Thursday, 22 December 2011

Travels in 2007: Part 3: Tangiers and Fez

world-map fez
Ho! Ho! Ho! So Christmas is almost upon us! This week's offering is a distinctly unfestive tale of travels through the Maghreb with my brother. If I'd thought about such things in advance I'd have prepared something appropriate on Bethlehem or Lapland, but I'm not that hot at long-term strategy so you'll probably get those in August...

However, as for what I have posted, you will notice that it is interspersed with lots of lovely drawings by my brother. Please let me know what you think of them as he too, loves feedback.

All the best and merry wishes for the season and God Bless!

Uncle Travelling Matt
Links to all the parts of this travelogue:

Travels in 2007: Part 1: Berlin

Travels in 2007: Part 2: Andalucia

Travels in 2007: Part 3: Tangiers and Fez

Travels in 2007: Part 4: Merzouga and Demnate

Travels in 2007: Part 5: Casablanca and Marrakech


And so onto Morocco, the Oriental goal of our journey. Berlin had been an added afterthought, Spain merely a precursor but it was here, a land of minarets and shimmering sands, that I had come to see.

But before we launch into my thoughts on a place compiled sometime after the visit, why not muse a while on those from beforehand? So often this is not done and yet one’s preconceptions are a crucial part of travel. After all, is it not our mental image of a strange place, compiled often from the slightest and most unreliable sources, that draws us to a new destination? But whilst a vision inspires us, does not the reality not usually splinter that vision into a thousand and one fragments so that after the event, it is often hard to remember what our original dream was? And is not that reality generally a poor copy of the dream, a disappointment par excellence? Is there no greater argument against travelling than that?

So what was my image of Morocco before I encountered the reality? A land of mosques and bazaars certainly, of narrow streets filled with hustlers and lined with overladen shops, veiled women and a whiff of spirituality when the muezzin calls? I realise now that I expected another Jerusalem as much of my vision was based on that city.

But it wasn’t just Jerusalem, there was something else besides. The French had been there for almost half a century and I imagined that they had left it with some kind of colonial elegance and decadence – Art Deco buildings crisp and white with elegant palm-lined streets. Here was the image of Morocco that I’d subconsciously formed whilst watching Morocco,[1] a film by an American, acted by Americans and shot in America. As I said, our sources can often be most unreliable indeed, but even so, did it perhaps mark the beginning of a beautiful friendship? I shall have to play it again to find out.

And then there was another Morocco also presented to me by a film. In the 1985 classic ‘Harem’, the delectable Natassija Kinski is kidnapped by an oil sheik (Ben Kingsley) and transported to his harem, a world of desert sands and the strictest purdah. Here my experiences in Dubai shape my image, but with a French twist, (the film was directed by a Frenchman); the lure of the Orient, sultry, decadent, mysterious, irresistible… Edward said would not have been impressed.

As I stood on the deck and watched Tangiers slowly come into view, some of that dream seemed to be becoming reality. Minarets regularly punctured the skyline and a walled medina rose up above the port. Even so, it wasn’t quite right. The place seemed grey and tatty yet isn’t Tangiers – along with Casablanca – meant to be the epitome of French North Africa, clean, with swept streets lined with gleaming white boulangeries? It seems that I had forgotten that Morocco is in fact part of the Third World.

The impression did not improve upon alighting either. I had warned the Sibling about hustlers beforehand, but even with his brave refusals of their services we still got followed throughout the entire port terminal and when it finally became clear that we did in fact want nothing to do with the man, we were sent off with a cheery, “Fuck you and fuck all your family too!”

The Moroccan welcome. Nice.

Things did not get better once we had left the port either. The medina was even greyer and tattier up close than it appeared from a distance and furthermore, it was absolutely bustling with hustlers of every type offering services from marijuana to help finding a hotel. These hotel touts guide the tourist (unsuspecting and otherwise) to a hotel (any hotel) and then demand commission off the proprietor (which is duly added onto the tourist’s bill). In short, a pest to both hotelier and bed-seeker but to outwit them the Sibling and I devised a simple yet effective system. Upon being approached by the tout, we would suggest a hotel (not one that we wanted) and whilst the tout guided us to it and entered into negotiations with the receptionist, the Sibling would stay whilst I would nip off to the one that we wanted unmolested. After we had checked out six such hotels using that method, we eventually decided upon one (that I had visited without a tout), the Mamora, a spartan place with beds at Dh100[2] per night and staff who seemed friendly. It was that latter asset, after out port and hotel tout experiences, that swung it.

After dropping our bags we headed out into the medina to start exploring this new city (and country) and to get out some dirhams to pay for the hotel and other expenses.

Tangiers’ medina is apparently, by Moroccan standards, nothing spectacular, but to us it was incredible. A maze of narrow twisting alleyways in which one could get lost in seconds, flanked by shops and tea houses. Immediately to the south, reached through an Arabian gateway, is a large square called the Grand Socco where we found a cash machine. It was a pleasant place with palm trees, a newly-built mosque and benches where lovers and pensioners sat, but we tarried there not, instead heading through another grand gateway back into the maze of the medina.

Despite having a good sense of direction which rarely lets me down and a map of the medina in our guidebook, within minutes we were hopelessly lost. Indeed, the experience was not only disorientating but also distinctly unpleasant. One feels totally powerless and stupid, like a young child whilst on all sides one is assailed by hawkers, eager to palm their wares off on you. Overcome, I suggested to the Sibling that we do what one should always do in an emergency: drink tea.

Moroccan tea is not as tea should be. I had read about this beforehand and warned by several friends but nonetheless, the appearance of a dirty glass stuffed with mint leaves and boiling water when one asked for ‘tea’ comes as something of a shock, as too does the taste of said concoction. Hot, liquefied Colgate is the description that springs to mind. Certainly not tea.

Nonetheless, this ‘tea’ was a blessing to us and an important lesson on how things are done in Morocco. Firstly, once inside the establishment, even though it was open-fronted, all hassle ceased – one man’s private property is as sacrosanct there as it is here – and secondly, we were not overcharged despite our obvious unfamiliarity with the local ways. Throughout our stay in the Maghreb, we were never once overcharged over small consumables such as tea and basic foodstuffs.

