Below me men dance in a honeycomb of vats, filled with a sludge of pigeon manure. With their bare toes they are kneading the pelages of cows and sheep, before dying them in tubs of saffron and poppies. Because of the stench, I breathe through my mouth, passing by heaps of putrefied fells. Hair is loosened with urine and salt, before teams scud the coats with dulled tannery knives.
After they’re cleaned, the hides are lugged to neighboring terrace rooftops, frosted with curls of shorn wool. In the distance, they dot the foothills with a kaleidoscope of hues. Once dried, grizzled mules haul the skins to the covered markets, where they’re stitched into leather products and then sold.
I am visiting Fez, one of the oldest medieval towns. Founded in 793 AD, the city is nestled against the arched spine of the Atlas Mountains in the corner of Northwest Africa. A blend of Berber clans, remnants of European occupation and Islamic mores, Fez is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Subtract the blooming clusters of satellite dishes turned like heliotropes and the view looks like something out of the Old Testament.
A holy site full of script-covered mosques, sultans’ tombs, and bejeweled palaces, Fez is considered by many to be the soul of Morocco. Although there is now sprawl outside the keyhole-shaped gates, the medina has changed little since the 11th century.
You can observe artists at work in the scores of studios lining the footpaths. The bazaars are divided by guild and everything is individually composed.
Experts in age-old modes of recycling, these inventors do not waste cast-offs. The plumes that drift over the potteries arise from burnt olive pits. Bones are fermented for months and then heat-gelled into glue. Dung is even considered sacred and applied to genitalia during the act of circumcision. These tradesmen guard their practices like they defend their solitude, even as sister cities cave to “modernization.”
Fez is made up of three districts: Fes el Bali (walled portion), Fes-Jdid (outside the fortress), and Ville Nouvelle (constructed during French subjugation). The census of 2010 shows a million people living here, making it the second biggest city in the country. In 1170, however, it was the largest city in the world.
It’s not easy to navigate this confusing maze, but complexity is part of the city’s charm. Spinners spool pockmarked walls with streams of thread, winding strings around jutting nail pegs like giant cribbage boards. If you take notice, these silk strands provide a kind of esoteric map through the tunnels crammed with dusty scaffolding.
Fassis have a keen grasp on medicinal plants, and it is common here to frequent apothecaries. Jars of murky potions, tinctures and fragrant herbs line the walls, sporting labels like crocodile, turmeric and opium. On colorful swatches women crouch behind rotary querns, picking apart argan pits lodged in goat stool.
I explore one of these pharmacies in my quest for the coveted nectar and am offered a steeped cup of mint tea. Veiled ladies then swarm, rivaling to assess my ailments.
“For headache,” one dispenser suggests, her hennaed hand slipping a hunk of root into my woven basket.
“For skin,” another adds, wafting a cornucopia of serums under my nose. I sample a sundry of cloudy elixirs, powders and brewed tonics. “Ancient beauty secrets,” they whisper, as they rub black balm onto my wrists with kessa rags.
Moroccans swear by their hammans, communal baths where you are scrubbed with these salves before being massaged into relaxation. The bathhouse is one of five essential facilities in each neighborhood, the others being a fountain, school, mosque, and bakery. Although the snarl of alleys, the cadence of languages, and the rash of symbols seem baffling to the uninitiated, there is definite order behind both the city’s layout and its dazzling wares.
Take carpets for example. Forty-five tribes of Berbers live in Morocco, and they use a slew of different designs. You can figure out which region a piece is from or how old it is by researching the various styles. The women who hide behind the looms decorate their bodies in an extension of code, tattooing their chins with dots and lines. They wear talismans imbued with charms and wraps to convey wealth and marital status. Nomadic by choice, they refer to themselves as Imazigen, or free people.
Morocco’s riches include its assorted landscapes, from the snowcapped mountains to the dunes of the Sahara desert. The country’s treasures also comprise the amalgam of values and how these mesh with shifting but united people. In the wake of recent protests; however, discord has rocked the nation. Dissent is no longer being masked behind djellba cloaks but is resounding through the warren of shadowy chambers.
