An Excursion to Fes, Morocco

One of the friends I’ve made at the University of Warwick is an avid traveler. However, when she asked me last January if I wanted to go to Morocco (and I tentatively agreed, not wanting to turn down such an opportunity) I never truly thought it would happen. I was wrong. We have just returned from 4 days and 3 nights in Fes: the cultural and intellectual capital of Morocco, as well as the handicraft and donkey capital of Morocco. The former is due to the tanneries (leather-works), metalworks, carpet- and scarf-weavers, marble engravers, and woodworkers that line the streets of the medina in Old Fes. The latter is due to the medina’s narrow streets, which are only wide enough to allow donkeys as transportation—incidentally, the narrow streets also mean you must occasionally flatten yourself up against a wall to avoid getting run over.

Case-in-point: These streets are extremely narrow.

I had anticipated an insurmountable wave of culture-shock when visiting Fes, but this never happened. Frankly, I think the Moroccans were just too friendly and hospitable to allow this to occur. Our dar (that is, guesthouse) manager was fantastic–not only did he purchase bread and fresh-squeezed orange juice from the medina each morning for our breakfast, but he organized a fantastic tour of the medina and arranged for a driver to take us up to the Atlas mountain region. All this, in less than 24-hours notice (and in the case of the mountain tour, about 10 hours’ notice, as I mentioned in Thursday’s blog post.) When my friend Stephanie and I got a bit turned around in the medina on our second day in Fes (an inevitable happenstance–those streets, or should I say alleyways, are ridiculous), a local family offered to help us, even though they couldn’t speak English. (It turns out that we don’t need to share a common language for them to recognize that a Singaporean (Steph) and a caucasian redhead (myself)–neither of whom is wearing a headscarf in this predominantly Muslim city–with confused expressions on their faces must be lost.) I pulled out the businesscard of our dar, and after studying it for a moment, they pointed us in the right direction (phew!) The following day, as Steph and I attempted to take a picture of ourselves in front of a mosaic fountain, a local woman on the opposite end of the plaza saw what we were trying to do and walked across the entire stretch of concrete to take the photo for us. And then there was our tour guide: a fantastic companion who told us the history of Fes and filled in some of our ignorance of Islam as we walked the market streets, toured a mosque, saw the oldest university in the world, and watched the craftsmen of Fes at work. He even recommended a restaurant to us afterward; leading the way down the streets to a fabulous (and inexpensive!) place with a lovely terrace overlooking the medina, he waited outside so we could walk upstairs, peek at the menu and see if we wanted to stop (we did).

Moroccan beef and prune tagine

View of the medina—unfortunately, it’s not from the place where we had lunch, but it is the incredible view from the terrace atop our guesthouse

Such hospitality taught me a lot—namely, to open myself up and let loose a little bit. I’m not the most outgoing of people, so when people off the street walked up to Steph and I with remarkable frequency to talk to us, pepper us with questions, or (on one occasion) shove their iPod headphones into Steph’s ear so she could listen to their music, I instantly jumped to the worst conclusion and grew cautiously defensive; being well-versed in the travel risks that women sometimes face, and the verbal harassment that does occasionally (and did) happen in the medina, didn’t help. But as our time in Fes progressed, I found myself learning to relax and, at the same time, abandon the shameful judgments I was passing. As people persistently, and emphatically, persuaded us to come into their shops in the medina, I gradually worked to abandon my original tactic (to ignore any and all words directed at me) and adopt instead a smile and friendly word, whether or not I entered their shop. Much better, Amanda. All the Moroccan hospitality that Steph and I witnessed showed me that I can clearly take a page from their book.

Of course, there were other challenges as well, but these are perhaps slightly more humorous. After our first full day in the city of Fes, my stomach began to complain–rather loudly–that it wasn’t handling Moroccan cuisine very well. Don’t get me wrong: the cuisine is excellent. But recent travel experience has taught me that my abdomen isn’t always the ideal companion on international trips (I got sick in France as well). Unfortunately, Morocco was a bit more of a challenge than France thanks to our medina tour, which took place on the very morning that my stomach was churning the hardest. And wouldn’t you know it, one of the first streets we walked down was the butcher’s street. Now, in truth, I can normally handle the sight of animal carcasses — Wisconsin is a deer-hunting state, after all. But when your gut is already feeling a bit queasy, the sight (and, worse, the smell) of a skinned cow hanging from a rope does not help. Then, we walked past a big metal pot: “Now in here,” our guide announced, “they are boiling a sheep’s head …” It took all my willpower not to run to the side of the street and heave. Thankfully, my stomach was feeling considerably better by the time we made it to the tanneries, so I could marvel at the sight of Moroccan craftsmen, treating their leather while waste-deep in vats of dye, without gagging at the subtle stench associated with the leather-making process (I’ll leave you to google this one).

A panoramic view of the leather-workers at their trade

I also had to overcome my intense dislike for argumentation and confrontation in Fes’s marketplace culture, where bartering is the norm. Thank goodness Steph is from Singapore, for she had bartering experience in Chinese markets; I happily allowed her to lead the way. But even while I allowed Steph to do most of the talking, I knew I needed to try this for myself … and with prompting from Steph, I entered a debate with a Moroccan salesman over a pair of brown leather flats. Bartering is kind of like Black Jack — sometimes I feel like you’re trying to call the other person’s bluff. The salesman quotes you a price; you shake your head and quote an obscenely low price; he pretends to cave ever so slightly and do you a “favor” by lowering the price, usually by a mere 5-10 dirhams (£0.50-£1, or $.075-$1.50); you play the “student card” by claiming poverty; he may or may not cave again; you name a slightly higher price and stick to your guns, sometimes walking away and hoping he chases you down the street with your price. The back-and-forth may or may not turn out in your favor–and frankly, Steph and I know we got ripped-off on several occasions. But as Steph so adeptly put it, you can’t allow yourself to walk away from a bartering experience worrying about a potentially “rip-off” — if you’ve paid a price that you’re willing to pay, then there’s no need for concern. Hence, I got my flats for 60 dirhams (about £5), and I was content. They have camels on them.

I could tell Morocco stories for another hour, but I regrettably must get cracking at a history essay — time to switch my traveler’s brain back into academic mode! And of course, if you have additional interest in Fes, you can check out Kadie’s blog! She is studying abroad in Fes this semester, and I’m sure she has much better insights into the city than my mere 4-day visit can bequeath. Kadie also helped us out a lot when Steph and I initially began to plan this trip, so I don’t hesitate to plop a Badger Herald-style shout-out here to Kadie’s fantastic advice and encouragement to visit this fantastic city. Thanks, Kadie!