Thursday, December 1, 2016


We arrived in Fes in the evening and our driver, who was not from Fes, had no idea where he was going once we entered the city. But, just like every other city we’ve been to except Tetouan, there were those “I am not a guide, I am just a student, I want no money except at the end when I’ll throw a fit if you don’t give me enough tip” guys, and these rode scooters. This was ok, in this instance, because we ended up following the guy on his scooter so we could find our hotel. Only once we were there, he wouldn’t leave us alone, trying to get us to acquiesce to a tour the next day that we did not want. He even told us we wouldn’t find a taxi to the old medina for less than $40. Oh, guess what? It costs about 80 cents to get there. What a racket. We had some mint tea upon our reception but what we really wanted to do was to retire to our room and be left alone. The car ride had been long, cold, and bumpy, and I think we listened to the same CD for the three hour duration of the trip. Now to deal with this boy who would not leave us alone!

We woke up early, ate our breakfast, and headed out to the old medina of Fes. Our hotel isn’t far, so, with only one night in Fes under my belt, I led Chris to the place where we could easily pick up our taxi. Piece of cake. We got out at Bab Boujloud, the most famous entrance to the old city, paying the 80 cent fare, and prepared ourselves for the experience of Fes.

The Boujloud gate was only built in 1913, so it is new in Fes terms.
Fes el Bali (the old city) was originally founded as the capital of the Idrisid dynasty between 789 and 808 AD, soon after the Muslim invasion of Spain in 711. This was the beginning of the Golden Age of Islam, when Muslims were inventing algebra and chemistry and making enormous scientific advances while Europe was wallowing in the Dark Ages, before the Mongols sacked Baghdad and sent the Islamic world into its own Dark Ages from which it has yet to recover.

We stood at Bab Boujloud, the blue gate, not all that old (1913) given the age of Fes el Bali, a UNESCO World Heritage Site (racking ‘em up), and, shaking off yet another wannabe tour guide, we entered the old medina.

We descended into chaos.

At first it was fun. I wanted to get lost in the labyrinth. I wanted the romantic version of the souks as in the tales of the Arabian nights. I wanted to be overpowered by the aromas of spices wafting to our noses, seducing us, making us long for the delectable flavors of the Moors and the Berbers and Africans of all varieties. I wanted fine silks and handmade crafts and exotic music floating through the narrow passages of the medina.

I wanted 150 years ago, apparently.

Instead, we were greeted by cheap junk made in China and a Coca-Cola amusement land. It was evident immediately. Plastic toys, mobile phone accessories, Adidas shoes, factory made dresses stitched with yellow thread and gold painted sequins, products clearly coming from the same distributor disguised as authentically Fes ready for the gullible eye of the undiscerning tourist. 

At least there were no Starbucks in the medina.


One of the craftsmen carving marble plaques


chicken seller

no cars in the medina, but plenty of donkeys and mules

so many people, so little space

yes, there were times i wanted to scream

i loved the doorways of the medinas we visited

old psychiatric hospital


Chris not yet lost in the souk

Don’t get me wrong – I was thrilled to experience this medieval city, but there was a certain soul that was lacking, one that I had expected to be hit with instantly, as a slap. I had wanted to fall in love. Instead, I felt something resembling disappointment.

I focused on the architecture. I focused on the mosques and the madrasas and the hotels and hospitals, and then something began to take shape, something of more substance than Coca-Cola and Coco Chanel. As we drifted deeper into the medina and looked past the surface, as I for a moment closed my eyes and listened to the sounds of the souk, as I read the names of the rulers and the places and the streets, I found a hint of that history I was looking for, that understanding, that knowing. But the moulays, the power, the prestige…it had happened long ago, and the world is so different now, that the moments were fleeting.

But maybe that was because of all the people, too many people, so many, many people – and it is the tourist off season. I can’t imagine what it is like in the bustle of summer. I got knocked around and couldn’t stand for more than a few seconds in thought before being pushed to one side or the other by people who are fine with the Coca and Coco. I couldn’t find the character of the city.

I didn’t see it until later, a day and a half after we first entered the city, when darkness crept upon the old medina and the characters of the city began to make their appearance.

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