Sunday 9th October 2011, Ribat el-Kheir, Morocco
This morning we were up with the dawn and by 7.30 we'd hired a grand taxi and were on our way to Fez, some 70 kilometres away. Grand taxis can be seen everywhere in Morocco, tearing through the countryside at up to 130 km an hour (80 mph!). They use old clapped out Mercedes cars that disappeared from the roads of Europe twenty years ago. Mainly they have ended up here and as they die their organs are transplanted to save the lives of other taxis. They are designed for five passengers including the driver. They never run with less than seven and refuse to depart until they are full. Today just one other person was waiting. We paid for an "empty" seat and squashed in with three in the front and three behind. Thus began our white knuckle ride to Fez, a journey we made in less than half the time it took me to get here when we arrived. Seat belts may once have been fitted in another life but had long since disappeared. None of the seats matched and most of the door handles were missing or highly suspect. We clung to each other trying desperately not to be thrown against the doors on the bends. Meanwhile Radio Mahgreb blared out Moroccan music and news features alternately in Arabic and French.
In Fez we changed to a couple of petit taxis. We needed two because, we were told, they are only allowed up to three passengers plus the driver even though, like the grand taxis, they have five seats! So, for each of our taxis we had to pay for an extra empty seat. These took us round the walls of the medina to the Bab Boujeloud or main entrance to the old city. Here we stopped to recover with a well needed coffee at a place frequently used by Doug and Karen. It was a very pleasant, friendly experience. While waiting for the coffee Karen took me to a nearby stall where we bought flat corn bread rolls filled with avocado pear and honey which we ate as breakfast with our coffee.
Before going our different ways we all strolled together to the King's Palace. So early in the day there were very few touts about and the air was comfortably cool. As we have discovered throughout the day, most of the things that are of interest are either closed to non-Muslim visitors or photography is not allowed. We are fast becoming used to the familiar waggling finger of guards and officials determined that none of the King's dozen or more sumptuous palaces around this poverty stricken country will appear on the blogs of western travellers.
These palaces are hidden behind magnificent gateways that give some impression of the opulent lifestyle he leads hidden from his people. While we have been here France's President Sarkozy has been on a trade visit to secure a contract for the French TGV to run down the Atlantic coast from Tangier to Casablanca. Really, they can have little perception of what life is like for the ordinary people of Morocco. Indeed, the King has several more palaces around the world, including France. The TGV is probably a scheme cooked up on a golf course near St. Tropez. Clean water, education, improved health care and a drive to clear up the rubbish would be of far more benefit to this country.
Right near to the Royal Palace is the Mellah or Jewish quarter, the houses displaying their distinctive wooden balconies.
Leaving our friends to enjoy a peaceful morning with the newspapers at the American club, we made our way slowly back to the Medina, browsing the stalls of fruits, nuts, spices and olive oil soaps along the way. Stalls with horrid western style plastic models displayed scarves, gaudy decorated ladies jellabas and the colourful pyjamas they wear underneath them. Karen says in the home they mainly wear pyjamas, living and sleeping in them. (The rooftop washing lines of Ribat el-Kheir would seem to confirm this.)
Eventually we plunged deep into the old Medina with its maze of narrow alley ways seething with humanity. Some 150,000 people live in the dilapidated buildings of the Medina and most of them seemed to be filing along in either direction, pushing carts filled with live chickens, leading donkeys burdened with dirty animal skins destined for the tannery pits or large mules carrying carpets and everything else that needed to be transported. Amidst all this groups of twenty or so tourists each tried to keep together with their tour guide, ladies carried small children and large plastic bags of vegetables and irritating men buzzed around us like the flies on the raw meat hanging from beams just above our heads. They saw two unescorted western visitors and almost fought each other for our custom. Nothing, but NOTHING would stop them pestering us. It did them no good. We are well hard now but it is so annoying. "Hey mister, this way," - "Madame, par ici." - "Where you go? No, not good, this way, nice restaurant." - "You from England? Fish and chips." - "Venez voir les tapis, bon prix exprès pour vous madame." - "Ceramiques, very good." - "Good leather, you want?" Useless to politely say we did not need help, we were not lost, we did not want to buy metalware, bags or silk clothing. Even telling them in Arabic to go away didn't help. "Where you learn that? What's your name?"
Eventually you become deaf to it. These men have no jobs, no formal education and regard western tourists as fair game. Personally they make me really angry indeed. They are completely useless to society. It's the women who do so much of the real work here yet they pass quietly by unnoticed. They would never even speak to a tourist, they have few rights and accept being considered as little more than a chattel.
Different parts of the medina have different specialities. We made our way along the Talaa Kebira (Big Slope) past the meat stalls where goats, sheep and even camels are chopped up, lying unrefrigerated on wooden counters. A camel's head dripped blood onto the flagstones while several cats prowled around seeking the waste scraps of meat that were thrown onto the ground. Chickens and turkeys waited to be purchased and slaughtered. Musical instrument makers, metal workers, carpet sellers, ceramics and leather workers, each had their own area. The medina is huge with a network of alleyways to lead the unwary astray but we dare not risk being seen to hesitate or consult our map.