Relaxing in the grubby sanctity of the teahouse, (and indeed it was a humble establishment that I had chosen, a world away from the French-style cafes around the Grand and Petit Soccos), I got to thinking about where we had arrived. Here I was in one of the ancient medinas that I’d so wanted to see and yet so far the experience had been largely miserable, (not helped by the gloomy weather of course). Why was that? Had we made the right choice in coming to Morocco? I looked across at the Sibling who had already whipped out his sketchbook and was busy drawing a fruit vendor. Alas, I would be getting no answer from that quarter.

Several months after that first glass of mint tea, I was sat at home reading Karen Armstrong’s excellent history of religious fundamentalism ‘The Battle for God’ when I came across the following passage which seemed to speak of my situation in the Tangiers’ medina exactly. Talking about the disorientating impact of colonialism and modernity on the nineteenth century Middle East she wrote:

‘A “modern” city, such as Muhammad Ali’s Cairo, was built on entirely different principles from those that gave meaning to the indigenous towns of Egypt … tourists, colonialists, and travellers have often found Oriental cities confusing and even frightening: the unnamed and unnumbered streets and twisting passages seem to have no order or orientation; Westerners get lost and can make no sense of their surroundings.

For most of the colonised peoples of the Middle east and North Africa, the new Westernised cities were equally incomprehensible, and bore no relation to their instinctive sense of what a city should be. They frequently felt lost in their own country. Many of these superimposed Westernised cities surround the “old town”, which in comparison, looked dark, threatening, and outside the rationally ordered modern world.’

The Battle for God, p.124

So, that was it: In one simple venture into an old walled city, I had unconsciously experienced the classic dilemma of modernity! I, who so sought the Other, had encountered a harsh dose of it here, a taste of life from beyond our rational age, a taste of what it was like when myth, fable and faith ruled humankind rather than order and systems. No wonder I had found myself so out of my depth! Now, all I had to do was get attuned to it all…

… and to the taste of mint tea!

After we had drained our glasses and the Sibling had packed up his pencils, we bravely ventured forth into the pre-modern morass of the medina once more, heading vaguely north towards where the kasbah[3] is located as well as the tomb of Sidi Hosni, an obscure Muslim saint and after several wrong turns we did reach that place only to discover that the kasbah had shut for the day and the tomb of the saint we had already walked past thrice without realising that it was anything more than a grubby shed.

Islam, with its emphasis on the oneness of God, shares, with some of the more extreme Protestant Christian sects, a distaste for the cult of saints. However, as purists in all three Abrahamic faiths have found to their dismay, folk religion, that of the simple, uneducated masses, keeps rearing its head be it pure or otherwise, and in Morocco with its strong Sufi traditions, the revering of saints is widespread and engrained. I wished to experience something of this during my stay in the Maghreb, but alas, a glance at the locked door of Sidi Hosni’s shed tomb was as close as I would come.


By this time both the Sibling and I were more than a little tired, (remember, we’d been up since midway through the Spain travelogue!), so we returned to our hotel for a short rest before hitting the town of Tangiers again in the evening. Entering our room and settling down in our beds, we soon realised that the Mamora was perhaps not quite the great deal that we’d originally supposed it to be. For starters, it was cold and our bed coverings turned out to be naught more than a sheet and a Persian rug apiece. Now Persian rugs are all well and good in their place, but that place is not on a bed in a cold bedroom for they fail to keep out the chills at all. That however, was naught compared with what was to come next, as soon as we had turned out the light.

“Allah akhbaaar!”

Now, one of the joys of the Orient, one of the unforgettable experiences of travelling in the Muslim World is to hear the Call to Prayer. I remember being captivated once in a small village in Indonesia, being mesmerised by it when I walked down the Golden Horn in Istanbul and hearing it in surround sound – first one mosque, then another, then another, transporting me to a different plane as I sat smoking shisha by Dubai Creek as the notes drifted across the water. The cry of the muezzin, lilting and dipping, is magical and is something that everyone should endeavour to hear once in their lives. I had told the Sibling about it beforehand, built it up in his mind, warned him that it is a joy to hear.

This however, was something different.

“Allah akhbaaar….!” Cough, splutter, cough. “Ahhh…” mumble, mumble, cough, phlegm, clear phlegm from throat, cough again, mumble, mumble. “Allah, akh…” dissolve into coughing fit.

This was as magical and as spiritually uplifting as a night in watching Casualty.

And to make it worse, the loudspeaker was right by our window.

The Call to Prayer however, does not last forever, even when it is interrupted by coughing and soon we got a little sleep. Once we had had enough we ventured out again to enjoy the evening air. We had a wander down to the mosque that had provided us with so much noise before but it was nothing much to behold and annoyingly, in Morocco infidels such as ourselves are not allowed into mosques. I have visited no other Islamic country where this is the case and over the course of the holiday I did try to discover why, but to no avail. But, right or otherwise, customs are customs and so we wandered on to a small rampart that commanded a superb view across the straits and by that rampart peeped into a small artisan’s shop where traditional mosaics were being made. The £500 plus prices were enough to put us off, but should I ever have such money to play around with, then I considered those mosaics to be reasonable value indeed.

On our way back to the hotel we stopped at an internet café in order to get in touch with loved ones worldwide. Now, the IT Revolution may have brought the world closer together, but it can still throw up some surprises for the traveller, namely in the field of computer keyboards that are not as they should be. Now across the globe I have experienced some annoying keyboards, noticeably the ones of Turkey that convert every ‘I’ to a ‘Y’ and the ones of Japan that refuse to type after two lines, (they do this so that you can convert what you’ve typed into Japanese characters), but few if any were as painful as the keyboards of Morocco which have all the punctuation in the most unlikely of places and few letters where they ought to be. I only wrote one email – and a short one at that – but it took an age, as I searched in vain and increasing frustration for those necessary full stops and commas.

It was dark when we took ourselves down into the Ville Nouvelle by the port for a coffee in some ‘civilised’ surroundings, (evidently we were still subconsciously seeking the modernity that Armstrong said we would desire). However, France’s addition to Tangiers was tatty and bland. We ordered some mint tea, (for there was no coffee to be had), and fell to talking with some local youths, but to our dismay they were only interested in selling us things or getting us to pay their bill, so disappointed by both people and place, we got up and moved onto the Grand Socco in search of Dean’s Bar which merited the following description in the guidebook:

‘Hardly a Westerner of any repute has failed to prop up this bar at sometime. Founded in 1937, it’s a bit dowdy now, though ceiling fans and black and white photos retain the colonial air.’