The current king has taken strides to honor the country’s diversity. He is also viewed as a leader in relations with the West. Though restraints were exercised on those gathering to challenge the monarchy, there has simultaneously been support for his role in incremental change.
The February 20 Movement, a group which started on Facebook, has organized rallies in reaction to the Arab Spring. Among other things, the group is pushing for democratic elections and a lowering of prices on basic commodities. The king has countered with attempts to revise the constitution. He has recognized Berber as an official language and offered wage and pension hikes. While Moroccans have more freedoms than those in surrounding countries, the reformists have yet to be quelled.
As it stands now, women are not on equal footing. Trafficking and prostitution are incessant problems, as well as labor exploitations and forced servitude. The unemployment rate hovers around 30% in urban areas. Lack of jobs and healthcare are huge factors, as well as illiteracy and clearly defined gender roles.
That said, recent pressures have paved the way for women to delay marriage, to own businesses, and even to run for parliament. They can now file suits for domestic assault, acquire property and custody rights in divorce, and also refuse second wives.
The king has encouraged privatization, and with this, agricultural, transportation, and energy upgrades. Because tourism now accounts for 14% of the GDP, foreigners play a huge role in sculpting this process.
Most of the historic buildings in Morocco are desperately in need of funds, as the country does not have the resources to repair all of the revered landmarks. Magnates who buy real estate then are in a unique position to ensure both architectural and cultural conservation.
Restoration in a place as old as Fez is a delicate dance, however, and journalist Suzanna Clarke has written a book that highlights some of the issues. She has been reconstructing a riad for over ten years and believes that only through investment in local channels will different classes be able to live together peacefully.
“For more than a thousand years, rich and poor lived side by side in Fez. We were thrilled to find artisans with ancient skills, using many traditional approaches that have been lost in the West. In fashioning ancient places to conform with the ideas of what tourists want, there is a great danger of destroying the very things that give them their soul.”
Clarke’s endeavor is significant, but it’s definitely not been without its struggles. With many stuck in poverty and scamming being an acknowledged way to escape, it seemed impossible that she could pass unscathed. As it turns out, she’s spent more than three times the price of her home on bureaucratic quandaries. Nonetheless, she recounts her misfortunes with humor and takes it in stride as part of her role.
Kleo Brunn, another expatriate, echoes similar sentiments after refurbishing a hotel.
“I tried to restore Dar Attajali like an historical monument, using traditional materials, and also employing local craftsmen. For the medina it is indeed essential that wealth is moving in, i.e., that more houses are being restored, but it’s important that the locals can profit from that to enhance their living condition.”
Brunn also lost savings when contractors stole her money. She believes in advocating for locals but opines that some have completely different ideas about professionalism. She emphasizes that rehabilitation is not about relaxing standards. It’s about being respectful and polite, but also strict with boundaries.
David Amster, director of the American Language Center & Arabic Language Institute, is quite familiar with the hoodwinking. He jokingly recounts a time when his phone was stolen right out of his hand by what he referred to as a “gentle and discreet thief.” Still he considers Fez to be one of the only places in the Islamic world where foreigners can live safely. He hosts events that promote cultural exchange and assists investors interested in buying real estate.
“A few hundred houses have been restored in the past decade, half by foreigners and half by Moroccans. This is a much healthier situation than in other Moroccan cities. Gentrification of the medina is not the goal, but rather a healthy socio-economic mix as there was in the past….If only two to five percent of traditional houses were restored by those with some political and financial influence, it would make a huge difference and would contribute to the overall preservation.”
True change takes a long time to exact, though, and while most dismiss the cheating etiquette as corrupt, it is also why many embrace Fez. Vendibles do not have price tags since wrangling is considered a way of getting to know someone. It is also a means of gaining respect, networking, and of testing communication skills.
Bartering here used to calculate worth in the exchange of local goods. Visitors had dissimilar but equal materials to swap. With the surge in tourism, Moroccans were introduced to people who held completely different models. Many were successful opportunists who refused to offer comparable pay.