The long and narrow Talaa Kebira winds up and down and ends at the doorway of the Medersa el-Attarine, founded as a place of study in 1325. Here we paid a few dirhams and disappeared into a haven of peace behind a wooden gateway that shut us off from the mayhem outside. The central courtyard is flanked by halls for teaching and there is a small mosque with its mihrab in the far wall. The curator asked Ian to translate for a group of giggling Japanese tourists the religious significance of the building. It has highly intricate patterns typical of the artisans working during the Merenid period, carried out in tilework, carved stone and detailed woodcarving for doors and windows.
It is one of several medersas in and around the block which contains the Kairaouine Mosque, the home of what is claimed to be the oldest university in the world, founded in 859 by Tunisian refugees and expanded by the Almoravids in the 12th century. The mosque itself can accommodate 20,000 people at prayer. It is closed to non-muslims but we were able to glimpse some of the colonnades through the open doorway next to the Medersa al-Attarine.
Further round the block we emerged from the crowded alleys into the open space of the Place as-Seffarine with its metalworkers’ shops, home to another school, the Medersa as-Saffarine with its cedar doorway, the oldest medersa in Fez, built in 1270 by the founder of the Merenid dynasty Abu Yussef Yaaqouh.
On the other side of the square is the library of the Kairaouine university. The library was established by sultan Abu-Inan and grew until in 1613 it contained more than 32,000 manuscript volumes. It was visited by scholars from far and wide and was instrumental in giving Fez the reputation of being the cultural and intellectual capital of Morocco.
Also in the same block as the university is the mosque of Sidi Ahmed Tijani, one of the main saints of Fes. His teachings spread widely in sub-Saharan Africa and his mausoleum is a place of pilgrimage for many from that area. All of these buildings are lost in the narrow crowded passageways of the medina.
We eventually found our way to the tanneries. Touts tried to lead us there but our noses did the job just as effectively. Moroccan leather is renowned throughout the world for its excellent quality. Goatskin in particular is soft and used for bookbinding. The tanneries of Fez are probably the largest and oldest in the country. They have existed, largely unchanged since mediaeval times. Generations of the same families have worked in the industry. Children are born into it. We climbed a narrow staircase where I was offered a sprig of mint to mask the revolting smell. From a balcony overlooking the dozens of circular pits we could see half naked men out in the baking sun wallowing around up to their knees in pits filled with pigeon shit and bovine urine where they trod the bloody skins in the first stage of the tanning process. Once the skins have fermented in the pits they are rinsed and transferred to vats of brightly coloured dyes where men again climb in with them, dying their own skins in the process. It looked like the job from Hell! Such close contact with poisons and chemicals leads to serious illness amongst the workers but the practice continues, such is the demand for the quality leather produced. All skins are treated here – goat, sheep, cattle and camel – anything with four legs except pigs. Those poor donkeys will probably end their days in one of the vats! Once dyed the skins are stretched out in the sun and left to dry.
All around the tannery area are shops dealing in leather goods. Needless to say considerable effort was taken trying to persuade us to buy bags, slippers and jackets produced by craftsmen working in tiny rooms off the sales area.
It is over three kilometres to walk right the way through the Medina. Across the bridge we found ourselves in the Andalucian sector where the metal workers congregate. Arab people love bling. Gaudy items of chased tin and copper are offered – Aladdin's lamps, coffee pots, trays, bowls and dishes.
Beyond we found several open squares with blind alleys leading off from them into dark and winding residential corners where children played and women scuttled. We turned back several times as we tried to find our way across to the far side. No visitors here. We asked a couple of men working in tiny hanuts. They were helpful and friendly – so very different from in the tourist parts. Eventually we emerged into a really rough and scruffy area where the very poorest of the poor seemed to live on a rubbish tip amidst the filth with just scraps of plastic sheeting for cover from the sun. Nearby was the cemetery. Crossing the area we eventually reached the gateway on the far side of the medina, far from the entrance used by tourists.
We'd arranged to meet our friends at the rank for the grand taxis but had made better time than we expected. The taxi rank was on some waste ground exposed to the afternoon sun. There was absolutely nothing to do or see in the area. We'd been walking for hours without eating or drinking. Immediately we were pestered by touts. Where did we want to go? Climb in for a ride to see ceramics, carpets, etc. Nobody would accept that we were where we wanted to be and would they please leave us alone.
To avoid both the touts and the heat we crossed to the shade of the cemetery wall. Here a man sold us a couple of bananas. They seemed expensive but we were past caring. Around us men sat on upturned fruit boxes. They appear to sit there all day long with nothing to do. We joined them as we waited, exhausted, for our friends. We of course did not have the luxury of fruit boxes. Nobody cared or noticed. We are only of interest if they can fleece us for something.
Once Karen and Doug arrived we found a taxi and offered to pay for two empty seats so we could have a seat each. This really upset the drivers for some reason but they eventually compromised by squashing in a small lady as well and only charging us for one extra seat. She however could only sit beside another lady so had to share a seat with Karen.
seat with Karen.