. For example, we passed several communal ovens tucked into small passageways. Crowds of young boys loitered around the entrances, having been sent by their mothers to deliver loaves of unbaked bread, wait for them to be baked in the wood-fired oven, and then carry them home on trays held above their heads for lunch. At the sight of a camera, all the boys would run into the doorway of the bakery and jump up and down shouting "La! La!" ("No!") and drawing quite a bit of unwelcome attention to our group.
Life in the Medina is becoming Westernized but I think it's still something that is completely foreign to us. Having never actually lived in a rabbit warren, I can only say that maybe it's a little bit like how New York City feels on your very first visit in terms of having many small shops pushed up next to each other with an inordinate amount of hustle and bustle, except this particular location has evolved over more than 1,000 years of travelers and traders, from camel caravans following the Silk Road to French colonization to modern day. Our little group of 5 were like human Yahtzee dice--*shake shake shake* we'd make our way through hundreds of people and donkeys and vendors and cats all going about their separate errands while jostling through narrow passageways and *dump the dice onto the table* we'd get spit out into some unbelievably picturesque enclave of weavers, for example, or metalworkers, hidden away behind a maze of shoulder-high tunnels
. The Fes medina is a UNESCO World Heritage site that was first constructed in the year 808, so the idea of using cars for anything within its walls is just laughable. There are 9,000 individual streets in the medina and tens of thousands of people actually live their whole lives in the labyrinth. People literally use donkeys to transport everything, from plastic lawn chairs to piles of chickens to mounds and mounds of blankets--you name it, and donkeys haul it. We did see a guy (I assume) who looked like a mountain of freshly cured animal hides with feet protruding from the bottom threading his way through the crowds, but human transportation was the exception rather than the rule.
There are like 150 separate mosques sprinkled throughout the medina. The passageways leading to the mosques sometimes have big horizontal wooden bars at donkey head height so only humans can enter, keeping the areas around these sacred areas poo-free. We'd love to know what the behind-the-scenes gossip is when you have so many mosques doing their calls to prayer within hearing distance of each other. Does Mosque 37 always jump the gun? As Frances remarked, it sure seems like a couple of these guys "have an Aretha moment" and try to outshine each other with the extent to which they can carry a note in their initial "Allllllllaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaa[come on, seriously?]aaaaaaaaaaaaahu AKBAR!!"
From what we could tell, the passageways (never wider than 5 feet, I'd say) can be lined with either residential properties or businesses
. In a more residential section, the walls rise 2-3 stories straight up above you with maybe one or two tiny barred windows here or there and a gorgeous ornate door every "block" or so. In the US, a lot of attention is paid to making sure that buildings have windows or doors or ANYTHING other than an unbroken wall at sidewalk level, but in Morocco, that is definitely not a concern. Walled off private space is of paramount importance for those who can afford it, street aesthetics be darned. If you're in a less residential tangle of streets, 5-foot-wide shops bursting with mounds of produce or spices or chickens or bread or sweets or shoes or you NAME it are located side by side for hundreds of yards. Our guide said that all the vendors have unique and loyal clientele--I buy ALL my dried camel meat from this guy, all my rosewater comes from this guy, and the best bee-covered nougat comes from this guy, etc. Absolutely no pork anywhere, though--your options are chicken, beef, lamb, and fish. (The elusive Tofu Beast is also absent--instead, I have been feasting on delicious lentils and chickpeas.) The medina was beautiful, fascinating, startling, completely exotic, and an exhilarating case of sensory overload. Cooking smells, people talking/laughing/bartering, cats fighting over chicken heads, everyone jostling and then squishing themselves against the walls when a donkey tried to make its way through the mess--it was amazing. There was so much to look at and experience that it didn't even occur to me to be claustrophobic, although I suppose I can see the potential for some people
. The guidebook says the medina can be pretty miserable in the summer, because almost no air gets through the labyrinth, especially the sections that are covered against the sun. This lack of ventilation would be combined with a seriously disgusting set of smells from all the raw meat laying out everywhere PLUS the additional crush of all the tourists--sounds horrible. We saw very, very few tourists (I think I've seen less than 10 Americans since I got here, and all of those were in Casablanca) and we had our riyad all to ourselves--viva the winter!