Misty visions of Café Américain in Casablanca and memories of reading Paul Bowles’ “Under the Sheltering Sky” made me think that this would be the place to while away the evening, (particularly as everywhere seemed to be crap), but when we arrived it was closed, as too was everywhere else, and so we returned to our carpeted cribs dejected, our thirst unquenched.

Since we had no alarm clock and had had such a long day, the fact that we awoke mid-morning in Tangiers should be regarded as something of an achievement. We certainly saw it as such and to celebrate we dined on croissants, orange juice and fine coffee in the Café Central on the Petit Socco; the one-time hangout of Paul Bowles.[4]

The previous day I had fallen into a very interesting conversation with our hotel receptionist and an elderly comrade of his on the subject of migrant workers and how, whilst these days many Moroccans sought money and a better life in Spain, he could remember when Spain was the poorer country, during its Civil War, when thousands of Spaniards had come over to Tangiers, done lowly work and lived in shanty towns. As Elton John would have said, “It’s the circle of life!” Indeed.

At the same time he had also told us that there was a train out of town bound for Fez at about one and since, (despite the friendly receptionist and the good coffee in the café Central), the Sibling and I were eager to move on from Tangiers, we thought perhaps that we should try and catch it, but before we did, perhaps seeing some of the city’s sight might be in order?

We started off with a real gem – the Anglican parish church of St. Andrew (Diocese of Gibraltar), just behind the Grand Socco. A real slice of colonialism, here was an English parish church, (albeit with a rather minarettesque tower), in the heart of an Arabian city. It was surrounded by a tranquil shaded cemetery in which RAF captains and colonialists with double-barrelled surnames were laid to rest with dignity. It reminded me of St. Mary’s, smack in the heart of Kuala Lumpur, another slice of a bygone, more British era, and for a moment I felt homesick yet proud also. My country had created the nicest spot in Tangiers, a far greater achievement perhaps that the bombings and exploitation that colonialists are usually remembered for.

 We then decided to make our way back up to the kasbah that we had stood outside the day previously, stopping en route to purchase a cheap camera to replace the one that had gone awry in the Alhambra. We found a place and bought a simple one for €7, excellent value we thought at the time, but alas, when the photos were developed we discovered that you get what you pay for and their quality reflected the piffling price.

Tangiers’ kasbah museum was worth the trek up the hill and through the old town. It had been built as a palace for the local governor and had some well-proportioned rooms and a tranquil walled garden. Walled gardens are indeed, very important in Islam, something that stems from both the traditional role of women in Islamic society and also the descriptions of paradise in the Koran, (the word ‘paradise’ itself being derived from a Persian term for ‘garden’).

In traditional Islamic society – as in most traditional societies – women belong very much to the private sphere whilst men control the public. A woman’s place is in the home and that home should be hidden from prying eyes so that the modesty of the women is protected. In many parts of the Islamic World, this has led to the practice of purdah, (the word, another borrowing from the Persians, means ‘curtain’), to be adopted; a practice that dictates that only mahram men (close family members), may see a woman uncovered. Consequently, she rarely leaves her house and when she does she is veiled and accompanied by either husband, father, brother or son. Now, this travelogue is not perhaps the place to discuss the rights and wrongs of such a mode of life, but it is the place to state that such lifestyles have had an immense effect on the architecture and outward appearance of Islamic dwellings and cities. As we wandered through the residential parts of the medinas of Tangiers, Fez, Marrakech and Casablanca, we were forever confronted by blank walls. No ornamentation is there to be seen, none of the elegant architecture of the mediæval European dwelling, save for the doorway, always large, always windowless, yet also always made of the same most beautifully and intricately carved wood. The Islamic home is for the occupants to know and enjoy, not the passer-by, and so alas, the passer-by rarely sees more than a high, windowless wall.

The practice of purdah has also had its effect on garden design. Women may not be able to leave their houses, but they still need some fresh air and contact with nature and hence it is that the walled garden has developed; a safe haven in which ladies can stroll and families relax, safely hidden from the world and all its prying eyes.

But purdah is not the only factor behind the beautiful walled gardens of Islam, for indeed much of the inspiration for them comes from the Koran itself and its detailed descriptions of Paradise, the most famous of which I shall quote now, taken from the Surah of the Merciful and the Surah of the Event:

But for him who feareth the standing before his Lord there are two gardens.
Which is it, of the favours of your Lord, that ye deny?
Of spreading branches.
Which is it, of the favours of your Lord, that ye deny?
Wherein are two fountains flowing.
Which is it, of the favours of your Lord, that ye deny?
Wherein is every kind of fruit in pairs.
Which is it, of the favours of your Lord, that ye deny?
Reclining upon couches lined with silk brocade, the fruit of both the gardens near to hand.
Which is it, of the favours of your Lord, that ye deny?
Therein are those of modest gaze, whom neither man nor jinni will have
touched before them.
Which is it, of the favours of your Lord, that ye deny?
(In beauty) like the jacynth and the coral-stone.
Which is it, of the favours of your Lord, that ye deny?
Is the reward of goodness aught save goodness?
Which is it, of the favours of your Lord, that ye deny?
And beside them are two other gardens,
Which is it, of the favours of your Lord, that ye deny?
Dark green with foliage.
Which is it, of the favours of your Lord, that ye deny?
Wherein are two abundant springs.
Which is it, of the favours of your Lord, that ye deny?
Wherein is fruit, the date-palm and pomegranate.
Which is it, of the favours of your Lord, that ye deny?
Wherein (are found) the good and beautiful –
Which is it, of the favours of your Lord, that ye deny? –
Fair ones, close-guarded in pavilions –
Which is it, of the favours of your Lord, that ye deny? –
Whom neither man nor jinni will have touched before them –
Which is it, of the favours of your Lord, that ye deny?
Reclining on green cushions and fair carpets.
Which is it, of the favours of your Lord, that ye deny?
Blessed be the name of thy Lord, Mighty and glorious!

