A Walk in the Medina: Bab Fettouh to Bab Khokha

Thursday, October 30, 2008 | Fès, Morocco (map)

The inner courtyard of the Sahrij medersa glows with the green of its central pool.
The sudden, unpredictable showers that have been falling with increasing frequency in Fes let up yesterday afternoon for a few hours—enough for Ryan and I to put Fez from Bab to Bab to use, as I first did a few weeks ago with Jacqueline.

To begin our walk, we needed to reach the starting point at Bab Fettouh, the city's main eastern gateway. This proved to be a navigational challenge in its own right. We blundered through numerous wrong turns and blind dead ends, but picked our way across the old city by occasionally begging directions from helpful locals.

As we neared Bab Fettouh, we were surprised to emerge into a wide field, a sight very out of place within the old city's walls. The field doubled as a trash dump which, to our further surprise, overlapped considerably with a cemetery. At first, the apparent irreverence for the tombs (so at

Images of Bygone Days in Syria and the Arab World

Tuesday, October 28, 2008 | Syria (map)

 
At left, merchants of Aleppo's rope souk, circa 1920. At right, the Souq Madhat Pasha along Damascus's famed Straight Street. (Photos and text from MidEastImage.com)
Doing some online research this evening here in Fes, I stumbled upon two series of early twentieth century photos from Syria and the Levant. Two hours later, I came up for air.

Though they predated me by decades, the photos instantly called to my mind familiar streets and landmarks—particularly in Damascus—from my own time in Syria.

In addition to stirring fond memories, the collections can also answer that burning question pondered by anyone who's ever visited an ancient Arab medina: "What did this place look like before they installed all the satellite dishes?"

Dar Bennani: The Almost Perfect Home

Saturday, October 25, 2008 | Fès, Morocco (map)

Dar Bennani: not a bad place to hang your hat, if I do say so myself.
Two weeks ago Jacqueline decided that she just couldn't take it any more, and informed me that we were moving out, toute de suite. In their ongoing war of attrition, the little apartment in Ziat had outlasted her.

As for me, while I agreed with Jacqueline that our apartment had its share of imperfections, I was learning to love it for what it was, and really settle into the rhythm of daily life there. Sure, the squat toilet wasn't pretty, the kids in the street were so loud they sounded like they were in the living room, and besides being lopsided our bed also smelled like moldy pine needles. But no home is perfect, right?

I was outvoted in a landslide, 1-1, and our housing search resumed.

Thankfully, it ended as quickly as it began, at the second house we visited. Jawwad, the young

The Moussem of Moulay Idriss

Friday, October 17, 2008 | Fès, Morocco (map)

Brotherhoods from Fes's various quarters processed one after another along the crowded parade route, drumming and singing.
Yesterday marked the annual moussem (festival) in honor of Moulay Idriss II, who's something like the local patron saint here in Fes. The son of the city's founder and a descendant of the Prophet Mohammed, Moulay Idriss was also the first ruler to unite the region now known as Morocco. He did so in the early ninth century, with Fes as his capital.

The moussem's main event is a raucous procession which begins outside Bab Boujloud and winds its way along the main route of Tala'a Saghira to the saint's mausoleum at the heart of the medina. It was an exuberant occasion.

All along the street, jubilant Fassis stood on stoops or sat overhead on the storefront roofs, cheering and clapping and singing to the drumbeats.

At the head of the parade, two men led a young bull, who would be the main sacrifice once the

Water, Water Everywhere, No Time to Stop and Think

Thursday, October 16, 2008 | Fès, Morocco (map)

The weekend's papers were filled with horror stories of the rains, and predictions of more flooding yet to come.
Saturday was the first day all week I didn't need to wear my rain jacket to walk out the door. It was also the day the whispers began all throughout the medina, and grew to a frenzy.

After almost a whole week of driving rains, culminating in an all-day deluge on Friday, a friend and I spent the morning exploring the Old City, and returned to the local salon de thé for lunch in the garden. I was up to my elbows in chicken tajine, baba ghanoush, and cinnamon-spiced potatoes when Denny showed up.