Our riyad/riad/ryad (remember, there's no set spelling in Arabic) was ridiculously nice (website: http://www.riad-jaouhara.com/
). Check out the pictures and video in this posting--we learned that riyad means something like "piece of heaven" in Arabic and it really lived up to the name. My apology for the sideways nature of the videos--for some reason I assumed my camera would rotate the video like it does for still pictures. Doh. Riyads are restored homes of really rich Moroccan families that have been opened up to tourists, kind of like bed and breakfasts. Riyads have internal central gardens that usually include a fountain to provide the pleasant sound of running water. Historically, women in the various city medinas (and presumably elsewhere) throughout Morocco were not allowed to leave their homes except to bathe at the hammam and possibly to pray on special occasions at the mosque
. To compensate for this, they were given beautiful gilded cages, including nice cool gardens in the center of the house that were open to the sky. Islam permits multiple wives (today additional marriages need a judge's ruling that the man can financially support all his wives) so you'd have several women and all their children living out their days in these enormous houses. Back in the olden days, windows facing onto the street were not allowed, so they used one or two of the wooden bucket-looking things in the photo below that had a couple of holes for women to peek out and see who might be at the front door. Small external windows are now a little more common, but all Moroccan windows in cities have elaborately patterned bars over them. These bars used to be just to keep kids from falling out of the windows but are often used for security purposes these days. Even our medina guide, who was in her 40s, said she wasn't allowed outside her family's riyad until she got married. Her husband started showing her around the medina in which she'd lived all her life and now she actually leads tours by herself, which she must find very empowering. We quickly became addicted to breakfast in the riyad's garden, especially the freshly squeezed orange juice and the honey/butter/ground almond paste (shown in the photo) that we slathered onto fried crepe/tortilla things with a considerable amount of delight.
Our guide took us to the very famous Fes tannery, which has been operating unchanged for centuries
. The slaughterhouses on the edge of town kill the animals, process the meat, and ship the hides to the edges of Fes where they're loaded onto donkeys and transported into the medina. The fur is sheared off the hides which are then washed and then dumped into pools where a solution involving pigeon poo is used to soften the hides and prepare them to be dyed. You can imagine how awesome this process must smell during the summer--in the winter it wasn't bad at all, and they gave each wussy tourist a big handful of fresh mint to hold over our noses as we watched the tannery activity from a balcony. After the hides have become soft like wet fabric, they're divided up and given to men who are in charge of pools of different colored vegetable dye. The men jump around on the hides and cause them to absorb the dye to the appropriate level of color saturation before they are pulled out of the pools and spread out on straw-covered rooftops to dry. I asked if the dye was hazardous to the workers and was told that because they don't use any chemicals there isn't a problem--surprisingly, hypothermia during the winter months is more of a concern for the men romping around in freezing cold water all day. Once the hides are dry they are brought up to little workshops that overlook the tannery and made into all kinds of purses and shoes and jackets and what-have-you that are gathered and presented to tourists in an enormous showroom.
We also visited a rug showroom where they collect hand-knotted rugs woven by women throughout the country and sell them to tourists
. I know/care absolutely nothing about rugs, but
the amount of work involved in knotting these rugs was absolutely unspeakable--we watched a trio of girls in front of a rug loom pull intricate designs out of their heads and weave them into a carpet. I have no idea how they managed to keep all the threads the same length so the carpet had a uniform depth--it was like Olympic-level latchhook. Shareen took an amazing video of the knotting which I hope to upload soon. We petted the soft cashmere and silk rugs, drank seriously delicious mint tea, and learned that the various tribes in Morocco used different kinds of weaving techniques as shown in this rug and also as used in zzzzzzzzzz.....
Have I mentioned my complete disinterest in shopping as a recreational activity? Still, it was interesting to observe all these people whose lives are dedicated to dyeing leather or weaving gorgeous scarves on old-fashioned looms or knotting beautiful rugs. Today, I think I'll weave, tomorrow, I'll probably weave, in 20 years I'll still be weaving, in 30 years I'll be too blind from the lack of sufficient lighting to weave, so I'll teach my kids to weave. No multi-tasking, no checking your BlackBerry while in a meeting while getting ready for a presentation while trying to upload a Powerpoint while.... Just a very very different lifestyle to which I (happily) cannot relate at all.