Surah 55:46-78 (Pickthal translation)

And the foremost in the race, the foremost in the race:
Those are they who will be brought nigh
In gardens of delight;
A multitude of those of old
And a few of those of later time.
On lined couches,
Reclining therein face to face.
There wait on them immortal youths
With bowls and ewers and a cup from a pure spring
Wherefrom they get no aching of the head nor any madness,
And fruit that they prefer
And flesh of fowls that they desire.
And (there are) fair ones with wide, lovely eyes,
Like unto hidden pearls,
Reward for what they used to do.
There hear they no vain speaking nor recrimination
(Naught) but the saying: Peace, (and again) Peace.
And those on the right hand; what of those on the right hand?
Among thornless lote-trees
And clustered plantains,
And spreading shade,
And water gushing,
And fruit in plenty
Neither out of reach nor yet forbidden,
And raised couches;
Lo! We have created them a (new) creation
And made them virgins,
Lovers, friends,
For those on the right hand;
A multitude of those of old

Surah 56:10-39 (Pickthal translation)

The kasbah of Tangiers was an Islamic dwelling (albeit on a very grand scale) in the traditional sense. It was naught to look at from the outside, but beautiful within and its garden was a sanctuary of peace and tranquillity. Furthermore, the exhibits on display – fine pieces of Moroccan art and a section detailing the historical importance of Tangiers – were fascinating. All in all, well worth the visit.

Upon returning to our hotel, we collected our bags and went down to the Ville Nouvelle to catch a taxi to the new railways station which was some three kilometres out of town. This was slightly annoying as the old railway station building was stood by the roundabout next to where we were trying to hail a taxi, making one wonder at the logic of moving the station out of the city, but nonetheless, what is done is done and cannot be undone, no matter how stupid an act it was.

When we got there – and it really was on the edge of town – Tangiers’ new railway station turned out to be rather nice. It was still shiny and clean as if it had just been unwrapped but what I liked most was that someone had bothered to design a terminal building that had a touch of grandeur, something that seems to be lacking from most railway architecture these days.

The train itself reminded me of Bulgaria. It had European coaches a decade or two old with compartments that make for the most civilised travel indeed. We found a suitable one to ourselves and the Sibling got out his sketchbook. Resigned to my own company for the next four hours, I pulled out ‘Leo the African’ and continued following the journeyings of that 16th century travelled whilst I myself rode to the city that had been for many years his home.

Fez – or ‘Fes’ as it often seems to be referred to these days, although I for one can’t get used to it – was one of my main reasons for coming to Morocco. I had read an article about it in National Geographic that made the city sound incredible, the ultimate Arabian Nights city; the largest walled medina in the world! And the pictures that had accompanied the article certainly backed up that claim; a sea of ancient dwellings, held in by ancient ramparts, the skyline punctuated by two dozen minarets. And inside the houses of that medina, great doorways of carved wood leading through to shaded courtyards paved with multi-coloured tiles in the centre of which a fountain trickles…

That however, was but one side of the story. The other side, in a vision formulated entirely since our arrival in Tangiers, was far less romantic. In my dream I saw hustlers pestering us from every side, fake guides following us for hours telling us to fuck our family when they left, a medina full of exorbitantly-priced souvenirs and cafés crammed with cadging locals.

The fact was you see, that Tangiers had shaken both the Sibling and I, shaken us almost to the point of regretting ever setting foot on North African soil. Spain had been so good, but so far Morocco had been but hard work and tatty. I had told the Sibling sagely that the hassle would decrease the further south that we ventured, and although that opinion was backed up with the words of John Higgins, (whose description of Tangiers was far from complimentary), I must admit that on that train I uttered them more in hope than belief.

In between bouts of Leo the African and writing up the Berlin journal, I glued myself to the window eager to see what the “real” Morocco was like.  Whilst Tangiers’ city centre had been distinctly Second World, some of the villages and small towns that we passed through were nearer to the Third. Donkeys worked the fields and toddled down lanes driven by pre-pubescent labourers, but even so, at the same time there was some wealth in the air. Tangiers’ station was not the only brand new one – all along the line the stops were being rebuilt – and out of Tangiers a well-engineered, (though largely empty), highway headed south. Furthermore, everywhere we went seemed to have electricity off the national grid, and indeed this remained the case throughout our travels, even high up in the Atlas Mountains and on the edge of the Sahara. In development terms, both the Sibling and I agreed that whilst Morocco was worse off than eastern Europe (largely), it was better than Vietnam (slightly), which all in all, is not too bad.

Some forty or fifty kilometres out of Tangiers we followed the coast and passed through the rather desolate-looking resort of Asilah. This reminded me of the empty hotel that Natassija Kinski and Ben Kinglsey visit in “Harem” and indeed, I suppose those scenes could have been shot there?

What interested me were the mosques in every village and town that we passed. Moroccan mosques seem to be of a standard design and quite unlike others in the world. They have square prayer halls topped with green roof tiles, (because green is the colour of Islam?), but what is most striking are the minarets which are square and topped with a balcony and then a smaller domed cube (room?) on top. These sturdy structures seem to have more in common with the European church tower than the slender circular minarets of Constantinople and Cairo which I must admit to preferring. Nevertheless, they have their own appeal and they served as a reminder to me that traditional Islamic architecture can be as varied and as diverse as Christian.

It was never going to be long before we were joined by other travellers in our compartment as the train was fast filling up at every station that we stopped at and sure enough, a young man opened the door at one and sat down opposite us with an inquisitive look in his eyes that betrayed an urgent desire to talk. The reason why soon became obvious as our new companion lost no time at all in revealing to us that he spoke a little French and English but was in fact primarily a student of Spanish at the renowned Cervantes Institute which, too his dismay, neither of us had heard of. When we admitted however, to speaking virtually no Espanol beyond “Adios amigo!” his interest soon waned and after making some half-interested comments about the drawing that the Sibling was doing, he made an excuse and left.