A middle-aged American photographer living in the Fes medina, Denny is a big talker—the kind of ultra-friendly guy who might finish his drink, say goodbye and then tell you three long, intricate stories before he actually leaves. Something about the quantity of Denny's stories has always made me suspect their quality, and the information he delivered on this afternoon only confirmed my

One More Seedy Port City, and the Road Home

Thursday, October 9, 2008 | Al Hoceima, Morocco (map)

Al Hoceima left something to be desired, but at least the earlier parts of our roadtrip were scenic.
After breaking camp on Saturday morning, Jacqueline and I drove to Al Hoceima (الحسيمة), the largest city along this stretch of the Moroccan coast. There we treated ourselves to a delicious breakfast of eggs, toast, and rich café au lait—all luxuries compared to our recent staples of stale bread and Vache Qui Rit—before exploring the beaches along the coast south of the city.

The guidebook again misled us with talk of "pristine, white sandy beaches" but the Cala Bonita beach just south of town was nice enough to warrant a visit. We lay on the beach, sunbathing and reading, while some local kids played in the waves. Several couples used the beach's seclusion as an opportunity to be more intimate than they could in town (i.e. by holding hands).

From another beach just down the coast, you can throw a stone onto one of several tiny islands still controlled by Spain. One of the islands, the Peñón de Alhucemas, is fortified, and serves as a

Following the Forgotten Coast: Al Jebha to Kala Iris

Wednesday, October 8, 2008 | El Jebha, Morocco (map)

Al Jebha: not a happening place.
We continued the treacherous drive along the coast Friday morning, passing through neglected little seaside communities as we headed eastward. Large domed grain stores clung to the cliffs along our route. At one point, Jacqueline and I pulled over and gaped in amazement as a tour bus loaded to the brim with locals careened past. Many of the passengers must have had a deeply religious experience on that drive.

By mid-morning we reached the fishing village of Al Jebha, the last sizeable town along the coast before Al Hoceima, some 60km east. We bought a few provisions in the local general stores, and gassed up the Kia. All around, men loitered in cafés, worked the shops, and walked the streets, but the town's women were conspicuously absent from view.

From Al Jebha the road turned back inland, into the mountains. We soon came upon our first "road

Beautiful Views on "the Edge of Death"

Monday, October 6, 2008 | Oued Laou, Morocco (map)

After leaving Oued Laou, we headed east at dusk, hoping for better options further along the coast.
Returning from our hike in mid-afternoon on Thursday, Jacqueline and I quickly set off on the next stage of our trip—the drive to the coast.

From Chefchaouen, the road twisted downhill at absurdly tight angles. Mercedes taxis roared up around the curves, nearly tossing our flimsy Kia off the road several times. We cruised downward into a wide valley, where the road began to follow the Oued Laou (the Arabic word oued/واد means river, stream, creek, or creek bed) toward the coastal town of the same name, where we planned to spend the night.

Along its course to the sea, the river passes over several hydroelectric dams, and snakes its way along the floor of a red rock gorge.

In its brief description of Oued Laou, our Lonely Planet guidebook swoons about the town's

North to Chefchaouen, Diamond in the Rif

Sunday, October 5, 2008 | Chefchaouen, Morocco (map)

Chefchaouen's ghostly blue-and-white medina sits at the base of some of the Rif Mountains' highest peaks.
Before Jacqueline and I hit the road early Wednesday morning, I had hoped for an epic beginning—two travelers embarking on an unknown road, giddy with anticipation. But stalling the car at every traffic light on the way out of town hardly lends itself to such romantic visions.

Nonetheless, our pint-sized Kia, loaded with gear, chugged forth into the rolling brown hills northwest of Fes. The road was largely empty. Every few kilometers, an inter-city taxi might roar past, or I would push the little Kia around a lumbering farm truck.

In some villages we passed, the whole community was gathered in prayer outdoors. This being the Eid, attendance was likely high (like Christmas and Easter back home) and the crowd too large for the local mosque.

Mostly, we shared the first few hours with the spartan landscape. Only the striking blue expanse of