Unlike in the more cosmopolitan Rabat, nearly all women in Fes wore jelabas with headscarves. In Rabat, you see a lot of women wearing knee-length sweaters or coats with high-necked blouses and jeans underneath. Shareen very aptly calls jelabas "the original Snuggie"--they very much look like Snuggies that zip up the front and have a pointed hood
. The men often have the hood pulled up, but the women always have the hood down to display their veils. Men's jelabas are plain and often earth-colored, whereas the women's are usually a solid color but can have really gorgeous decorative trim. Their veils, of course, coordinate with their jelabas. We've seen some crazy jelabas--some woman in Rabat was wearing a super bright red velvet jelaba with, I kid you not, Fredericks of Hollywood-style red marabou boa trim. Class-y. We've seen purple jacquard, blue swirls, you name it, but it's usually fairly tame. Interestingly, some of the volunteers saw women dancing together at their placement (men and women never dance together in a group) and the women tied scarves around their hips because you can't see someone shaking their [insert term here] when wearing a Snuggie. So those are jelabas--everyday street wear in slightly more conservative circles. Caftans, we learned, are super-fancy jelabas without hoods that are still worn for parties and celebrations. They are belted so the women can show off their shapes and are incredibly ornate with 3+ inch thick gold and silver edging and matching shoes. Beautiful, and surprisingly traditional in this day and age.
We couldn't go into any of the mosques in the medina (lovely welcoming signs proclaimed "THIS MOSQUE IS FOR MUSULMANS ONLY!") but we were able to enter a 14th (?) century Koranic school that was really beautiful. The school had a lot of the latticework that separates the women's section from the men's--our guide told us that the purpose of the latticework is to allow the women to see out through the holes but to prevent the men from being able to see the women and thus be oh-so-distracted from their prayers. Our guide also took us to the ancient Jewish quarter--the Jews in Morocco have mostly long since left for Israel, but we explored a restored synagogue that, disturbingly, still had a Torah stuffed in a damp corner where anyone could just pull open the protective cabinet and exhibit it to visitors
. Drew said he thought you couldn't keep a Torah in an inactive synagogue--I don't know about that, but all of us were a little appalled by this cavalier treatment of delicate scrolls.
It could be just because we're tourists, but it's very interesting to me that we're frequently shown various Jewish quarters of this city or that as an Islam alternative, but there is really neither hide nor hair of Christianity here. I've seen a couple of churches from afar, but not one single Christmas decoration of ANY kind, and Mohammed said you can't buy Bibles here, nevermind anything Buddhist or what have you. I said to him I was surprised to hear that and surely they would have a Bible or two as a historical document in the comparative religion section of the bookstore or something--Mohammed just smiled and said they don't HAVE comparative religion sections in bookstores here. Well okay, then. A volunteer's Southern Baptist mother shipped Mohammed a Bible and he has spent a lot of time cross-referencing it with the Koran, which makes for very interesting conversation.
We spent fabulous evenings and early mornings relaxing in our riyad's courtyard and just trying to take in the experience. We absolutely could not explore Fes without a guide, though, so on Sunday we packed up and headed off to visit a couple more cities on our return to Rabat.
Fes is straight-up amazing. It's exactly what you (or at least what _I_) think of when you think of Morocco. It's most famous for its ancient medina, which is only marginally like a giant marketplace/flea market. Guys are running around in their actual cone-shaped red velvet hats with the black tassels, there is hectic bartering for goods of all possible descriptions, well-fed cats are underfoot, donkeys are trying to push through the crowds, and tiny little alleyways lead off everywhere. The prohibition against taking pictures was especially strong and especially disappointing here, although I'm not sure it really would have made a huge difference in some respects--trying to capture the madness of the Fes medina through still photos is like trying to explain Woodstock to anyone born after 1970--you can show me the photos, you can play me the music, you can explain the ambiance until you're blue in the face, but I'm never going to actually have a sense for the full experience. Still, though, the picture issue was irritating