Most people expect to get lost in the medina in Fes, but my problem was just finding it in the first place. It should be difficult to miss. This labyrinthine sprawling medina is the size of 300 football fields and the largest pedestrianised space in the world. Home to 150,000 people, Fes al Bali is a mosaic of mosques, madrassas and mad souks. For over twelve hundred years people have lived on its tangled warrens of tiny streets and alleys that break out like sores in every direction. The medina is relatively self-contained and is surrounded by forbidding high perimeter walls that are penetrated in a relatively few locations by historic city gates. But where the hell was it?
I had a map which was well-nigh useless. It was torn from the pages of a Fes tourist brochure from my hotel and it showed the three main areas of the city. But it gave little to work on for street level directions. I did manage to find my way to the Jewish medina which was closest to the new town where I was staying. The Jewish medina was about 1.5 km from the nouvelle ville (the new town built during the French occupation) and the main medina of Fes el Bali was another 1.5 km further distant. Or so the man who would be my guide told me.
This was the chap who attached himself to me when I got to Fes railway station the previous night. I had arrived after a long and late eight hour trip from Marrakech. I was tired and glad of assistance. He could speak good English and walked me to towards a local cheap hotel. He stood there waiting as I checked in and asked what time in the morning I was planning to go to the medina. “About 9am,” I thoughtlessly answered before immediately wondering why he was asking the question. “Why do you ask?” I asked. “I am your guide,” he replied confidently.
Well, this was news to me. I certainly didn’t want to be hamstrung by a guide walking through the medina, even if it was a rabbit warren. “I don’t want a guide,” I told him. He told me I needed a guide, “Fes is a big place, you will get lost.” By now I was wanting him to get lost and I insisted I was doing without. Then we cut to the chase. “Didn’t I find you a nice, cheap hotel?” he said. I could not deny this and realised I would have to pay him off now. “Yes,” I said, “and here is five dirham for you.” He was still not satisfied having seen I’d gotten ten dirham in change from the hotel bill. “You give me the ten dirham change,” he insisted. I relented and gave him the ten. I never saw him again.
The following morning however, I was having partial feelings of regret. It wasn’t so much I needed help getting round the medina. It was simply a matter of locating an entrance to it. Surely a 300-hectare walled city would be easy to find? On the map, I followed the road past the Jewish medina that seemed to be taking me to the main Bab Boujloud (Blue Gate) entrance but instead I ended up in a small street that didn’t seem to be going anywhere. I knew from the medina walls and the contours of the hill around that I was in the vicinity but the entrance way eluded me. I decided I would at least explore the Jewish medina while I was here.
Barely 150 Jews now live in Fes but they have long played an important role in the commercial and cultural life of the city. In 808AD, Sultan Idriss II admitted large numbers of Jews from Andalusia. He wanted them for their commercial skills and wide regional contacts. They were also a lucrative source of revenue as they each paid an annual tax of 30,000 dinars. The golden age of the Jewish community in Fes would last for nearly three hundred years. But the community was eventually massacred or forced to flee by fanatical Muslim sects who could not tolerate their presence.
While my presence was tolerated, some of my photography was not. The snaps of the long row of busy market stalls were fine but when I took photos of the royal palace at the top end of the Jewish medina, I incurred the wrath of the local constabulary. After one such photo, a gendarme chased me up the street. He didn’t like the last snap I took. “Show me the photo,” he demanded. I took out the camera and showed him the last photo. “Delete,” he commanded in a voice that brooked no argument. I deleted it there and then. He was satisfied. As he walked away I pointed to the opposite wall and asked was it ok to photograph that. “Yes,” he said.
A bit bemused by local photography rules, I walked along the garden walls north of the Jewish medina where I saw a good-sized map pinned to the wall. It offered me the good news that if I kept walking along that road, I would eventually arrive at the big medina; the Fes el Bali. Sure enough the road led to a large enclosed space and a gate at the northern end of the medina. I wandered through this gate but once again found myself in a maze of unpromising looking and empty pedestrian streets that led to numerous dead ends. Was this to be an episode out of Kafka where I could never find the entrance to the Castle?
