing chicken with buses or trucks, the children would sprint up beside me, and still find the breath to shout: 'Bonjour monsieur, ça va bien?' or 'Hola, señor! Amigo!' coupled with demands for dirhams, cigarettes, pens and sweets. There was also the occasional offer of 'Hash? Smoke? Very good quality!' whilst they stood puffing in the mist on imaginary cigarettes. Other people dropped their work just to stare and gaze for a moment at the passing cyclist. Some of them waved or shouted encouragement. All replied to a friendly greeting or smile. A blue Ford pickup loaded with a dozen colourful Berber ladies zoomed by, its unusual cargo shouting jovial insults at the bedraggled Nazarene.
Here and there, often where I would least expect it, were tiny hamlets a dozen dwellings at most constructed of irregular rocks and stones, with overhanging thatches of soil, weeds and straw. Some had peculiarly English style gardens and gated archways made of brambles, sweetbrier roses and twigs, that should have been adorned with wooden signs reading 'Home, Sweet Home'. I was continually surprised by the number of people out on the mountains on this dreary day, most of them working among terraced crops guarded by tin-oofed huts not unlike those in the Indian foothills of the Himalayas. At the village of Kharrouba, I had to make way for a funeral procession. The coffin was draped in a muslin shroud of tranquil green, the colour of Islam. In the falling rain, the solemn little procession moved slowly, and with little sound, to an olive tree, which it circled just once, before marching off and up into the hillside beyond, and back into the mist. Further on, where a flock of sheep obstructed the road, bored drivers chatted amiably with the shepherd as his livelihood waddled across and over the bridge.
In places, the mouldering remains of last year's haystacks steamed. Donkeys browsed on gently swooping hills scabbed with exposed rock and fleshy red soil. On the crests of the hills were beautiful little villages with modest minarets, low walls, and window frames plastered with lime. Passing Aïn Dorij, Mjara, and then a few citrus orchards and vegetable plots, the road wound its way down to the River Ouerrha. Its banks were flanked with soldierly ranks of silver flecked black birches, and in its waters swam three cattle and a goat tended by a little boy. He was hardly older than six or seven, and laughed and giggled as he waved. Upstream, a solitary white heron stood stock still, greedily eyeing the waters. The river marks the southern boundary of the Rif and the beginning of a series of rolling pastures and flat, windblown spaces. Here, the spring mornings hang heavy with dew, wet and sweet, caressing the soil of Africa's dreaming. Here, too, are broken-backed trees that look as though they have been standing forever. In a riverside cherry tree, a kingfisher sat waiting, while in the reeds and jungly broad bean plantations, prehistoric locusts hummed or snarled. The first sign that I was getting close to Fès was the cherry trees that lined the road, their trunks whitewashed French style. Then, several settlements containing unfinished concrete buildings. Nearer still, I passed the comical sight of a field that had sprouted hundreds of lampposts, and was merely awaiting the construction of the allocated roads and buildings.
'Hey, Frenchman! What are you doing?' It was a youth on a moped.
'Not French, English. What does it look like I'm doing?'
'Heh? Engleesh? Hey, meester, Fès no good! Too much a-hustle-la bustle!' I carried on cycling.
'Hey, my friend! You wanna good time? I show you a good time. Listen, you want hash? You want chocolate? [hashish] I have contacts. I can get anything. You want smack?' I tried to ignore him.
'Aah, I know you, my friend. You were here last year. Come, follow me, I have a good time good place!'
I'd had the same reception on cycling into Tetouan, north of Chefchaouen, only then I'd ended up buying a carpet that I only got rid of in Chefchaouen. I wasn't falling for that trick again, and eventually managed to lose my self-appointed guide in the jumbled outskirts of Fès.
* * *
There is no city in the world quite like Fès. On approaching, it is a sprawl of ashen walls and green roofs that fills an entire valley like a river in flood, perennially shrouded in clouds of benzene grey. It is the most ancient, and indeed the greatest, of Morocco's imperial cities. With a population of over half a million, Fès is a crazy place: frenetic and frantic, teeming and claustrophobic, decrepit and majestic, rotten or even psychotic, but always vibrant, Fès attracts superlatives like wasps to a honey pot.
Narrow streets and dim filthy alleyways wind endlessly up and down, around and around, crammed with a heaving mass of people, of music, noise and smells, and braying donkeys that pull rickety carts laden with great piles of oranges or stinking hides. Fès is the last great medieval city on earth, frozen in a time when nomads from the Sahara and its southern fringes, and travelling merchants from as far away as Tunisia and Libya, Andalusia and Galicia, mingled with mountain Berbers and Arabs alike at the greatest cultural and commercial cross-roads of Northwest Africa, confluence of the varied influences of Islam, desert, mountains and sea. The medieval comparison is irresistible. In almost every back street and alley, there are old men who look every bit like the gods and saints of a Dürer or Blake, complete with long white beards and furrowed brows. There are cringing beggars with no legs or arms, who will murmur disturbing curses lest one pass them by unnoticed. In the corner of one's eye, there are also mysterious shadows and hooded figures that seem to float behind screens of smoke spiralling up from charcoal fired braziers. The air drips with the misty odours of musk and cinnamon, incense, urine and flesh.
Fès is at once both everything wonderful and loathsome about the human condition. One could compare it to an amethyst geode, filled with thousands of sparkling gemstones, or else the bloated and maggot ridden underbelly of a society that has long since outgrown itself. Fès is also a city filled with the hauntings of past civilisations, a repository for the ravenous egos of sultans and conquerors of long ago, who left their mark in rock and stone hewn of the blood of countless legions of slaves. The city has all the charm of Paris, Barcelona, New York or Berlin, successively conquered and deflowered, only without the deceitful facade of progress. It is a city stripped of all decoration and pretence, a naked throng of humanity, and unashamed at that. Fès is a sinister world of dark forgotten corners, cheap hotels and dank awakening dawns, a world of flick knives, blood spattered needles and dangerous sex...
Though it is only too true to say that chaos thrives within its walls, within this chaos there is a bedrock of order too, for otherwise the city would long ago have blown away into the dust. It was in the year 786 one hundred and fifty years after the death of the Prophet Muhammad that one of his descendants laid foot in Morocco. The man was Idriss ibn Abdallah, destined to become Moulay Idriss, patron saint of Morocco and founder of Fès. Implicated in a failed rebellion against the Arabian Abbasids, he had fled Baghdad and come to the 'Land of the Setting Sun', beyond which one could travel no further.
