Arts & Artisans of Fez

Trip Start Sep 19, 2007
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Trip End Jan 05, 2008


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Flag of Morocco  ,
Saturday, September 29, 2007

We entered the Medina with out local guide Ahmed at its northern gate, one of a small number of "holes-in-the-wall" through the city's fortifications, and after a bit of wandering through the maze it wasn't long until we ended up at a carpet shop.  Ah, Middle Eastern carpet shops!  Whether it's Egypt, Turkey, Morocco, Uzbekistan, Azerbaijan, western China, or wherever, the carpet styles may vary but the process is the same.  You're first served some tea.  Then there's a demonstration of carpet weaving accompanied by an explanation of why that country's carpet-making techniques are superior to those of all other nations.  Finally, there's a display of a wide variety of carpet sizes and styles available with an emphasis that quotes are all "starting prices" and a promise that "we make special prices for you because.........it is Ramadan.......it is Tuesday........business has been slow..........your tour operator/guide is such a good customer," or any one of another couple dozen B.S. stories
Morocco is best known for its kilims, which are flat-woven rugs quite unlike the knotted piles typical of most Middle Eastern countries, and for its unique Berber tribal patterns.  Although the kilim style didn't immediately appeal to me, as I sat and watched the demonstration I fell in love and determined I could no longer live without having one.  No, not one, I loved them all and wanted a whole bunch. 
Well, now that I was actually thinking about buying I realized I needed to escape from my guide and the shop since prices there would inevitably be highly inflated to cover the guide's commission.  Warren's first rule of travel:  "Never shop with a guide!"  Besides that, there's nothing more annoying than trying to negotiate a purchase surrounded by a group of other tourists watching you, cheering you on, and evaluating your tastes and bargaining techniques. 
I pretended to go to the bathroom, and when I thought no one was looking I snuck out and made a run for it.  But I was spotted and guide Ahmed was in hot pursuit of me, "No, you cannot go alone; you will get lost in the Medina; my friend can give you a private tour if you want to shop alone," as I darted off. 
Now, no longer "owned" by a guide, every shady character in the Medina wanted to be my friend.  "Meesta, where you from?", "Welcome!", "You need guide; I help you!" 
"Where have I heard all these lines before?" I wondered.  Maybe the more appropriate question is, "where have I not heard them?"  But I am very experienced with using the two most important words for a tourist to wield in the Arab world - "Laaa, Shukran!" or "No, thank you!" 
My destination was Tissage Berbere, a fixed price carpet shop (well, semi-fixed price since in the Arab world everything is negotiable) mentioned in Lonely Planet.  here the carpet prices were all marked and carpets of similar size, patterns, and apparent quality were about one-third the starting prices at shop the guide took the group to.  Three medium-sized carpets, woven blanket, and two wall hangings later, I still managed to get a ten percent volume discount on the "fixed prices".  The proprietor even threw in a gift when I tried to negotiate further - a sleeping rug for my (parents') cat Claude. 
I then forged ahead to the tanneries, the best views of which are from the roofs of the leather showrooms that surround them.  Although I had no intention to buy anything the salesmen were quite informative about what was going on below - the bleaching, drying, tanning, and dying processes for the hides.  Different colors are apparently dyed on different days, and I was there on red day.  The tanneries are quite a fascinating place of people working in ways that haven't changed for hundreds of years, still in unsafe and unsanitary conditions to produce things now largely sought after by modern societies.  In the end I couldn't resist getting a rather unique and very Moroccan item, a camel leather footstool with intricate designs. 
The array of traditional arts and crafts in Fez may be the greatest I've seen anywhere in the Islamic world and probably exceeds even that of my previous favorite - Bukhara, Uzbekistan.  Carpets and leather may be most renowned but are in fact only two of many arts in which Fez's craftsmen excel.  These include metal smithing to produce bronze and glass lamps, gold and silver plated trays, and inlaid cutlery and the fantastic ceramics in repeating Islamic patterns known as Zelij.  Then there are the haberdashers selling the traditional pointy-hooded men's gowns called Jelabas, the women working on embroidered table clothes, and the carpenters working on every kind of wooden item from furniture to Koran stands to chess sets to backgammon boards.  The stores on each street in Fez's souks tend to specialize in a particular item, so there's a section for wedding gowns and accessories, one for henna and other dyes, one for spices and medicinal herbs, one for silver and gold; the list is extensive. 
Earlier in the day we visited the pottery and ceramics workshops on the outskirts of the city for a guided your of the labor-intensive process involved in producing such works and (of course) a tour of the showroom with promises of "special prices for you".  I really loved the iron garden tables with Zelij ceramic tops but could only imagine what it might cost to ship such a heavy item home. 
Towards evening I was wandering around the medina laden heavily with the day's purchases.  Gee, I think I covered most of my Christmas shopping in a couple hours.  Now how do I get all this stuff home?  I decided to contemplate the question over dinner on the roof of Le Casbah restaurant overlooking Bab Bou Jeloud city gate.
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