Two Tales of a City: The Realities of Tourism in Fes

Sunday, December 28, 2008 | Fès, Morocco (map)

In Place Seffarine, in the center of Fes's old city, smiths sell items of copper and brass to tourists.
It's amazing and tragic just how much tourism can alter a place. Some recent incidents have highlighted for me the extent to which tourism has tainted parts of Fes's old city.

Tales of East Fes:

On Monday, Jacqueline and I led my mom and sister to Fes's less-than-glamorous eastern Andalus quarter to show them the Sahrij madrasa. Soon after we crossed the Oued Boukhareb River, which bisects the city, I began guessing at streets, trying to weave together a route from the unfamiliar paths. I paused to ask a shopkeeper the way toward the madrasa, and set off down the street he indicated.

After a few steps, a middle aged woman, who had apparently heard the conversation, turned to me and offered to lead us there, which she did within a minute. At the madrasa's door, I offered her a five dirham piece. She immediately thrust her hands up beside her head in genuine, unyielding
refusal. Smiling, she backed away quickly before turning back the way she had just brought us. The madrasa hadn't even been along her route.

A local man had treated Ryan and me with similar generosity during my first visit to the neighborhood, a few months earlier. These instances make me believe in that quintessentially selfless Arab hospitality. That both took place in the same streets beside the same madrasa was, in many ways, a coincidence, but it nonetheless set me thinking about how different people are here than on the other side of town.

Tales of West Fes:

I could rattle off personal stories all day about the central factor at play across the river—greed. Most of the medina's principal tourist draws are centered in western Fes, including the biggest markets, leather tanneries, major religious and historical monuments, and high-end, riad-style hotels. As a result, tourists are everywhere. Also here are nearly all of the medina's most exquisite traditional homes—many of them now owned and restored by an elite class of foreigners (our own rental is but one of many).

The dynamic that has developed from this foreign invasion is not a positive one. Local residents view foreigners as prey (at least in economic terms) and relentlessly hound any and all non-Moroccans to eat at their restaurant, buy their carpets, smoke their hash, etc. It seems to never end.

One typical moment occurred just a few weeks ago, when Halima, our Moroccan housekeeper, agreed to wash a load of Ryan's laundry and earn a little extra money in return. After she had finished, he offered her 100 dirhams (US$12). Halima audaciously declared this amount an insufficient compensation, and demanded more.

Her reaction set him fuming, and for good reason. The average daily income in Morocco is less than 65 dirhams (US$7.95). Women generally make far less than this sum, particularly those who, like Halima, are illiterate and therefore can't land an office job. His offer was far more than she could have earned from an hour's work anywhere else.

When Ryan recounted this story to Leila, our Arabic teacher, she agreed that 100 dirhams was grossly excessive for a single load of laundry, and (half-)jokingly asked if he had any more laundry that needed cleaning.

But in western Fes, when dealing with foreigners, no sum is too great to turn down. After years of living in a major tourist destination, residents here have learned to apply their society's traditional generosity and hospitality selectively. They reserve those values for each other while shamelessly gouging outsiders when the opportunity arises.

Reconciling the Tales:

This contrast, laid so bare earlier this week in the muddy, downtrodden alleyways of eastern Fes, is a tragic one. All at once, it shows what this great city once was and what it is becoming, and how cross-cultural interaction can be so rewarding and so disappointing.

To be sure, the contrast is not delineated in quite such stark geographic terms. There are thieving scumbags in eastern Fes, like those who recently vandalized the Sahrij madrasa. And in western Fes, there are hospitable Samaritans like the El-Aamouri family, who generously invited us to spend the recent 'Eid with them.

But it is undeniable that tourism is altering—perhaps irreversibly, and apparently for the worse—the social and cultural landscape of the Fes medina.

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