Idriss settled near the Roman ruins of Volubilis, the former capital of Mauretania Tingitania and of King Juba II, descendant of Hannibal and husband of Cleopatra Silene. Moulay Idriss was quick to find acceptance among the Berbers as their imam and, before long, had established Morocco's very first independent Islamic kingdom. Near Volubilis, Moulay Idriss built his capital (which was later named in his honour), but more importantly for us, he was to lay the foundations of Fès el-Bali (literally 'Old Fès'), in a shallow river basin some sixty kilometres to the east, strategically situated at the convergence of major routes to all corners of the compass.
Unfortunately for Moulay Idriss, he did not live to see his plans come to fruition, for, despite having taken refuge at the very edge of the then known world, he was poisoned in 791 by an Abbasid agent under orders from Harun al-Rachid, anti-hero of The Thousand and One Nights. His son, Idriss II, however, resolved to continue his father's work, and began the construction of the town in earnest. By all accounts, the young Idriss was a remarkable man, and in time, like his father, was to accrue a reputation verging on the fabulous. At the age of four, it is said, the infant Idriss could read to perfection. At five he was able to write better than his mentors, and at the age of eight, he had memorised all 114 suras of the Qur'an. He became sovereign five years later, and began the construction of Fès at the age of 16, three years younger than I was. Walter Harris wrote: 'The history of Fez is composed of wars and murders, triumph of arts and sciences, and a good deal of imagination.' To this might be added that it is only through a child's imagination that a city such as Fès could even have been envisioned.
The growth of Fès was rapid, boosted early in the ninth century by two Arab migrations. The first were refugees fleeing civil war in Córdoba, who were to settle on the eastern bank of the River Fès in an area that became known as Adwat al-Andalus, 'the Andalusian Quarter'. The second great influx heralded from the holy Tunisian city of Kairouan: an exodus that followed in the illustrious footsteps of Sidi Uqba ibn Nafi, the Umayyad founder and governor of Kairouan, whose crusading Islamic army had swept westwards a century earlier to convert the pagan Berbers. Together, these two migrations ensured that for centuries to come, Fès was to be a centre of unrivalled intellectual and artistic splendour, combining the traditions of ancient Rome and Greece with aspects of Judaism, Christianity and, of course, Islam. The Arab poet al-Maqqari, in whose opinion the Muslim city of Córdoba surpassed all others, noted that of its many virtues, the greatest of all was knowledge. To this might be added commercial acumen, and the skills of artists and artisans. The Kairouanese, for their part, brought with them all the spiritual glory of Islam. It was the Kairouanese who founded Fès' famed Qarawiyin mosque and theological college, which survives to this day as the oldest university in the world.
The city continued to blossom in the eleventh century, with the coming of the Berber Almoravids (al-Murabitun). They were crusading Islamic reformers from the Western Sahara, under whose rule, Islam was finally and firmly established throughout Morocco (murabit, the singular of murabitun, is the same as marabout). Yet the most astonishing millenarian legacy of the Almoravids is not Islam, but Fès' subterranean water and sewage system, an incredible feat of hydro-engineering that survives to this day in full working order. That the sewers have outlived every other Almoravid construction in Fès is an irony of the first magnitude. Faith and Sewerage, two of the most basic requirements of successful civilisation!
The Almoravids were in turn supplanted by the Almohads, Berbers this time from the High Atlas, who had despaired at laxening moral standards (the eternal corruption of power). The reign of the Almohads saw the establishment of the greatest and most durable Islamic empire that North Africa was ever to see, ruling at its zenith from the Atlantic to Cyrenaica, and from Castile to Timbuctoo. Theirs was a time of burgeoning military power, of great civilisation, and a flourishing of the arts, which combined the delicate artistry of Andalusia with the strength and pride of the Berbers (the Almohads built Seville's Giralda tower). Although Fès itself was largely ignored by the Almohads (the capital had been moved to Marrakesh by the Almoravids), their rule gave Fès its first real taste of trade and commerce through the expansion of the Saharan trade routes that were to become so important in the centuries to come (and along which, I was partly to travel).
The city's immediate fortunes changed for the better in the mid-thirteenth century with the ascension of the Merinids, the last of the Berber dynasties, who moved the seat of power back to Fès. Their most visible work was the construction of an entirely new city - Fès Jdid ('New Fès') - on the southwestern edge of the old town. Fès Jdid's still largely intact system of double-walled battlements betray the fact that it was constructed as much to guard against rebellious citizens as to repel the Iberian Catholics. Regardless, the following three centuries proved to be quite literally a golden age for Fès, for they saw a still greater expansion of the trans-Saharan trade with West Africa, a region famed since ancient times for its gold. Gold, of course, was money, which in itself prompted a cultural and intellectual renaissance. The qa'ida, for instance the proper conduct of gentlemen reached its final formulation, encompassing values such as courtesy, formality, politeness and hospitality, values for which Morocco is still well known. Architecture, too, attained a finesse never to be surpassed. Granada's Alhambra Palace, the most beautiful Moorish construction that I have ever seen, is but one example.
After the Rise comes always the Fall.
1492 was a year of great fate. Not only did Christopher Columbus sail the ocean blue to discover America, but the Moorish kingdom of Granada the last bastion of Iberian Islam finally succumbed to the combined forces of Isabel and Fernando, the Catholic Queen and King of Castilla and Aragon. In March of that year, the notorious 'purity of blood' laws were passed, which effectively offered Spanish Moors and Jews the options of conversion or expulsion, or worse... Over the next century, hundreds of thousands of refugees fled to North Africa, many settling in Fès Jdid. In this chaotic atmosphere of war and flight, the Catholics pushed on and into the African continent, establishing control over a number of coastal positions (of which the enclaves of Ceuta and Melilla are retained to this day). From then on, Fès was to figure little in Moroccan history. That is, until 1912, when it became the unwilling stage for the signing of a treaty that partitioned Morocco between France and Spain: the infamous Treaty of Fès. Two weeks after the signing, open rebellion broke out in Fès el-Bali, in which eighty Europeans were lynched. The next day, the French bombarded the city and promptly compounded Fès' humiliation by moving the seat of power to Rabat, where it remains to this day.
