KAPOORS ON THE ROAD
We hailed a baby blue petit taxi to the train station, and found the train waiting at the platform. Once again, we were in a brand new coach, and the 40-minute journey passes comfortably. When we arrived in Fez, the sun was just beginning to peek out from behind the clouds and it was clear it hadn’t rained at all there. We dodged the large groups of tourists gathering just outside the Bab (Gate) Bou Jeloud.
An official guide approached us looking for work, but was pleasant enough when we told him with a smile, that we preferred to walk on our own. He told us where to find him if we changed our minds, nothing persistent or off-putting about his manner whatsoever. I was beginning to wonder what all the fuss was about. We really must think about writing to the editors of our guidebook and tell them that we really feel they have gone overboard in warning tourists about the hassles they face in Morocco.
Then again, it’s really hard for me to judge when I’m travelling with Anil, Mr. International. I know I’ve mentioned this before, but no matter where we go, everyone thinks he is a local. Many men cannot believe it when he can’t reply to them in Arabic or even French. They take great delight in telling him that he looks just like one of their countrymen. When I spoke with one Moroccan shopkeeper about this, he pointed out that when he was in India, an Indian woman would simply not believe that he wasn’t Indian himself. He too has what I would refer to as an International Face.
I wish I could say I remember Fez, but I don’t really. There are two main lanes that descend into the bowels of the Fez Medina, one branching to the left, the other to the right. The walking tour in the Lonely Planet takes travellers along the left lane, so contrary to instructions, I suggested we take ‘the road less travelled’. Instead of exiting the medina at its northernmost gate, we would circle back and return on the lane used by the tour groups so that we would meet them as they entered and not have to get stuck behind them as they stopped to gather around their guide to hear what he was telling them about Fez.
Anil had no concern about which path we take, he gets hopelessly lost if he’s not following me, and in fact, hates it if I wear white when everyone else is wearing white, or black if everyone is wearing dark colours. He loves it when I wear my pink shirt because he can usually spot me in a crowd, but it’s too early in the season for pastel colours and I wore my trusty burgundy sweater.
I just have to make sure he doesn’t turn left when I turn right ahead of him. I now call him Mr. 180 because his instinct is usually off by that many degrees. He just smiles and holds on to my elbow. I keep telling him he’d be lost without me, and we both know that there’s some truth to that endearment. I’d be lost without him too, more than anyone will ever know. I’d find my way from one way to another, but would there be any enjoyment in it?
Oh dear, I’m getting really sappy as I write this. Better get back to telling you about the indescribable place that is the Fez Medina. I remember when the National Geographic magazine came out with an article on Fez in 1986, 14 years after I had visited there myself, I was swept away to Morocco and the narrow lanes of the medina like it was yesterday. It was one of the most enchanting places I had ever been, and I wanted to see it again, and for Anil to experience it. Now we were plunging down the steep lane, another dream coming true.
We had made a good choice to venture off on our own for two very good reasons. I was delighted to find that while there was an abundance of goods for sale on either side of the alley, they were items on offer to the local residents and not solely touristy kitsch. Before we knew it, we were encountering craftsmen making items for sale, stone carvers, metalworkers, tailors, weavers and embroiders. When we reached the center of the medina, we were suddenly faced with the hype that the tour groups encounter. Touts from all the leather shops encouraged us to visit the tanneries nearby.
No one had to tell me that we were in the leather-tanning neighbourhood. I could smell the odour in the air. It wasn’t too strong but all I needed was a whiff to remember what I had seen and smelled in the past. I had read that now the touts provide visitors with bunches of fresh mint to try and mask the smell of the untanned hides. The scene of the age-old open-pit tannery was so vivid in my mind that I wanted Anil to see if for himself.
He didn’t object because he had no idea what he was in for. We climbed up several flights of stair inside one leather shop and there it was, spread out below us, just as I remember it. It’s a sight for sore eyes, literally. I gasped at the smell, how could I have ever forgotten how bad it is? I held my breath, snapped three photos and ran inside again. Now it was time to fend off the leather salesmen. I was quite open to looking at their purses because I don’t want to use my travel bag back in Canada during the summer, but they had nothing I was interested in buying and their prices were so vastly inflated, there was no point buying anything there. I could probably do better in Spain and not have to pack the purse around for the next three weeks.
