University of Wisconsin–Madison

Initial Adventures in Fes

I have officially been in Morocco for two-and-a-half weeks and am beginning to solve the puzzle that is the streets of Fes el Bali, or the Old Medina. The city contains over 9,000 streets of which even locals may know only a fraction. Many of the streets and allies are narrow enough that one could touch the walls on either side at the same time with outstretched arms. With few clear street signs and no real map, navigating the Old Medina is a challenge for any visitor. Thus, I have learned to pay close attention to landmarks and follow the general rule that if I’m going uphill I’m headed out of the Medina, downhill and I’m getting deeper. I am proud to say that I can successfully get to a number of places in my “neighborhood” without a problem.

In addition to slowly mastering the streets of Fes el Bali, I am learning a decent amount of Darija (Moroccan Arabic) in my four-hour-a-day classes plus practice with my host family and in daily life. While Darija differs significantly from Modern Standard Arabic, my knowledge of Arabic and French has helped considerably as Darija shares similarities with both languages. Additionally, I am taking two Moroccan culture courses which I hope will give me some valuable insight into the lifestyle and norms here, allowing me to gain an in-depth understanding of my current home.

Speaking of my current home, I am living with a host family which is a great way to experience Moroccan life authentically while helping me become more integrated into the culture. My two host sisters speak near-perfect English, enabling us to discuss a wide range of topics in-depth, yet they are always willing to help me with my Arabic or even French which strikes an ideal balance. While living with a family has gone very well so far, it has also required a few adjustments. I’ve quickly become accustomed to wearing multiple layers of clothing at all times as houses are not heated and mornings and nights get rather chilly. Additionally, my host family typically eats dinner between 10:30 and 11:00 (or even 11:30) at night, presenting a challenge when the clock strikes a mere 6:00 pm and I realize that I still have five hours to go until dinner. While lunch is the big meal of the day, it simply does not tide me over until the traditionally light meal that awaits ten hours later, requiring some creative snacking. Moroccan food is absolutely delicious, of course, from tagines of succulent meat and vegetables, to heaping dishes of couscous on Fridays. Heavily sweetened mint tea and freshly baked bread are inescapable cultural obsessions as well.

While Fes offers so many sights, sounds, and experiences that simply do not exist in Madison, there are a few things I’ve come to appreciate about home. Namely, the coffee shops. Don’t get me wrong – coffee shops abound in Fes, they just serve an entirely different purpose here than in the U.S. Walk down any street in the Ville Nouvelle and you will pass cafes overflowing with middle-aged Moroccan men drinking coffee or tea, smoking, and socializing. According to my Darija instructor, the qahwa (coffee shop) is where one goes to solve just about any problem or address any need they may have. Whether you are trying to buy a house, mail a letter, or marry your kid off, the coffee shop is likely to place to go. Can’t find your neighbor? Go to the neighborhood qahwa and during the three hours you’re sitting there, you’ll probably run into him. While certainly an important part of Moroccan life and culture, the qahwa simply does not serve the needs of a student looking to get some studying done while sipping a cappuccino.

Anyway, I’ll keep you updated Inshallah on my progress navigating the Medina and braving the qahwa. Until next time, b’slama!

The newly renovated and not yet re-opened tanneries
The newly renovated and not yet re-opened tanneries
 View of Meknes
View of Meknes
Exploring the Fes Medina
Exploring the Fes Medina