Yet, what may appear at first sight to have been a disastrous episode for the city, in a sense helped to preserve its status as Morocco's most dearly loved symbol of nationalist pride, for it was never to be tainted by the stigma of having hosted the government of the infidels. We see in Fès today a personification of life, for she now gazes out at the twentieth century through tired and bloodshot eyes, perhaps half-blind or short-sighted, her former beauty shrivelled and scarred in old age. Her heart still beats to the medieval rhythms of a time when the city was the greatest of all Islamic cities, perhaps even of the world. Even today, she commands very much the same respect and admiration that Athens and Rome must have attracted in days gone by. But Fès is more than just a crumbling monument to a millennium of government and the vicissitudes of war. Fès is a palpably living monument, as was sometimes depressingly obvious. Fès, like Morocco, like my grandmother, is a stubborn old woman who simply refuses to die.
* * *
After a confusing hour spent negotiating my way through the modern, French built part of town, I found myself in a small, dark and old fashioned coffee shop beside Bab Boujeloud the main gateway into the thousand-year-old city of Fès el-Bali. Bab Boujeloud serves as a modern day equivalent of the old camel caravanserais, for it is the terminus for buses and travellers from all over the kingdom.
Five old men were sitting around, all with furrowed brows. All of them, too, had spectacles perched on their noses, and only loosely buttoned shirts. A couple of them distinguished themselves by poring over the morning papers, black coffee and packets of filterless cigarettes at hand. The only other customer in the café was about thirty years old, and wore blue denim jeans, a blue denim jacket, and a blue denim flop hat. He also had blue eyes unusual in Morocco blue eyes that stared straight into mine with an icy coldness that was distinctly unnerving, icy blue eyes that only melted when the man's coffee was served.
The square and bus station were buzzing. Morocco is a nation of people forever on the move. The hustlers and faux-guides were out in force, easily identifiable in their flashy zoot suits and Milanese brogues. They awaited the arrival of fresh faced tourists with the eagerness of vultures scavenging for carrion. Young men in baseball hats and trainers glanced anxiously around, hawking digital watches and sunglasses. There were women veiled from head to toe in white linen, dragging complaining children behind them with thick, muscly arms. There were middle aged men in the usual stripy jellabas and yellow baboush slippers, and others, more pious, in white robes, white turbans or skull caps, kneeling in prayer on the damp pavement. There were many dark faces, too, some with faintly Negroid features: a lasting reminder of the Maghreb's slave trading days.
At the gaping entrances to the garages, some enterprising people had set up stalls, supplying almost anything that one might require on a long bus journey. There was freshly squeezed orange juice cooled on slabs of ice, bread and hard boiled eggs, sweet cakes, yoghurts and cigarettes. Nearby, a glum teenager sat behind a barrow bedecked with pyramids of chocolate bars, chewing gum and boiled sweets. Hopeful olive oil vendors from the groves around Fès mingled with shoeblacks and boys peddling slices of chickpea flan from large metal platters. Other kids strutted about shouting 'el-ma!' (water) which they dispensed in plastic tumblers.
A group of anxious and baby-faced soldiers remonstrated with a man who appeared to be in charge of the buses. One of the soldiers was quite flushed, and gesticulated fiercely at his watch. The other passengers - mainly old women wrapped in haiks - looked up only briefly, and then continued their conversations whilst chewing cashew nuts. A couple of Canadian back packers with maple leaf flags stuck on their rucksacks descended from the Tangier bus, only to be mobbed by a crowd of hustlers. Other buses, also recently arrived, bore great netted cargoes of old bicycles, gigantic torn suitcases and vast garlands of straw hats destined for the bazaars.
One man, his face an etching of tireless indefatigability, paced up and down between the knots of stranded travellers, reciting at breakneck speed paragraphs from some of the greatest works of Arabic literature: Qur'ans with gold-embossed leather binding, various collections of Hadiths (sayings of the Prophet, also available on cassette), paperback extracts from Ibn Khaldun's monumental History of the World, the novels of the Egyptian Naguib Mahfouz, and cheap editions of equally cheap love poetry.
The mournful clanging of a brass bell turned several heads. A wizened and moustachioed garabe (water seller) had appeared. He looked morose, perhaps because the bulk of his business had recently been taken over by the children. He wore the garabe's traditional dress, consisting of a pompommed sombrero, a multicoloured sequinned tunic, and a leather apron emblazoned with hundreds of old coins and copper trimmings. Over this was slung a goatskin bag, from which several brass tubes and taps protruded, altogether not unlike a pair of bagpipes. Hooked on to all this were ten highly polished brass bowls and cups. At first glance, one could be forgiven for mistaking him for an ironmonger.
Presently, the man who seemed to be in charge of the buses announced the imminent departure of the Rif service. 'Tetouan, Ouezzane, hash-hash, chocolaaté!' he bawled, much to everyone's amusement. The soldiers, ladies, and a few wrinkled old men in ill-fitting shoes, stood up and prepared to do battle. In the café, the denim man took the announcement as a cue. He sidled up to me and unclasped his hands, to reveal two-dozen cellophane-wrapped pieces of hashish.
Beside the bus station is Bab Boujeloud itself, a bulky triple-arched gateway that spans one of the city's busiest thoroughfares. The gate (bab), in Mauro-Andalusian style (despite being built by the French in 1913) is one of over a dozen ringing the peripheries of Fès el-Bali and Fès Jdid. Its horseshoe arches are decorated with turquoise enamel tiles on one side, and deep blue on the other, patterned in the form of stars and curlicues. The pillars in-between bore the tattered remains of posters, which flapped in the breeze, whilst thousands of pigeons sat crooning in the pockmarked battlements. From the hills around Fès, these walls give the city an aura of having always been under siege. Not only the Iberians needed protecting against, but bands of anarchic Berber marauders. To a citizen of Fès, the land outside the city walls must have seemed as hostile and inhospitable as a limitless ocean must appear to a shipwrecked mariner. The walls are most definitely a frontier: to pass under the arches of Bab Boujeloud is to enter a world at once both open and closed to strangers.
The actual quarter of Boujeloud lies just inside the battlements. Much of it consists of cramped dwellings and cheap hotels, decrepit, though not without a certain charm. A labyrinth of covered passages and metre wide side-alleys opens onto half-hidden underground workshops, timber houses with collapsing wrought iron balconies, and strange, forbidding doors. For much of the day, the cobbled artery that slices through Boujeloud is a swirling mass of people, donkeys, mopeds and motorised carts, a torrent of sweat and shouts and elbows, and dislocated hands with nicotine-stained fingers that trail smoking fag butts in their wake. There are so many people that walking into the midst of them all is like learning to swim all over again. You have the choice of either standing aside and of being pushed in, or of leaping in yourself and hoping for the best. Fumes, fezzes, hijab veils, turbans, shawls, shorn scalps, skull caps, mysterious cloth-wrapped bundles, and sometimes even a television balanced on somebody's head, was usually all that I could see. That is, unless I looked down at the cobbles, where I once stumbled over a burst bag of offal, and another time a dead cat.