The drawing by the by, was a rather fine, if embittered cartoon of a Tangiers sidestreet with the same hustler, (complete with Fez – or is it ‘Fes’, leery grin and bushy moustache), offering a variety of services from a variety of angles. It perfectly summed up our initial impressions of the Moroccans and their country which was, from a Moroccan Tourist Board point of view, not good. I christened the cartoon the “Pomme de Terre” in honour of a somewhat dim-witted friend of ours who once announced to all and sundry that his masterstroke in a card game was his “Pomme de Terre”, (in true Del Boy fashion he never realised that he had said ‘potato’ as opposed to “Piece de la Resistance”!). Well, from that moment on, ‘masterpiece’ has always been ‘Pomme de Terre’ in our circle of friends and this was the Sibling’s masterpiece. My naming however proved to be a veritable kiss of death, for the Sibling then proceeded to lose interest in the work and moved onto lesser things. To this day it lies unfinished and I feel like the man from Porlock.

At Sidi Kacem we were joined by another traveller and this one was far chattier and possessed with much better English. He announced himself as Ali, a Berber now residing in the medina of Fez where he eked out a living selling the carpets of his race to the gullible of mine. Immediately we smelt a rat, but listened on regardless, partially because he had no carpets to sell us on the train but more so because being stuck together in a compartment, we had little choice.

To be fair though, he wasn’t all bad. When he wasn’t talking about Berber carpets and crafts, (which alas, was most of the time), Ali had some pretty interesting things to say about Morocco and her people, and when he was taken away from the topic of his trade, he came out with some good nuggets of advice, the foremost being that it is far better to stay in the Ville Nouvelle than the medina as the hotels there were both better and cheaper. He also arranged for us to eat with him and his family the following day, but as we parted on the platform, both the Sibling and I were far from sure that he was to be trusted. After all, we had just left Tangiers.

If our arrival in Tangiers was bad, then our entrance into Fez was no better. We alighted from the train and walked into the Ville Nouvelle as Ali had recommended there are opposed to the medina for a decent and cheap hotel. Our experience in Tangiers and the fact that he had nothing to gain from offering that advice made me inclined to take it. In retrospect, I can only say that it was good.

However, to get to the part of the Ville Nouvelle where the few budget hotels were located was affair walk and (predictably) a tout immediately latched onto us extolling the virtues of a particular establishment. I told him that we weren’t interested and he told us “Welcome to Morocco!” The Sibling then informed him that his presence was neither required nor welcome to which he replied, “Where are you from? Lovely, jubbly!” Then we ignored him and when, after pestering us for a good half a mile he realised that we a). weren’t interested and b). neither required nor welcomed his presence, he finally parted with a none-too-jovial, “Fuck you and fuck your family!” Nice.

The Hotel du Maghreb was listed in the guidebook with the write up, ‘This small, friendly hotel has just one corridor of large, bright rooms and balconies. Potted plants add a cheery touch. Unfortunately, security is sketchy at this place, which is sometimes left unattended during the day.’[5] Naturally, the latter comment sold it for me as security has always been an issue with me (I detest it) but if further persuading was needed, we found that the bloke who ran it was not only lax in security matters, (we was asleep when we arrived), but was also the spitting image of Crapgame of the film “Kelly’s Heroes”. Now, “Kelly’s Heroes” is an all-time favourite of both the Sibling and myself but more than that, Crapgame is actually the main hustler in the film which seemed apt considering our experiences in Morocco so far, so after a brief haggle over the price, we booked in for three nights at a reasonable Dh120 per night.

Crapgame: sketchy security, good film

We decided not to go down to the medina that night as we were tired and we’d have plenty of time later. Besides, we were hungry, so instead we went hunting for a bite to eat, eventually settling for the Restaurant Le Chamonix, a small establishment with an aura of colonial elegance run by a thin moustached man who looked most like Basil Fawlty. Overjoyed at having met two stars of the screen in one day, we ordered a menu of two courses each at Dh60 per head, another good move as the food was as tasty as it was reasonably priced. My choice was a chicken tagine and tagines – food cooked in a ceramic dish with a flowerpot lid – are a Moroccan staple. This was my first and from that meal on I was a convert.

As we sat on the pavement outside Basil Fawlty’s esteemed eatery, we also began to notice something else, something that we both commented upon immediately: the girls. Whilst Spain had been, well… unbelievable in the ogling stakes, Tangiers had been quite the opposite. Whilst few girls wore the veil in that city, virtually all covered their heads with some sort of scarf. Here in Fez’s Ville Nouvelle though, around half went around locks freely flowing, dressed a la Christendom and, on the whole, this was a sight most welcome to our eyes.

I say ‘on the whole’ because it was not all pleasant. I remember well a comment made by a local to H.V. Morton whilst he was travelling around Atatürk’s Turkey in the 1930s about the recent decrees abolishing the veil in that land. “The unveiling of women has been a great shock to us” as “the veil is a great protector of the unlovely.”[6] Those comments of course referred to the Turk and the Turk is not the Arab but nonetheless there is some resonance. A pair of dark eyes that appear so enticing from behind a veil can appear quite differently when the whole face is revealed and it is said that Arabian ladies have a reputation for not ageing well. However, a pretty Arab girl (particularly for a man who likes curvaceous, dark-haired beauties), is to be rated as one of the earth’s fairest maidens and I for one was glad to see such sights again. Alas, their religion and mine do not approve of such musings, and nor too does the good lady wife for that matter and so sadly, I shall have to leave that engaging topic.

The Sibling and I decided to top our night off by going completely local and indulging in a trip to a hammam, a treat that I had long been looking forward to. For many years now I have been something of a global bathing aficionado and earlier Crapgame had threatened to guide us to a hammam belonging to his friend. Then we had resisted the temptation, but now we asked Basil Fawlty who pointed us in the direction of a baths that turned out to be the same establishment that Crapgame frequented. This was a grimy place situated down an alleyway underneath a Soviet-style apartment block. It was no masterpiece of architecture or culture, but it oozed atmosphere and the bone-cracking wash and massage that we received there was so reinvigorating and refreshing that when we came out again and settled ourselves in a café on Place Mohammed V to watch the girls go by, the mint tea that we consumed by the potful almost tasted nice.

We arose when one should arise – mid-morning – and breakfasted on croissants, pain du chocolat, freshly-squeezed orange juice and good coffee before girding our loins for the serious business of the day: the exploration of the largest medina in the world.

