Screw Fes. In fact, screw Morocco. I’m sick of the chaos, I’m sick of the heat (it’s 23 degrees here in Fes, while just two days ago I was walking in the snow), and most of all, I’m sick of the hustlers, none of whom are really my friend, even though that’s what each and every one of them uses to address me. The shopkeepers constantly trying to attract my attention and the restaurant people shoving menus in my face as I walk by can bugger off, too. Fes may be the cultural and spiritual capital of the country, but I can’t wait to get out of it. The bus ride to Fes has been uneventful, except for the start, where it turned out (at the last moment) that I needed a seperate ticket for my backpack, so I had to run back to the CTM office, with my backpack, to get the ticket and be back before the bus left. After that it’s been a smooth ride towards Fes through infinite fields of grain and olive trees – the coastal plains that made Morocco one of the bread baskets of the Roman empire – until we reach Fes, wedged in between the Rif and Middle Atlas ranges. As soon as I arrive in Fes, things turn South though. The taxidriver bringing an Argentinian couple to their luxury hotel promises to take me to a budget hotel, and if I don’t like it, he’ll bring me to Bab bou Jeloud (the Blue gate to the medina), where a hotel recommended by Lonely Planet is located. I don’t like the taxidriver’s hotel, mainly because it’s outside of the medina, and I’ve come to Fes to experience the medina; it’s the largest in the Islamic world. So, I ask him to bring me to Bab bou Jeloud, but he refuses; I’ll have to walk there myself. This is also when I discover I’ve lost my Swiss army knife, probably when I was running to get the ticket for my backpack. Properly upset by the lying taxidriver and the missing knife, I set off to walk through the impossibly narrow and crowded medina streets, where getting lost several times doesn’t help my mood. The constant onslaught of hustlers and entrepreneurs trying to get some tourist Dirhams out of me pisses me off even further; by the time I find hotel Kawtar, all I want to do is go to bed and forget I’m in Morocco. And so I waste my first evening in Fes munching chocolate buscuits and feeling sorry for myself.
The second day starts better, with breakfast on the rooftop terrace. I head off towards the royal palace, which has some stunningly beautiful gates with golden doors. Afterwards, I want to explore the mellah, the old jewish quarter. Morocco’s royalty has a long history of protecting jews and having them as trusted advisers, so in many cities, the Jewish neighbourhoods (all called mellah, after the original one in Fes) are located close to the royal palace for maximum protection. Nowadays almost all of the jews have left Morocco for Israel, and the mellahs are often the poorest part of a city’s medina. Still, they have a distinct look, with a more open feeling to the streets than in the very narrow, almost windowless alleys of the neighbourhoods built by muslims.
‘I think you are a scorpion!’ I don’t think this is meant as a compliment on my ability to survive in the desert; the man saying this to me is a hustler who started following me within minutes of my arrival in the mellah, and who’s upset that the only words I’ve said to him have been ‘I’m fine, thank you, have a nice day’; other than that, I’ve ignored all his pushy questions and comments.
‘Why don’t you fucking tourists want to talk to anyone here in Morocco? We don’t need you here, we are better off without tourists!’ I wonder if the hustler, who started following me as soon as the previous one left me alone, sees the irony in this comment given the pushiness with which he pursues his tourist targets; I assume he does, and the comment is just a desperate attempt to make me feel guilty and make use of his services after all. After these two unpleasant experiences, I decide to leave the mellah again and go back to the more tourist-dense, oldest portion of the medina around Bab bou Jeloud. The two main streets run parallel to each other, and are known as telaa al-kebir (big slope) and telaa as-seghir (little slope). So long as one stays one these streets, it’s pretty much impossible to get lost. As soon as I enter the side streets though, I get hopelessly lost in what Lonely Planet calls “the maze to end all mazes”. The Fassi authorities have attempted to create some order in the chaos by creating a couple of signed, colour-coded walking routes. This does help, although I also spot one occasion where a sign of the brown squares-route points into an alley, and on the other side of the alley – which just happens to be filled with shops catering to tourists – there’s a sign to the same square, pointing me back to the alley I just came from! Most of the signs can be trusted though, and without too much trouble I find my way to the tanneries (where highly prized leather is tanned using pigeon poop, cow urine and natural dyes such as saffron, henna or mint), to the metalworkers’ square (which doesn’t need signs as the sound of people hammering copper and iron objects into shape can be heard from far away) and to the beautiful Medersa Bou Inania, a school for learning the Quran. Just as I’m about to leave, prayer starts in the mosque part of the medersa. As normal mosques in Morocco are off-limits to non-muslims, it’s quite a special thing to witness the imam recite religious text, which the faithful then repeat before kneeling on the ground and bowing down to pray.
Back into the streets, I now instinctively move out of the way as a donkey owner shouts ‘Balak!’, when his donkey, carrying a ridiculous amount of cargo, is on its way to supply a shop somewhere (cars are too wide for these streets). I also start to enjoy the crowds, which consist mostly of locals just living their lives; although there’re quite a few tourists, and tourist shops, for the most part the medina just exists for the locals, who happen to live in a way that hasn’t changed all that much over the past few centuries. Also, the live chickens, cats and geese, the not-so-live camel heads, and the pushcarts with everything from strawberries to garbage don’t bother me so much anymore.
For dinner I go to Cafe Clock, which has a mix of local, expat and tourist guests. There’s live music with a women’s group playing Berber music, which has some hints of Brazilian music to it; some local girls use the relative freedom in here to dance enthuisiastically (but still, to Western standards at least, very decently), while everyone else just claps along and has a good time. The camel burger they serve is delicious, so as I head back to the hotel, I’m infinitely more positive than 24 hours ago. In the hotel lobby I meet Bernhard and Lorena, a German couple, along with two Austrians whose names I forgot, Daniel from Romania, and the hotel’s night manager, who studies English and is eager to practice his conversation skills. Besides the, shall we say, peculiarities of the hotel (water which is warm on one floor but not on the other, showers and toilets so close together that one can’t possibly shower without cleaning the toilet in the process, my room which can’t be locked when I’m inside, a shower door that can’t be locked, staff who don’t know who paid and who didn’t), we also discuss more serious matters such as cultural differences and romantic relationships in Morocco; the night manager tells us that his parents only met on the day of their arranged marriage, which was normal at the time, but for his generation it’s more common that people choose their own partner. I decide to join Bernhard and Lorena as they go to Meknes the following day. In the morning, we also meet Casey from Australia, who decides to come along too. He probably beats my “scorpion” insult by virtue of having been called “a Jewish man”… As we enter the train station, while the taxi driver shouts at us because he wants to get double the amount we agreed, I feel sad to be leaving Fes so soon. It’s not an easy city to get the most out of, and the people in the tourist business can be impossibly pushy or downright unpleasant… but I know it has plenty more sights to offer, and I haven’t really taken the time to deliberately get lost in the non-commercial streets either. However, the prospect of finally having some travel companions is too alluring to ignore.