Above the mass of rippling heads, two minarets escape the chaos to greet the sky. The one on the right belongs to the battered eleventh-century mosque of Sidi Lazzaz, crumbling away in shades of mud brown and a strange fawny lilac, on top of which are the remains of a stork's nest. The other minaret, surmounted by two golden orbs, is part of the fourteenth-century Madrasa (religious college) of Bou Inania, Fès' largest and most ornate, whose rectangular marble-paved courtyard is decorated in the most lavish fashion. There are inconceivably intricate swirling arabesques that have weathered to a rich olive green (Baudelaire considered them the most spiritual and ideal of all designs), onyx columns and pillars, mosaics of amber, jade and blue, Moorish arches bridged with cedar wood panels bearing framed quotations from the Qur'an in flowery Kufic script, and, most incredible of all, fantastic cascades of vaulted stucco stalactites that look as though they were built by opium-crazed termites. Like the Moorish palace of the Alhambra, it is easy to become entrapped in the spiritual web of the madrasa's beauty, easy to sense the awe it inspires in the devout, easy to wonder at the divine perfection of His Creation. It is doubly incredible, since every inch of the building relies on abstraction alone for its power: the Qur'an forbids the depiction of any of Allah's creations on the grounds that such reproductions would inevitably deform His divinely-wrought Perfection.
With its two hundred mosques and holy shrines, Fès contains more places of worship than any other Moroccan city. At its peak, early in the thirteenth century, Fès el-Bali alone boasted almost eight hundred mosques and mausolea for its 125,000 inhabitants. By the seventeenth century, however, the Scottish traveller William Lithgow reported (in his wonderfully eccentric Totall Discourse of The Rare Adventures & Painefull Peregrinations of...) that the places of worship were by far outstripped by some twelve thousand licensed brothels! As the Victorian traveller Budgett Meakin remarked:
Fez is at once the most religious and the most wicked city of, Morocco... the saints and sinners being for the most part identical.
Not even a hundred yards beyond the bab, the street dives sharply to the right and then again to the left. Here is a small collection of cafés and cheap eateries, displaying spicy brochettes on open grills, steaming vats of harira, pickled peppers, roasted sardines, oily aubergine fritters, merguez sausages and kefta meatballs. Around the corner is the Boujeloud picture palace, its walls plastered with lascivious posters advertising ambiguously titled soft porn. The one that particularly sticks in mind was called Les Aventures de Miss Jones. This is the western end of the Tala Kebira, a narrow cobbled street flanked with ancient timber houses, that snakes its way along the length of Fès el-Bali to the Qarawiyin Mosque encompassing along its journey many of Fès' most atmospheric souks and markets. There are frequent traffic jams, caused more often than not by asses laden with huge coiled skeins of wool destined for the dyers' quarter at the far end of the medina.
The array of shops and boutiques, sights, smells and sounds, was bewildering, a strange and eclectic mixture of the old and new, the bizarre and the mundane. Music cassettes were stacked up beside grotesque boiled sheep heads, alongside embroidered sashes and braids, black tobacco, French after shave, crystallised fruit and candied flowers, and unfortunate squawking chickens hanging upside-down from the rafters. One little stall devoted itself exclusively to fizzy drinks. Another specialised in freshly pressed juices and milkshakes. Another sold only oils, including that of the argan tree - an efficient panacea and preservative, which the more fastidious garabes add to their water to leave a curious bitter-sweet aftertaste of almonds. Crowds of visiting Berbers milled around a hawker of coarse woollen clothes, while knots of fat Arab ladies imagined themselves dressed in semi-transparent mansouria robes and skimpy lace negligées. Elsewhere, younger women admired the latest in Bermuda shorts and T-shirts. All along there were tiny booths crammed with goods: joss sticks, brass trays and tumblers, knives, lutes, tam tams, and pointed velvet slippers embroidered with scrolling golden filigree. Other traders specialised in ornamental daggers and swords encrusted with semiprecious stones, weapons that until the turn of the century were bought for use rather than mere decoration. In the wider parts of the street, beefy cooks served up snails, cooked in peppery brews flavoured with cumin and rock salt, which are eaten using bent safety pins pricked into grapefruits and lemons to keep them sterile.
Sometimes, through heavy wooden doors stood half ajar, I caught glimpses of private tiled courtyards and ablution fonts, but within seconds, someone would bump into me and once more I would be caught in the irresistible flow of people. It was an experience akin to being swept into the ever decreasing spirals of a whirlpool, inexorably drawn on to its centre. La boïte à merveilles ("the box of wonders") - the title of Ahmed Sefrioui's fairy tale novel about a child growing up in Fès - could just as easily be used to describe the city itself.
It is at dusk that the medieval presence of Fès really imposes itself. Evenings in the Tala Kebira were a magical experience, when I stumbled around as in a dream, oblivious to the taunts of the hustlers and offers shouted from the first floor balconies of bazaars. It was as though the enveloping blackness reduced the world to only a few feet around me, a blur of images, movement and colour, with maybe the odd ghostly face that swam in and out of momentary focus. Cosy glows from orange bulbs, the flickering of candles, shouts and disembodied voices, the smell of sweat, and the aroma of incense and charcoal. Walking, floating, being pulled along by the crowds. At times I was conscious of only a great whirl of images, as though I were sitting on a painted horse of some fairground carousel. But in place of the melancholic steaming of psychotic organs there was the steady thumping of drums, providing the only form and continuity to all this madness, powering ever onwards into the night... Yet even at night, there were a few reminders of the twentieth century - the Tala Kebira is the stage for voyeurs and youth alike, the latter showing off their expensive Western clothes. Add to this the youthful craze of displaying scooters and motorbikes, whether there is enough room or not, and the mayhem often became unbearable.