We took the taxi to Bab Bou Jeloud, the gate from where all the tourists embark upon their explorations. This gate, picturesque though it might be, is not actually a real ‘Bab’ but in fact a 1913 addition situated some way within the medina. That as may be, but even so stepping through it one did feel like one was entering into a different world, one of centuries past, a maze of tiny, twisting alleyways. A gaggle of guides, both faux and genuine all took advantage of this disorientation and offered their services quite forcibly but we resisted the temptation and set off purposefully into the maze.

We aimed to follow the walking tour given in our guidebook but within minutes we were hopelessly lost. The comment about Westerners being able to make ‘no sense of their surroundings’ in Armstrong’s book rang true but we cared not. Medina exploration is not about reaching individual sites of note but instead soaking up the atmosphere; donkeys laden with goods, the smell of kebabs cooking on grimy grills, hawkers shouting, the call to prayer from the minarets, stepping over baskets of fruit, herbs and spices, palm leaves laid over the tops of the alleys to keep them cool, shops piled high with gleaming copperware and pungent leather.

We did however visit one important site that was well worth the effort. The Medersa Bou Inania, built in the fourteenth century, is said to be Merenid architecture at its most perfect. I had come to Morocco to explore its religious culture as much as possible and as mosques are all off-limits to non-Muslims, this was one of my few opportunities to see inside a quality Muslim building. We paid a fee to a wizened gatekeeper and entered a courtyard of almost unparalleled beauty. The walls and ceilings were covered with the most intricate plasterwork and wood-carvings and the continuity in style with the Alhambra was plain for all to see. The Sibling did what he always does – got out his sketchbook and tried to capture the scene in his own personal way – whilst I wandered the complex, photographed the plasterwork, chatted to an English couple who had been ripped off by a saffron seller and looked in at the prayer hall that I was forbidden to set foot in.

Quite why us infidels are not allowed inside Morocco’s mosques I am not sure. There is nothing in the Koran about such matters so far as I am aware and in no other country that I have visited does the rule apply. I asked several Moroccans as to why it was and none seemed to know, merely stating that this was how it is and expressing surprise that the ban was not universal. Hardly helpful as this was it perhaps indicates that the only reason is their own prejudices. I am friend with a Bulgarian Turkish Muslim, non-practicing and liberal, who refuses to set foot inside a church just because one “should not do this because I am Muslim.” Now, if Morocco’s Muslims hold similar views then it is perhaps only natural that the situation should be reversed and non-Muslims not enter their places of worship. I for one was unimpressed with the ruling which smacks of intolerance and superstition, but as always, when in Rome

We stayed in the Medersa Bou Inania for about half an hour as the rain eased and the Sibling finished his sketch. Interestingly, that sketch was perhaps the worst that he produced all holiday, unsurprising perhaps when one considers that it depicted a scene almost entirely human in creation, full of angles, geometry and symmetry and devoid of all the irregularity provided by Mother Nature.

Soon after leaving the medersa, ambling happily along a choked street, we were assailed by a cry most unwelcome. “Matt! How are you? Where were you?” Inwardly we groaned, outwardly we smiled. It was of course Ali, our friend from the train, whom we had arranged to meet at twelve by the Bab Bou Jeloud, an appointment that we had had no intention whatsoever of keeping, even if we had risen in time. Fate however, had undone us. Ali was in this street as it was full of barber’s shops and his son – a grinning imp of around eight – needed a haircut. “Please join me!” he cried. There was no polite way out. “Who knows,” I whispered to the Sibling, “perhaps he is actually genuine and we will be having a meal with his family?” My brother’s expression however, was one that that spoke of anything but hope.

We sat and drank the obligatory mint tea in a cramped barber’s shop before following our host down a series of alleyways to his brother’s ‘home’. Our worst fears were confirmed: his brother ‘lived’ in a carpet emporium and as soon as we passed through the door that grinning moustached sibling was just itching to show us all his wares.

To be fair though, I had a plan. There were certain souvenirs that I wanted to buy in Morocco and here I could buy the lesser of them so as to keep the shopkeeper and my bank manager happy. After the obligatory mint tea and the showing of the carpets routine, we both confessed that lovely as they were, they were far out of our price range and besides, what I really wanted was a Moroccan teapot. “Teapot, sir? No problem!” Brother disappeared and reappeared a minute or so later laden down with a wide selection of overpriced metal teapots. I picked one out, haggled for an age and then paid a ridiculous Dh200 for it, (I later discovered that the true price was Dh140). Still, not too bad for my first foray in bazaar bargaining. The Sibling however, did slightly worse, coming away with two hand-woven cushion covers and leaving Ali’s smiling brother with Dh 450 in his hand. Neither Ali nor the meal with his family ever materialised.

Ali’s brother dropped us off by the Nejjarine Museum of Wooden Arts and Crafts; a glorious place indeed. The building, fully restored and only opened in 1998 is an old funduq – a caravanserai for travelling merchants – and a real taste of fez in its heyday. Four storeys high and based around a courtyard, every nook was filled with wood-carvings of the highest standard. Best of all though was the roof which commands incredible views across the entire medina, a sea of uneven roofs punctuated irregularly by minarets and the green tiles of the mosques. On one side, on a hillside beyond the medina walls were some stark ruins that looked interesting. The guidebook revealed them to be the Merenid Tombs and I decided there and then to head for them.

We mooched around the medina a little more, soaking up the sights and sounds, but by this time we were both tired and hungry and many of the shops were shutting as sundown and the start of the Muslim Sabbath was fast approaching. Still, we managed to find an excellent kebaberia (if that be a word) which we retreated into and the Sibling drew and then, after refuelling, we took a taxi from the Bab Bou Jeloud up to the tombs that we’d seen earlier.

On a desolate hillside, surrounded by vast white-grave-crammed cemeteries stand the Merenid Tombs of Fez. Built to house the earthly remains of some of that city’s greatest rulers, they are now much ruined, the best a mere shell and many of the others little more than heaps of rubble. But it is not for the tombs themselves that the traveller makes the journey up that lonely hillside, but instead for the view which must surely rank as one of the best that I have ever had the good fortune to feast my eyes upon. There, laid out like a finely-woven Berber carpet, lies the vast medina of Fez, girded by crumbling walls. Even in the drizzle of a winter Thursday it was incredible. Then, as the sun began to set, it got better.

“Allah akhbaaaar!”

