Egypt: Lost in the Medina – Fez, Morocco

Lost in the Medina
Fez, Morocco

On the train from Casablanca to Fez, we met one really nice person, and one not so nice. We traveled second class, which was all right by me – after a bit of interrailing in Europe in the summer, I’ll never be surprised of (or on) a train again. But my fiancée didn’t think it was a blast; there wasn’t enough room for his legs – and the seats around us weren’t even taken most of the time. The train trip took about three hours, and frankly I think the trains were nice. A lot nicer than the trains I commute with every day in Norway. There was also a cute guy in a strange uniform walking around with his little with soda and chips and stuff in it. The national rail company’s website – when it actually works – is only in Arabic and French. The prices are alright, and to be upgraded to first class it costs between a third and a half of the regular price extra. (Later on, my fiancée got his way and we bought first class tickets. I don’t think it was worth it, but as long as he’s paying…)

The first guy we met on the train was a very polite, calm and soberly dressed film critic, whose dream was to become a real journalist. As my fiancée is a journalist and the film critic had just seen a Scandinavian movie, we had lots to talk about. Or, I had a lot to talk about, and a lot of translating to do. My fiancée understands a little French, but has great difficulty speaking it, and as I’ve lived in France I do 99% of the talking in a French-speaking country (while he’s the one speaking German). In a country like Morocco, that suits me just fine. People normally address the large Viking, not the tiny blonde next to him. So I get to prove, time after time, that you shouldn’t, like we say in Norway, judge the dog by its fur. The film critic gave us a real warm welcome to Morocco (lots of people did that – total strangers said “bienvenue au Maroc”, out of the blue, and it was very nice) but had to leave the train a few stations before Fez.

Another guy came and took his place, and I immediately thought that there was something wrong with him. He made me think of a coyote, maybe because he smelled like one. Although we firmly held our books in front of our faces, he chatted away, and he was saying all sorts of nice things to us, so eventually I had to give up and talk to him for real. When he heard that we were going to Fez, he said, “oh, do you have a guide?”

When I said no, he said, “I will call my cousin Mohammad! He’ll charge only 100 dirhams for you, because you’re my friend!”

“No, thank you,” I said.
“Is 100 dirhams a lot? I don’t think 100 dirhams is a lot! I can call Mohammad right now!” (They all have mobile telephones, by the way, even people who seem poor.)

“No, thank you,” I said.

“It’s not for me! It’s my cousin! 100 dirhams is not much for you! You must have a guide in Fez!”

“No,” I said. And that’s when he actually started to get angry. He got so upset just because I said that we didn’t need a guide in the old medina. My fiancée just kept reading, the lucky bastard, while I had to sit there, saying “no” to an angry man for 10-15 minutes. That’s a lot of no-ing. An old, sweet couple sent the angry guy glances that made me understand that I was on the right track when I just kept on saying no.

Before we left, I’d read on BootsnAll that you should have a guide in Fez, but after meeting this guy I was determined that we were going to do fine without. I told this to my fiancée, who, like me, doesn’t need total security all the time, so he agreed that we could try without cousin Mohammad or any other guide. The angry guy seemed to have steam coming out of his ears when he finally got up and left us. At the railway station in Fez, we were surrounded by people saying, “Guide? Guide? You need a guide, guide?” (Why on earth can’t they say anything only once?) so we just put on the ignoring-you-face and walked really fast until we’d lost them.

We stood next to a street restaurant, and we were hungry, so we smiled to the cook, who barely knew any French, and were offered one of the two tables. We pointed at the food we wanted (tiny, uncooked hot dogs) and got the best and cheapest dinner ever. For a full meal with the de menthe, coffee and everything, we paid less than NOK 40 for the both of us. That’s about $6 or 5 euros.

The medina in Fez is indeed big! It’s the largest and oldest medieval city in the world. As I mentioned, I read an article on BootsnAll before going to Morocco, where the writer said that because the medina is huge and like a maze, one should be accompanied by a guide. Well, we barely managed to avoid the guides outside of the medina, who stuck to us like glue, but after lots of ignoring we finally got rid of them. We had no map of the medina, which actually was like a maze, and we just walked where we felt like, so suddenly we had no idea of where we were – and it felt pretty nice. The streets without all the tourist traps are the best, the most beautiful, the calmest – and I felt like I was in the medieval times. Narrow alleys, toothless, grinning old men, intricate ornaments and stray cats, rays of sun shining on dust that somehow seemed to be thousands of years old. When we figured we’d had enough, we started to go upwards, as we’d descended quite a lot earlier. And after a while doing that, the tourist shops and cafes started popping up again, and then we suddenly discovered that there were blue signs on the top of many walls, with an arrow telling us where the nearest “bab” (gate) was. We actually felt a bit disappointed. What kind of maze has exit-signs?

When it comes to getting rid of annoying, rude people who talk to you in thirteen different languages (some say they are official guides, others don’t even bother to lie), I don’t know anything besides ignoring them really works. My fiancée yells at people in Norwegian when he gets really upset, but astonishingly enough, even this doesn’t scare away the worst. And in Fez there were some really, really unpleasant people. I’ve actually never experienced worse except in the most touristy places in Turkey (some say Egypt is very bad too). Our method was to never talk to them, talk to each other in Norwegian (I guess any foreign language they don’t understand would do), taking our time and always choose roads that seemed to be less trafficked.

During our adventure in Fez we met two nice men who sold the regular tourist things, but they had, unlike everyone else, fixed prices; tags on every item. And most of the prices were lower than what we’d already paid for the same type of things. When we asked them why, they said that they thought everyone should have the same price, that it was much more fair, and that we were lucky not to be with a guide – if someone sells something to a tourist who has a guide, the guide will earn about 50% of what the tourist pays. In addition to their firm principles of equality, they were actually making what they were selling, and this also made their items cheaper.

We spent about half a day in Fez, and I think that’s a minimum. We didn’t have time to see anything outside of the medina. And I’d love to walk around in the medina for days – without a guide, of course.

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