Only at around the time of the last prayer, al-Ichae, did the streets finally begin to clear and the sticky gloom of night seep in through the gaps between the buildings. Thereafter, there were only a few kids left out in the streets, playing football under the sparse fluorescent lights. The Souk el-Attarine is the perfume and spice market, festooned with ornamental incense burners, and draped in a grey miasma of odours and sweat. Nearby is the Zaouïa (sanctuary) of Moulay Idriss II, rebuilt in the fifteenth century, and a place where hundreds of pilgrims come each day to pay their respects, and hopefully to receive a portion of the good man's baraka in return. The plastic awning that covers parts of the souk (the rest is shaded under wicker matting), swells and falls in the wind. Under this shelter is to be found every spice, herb, magical charm and traditional remedy imaginable, a full listing and description of which could easily occupy a book in itself. A dwarfish Berber lady waddled about balancing an enormous slab of grey rock salt on her head, a luxury still mined in the desert, and one that is reputed to be good for the soul. A little girl played peekaboo around her mother's legs, who glared accusingly at me as she caught my gaze. Other girls stood giggling in the darker corners of the souk, while their brothers shouted and screamed insults at me. I must have presented a welcome change from taunting weary asses.
A short distance further on is the henna souk, a pleasant shaded square where great hessian sacks of the stuff are haggled over. Nearby shops and stalls sell waxy blocks of pungent amber-coloured deer musk, treacly black soap, medicinal barks, and large silvery slabs of toxic antimony, used for eyeliner. The celebrated Nejarine (Carpenters') fountain dominates a small triangular plaza at the head of the Souk el-Attarine, and has the calm and summery feel of a small town square on the French Riviera. The surrounding area contains the glittering jewellers' souk, not quite the same since the departure of the Jews. The fountain itself is decorated with turquoise zellij tiling - geometric mosaics made from chipped glazed tiles - a form of decoration that became popular under the Merinids. Like Moorish baths, fountains are a traditional gathering place for women, places where they can socialise without their menfolk, and without the more stringent restrictions of Islam, places where they can go to savour all the latest gossip as well as to purify themselves. When I first strayed into this part of town, in cycling shorts and shoes, my arrival warranted much muffled laughter and surreptitious finger pointing. I quickly got the hint, and slunk away.
In the midst of all this is Fès' most brilliant jewel, the Qarawiyin mosque and university. It was founded in the year 859 by Fatima el-Fihri, pious daughter of a wealthy Kairouan refugee. It is here, behind fourteen bronze clad doors through which no Christian may enter, that much of Fès' intellectual and spiritual greatness was spawned. Capable of holding an astonishing twenty thousand worshippers, the Qarawiyin is not only Morocco's largest mosque, but the world's oldest surviving university, predating both Oxford and Cambridge by over three centuries. To many minds, it is rivalled in prestige only by the al-Azhar of Cairo. The knowledge that was developed and nurtured here was to play a vital role not only in Arab and Islamic history, but in that of Europe too. Even in its earliest days, the Qarawiyin had become the focal point not only for theology, at which it excelled, but for the disciplines of philosophy, medicine, poetry, history, astronomy, and mathematics. The latter, especially, owes a great deal to the learned men of the Qarawiyin. So strong was its reputation in this field that, barely a century after its foundation, the university attracted a certain Gerbert d'Auvergne - the future Pope Silvester II - who is believed to have brought back to Europe the system of Arabic numerals, the use of the decimal point, and the concept of the zero, all of which were developed in Fès for the use of mercantile cartography.
There are many other world famous alumni from the Qarawiyin, of which the following I mention only because I have had recourse to them elsewhere in this book. Ibn Rushd (or Averroës), the twelfth-century philosopher and physician, was one of the earliest to influence European thought. His translations of Aristotle, and his attempts at reconciling Aristotelian thinking with Islam, was of seminal importance to European scholasticism, and as a result he was honoured by appearing in Dante's Divine Comedy as a 'distinguished heathen'. Ibn Khaldun, the extraordinary fourteenth-century Arab historian and geographer, author of an immense and exhaustive world history entitled Muqaddimah, is believed to have taught here. His contemporary, the historian Ibn Battuta, who was one of the world's great travellers, and who among many other things left us the earliest firsthand account of West Africa. Also teaching at the Qarawiyin was Leo Africanus (2), to whom we are indebted for the foundations of much of our understanding of early North African and Sahelian history. In particular, his lavish description of the golden city of Timbuctoo (The history and description of Africa and of the notable things therein contained..., 1526) was for centuries to inspire innumerable and ultimately futile European expeditions to Darkest Africa's best kept secret.
Near the Qarawiyin is another triangular plaza, the Place es-Seffarine. It is dominated by an enormous fig tree, beside which, when I arrived, a couple of chestnut mules were nuzzling through the dirt. This is the heart of the ancient Adwat al-Andalus, where numerous braziers perform their anvil art to a loud and resonant rhythm of sorts, producing anything from candlesticks and censers to kettles and parts for narghili water pipes. The stores that line the place are painted a vulgar shade of lipstick mauve, but were thankfully hidden behind a clutter of brass tubs, some of them large enough to bathe in. In front of these were sat the proprietors, some in traditional tarboushes, baboushes and jellabas, others in tight nylon shirts and flared Terylene trousers straight out of the 1970s.
'Pssst... Nazarene.' I turned my head. 'Pssst. You, yes you! I want to talk to you. Come here!' And so saying, whoever it was would usually place a fatherly arm around my shoulder, lead me to a less public spot, and then come out with the most outrageous lies calculated to rid me of the burden of my wealth. On this occasion, the man wished to sell me a bath tub, or preferably five, with the promise that I was guaranteed to double my money on selling them in the Atlas Mountains. Perhaps another time, I said, Insha Allah - if Allah be Willing. As we were talking, an old man with a white beard, white turban and white jellaba rose by on a white ass. Behind him followed a blind man dressed all in black, who grinned broadly as he heard his stick strike the brass pots.
Around a few more corners and blind alleys, the thousand-year-old tanning yards of Chouara suddenly imposed themselves on my senses, mostly in terms of smell. The stench of the noxious tanning lye was quite simply beyond description, and it is for this reason that the tanners' quarter is situated at the far north of the medina, beside the city walls where the Oued Fès flows out of town, eventually to join the Oued Sebou. The busiest time for the tanners is after the religious festival of Aïd el-Kebir, fifty days after Ramadan, when Abraham's willingness to sacrifice his beloved son Isaac for the love of God is commemorated by the ritual slaughter of a sheep or goat.
The actual process of turning rawhide into workable leather came, along with the crafts of metal- and woodwork, with the Córdoban refugees in those days, absolute masters of their craft and from whom come the terms cordovan leather, cordwainer, and the French cordonnier. To begin, the skins are stripped and cleaned at the Fondouq el-Laine, just off the Tala Kebira, to which mules bring fresh skins from Boujeloud (which means 'Father of the Skins'). The next stage, at the tannery itself, involves a greenish concoction of either diluted pigeon excrement, water-logged wheat husks, or urine, any of which removes the hair and strengthens the leather. The tanners, understandably, are loathe to specify exactly which ingredients are used, perhaps to keep a trade secret, or more likely to avoid turning the stomachs of those who enquire. The penultimate stage is the tanning itself, which in the past involved a liquor made from tannin-rich bark, but which has now been superseded by chemicals.