First one minaret, then another, then another, from a single voice carried across the wind to an entire choir, a symphony of religious faith, the call dipping and rising, urging the faithful to worship the One. Few experiences on earth can match it.

We decided to walk down to the Bab Bou Jeloud but the weather deteriorated further so midway we hailed a taxi to take us back to the comforts of the Nouvelle Ville. Bundled into the back, we rode in silence whilst the words of some Imam read out the evening sermon on the radio.

We dined again at Basil Fawlty’s and then strolled around the Ville Nouvelle admiring the ladies before then deciding to end the evening in a most un-Islamic way; namely the consumption of alcoholic beverages. Thinking about drinking and actually doing it however, are two completely different things in an entirely Muslim city, even one as liberal as Fez’s Ville Nouvelle and after an abortive search for a suitable bar in which to rest our weary glasses, we were eventually forced to patronise the only establishment that we had seen that sold the demon drink – an off-licence just across the rode from Basil’s café.

And we emerged from that den of sin with a carrier bag or two full of the Maghreb’s finest liquor, perfect for a night’s supping on the balcony.

Or so we thought.

The beer that we bought consisted of three types. The majority, in Coke-sized tins, was what appeared to be the Moroccan mainstay called Stork, a weak, cheap lager brewed in Casablanca. Next up, in proper-sized cans, was some cheap German brew that I’ve forgotten the name of. Then finally, we had splashed out on two bottles of Casablanca, which arrogantly declared itself to be “Morocco’s finest beer”. Remembering the exhortation from the Bible concerning wine,[7] I suggested that we try the Casablanca first. The Sibling agreed and so we opened up the bottle. It was drinkable but nothing special. Next up we opted to continue with the native theme and enjoy a can of Stork each. This was not drinkable. In fact, it rate alongside some of the foulest beer that I have ever tasted. I told the Sibling so and he agreed with my appraisal and tipped the remainder of his can into a flower pot on the balcony. Thus we moved onto the German import. By the very first sip we learnt why the Germans export this and don’t drink it themselves. The only positive thing to say about it was that it wasn’t Stork. And thereby ended our night on the razzle, with both of us hitting the sack sober and with a full carrier bag of Stork left unopened.

I awoke mid-morning with a hangover. This was irritating primarily because it was, well… a hangover, but on top of that there was a profound sense of injustice. A bottle and two cans of beer do not warrant a hangover of any type and besides, had we not suffered enough by having to drink that dishwater that is Stork, God?

Alas, our Maker, being in a rather Muslim mood in those parts showed not an ounce of sympathy.

We breakfasted on croissants, coffee and freshly-squeezed orange juice and then walked the mile or so from the Ville Nouvelle up to the Mellah – the part of the medina where fez’s Jews used to live. This short walk clearly demonstrated the ideas stated in Armstrong’s book and is as clear an example as any as to why the Islamic World often finds the Modern World so difficult to come to terms with. Fez’s Ville Nouvelle is a well-planned, spacious place, with broad tree-lined boulevards, ramrod straight, culminating in plazas where couples stroll and pensioners relax on municipal benches. It was built on the principles of order and geometry and – perhaps more importantly – it was built by the French. The Ville Nouvelle, as its name suggests, is wholly European in concept, style and design and represents no continuity whatsoever with Morocco’s past. The Sibling and I were at home there. We felt safer in the Ville Nouvelle and happier. In the medina we frequently got lost and always felt threatened by the pushy natives. The medina was exciting and exotic, but for any length of time, it was too much. Tellingly, when we reached Marrakech, we again opted to stop in the Ville Nouvelle.

And whilst the Ville Nouvelle was ordered and logical, once through the gate, the medina was the opposite; a labyrinth, organic, evolved not planned. We felt almost lost there so how must the Moroccans feel in the Modern World. Or what of those millions of Moroccans who have grown up in the apartment blocks of the suburbs with Western clothing, schooling and music, yet at the same time given a culture and faith that stem from those mysterious, muddlesome medinas. Is it any wonder that many know not in which direction to turn?

The mellah, in the “newer” part of the medina, (newer in the respect that it dates from only the thirteenth century), as a distinct flavour compared to the rest. The Jews built their houses facing the streets as opposed to set around courtyards, doubtless because they allowed their womenfolk far greater freedoms. Some things however, remained the same. Upon entry we were assailed by a singularly annoying young man who had decided to be our guide. I let him pester the Sibling[8] who was not stopping there anyhow and I ducked down an alley to the Ibn Danan Synagogue. This proved to be rather interesting and in my opinion, most similar to the old synagogue in Hanley, this possibly being due to the fact that that is the only other synagogue that I have ever visited.[9]

Emerging from the synagogue, I was dismayed to discover that our talkative friend had given up on the Sibling and was lying in wait for me. He then proceeded to dog me throughout the mellah coming out with anecdotes about long built over gardens, long-dead kings and how he was cheaper than all the other guides and spoilt my enjoyment of the area in the process. I told him firmly that not a dirham would he receive from me and then pointedly ignored him, but when we eventually did emerge from the morass of the mellah by the gates of the king’s Fez Palace, (most disappointing as all that Joe Public could see was a high wall), he was indeed surprised to discover that all along I had been telling him the truth and that I did not intend to pay him for his unasked for services.

“But I am Mr. 10!” he exclaimed, referring to his reasonable rates.

“Ten dirham?” I said, (not softening of course).

“No, ten euros!” he replied indignantly.

“But not off me,” I said. “Goodbye!”

“You are not a fair man!” he protested, almost tearfully.

“I am both fair and honest!” I retorted before storming of as self-righteously as any born-again Christian.

To my pleasant surprise I was pestered by no other guides that day, probably because it was the Sabbath and they were all engaged in holier activities. So too were the majority of the shopkeepers and much of the medina had its shutters down. Still, that suited me as I hadn’t come to shop and instead I seemed to have the place almost to myself.

And so it was that I wandered the medina alone and thoroughly enjoyed it. I looked in on packed mosques, crumbling funduqs, dilapidated medersas and then took some tea in Place er-Rsif. We had decided to spend the day apart as the Sibling wished to do some serious sketching and I some sightseeing and the decision had been a wise one. Now and again so time alone is a blessing.

