November 21 to December 5, 1998
We were looking for a place to visit that would be new and exciting.
A place not too far away, but one which would offer different
panoramas and new insights into a culture different from that of
western Europe. The Middle East has long beckoned, but Saddam and
Bill were rattling their sabres, so we were not inclined to venture
to that arena. Tunisia offered cheap getaways, but the brochures we
saw all looked like "fun in the sun" with a token half day visit to some
Somehow, we settled on Morocco. It is only 15 km south of Gibraltar and Spain. We even thought briefly about driving down. Within the confines of this small country we would find dense medinas and deserted dunes, fertile valleys and rocky mountains, the noise of the souqs and the tranquility of the medersas, Atlantic beaches and Saharan sands.
Fès. The first impression is that of an immense city fallen into decrepitude and slowly decaying. Tall houses, which seemed formed of houses piled one upon the other, all falling to pieces, cracked from roof to base, propped up on every side, with no opening save some loophole in the shape of a cross; long stretches of street, flanked by two high bare walls like the walls of a fortress; streets running uphill and down, encumbered with stones and the ruins of fallen buildings, twisting and turning at every thirty paces; every now and then a long covered passage, dark as a cellar, where you have to feel your way; blind alleys, recesses, dens full of bones, dead animals, and heaps of putrid matter; the whole steeped in a dim melancholy twilight. In some places the ground is so broken, the dust so thick, the smell so horrible, the flies so numerous, that we have to stop to take a breath.
In half an hour we have made so many turns that if our road could be drawn it would form an arabesque as intricate as any in the Alhambra. Here and there we hear the noise of a mill, the murmur of water, the click of a weaver's loom, the chanting of nasal voices, ... but we see nothing. We see fountains richly ornamented with with mosaics, arabesque doors, arched courts... We come to one of the principal streets, about six feet wide, and full of people who crowd about us... There are a thousand eyes upon us; we can scarcely breathe in the press and the heat, and move slowly on, stopping every moment to give passage to a Moor on horseback, or a veiled lady on a camel, or an ass with a load of bleeding sheep's heads.
To the right and left are crowded bazaars; inn courtyards encumbered with merchandise; doors of mosques through which we catch a glimpse of arcades and figures prostrate in prayer ... The air is impregnated with an acute and mingled odour of aloes, spices, incense, and kif; we seem to be walking in an immense drug shop. Groups of boys go by with scarred and scabby heads; horrible old women, perfectly bald with naked breasts, making their way by dint of furious imprecations against us; naked,or almost naked, madmen, crowned with flowers and feathers, bearing a branch in their hands, laughing and singing... We go into the bazaar. The crowd is everywhere. The shops ... are mere dens opened in the wall... We cross, jostled by the crowd, the cloth bazaar, that of slippers, that of earthenware, that of metal ornaments, which altogether form a labyrinth of alleys roofed with canes and branches of trees...
Edmondo De Amicis wrote this of Fès (Morocco: Its People & Places) in the 1880s, but the atmosphere of the medinas of Fès and Marrakech remain the same. We saw no madmen or drug dens, but we were surrounded by the jostling crowds, the sheep's heads, the mules laden with produce from the countryside, the mosaic decorations, the colourful fabrics, and the smells of bread baking, exotic spices, and tanning leather. The thin nasal voice of the muezzin called from the minaret five times a day. Archways opened into ancient medersas with mosaic decorated fountains and students meditating the koran in peaceful tranquility.
Yet just when we thought we had left the twentieth century completely, we came across a narrow laneway with a row of shops selling television sets and satellite dishes, calculators and stereos.