The most picturesque element of the leather working process is the dyeing, which takes place a short distance upriver in the Souk Sabbighin. The best view is afforded from a tiny bridge over the purple waters of a branch of the Oued Fès, where the souk resembles an enormous honeycomb, within which poppy and ox-blood coloured vats are arranged with geometric precision into units of four, eight or twelve. All around the souk, hanging from ramshackle dwellings that resemble a Victorian slum, were the finished products, assorted according to their colour. Bright blue seemed to be particularly popular at this time.
The scene below was utterly medieval. Perhaps a dozen workers were at work under a blazing midday sun. Semi-naked men and boys squatted over, or were actually stood in, the vats: stirring, scrubbing, rinsing or wringing. Throughout the day, asses arrived continuously, piled high with freshly tanned skins or great skeins of wool, which were then dumped in a corner of the souk beside similar heaps.
'Pssst!' said a voice behind me. I swivelled around, startled, to see a grinning boy, barely into his teens, who held out his right hand.
'Hello! I am Mohamed,' he said in faultless English, his left hand shielding the glare from his eyes.
We shook hands, after which little Mohamed screamed with laughter, and dashed away into a side street. Somewhat confused, I glanced at my hand. Mysteriously, it had turned bright blue.
* * *
Fès is a city of a million secrets. At least, that's how it appears to the outsider.
The preceding pages have described only one street (the Tala Kebira) and the small section of town concerned with leather crafting, for which Fès and Morocco are justifiably famous. But all this is but a tiny sliver of Fès and of its daily life, and for the majority of Fès' inhabitants, the area that I have described is equivalent to their town centre, a place where they do their shopping, but nothing much else besides. The real heart of Fès is rarely seen in the guidebooks, for it has few, if any, monuments or landmarks to be gawped at. The heart of Fès is its real secret, a haven of calm, sheltered from the hot sun, from the hustlers, and from the noisy bustle of too many people. The heart of Fès has tall anonymous walls and dark, shadowy buildings that, in the oldest parts, rise up skywards to block out the light. In places, the houses are cluttered so closely that they seem to climb over each other, as though they had been forced to huddle up in order to make room for new arrivals. Many buildings have had to be supported with props and stays. Others have been left alone, and are half-ruined in consequence, shabbily patched-up with rusty corrugated iron, wood from vegetable crates, and even plastic sheeting.
The streets are cobbled and narrow, dwarfed by the buildings, and seem to be mere intrusions, like deep gashes slit into a mass of mortar and wood. The most astonishing thing, however, is the realisation that gradually creeps up on the wandering intruder that these streets are almost eerily empty. It is startling to realise that one can actually see all the way down to the end of each passageway. One can actually stop to think, examine or stare, without immediately being shunted back into an endless flood of people. In these unhurried streets, I found it easier to note my surroundings: stone arches like those of Jerusalem, weathered lime wash applied around small square windows, and overhanging grey painted balconies festooned with laundry and the odd pot of geraniums. There are great doors and wooden gates made of sturdy thuja wood from the Atlas Mountains, studded with row upon row of large, secure, bolts.
There are no shops or stalls here, no souks or bazaars, just the wooden doors and shuttered windows, and the endlessly spiralling passageways that more often than not turn out to be dead ends. In many places, the streets are so narrow as to be impassable even to a moderately burdened mule, but whereas in the busier parts of town the streets can appear to wind as in paranoid dreams of lost hopes and dead ends, dreams with screams that no one can hear, and dreams of endless running with no escape, here, the streets have a calming, even serene feel to them, somewhere where you feel no need to struggle free. There is without doubt an element of seduction here. One is at first enticed, then entrapped and enclosed, and finally blissfully lost. Old Fès is a haven of peace, a shaded oasis of calm that embraces its inhabitants and visitors as though they were its own children. There is no feeling of blind hostility, or of haste or oppression. Indeed, the silence is almost miraculous to someone having braved the crazy cacophony of the Tala Kebira, the Tala Seghira, or wherever, to get here. It is so quiet that on one occasion I gave a start when a large door opened suddenly and with a great creak to unleash a flood of children, the first human beings I'd seen in over half an hour.
Even the barred gates and imposing wooden doors have little that is personally antagonistic. On the contrary, these backwaters of Fès are perhaps the only place I have ever been where I have felt so strongly the feminine, motherly gender of a city, and the only place where I have ever understood the French delight in assigning sexes to inanimate things and objects. This motherly impression has an element of introverted privacy and secrecy, something perhaps inevitable among these anonymous walls and doors behind which whispers are traded. Fès is a city shrouded in a great veil of secrecy, a veil that I doubt even a lifetime would lift. It is this secrecy that makes Fès such a magical place.
* * *
It was during one of my aimless wanders around the old city that I met Abderrahim Ezzajli. Abderrahim had spent the last month in hospital, suffering from chronic bronchitis. He still found breathing difficult, despite which he continued to smoke. He had a sad face, red and round, with bushy eyebrows and milky brown eyes, and looked well over sixty, despite only being forty.
Abderrahim lived in the heart of thirteenth-century Fès Jdid. In a dark, unlit corner of the medina (dark even in mid-afternoon), we were greeted by his 22-year-old son, who looked equally haggard and exhausted. He had finished his studies the year before and was now apprenticed to a carpenter, although he dreamed of studying choral music in Holland. His father explained that he felt guilty about his bronchitis, because it had forced his son to give up his dreams: the family needed to live somehow. Their home consisted of one all-purpose room, tattily painted in green and purple, and lined with wooden benches doubling as beds. The only other room was the toilet, the usual hole in the ground. That was all. No running water, no bathroom, and only a single gas burner on which to cook. The Ezzajli family's only luxuries were a silver tea service and electricity, which intermittently fed a couple of dim bulbs and the television.