We met up in a café by the Bab Bou Jeloud and decided that as we were both somewhat tired and footsore, a trip to a hammam might be in order as a suitable way of rounding off the day. The guidebook tantalisingly mentioned that ‘the medina is rife with hammams’ but then only named one of them which happened to be women-only in the evenings. Undeterred, we decided to make use of one of the guides that were pestering us, a teenage boy, whom we asked to lead us to a suitable establishment. This he duly did, taking us on a most lengthy and bewildering trek into the southern section of the medina before depositing us in a grimy place down some steps. He then proceeded to demand an extortionate Dh100 for his services, a fee that we were unwilling to pay but did nonetheless since, unlike previously, we had actually requested his services. To recoup some of the outlay we then insisted on no massage, making our experience far less enjoyable. To be fair though, we were never going to enjoy this hammam as it had no locker for our wallets, (which we had had to get out to pay the guide), and so both the Sibling and I were on tenterhooks during our entire time spent bathing, fearing the theft of our cash by a disgruntled guide.

It was however, with relief that we discovered that our cynicism in this instance was misplaced and no one had touched our stuff whilst we had been gone, but even with that great relief, we still had another problem on our hands; namely finding our way back. Some thirty minutes later, after many a wrong turn, it was a clean and relieved pair of tourists that climbed into a grand taxi for the journey back to the Ville Nouvelle and Basil Fawlty’s café where we would wile away the rest of the evening in a more European fashion.

The following morning we awoke late. We breakfasted on croissants and coffee and then realised that we had nothing planned that day nor anything that we wanted to do. Both the Sibling and I had seen all the sights that we wanted to see and balked at the idea of going anywhere or doing anything. In retrospect it was hardly surprising; since landing in Málaga we’d constantly been on the go and our brains simply couldn’t cope with anymore. We needed a recharge and thankfully in the establishment in which we sitting the mint tea was cheap and the passing girls pretty and so there we stayed.

All day.

I finished Leo the African and started Anthony Beevor’s account of the Siege of Berlin. The book was well-written and interesting, particularly since the German capital was still very much in my mind, (and I’d had Morocco up to here), but the futility of it all, the colossal body counts and the unnecessary destruction got me down after a while so I switched to writing, not only this journal but also some postcards and the basis for a full-length Pottermus[10] cartoon adventure which, (produced in conjunction with the Sibling), would be called “Pottermus and the Stolen Statue”; a mystery in which the statue of Sir Stanley Matthews in Hanley City Centre goes missing and Pottermus – along with Port Vale’s mascot Boomer and Potteries’ darts legend Phil “The Power” Taylor – save the day in the nick of time. It seems strange to have spent my time in the fabled oriental city of Fez thinking of furry hippos and dogs in the Staffordshire Pottery Towns, but perhaps it is only natural. After all, I spend most of my time in Stoke-on-Trent thinking of exotic lands.

Around six we decided to raise ourselves out of our stupor and say goodbye to Fez in the most dramatic manner possible and so we took a taxi up to the Merenid Tombs again. The weather this time was far more clement and the setting twice as glorious as before. As the sun sat and the muezzins wailed, we surveyed the scene, I sketching out a short story in my mind about an Evangelical Christian who meets a famous saint in a dream and is transported back to the fifteenth century where he is shown displaced Jews being given sanctuary by the Muslims, the moral being that God is to be met wherever one finds kindness, regardless of what faith is practiced. The Sibling’s sketchings were less philosophical; he whipped up an hilarious cartoon of the medina with Aladdin flying overhead, not on a flying carpet as one might expect, but instead in a bright red Moroccan taxi.

Back in the Ville Nouvelle, we dined at Basil’s for one last time, went back to the hammam for a bathe and then collected our bags from the hotel. There we said goodbye to Crapgame, (who insisted that we stay in his friend’s hotel in Rissani), and who we’d rather grown to like, before collecting our bags and lugging them down the street to the bus station ready for our nine o’clock departure to Rissani on the edge of the Sahara Desert.

Saying bye to Crapgame
Next part:

[1] And possibly bolstered by the glimpses of French colonial culture observed during my years in Vietnam?
[2] Just so that these prices make sense, there were Dh10 to €1, so the Hotel Mamora was €10 or about £7-80 per night. Later experience taught us that Dh100 was typical for a tatty room in Morocco.
[3] A kasbah is a fort or citadel, often the seat of power in an ancient medina.
[4] When I was living in Vietnam, I had chanced across Paul Bowles’ “Under the Sheltering Sky” on Amazon and had asked my drinking partner at the time – Jason Huynh – about it. He had replied that he’d read it and that it was “nothing special”, being largely a book about boring ex-pats who sit around in cafés all day, just like the very boring ex-pats who do that in Phm Ngu Lao, (the backpacker district in Ho Chi Minh City). Being unimpressed with such individuals, I put off reading the book until just before we set off for Morocco, which as a shame as when I did read it, I rather enjoyed it. However, I must state that much of what Jason said rang true and that many of the Pham Ngu Lao old-timers would have been very happy sitting in Café Central just as Bowles had done.
[5] P.xx Lonely Planet Morocco
[6] P.94 In the Steps of St. Paul – H.V. Morton
[7] “Every man at the beginning doth set forth good wine; and when men have well drunk, then that which is worse” John 2:10
[8] For some reason all the guides and hustlers wherever we went gravitated towards the Sibling instead of me. Who knows why? A pretty face perhaps or possibly a look of gullibility? Whatever their reasons, such a situation suited me down to the ground.
[9] Actually, I lie. The Stoke-on-Trent Hebrews moved from Hanley to a new synagogue in Newcastle-under-Lyme in 2006 and I’ve been to that one too. Incidentally, the Sibling was commissioned by the congregation to paint a series of pictures of the two buildings which now hang in the new synagogue. Oh yes, and I went to that synagogue in Berlin too but that doesn’t count as it wasn’t functioning.
[10] Pottermus is the Stoke City mascot and the Sibling does the cartoons of him in the club programmes. He is a furry grey hippo and his name comes from an extremely lame pun, namely that he is a HippoPOTTERmus and that Stoke City are the Potters. As if that wasn’t bad enough, his girlfriend is called Pottermiss, his granddad Poppamus and his baby Tottermus. Oh yes, and his fit sister, Hottiemiss. Tragic.

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