I beat a hasty retreat back to the gate and satisfied myself with walking down a marketplace on the outside walls of the medina. Here at least were large crowds. Lo and behold while fascinated by the market wares I suddenly found myself back inside the medina and on what seemed to be the main drag, or one of them at least (as it turned out, it was indeed the main street through the medina).
Pleased but still a bit nervous I cagily walked further into the claustrophobic maelstrom being careful not to take any turns off I could not replicate at a late time. Where was Ariadne and her ball of string when you needed her? I followed the crowds on the main street taking me down the hill. I hadn’t found the Bab Boujloud but it seemed I was doing alright without it. From what I’d read, there were two reasons why a guide was not necessary. The first was that the medina was on a hill, so if in doubt keep walking down and you will eventually reach an exit. The second was the eight-starred signposts scattered around the medina which led to significant landmarks (I hadn’t really noticed these so far).
The streets were full of frenzied commerce. There were sidewalk cafes and souks and endless rows of shops that sold leather goods from the medina’s own tanneries. There were brass works and copper works; there were craft shops and dye pits, electrical goods, fashions and fruits, and there were all sorts of animal foods (pigmeat excepted). The bloodcurdling sight of a camel’s head perched on a butcher’s counter took a bit of getting used to. There were rows of poultry shops all ready to chop off chooks’ heads at a moment’s notice. Meanwhile all around, men carried sheep in trolleys to destinations unknown. Donkeys carrying impossible loads were led by craggy old men who shouted “balek! balek!” (which translates roughly as “get out of the way quick!”) whenever they needed to get past you on a narrow street. This urgency was even more apparent when going downhill as they made a rapid gravity-assisted plunge through the medina.
The straight path of the road finally ran out at the entrance to the massive Karaouine Mosque. The mosque can hold 20,000 people but non-Muslims are not allowed to enter. So I took the right hand turn taking me further down the hill. This way eventually led to a triangular opening at Nejarine Square. Here, said a sign, the medina brass works were all located and sure enough wherever I looked I could see (and very much hear) the clunking of hammers on all sort of brass instruments and utensils. There was no obvious way forward from here and several possibilities. I tried to be a bit more adventurous and took some of the different paths always figuring I could make it back out from here. One of the paths took me to an exit from the medina, the Place R’cif. Great, I thought, now I have at least two escape routes. Working my way back to Nejarine Square brass works, I finally noticed the eight point directional arrows. And at the map in the centre of the square, I realised there were several routes that led between significant medina landmarks.
Armed with this crucial new knowledge, I started to explore some of the paths. The signposts weren’t always there at a fork in the road, or even sometimes wrong when they were there, but generally speaking they were a godsend for getting around the casbah. Through various wanderings I found several other exits including the Bab Guissa and the Bab R’Mila (which I renamed the Roger Milla Gate in honour of the Cameroonian football great). On my way back from one of these gates, I found the entrance to the tanneries. Several guides offered their services for payment but I wasn’t interested. I climbed through some stairs where leather wares were being sold and found the balcony where the whole tanning operation could be admired in all its glory. In the gap between buildings, rows of holes held dyes of all different colours. The process hasn’t changed in centuries. Workers stood in several of the holes and washed the hides. On the side wall, hides hung in the sun to dry. There must have been at least fifty holes of dyes in the part I saw. It stunk which shouldn’t surprise as the dyes are made of acids, pigeon shit and cow piss. As I held my nose, someone shouted at me, presumably demanding money. I ignored this, avoiding eye contact and fled the balcony as quickly as I could. I made my way back to Nejarine Square and finally found an eight-point star that was pointing the way to the mysterious Bab Boujloud.
It turns out that the road that led to the Bab was more or less parallel to the road I took to enter the medina. I didn’t find it immediately, there were several twists and turns and bad bab information that continually sent me back to the square from whence I came. But after taking a different route though the market I found the long alley back up the hill that led to the Boujloud. The monumental gate dates only to the French occupation in 1913 but the ruins of the 12th century original are right next to it. The modern gate was under scaffolds for renovations. After five or six hours tramping around the medina, I finally called it quits and made my way up the hill one last time. The paths were now heaving with people and it took a while to get out. But at least it didn’t require a guide.