Evolution is defined as a linear spectrum in the West, with advancement assessed in terms of land ownership and established technological, medical, and scientific canons. Without many options offered for upward-mobility in these areas, Fassis have had to contrive new ways to survive.
With UNESCO safeguards in place, maturation here can never be about modern development — it’s about keeping prevailing structures and archetypes maintained. Change in a site that is endangered then is different than in a place cultivating growth. Hustling could be viewed as a form of self-preservation. When the numbers add up, it could also be crucial to the original hamlet being conserved.
I sat down to speak with Muhammed B., a vendor who owns an antique gallery full of fine tapestries, daggers and polished amulets. He explained to me that he knows that foreigners are reaping huge profits on reselling his goods. He welcomes the interactions, he tells me in precise English. He likes to see whom he is dealing with after all.
“We’ve been in Fez for generations and hotels in L.A. contact me to decorate. I enjoy it when customers who I knew years ago come back because they remember my furniture.”
He pulls out a worn, coveted guestbook and I see the heavy scrawl in various languages.
“My international buyers,” he boasts with pride, bowing before a photo of his father, hanging beneath framed pages of the Koran.
“These clients find my family. It is my art that decorates their walls.”
I am squeezing the collapsed crimson ottomans like they are accordions, trying to gage their size and structure.
“You like that?” he asks. “I go into business with you. You buy two and want more, I ship them discount price.”
I glance up to meet his languid gaze.
“No pressure,” he says, holding up his hands. “Quality sells itself. Besides, hassling is not my style.”
He casually hands me another color.
“I only ship five minimum, though.”
“I just bought a pouf in Marrakech,” I explain, marveling at how supple his leather is, without lines or cracks in the sides.
“Mine are cowhide, truly the best. And I only use natural products in tanning.”
He hands me pendant and tells me it’s a gift. He then ties a bracelet around my wrist, brightly embroidered with his name.
“My son knows email,” he says in a hushed voice. “You might just change your mind.”
The muezzin call to prayer interrupts us as he reaches for my hand. He is so happy I’ve come by today, he says. He assures me that the most refined people live here.
“I wouldn’t want to be anywhere else,” he sighs.
I suddenly admire his acumen and heave two wilted shells onto the counter. I watch him expertly wring them into tight bundles for my suitcase.
“You stuff them, you’ll be back,” he knowingly nods, handing me a pile of business cards.
On my stroll back, I peruse stalls of ceramics, passing severed camel heads, bouquets of lamb legs, giant cleaved hooves, and skulls thick with roasted brains. I’m about to purchase a pot when I’m told that the reason my choice is more expensive is that the dish is “old.” I look around at the crumbling turrets, the patina on the weathered spires, the gated-off piles of rubble and corroded pipelines. This, I suddenly know, is part of a slick sales routine. The woman who runs the store shakes her head when I approach and walks my container back to its home mantle.
Oooooold, she reiterates, drawing out the word as though speaking to a child. Something has been definitely been lost in the translation.
We smile and step around each other and I handle a few of the shiny wares. Nice, I say, as I run my fingers over the chosen bowl again. She signals toward another stockpile and stands to block the designated shelf. I am confused by her response and unsure of what to do.
Finally a hovering boy in a soccer jersey lets me in on the secret: the plating is endowed with significance. Each year designs are soldered differently and this one is from six years ago. She only has one left and I’d said three in the beginning. I give my boyfriend a smirk. We hadn’t known they’d been listening.
I pick up three jobbanas from the ledge she’d pointed to and wait as she wraps them in newspaper. Then I hand her the much-desired jar. She holds up four fingers and starts, her dour face melting into a wide toothless grin.
Fassis sit poised at this critical crossroads, gingerly balanced in the swells of strife. Amidst waves of political turmoil, they are simultaneously humble and confident in their clout. Armed with time-honored wisdom, they are hopeful and resilient, striving to honor their past without being left behind. It’s inevitable the city will evolve as regimes restructure. It’s equally important the artists negotiate the change.