Fez: Painted Pots, Nonexistent Jews, and Oh My God What Is That Smell?

Long day today and an early wakeup tomorrow for the long trip across the Atlas Mountains to the Sahara, so this post is likely to be longer on pictures than the usual mordant commentary. And because it is late I am probably not going to be doing a whole lot of proofreading,  so be prepared to endure a heavier than usual dose of Autocorrrect Surrealism.

Before I begin, though, I need to correct an error in yesterday’s post that Alice discovered. It appears that I killed off Moulay Ismail’s imprisoned architect for the wrong reason. He was executed not because he claimed he could build a greater-than-12,000-horse stable, but rather because he said he could build a better city gate. So now I have set the record straight, not that this helps him.

I also want to make a retroactive addition to yesterday’s narrative, because we had a very interesting encounter in the hills that I forgot to mention. I did say that a number of farmers make a hardscrabble, living coaxing olives and hazelnuts out of the brown  hillsides, but I neglected to mention that snails were also on the menu; the Moroccans inherited that particular culinary quirk from the French, and also consider them aphrodisiac for God knows what reason. So bags of snails nagging by roadside stands is a strangely common site, like this:

I also neglected to mention that a conversation with one of the roadside farmers led to an invitation to walk down the steep dirt path to his home for a visit; he lived with his mother in a small cluster of one-room buildings, very dusky and a little primitive inside but not altogether crude: he had a two-burner propane stove, well water, and electricity. He also had a wife, who had decamped to Spain because, well, it was nicer there. He was saving up money to join her, but in the meantime his companion and farm hand was Mom, whom you see here. She had been married off at 12 years old and had three children besides our hazelnut farmer. The two of them were very gracious to us.

I mentioned that we visited Momo’s apartment and met his family, and told you that his wife Amal had prepared a sumptuous snack table for us. I wanted to include a photo of said pastry extravaganza but had trouble uploading the image, which I hereby offer for your enjoyment. The incidence of diabetes in this country is very high, which is no mystery whatever. Moroccans love their cakes and cookies and are diabetically good at producing them.

 

I also tried to convey a sense of our centuries-old riad, and described how the owner greeted us in the atrium and told us about the history of the place. Here is a photo of that scene. It in no way resembles a Holiday Inn. Our room is on the top floor, and directly above us is a terrace that offers a spectacular view of the city.

Fez is the oldest city in Morocco, and because it sits among the hills there are a few places — not just our riad rooftop, from which you can enjoy a panoramic view of it. Here is one taken from across town.

If you were able to zoom sufficiently far into this picture one of the things that would strike you is that every, and I do mean every, home has a satellite TV dish on the roof. The paraboloids are so ubiquitous that they are sardonically referred to as Moroccan Mushrooms. I found their ubiquity a little odd: with such rampant poverty, how is it that everyone can afford satellite TV? The answer, explained to me by our local guide, lay in a factoid that I offered a few days ago, namely that Morocco has no intellectual property laws. That means that any enterprising electronics technician with a grounding in cable box encryption and a touch of piratical larceny in his heart can build a bootleg cable box that can receive and decide the satellite signal, and sell said box for a couple hundred dollars. That may sound like a lot but it’s a one-shot deal: you save up your dirhams until you can buy one of those bootleg set-top boxes, and you are set forever: 1200 channels and no monthly subscription fees, forever. And that explains why those dishes are everywhere.

Armed with that particular useless bit of knowledge (useless to us, but very handy for the locals), we set out for our day tour of Fez. The city really has three parts: the medina in the old city, which dates from the 9th century (that is really old, people!); the so called New City, which is a still-wet-behind-the-ears 700 years old; and an actual modern downtown area. Our first stop was the Ibn Danan synagogue (there is one other) in the so-called mellah, or Jewish quarter, of the New City. It is small and no longer functioning as a place of worship, maintained instead for historical purposes through various grants. Here is our local guide, the very articulate Hisham, showing us the Torah scroll. (The scroll, though real, is no longer consecrated and cannot be used in an actual service.)

I assume that there is some kind of selection effect at work since we are an American tour group (despite my being the only Jew in it) but I continue to be bemused by the astronomically disproportionate frequency with which the Jews pop up in our tour guide’s expositions and in our sightseeing. It seems like we are constantly hearing about one  or another Jewish quarter, or synagogue, or historical personage, or edict, or what have you, such that an uninformed tourist might reasonably conclude that Jews make up about 10% of Morocco’s population instead of the actual 0.008%. Strange. And it is also a result of this phenomenon that every time something about Morocco’s Jews gets mentioned, everybody instinctively turns to me for more information as though I were somehow automatically imbued with this knowledge by virtue of having been Bar Mitzvahed 49 years ago. (News flash: I wasn’t.)

Anyway, having satisfied our daily Moroccan Jewish History quota, we moved on to a pottery collective. It is a collective created for the purpose of preserving the craft, which used to be handed down from father to son but is now threatened by globalization, the figurative sons now being more interested in more 21st century pursuits. Here is one of the potters at work:

There were a lot of beautiful things been made, and of course being sold: tile tables and fountains, and all manner of pottery even including — wait for it — mezuzahs. (For non-Jewish readers, that is the usually oblong religious talisman placed on the doorframe at the entrance to Jewish homes.) We were walked through the grounds watching men of various ages mix clay, fire pots, lay out tile mosaics, etc.; women were employed only in the pottery painting stage. At the end of the tour we were inevitably led to the gifts shop, which I will grudgingly respect for having high quality stuff. Our credit card balance did not escape the gift shop unscathed.