Most of my three evenings with the Ezzajlis were spent in silence, staring sullenly at the television. Moroccan TV, like the Tala Kebira, is an eclectic mixture of old and new, of Arab and Western influences. There were stiffly acted Egyptian melodramas, French wartime romances that few understood, and a fat bearded cook who wore a white turban and urged housewives to 'buy fish for the brain!' Ads for Royal Air Maroc publicised flights for this year's pilgrimage to Mecca: 'Bismillah (in the Name of Allah) ... our esteemed King and Leader ... it is our pleasure ... it is the duty of every good Muslim ... the Hajj ... you can fulfil your Hajj in luxury ... apply now before it is too late.' But oddest of all, and to my lasting astonishment, was seeing both male and female body building, in addition to professional wrestling, networked direct from the United States!
All this interspersed with slick adverts for BMWs, washing machines, mosquito spray and ten-minute clips of political propaganda, consisting of carefully edited archive footage of dams, tanks, planes, harvests, wars, handshakes, visiting heads of state and cultural expositions. Since the 1970s, broadcasting and the printed media has been rigidly controlled by the government (ie. King Hassan), and the newspapers habitually refer to the King with such epithets as 'the Unifier of the Country', 'His August Person', 'the Enlightened Guide and Liberator of the Nation', and 'the Reunificator and Sage of the People'. His Majesty occupies at least a couple of minutes of airtime at the beginning of TV and radio news bulletins, with interminable shots of dignitaries kissing his outstretched hands. Hassan II, like his father Muhammad V, in many ways epitomises the contradictions inherent in Moroccan life and politics. He treads a fine line (some say water) between outright dictatorship and benevolent patriarchy. He is all powerful, yet presides over a semi-elected parliament. By many people - especially those of Arab descent - he is virtually worshipped, whilst among others - notably the Berbers - he is hated with a passion that is equally hard to understand.
Every public building, from humble cafés and bus stations, to mosques and government offices, has at least one portrait of the King, and in every major town there is without fail an avenue Hassan II or a boulevard Muhammad V. In spite of my abiding impression of this being a trifle Orwellian, it must be said that Hassan's rule has generally been for the better. Moroccans are, by and large, far better off than those of any other North African nation. There is stability, a strong economy, and only in times of natural disaster is there hunger. Indeed, it is no mean feat for King Hassan simply to have survived so long in an age and a continent that reacts with increasing violence towards its heads of state. Perhaps one contributing factor to Hassan's political longevity is his religious authority. During his thirty year rule, King Hassan has increasingly cultivated his claim to be a descendant of the Prophet Muhammad via Ali, the fourth Caliph of Islam, and holds the Almohad title of Amir al-Mouminine, the Commander of the Faithful. His dual role, therefore, as spiritual and temporal head of state, has served to undermine the urgency of the fundamentalist cause. Morocco, to her credit, shares few of the worries of other secular Arab states.
In the eyes of many simple Moroccans, Hassan's standing and baraka has also been greatly increased by his having escaped several coups and assassination attempts in the early 1970s, and most recently, in January 1988, a rumoured poisoning attempt. Abderrahim told me the oft-repeated story that in Fès Jdid's impressive royal palace - the Dar el-Makhzen - banquets are laid on each and every day, regardless of whether the King is or is not in residence. This, apparently, is a precaution against assassination, the logic being that hit men will never know exactly where he is. For the same reason, whenever the King travels by rail, the entire network is closed down for the day, to the intense irritation of several youthful InterRailers I met on my travels.
Abderrahim did not like the King. The contrast between the Hassan's riches and his own poverty both shamed and disgusted him. When I tried to slip Abderrahim some money when I left, it was only with the greatest and most prolonged show of reluctance that he finally accepted.
* * *
Boulevard Hassan II, Fès Ville Nouvelle, 7.15am
I managed, after considerable efforts, to acquire a visa for Mauritania, in addition to a warning from the Moroccan Minister for Youth and Sports, that I would be turned back as soon as I reached the frontier of the Western Sahara. The reason for this, he explained, was that there were certain 'difficulties' involving a small group of armed 'bandits'. This was a revelation to me. Further enquiries established the fact that the 'bandits' were in fact the Polisario Front, a guerrilla movement dedicated to the overthrow of Moroccan government in the Western Sahara (formerly the Spanish Sahara), a territory that Morocco had occupied over a decade earlier. Apart from that, I knew that Mauritania had somehow played a part in this affair, but nobody (even the embassy) could tell me whether that country was still at war, and if so, with whom! This, basically, was the limit of my knowledge regarding whatever lands lay between the southern fringes of the Atlas Mountains and the tropics of Senegal. According to the map in the Ministry of Youth and Sports, the latter lay some 2200km south-southwest in a straight line. What this meant in real road distances (assuming, of course, that there were any roads) I had not the faintest idea.
As was usual, I found myself installed outside a café, awaiting the opening of the post office's Poste Restante counter. In line with the commendable colonial policy of keeping intact Morocco's old medinas and 'native quarters' (unlike in Algeria), the French had ordered the construction of their administrative centre the Ville Nouvelle on wasteland to the south of the two ancient cities, where governmental offices, banks, plush hotels and the like, are now housed.
I would have liked here to have painted an impression of gradually decaying colonial grandeur, but the Ville Nouvelle isn't even that. It is lifeless, devoid of spirit, boring and grey. True, there is little of the squalor and claustrophobia of Fès el-Bali and Fès Jdid, but then there is little of their atmosphere either. Neither is there even a hint of improvisation, nor of inspiration it all seems blandly anaesthetised by the tree lined avenues and boulevards with their mock Parisian streetlights, and their solid but ugly tower blocks made of concrete and glass. Swanky French-style cafés, with their shiny aluminium chairs arranged carefully around coffee tables made of black marble and iron wrought into Art Nouveau, complete the cultural transplant. There are lampshades (also Art Nouveau), and stainless steel fans on the ceiling, which is plastered in gold and white. The walls are hung with various 1920s posters advertising French bicycles and Alsatian beer. Between these are a handful of cracked mirrors and the obligatory black and white portraits of Kings Hassan II and Muhammad V, both ringed with damp. In one corner stands a giant cream coloured fridge that commands us to drink Coca Cola. Other placards advertise Sim Orange, and Hawaii pineapple pop.
My coffee is eventually served in a small china cup. Outside, a one legged man with a piratical eye patch hobbles between the tables, asking les hommes d'affaires for a few coins. He carries a dirty grey canvas sack over his shoulder, and looks as though he's been sleeping in the streets. The waiter, wearing a pink shirt and red velour waistcoat, politely, or pointedly, ignores him. The man beside me is vastly overweight, balding, and is reading the society page of the pro-government Matin du Sahara. Elsewhere, scribes sit on street corners with their typewriters, transcribing letters for the illiterate who number over half the population. The boulevard is awhirl with vehicles and fumes. Red buses and anarchic taxis that honk their horns in ceaseless confusion, splutter by incessantly, gobbling up commuters as quickly as they spit them out. A fat-bottomed lady bounces along on an angrily complaining moped. There are snarling garbage trucks, slick Mercedes, a van advertising 'Shampooing TONIC', and comical Robin Reliants running errands for 'Sochepress'.