I must look like a pretty self-assured woman because it didn’t take long for the salesman to understand I wasn’t in the buying frame of mind, and he abandoned me for another possible customer. I was more than happy and we headed back out into the medina. We spent the next couple of hours wandering through the various ‘neighbourhoods’ of tradesmen and I snapped photos here and there to try and capture the sights and smells of Fez. I have to say though; it’s a place that cannot be adequately portrayed in photos or even video. It’s an experience rather than a landmark. There’s no doubting its UNESCO World Heritage Site designation.
Fez can really be divided into three main areas and we had spent hours walking through the most dramatic part of the city. The Medina (Fès El-Bali), New Fez (Fez El-Jdid) although his district is hardly new, it’s over 700 years old, and the Ville Nouvelle, containing the modern administrative area constructed by the French. We decided to walk to New Fez instead of taking a ‘red’ petit taxi, in order to see the Mellah (Jewish Quarter) and the Royal Palace.
Luckily, we were visiting in the spring and the weather was mild, what we have come to call ‘perfect’. It was a pleasant walk, and we were bothered by no one, but observed by many. I’m sure we were taken to be a Moroccan man with his ‘foreign’ wife, or perhaps, a kindly Moroccan man who had been deputized to show off his city to a visiting friend of the family. Either way, we enjoyed our stroll over the large distance along the imposing city walls, out one dramatic stone gate and through another some distance away from the Medina.
I think we would have noticed the difference in architectural styles inside the Jewish Quarter, even if we hadn’t read about them in our guidebook. Here we found dilapidated wooden balconies hanging precariously above our heads, over the narrow lanes. While Muslim homes turn inward for privacy, these old homes allowed for their residents to view the activity in the streets below.
We were reminded of the balcony houses so distinctive in the Spanish world, and then we remembered that many of the Jewish people who settled in Morocco were expelled from Moorish Spain when the Christian Kings reasserted their dominance. The Spanish Inquisition saw most, if not all of the Jews leaving southern Spain for North Africa. Now we read that the Jews of the Mellah of Fez have moved on to the suburbs of the ever-expanding Ville Nouvelle and their old homes are abandoned or have become the homes of villagers fleeing the poverty of rural Morocco.
At last, we emerged from the Mellah into a wide-open space near the magnificent gates of the Royal Palace (Dar el-Makhsen). While the Royal Palace in Meknès has been pretty much abandoned, this one is closed to the public and is still very popular with the current king, Mohammed VI. The imposing gates have been lovingly restored and we spent almost an hour there hoping to get some good photos without too many foreign tourists in the photos as well. At last, I realized that it was going to be impossible to capture the gates as if we were the only ones there, and settled for some photos with Moroccan tourists near the gates.
In the end, I am delighted with the photos I took, especially the one with the Moroccan mothers and the three little boys. In a country that cherishes children, it seems only fitting that there be children near the residence of their King. Surprisingly enough, we were still feeling fresh enough to continue walking towards the train station in Ville Nouvelle. It was a beautiful spring afternoon, the sun was shining but the breezes were cooling and they carried the scent of the orange blossoms from the trees planted along the boulevards.
It was a wonderful and fulfilling day. We entered the modern train station built to reflect the architecture of this ancient imperial city, bought our tickets back to Meknès and also our tickets for our journey from Meknès to Tangier a few days hence. We had to keep reminding ourselves that we had almost skipped Morocco altogether. We still had the port city of Tangier to contend with, with its reputation for vice, in all shapes and forms. But so far, we had enjoyed every minute of our time in Morocco.
We were confident that we could handle Tangier. And if not, it is just a 35 minute ferry ride to Spain and all that is familiar to us from our month there last September. A British couple we met in our ‘riad’ in Meknès had raved about a riad they stayed at in Tangier, and with their hearty recommendation, we had called ahead and found two different rooms for the two nights we planned to stay in Tangier. When asked if we would be inconvenienced by having to shift rooms in the middle of our stay, I told the owner, Fatima, that no one is more willing to move than we are.
What a relief to have a great place to stay as we wind up our time in North Africa. ‘La Tangerina’ just happens to be the ‘Our Pick’ in the Lonely Planet’s mid-range listing for Tangier and we never imagined there would be a place for us to stay. Once again, the Kapoor luck shines on us and solves what seemed to be a daunting problem. We’re ready for Tangier, is Tangier ready for us?