From there we moved into the Old City, dominated by the medina. Like the other medinas and souks we have visited, this one was a crush of humanity and an assault on the senses, this one even more so that the others because of its partially ceilinged and thus more claustrophobic quarters. Its size distinguishes it as well: we were told that there were 62 miles of streets (!) and that if we became separated from the group that we should not wander around to try and find our guide, but rather should stand still and wait for him to backtrack to us. Otherwise the risk was that one would end up wandering the maze forever, lost in sensory overload until eventually giving up and opening a bakery. Anyway, here are some scenes of the medina. First, the crowd itself:

And that is a wide part of the street. The danger — and I am not kidding here — is that the density of people is so high, and the streets so narrow, that there is an actual risk of being run over by a donkey carrying some merchant’s wares, like these guys carrying tanned animal hides:

And here is a fish merchant. Notice the shark’s head, standing on end at lower right.

And now a butcher. Yes, that huge grotesque thing hanging in the foreground at right is a decapitated camel’s head. Yes, they eat camels. No, we haven’t tried it. The heads make great Christmas presents, though.

As I’ve mentioned before, the medina is a 360-degree assault on all five senses, very alien but oddly exhilarating. But the hubbub is punctuated by unexpected islands of serenity, small quiet mysterious alleys that radiate off the Main Street and force you to wonder who lives their and what they do. I was photographing one of these, all in shades of white and gray, strangely bleached in comparison to the riot of color elsewhere, when a young boy jumped out of nowhere into the frame, grinned at me, and disappeared again. Here he is:

Our meandering a through the medina led us to a leather tannery (and store, of course). The store is at street level, and the owner asked us if we wanted to go upstairs to see the tannery itself, which of course we did. Before marching us up three floors, though, he handed each of us a sprig of fresh spearmint plant without explanation. Its utility became nauseatingly self-evident as we climbed the stairs, the stench of dead meat and ammonia growing unbreathably stronger with each step. Sure enough, by the time we reached the top we were holding the spearmint beneath our noses on every other breath to keep from gagging; we needed it like a scuba diver’s air hose. It was by a very wide and unpleasant margin the worst thing I have ever smelled.

And here’s the punch line: the actual tannery works are at street level behind the building. That is, we were going up to the roof to get AWAY from smell. Variously holding our breath and breathing therough the spearmint leaves, we took our photos looking down on the operation while trying not to imagine what the odor would be like at close range. So here is the view, which I assure you does not remotely convey the experience, for which you should be very, very grateful. In fact, benign words like “smell”, “odor”, and “aroma” are entirely unequal to the descriptive task. “Stench” starts to approach the concept but still falls a long way short; the English language needs some altogether new word to describe the olfactory sensation. Something like “glarrrrghblechomygodgag”, which I admit looks a little Welsh but which is definitely moving in the right direction. See what you can come up with. (I can hardly wait to read the comments section of this post.)

Photos taken, we got the sales pitch back in the store. The leather goods were indeed beautiful and the prices reasonable but by no means negligible. Alice came close to buying a jacket but eventually decided against it, apparently emotionally wounding the salesman to the point of suicidal depression as he followed us out into the street and down the block.

Our final stop before dinner was at a madrasah, which is to say, a religious school. The madrasahs serve as both schools and a sort of community center and are deeply rooted in history. The one we visited dated from the 14th century, spectacularly ornate with calligraphic carvings and geometric colored tiles tesselating every square foot. They were in remarkable condition after 700 years, especially considering that the courtyard is open to the elements at the top. Here we are in the front courtyard:

We ended the day with another home visit, this time to a delightful middle class family living in the modern downtown part of the city. Father was a waited and had to work, and so we had dinner with mother Hadija; her 23 daughter Loubnna (in her second year of medical school); her 22 year old daughter Fatima (studying economics), and her 15 year old son Otman (high school). Their English was pretty good, especially Loubnna’s, though we occasionally fell back on French. They were more than gracious, very warm and welcoming and eager to share their lives with us and ask about ours. We were there for about two hours and enjoyed every minute of it. I took some pictures of them, and they of us, which Fatima wants to share through Facebook. So I guess I am about to become Facebook friends with a 22 year old Moroccan girl. (The 23 year old, Loubnna, says that medical,school keeps her way too busy for Facebook.)

And that was our rather long day. Tomorrow may be even longer, most of it on the us as we head to the desert. I suspect that Internet connectivity may be spotty for the next four or five days, but I’ll do the best I can.

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Categories: Morocco | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

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3 thoughts on “Fez: Painted Pots, Nonexistent Jews, and Oh My God What Is That Smell?

  1. Anonymous

    We’re everywhere! We’re everywhere ! I’m in md. With your son & grandson so I’m on my tablet which for some reason would not show the photos so I’ll look at them when I get home at the end of the week.

  2. Jeanne Alexis Beatty

    Entry for olfactory experience: Stank-funk-noxious!

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