At seven-thirty, a policeman arrives to direct the traffic, and immediately causes a jam by chatting to the driver of a Coca Cola lorry. A young girl with an ugly cratered face flits by wearing a painfully tight white miniskirt. Others wear gaudy nylon blouses and gold or silver shoes.
An old tramp sits down behind the Sim Orange sign, and mutters incoherently. He might be talking to me for all I know. A middle-aged garro wearing mauve platform shoes tries to sell me a mauve packet of Marquise cigarettes. Another garro, much younger, walks by and grins amicably, which makes me realise that not that many other people are smiling around here. The Ville Nouvelle is awash with grim faces, largely minding their own business as they stomp blindly along the pavements, nervous hands clutching handbags or briefcases. A couple of soldiers with bulging guts strut arrogantly by, and people make way for them.
By a quarter-to-eight, another tramp has joined the first, and they're having a discussion about 'nothing':
'Waelou waelou! Waelou...'
'Wae! Loooo!' A veiled lady wearing a pink kaftan walks past the tables with her right hand formed into a bowl. The waiter breaks out in a sweat. Then, a third beggar arrives. He is a hunchback with a stripy white and brown shirt.
The bus station of Bab Boujeloud is the best (or worst) place to observe beggars, where ten minutes before each coach leaves, it is invaded by all the unfortunates of old Fès, fishing around for an early morning share of the travellers' good cheer. Almost all the beggars are in some way professional, if only because they have no other option. My experience of them was firsthand, on a trip to Rabat to obtain the Mauritanian visa and the necessary permission cum disclaimer from my embassy to travel there. A blind old man with milky eyes thrust his right hand under my chin, and muttered a few words. At first, I tried to ignore him, but the old man simply waited, his hand cupped only inches from my mouth. In the end, my conscience turned guilty and flowed into my pocket. The same treatment, I observed with a wry sense of consolation, was meted out equally effectively to the other passengers. Often, I saw mother and child working the buses together. One woman actually clasped my shoulder, and then my shirt, to prevent my escaping. That time, my uneasy conscience was, betrayed by the beads of sweat that appeared on my forehead.
The most bizarre (and therefore effective) beggars were those with grotesque injuries. The worse and more hideous the deformation, the more lucrative it was for begging. I saw people so monstrously deformed that even the most hardened Moroccan travellers winced and reached for the coins in their pockets.
My reaction to all this, as a European and therefore comparatively rich visitor, was a disconcerting clash of feelings. Pity mingled with outrage at their arrogance, disgust coupled with guilt, and horror softened my sense of impotence at my inability to give to them all. In the end, however, all my feelings gave way to mere irritation and anger at their pushiness, which in my eyes reduced them to the status of hustlers. Fès was doing strange things to my mind. After only a week, the city had succeeded in depressing me somewhat rotten. Even in the Ville Nouvelle, with its European aspirations, I began to feel like an intruder, almost as much as I did when being hounded through the medinas. I had also developed a persistent headache that refused to go away. No matter how much I tried, I couldn't fit in. No matter how much I tried, I couldn't avoid the unwanted attentions of the hustlers. Chefchaouen had been small enough to allow me to get to know almost everyone and everyone to know me, whereas in Fès, I would always, no matter how long I stayed, be regarded only as a rich N'srani. I hated that. I hated the fact that I had always to be on my guard, that I was always to be a target, that I rarely had a moment to myself. I hated the glib patter that greeted my every move, the arrogance of my peers, their bigotry, and the ironical accusations of racism that were levelled at me whenever I refused to fall for whatever ruse had been laid. On one occasion, stolen car radios were thrust under my nose. When I refused to buy, the man hissed insults straight into my ear, and then spat at my shirt.
Rarely in Fès did I find a trace of Jack Kerouac's 'fine Arabs who never even looked at me in the street but minded their eyes to themselves'. Thirty years on, Fès has a reputation for hassle and hustlers rivalled only by Tetouan and Tangier. Fès is too large and too confined a place to avoid categorising and generalising. The individual becomes swamped by the collective force of so many people. The individual begins to feel claustrophobic and paranoid. There are too many people and too little time for thought or reflection. The amphetamine bustle of Fès contrasted painfully with the calm that the alluring desert afforded my imagination. I began to feel isolated and ostracised, perhaps perversely so given the attention that I invariably attracted. I was made to feel guilty about my foreignness.
Historically, I was not alone. Fès is a city that has invariably devoured foreigners, and therein lies one undoubted secret of its survival. Beware the fate accorded to the Portuguese Prince Dom Fernando - "Infante-Santo" and brother of Prince Henry the Navigator - who, after his death in captivity in 1443, was stuffed with straw, hung like a pig through his heels from Fès Jdid's Bab Dekakene for four days, and then placed on display for another 28 years, before the Portuguese finally recovered his body. Others were more lucky, and were incarcerated in the dungeons of Zibblat en-Nasrà - the Dunghill of the Nazarenes. Even Moroccan Jews (who had settled here centuries before the arrival of the Arabs) were treated as outsiders. René Caillié (arguably the first Christian to return alive from Timbuctoo, in 1828) remarked of Moroccan Jewry:
they are in a pitiable condition, wandering about almost naked, and continually insulted by the Moors; these fanatics even beat them shamefully, and throw stones at them as at dogs...' (3)
In retrospect, I can understand why some writers have spoken with so much romance about Fès' 'Great Imperial Walls of Silence'. There are so many voices in Fès that one cannot hear anything but a great din of silence. Once, when I was walking down a little side street in search of a newspaper, I saw a hunchbacked beggar woman. I watched her for a long time, before I realised that she was sobbing, quietly, shamefully, and alone. Another time, I saw a one legged man get knocked over by a ladder protruding from a mule. As he scrambled around the dirt for the remains of a parcel of monkey nuts, not one person stopped to help him back to his feet. When I approached him (out of guilt), he shouted at me to leave him be. His eyes were as blindly paranoid as my own were, on occasion, to become. If there is only a single cloud in an otherwise clear sky, that cloud is conspicuous, but if there are many clouds, they all become unremarkable.