Friday, April 16, 2010

Fes, Morocco - Southern Circuit Trip

“We’ll go now?”

“Well, I will. But I’m going alone.” I was beyond the point of annoyance and making a concerted effort to control my temper.

“Your friend said you want a guide today.”

“No, he didn’t. And that’s my friend, not me.”

“I have been waiting since ten o’clock,” gesturing toward a time on his watch, three hours past.

“I’m sorry to hear that.” I broke eye contact and began to walk down the narrow passage which lead from the riad to the city’s central market. He followed.

“It’s rude for you to make me wait.”

“I'm sorry, but I didn’t ask you to come.” Anthony and Al had stayed in the riad to avoid the conversation I was having.

“Why will you not come with me?”

“It’s not necessary. I prefer to walk alone.” I measured my voice as I spoke.

“Friend, please,” he caught up and walked sideways ahead of me, “why don’t I come with you?”

“No. I'm really not interested.”


“Because the words came out of my mouth.”

He paused, frustrated, to gather his thoughts. “You can call me later?”

“No.” It was the 2nd of 4 times I would encounter the faux (unofficial) guide.

In the off-season, when gullible and lazy tourist populations are in the decline, the shills and drug dealers of Fes are at their most determined. They will press each conversation to the razor’s edge of physical altercation, walk away, and re-engage a few hours later as if you were a beloved relative. The westerner’s hope that some fraction of unsolicited attention might be a genuine extension of friendship is invariably cause for disappointment. It’s a cancer on the touristic appeal of the city. Fortunately, the body is strong enough as a whole that most of the time the obnoxious little cyst can be overlooked.

Tourists, with their euros and dollars and SLR cameras, would not come to Fes if her charm had not been so astonishingly well-preserved over the centuries. The old medina has hovered at or just above the poverty line throughout its 1,200 year history. Buildings and avenues crumble artfully, doorhandles and cobblestones worn to a mirror finish; upkeep performed dutifully with an eye toward maintenance rather than improvement. Angular props, built with bound planks of plywood and paid for by the UNESCO foundation, are sporadically found wedged between buildings, preventing collapse.

The city’s main tourist attractions; a mosque, a school and a few tanneries have been so overgrown with additional housing and storefronts over the centuries that their facades are almost completely obscured. It’s only the odd ornately decorated, guarded door that will open onto a stunning ancient compound. It’s here where the city’s tourist dollars are really seen. Islamic calligraphy, painstakingly carved into porcelain and inlaid with jade is immaculately preserved within; youths tout fake designer jeans to tourists a few meters outside.

Automobiles are barred by police from coming inside the medina walls (easily enforced - there hasn’t been a car invented narrow or agile enough to navigate alleyways). Men lead donkeys, loaded with cargo between the souks as the means of bulk conveyance.

The three of us were staying in a beautiful riad that Al’s family had booked almost three years before. They’d had to cancel their stay and the proprietor had kept the deposit, insisting that there was no expiration date on its use. Riads are fortress-like housing compounds that traditionally house large families – often extending several lateral steps. Their rooms are built around spacious inner courtyards where most of the mingling and eating is done. Very little conversation is necessary to make them suitable for tourist intake as they are essentially built like boutique hotels – each wing of the family taking up its own, semi-enclosed unit. Beautiful and comfortable though it was, however, it was extremely expensive (for us). So we had resolved to stay only a few nights, and then head to one of the youth hostels nearer to the primary medina entrance.

I would vent my frustration with the city’s more aggressive salesmen a few more times before I left. One rug salesmen dragged me into his shop and started pouring glasses of tea while a few of his workers dutifully arranged their wares before me. I was thirsty, so I asked for several refills.

“You remember outside when I said I wasn’t going to buy any rugs?”

“Oh yes, no need to buy – just look.”

“Okay,” I said and drank my tea.

Fifteen minutes later, I had finished my tea and was on my way out of the shop - to the owner’s intense dissatisfaction. He finally postulated that I didn’t want any rugs because I was racist. “I live in Casablanca,” I told him in Arabic. He looked pissed.

Sales pitches usually start very soft (“come see my shop – just look and take pictures!”). Once you’re inside, some hospitality is extended to get you to stay. The hospitality is partially genuine, rooted in Islamic tradition. But once you’re sitting, the dealer rapidly becomes more assertive. Most shopkeepers bank heavily on the fact that Westerners often fail to apply analytic filters to what they’re told, being unaccustomed to having salesmen lie to their face. “This rug took 30 hours to make by hand,” “They sell for twice as much on Ebay,” “The dye will never come off.” All said with well-practiced earnestness and in disarmingly imperfect English.

Fortunately, the anger that they express if you ignore their pitch or poke holes in their assertions is equally disingenuous. In some cases, you can even circumvent their desire to take your money and have an actual conversation.

Fes is the reason people come to Morocco. It’s a glimpse at modern life trying to integrate itself with a largely impoverished, millennia-old city. And it’s a beautiful, stunning thing to see. If it were easy, it wouldn’t be real.


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