Let Nothing Surprise You: First Impressions from Fes

Monday, September 22, 2008 | Fès, Morocco

The old city of Fes (seen here from our rooftop) is situated in a bowl-like valley ringed with mountains.
I sat quietly in a second-class compartment on the train ride from the airport at Casablanca to Fes, our home for the next six months. As the train chugged from station to station, a constantly rotating array of Moroccans, mostly men reading local Arabic language newspapers, filled the seats around me. They talked among themselves sometimes, but I caught only a few familiar words in their rapid, guttural speech.

Leaving the flat coastal plain and entering the Middle Atlas mountains, we passed irrigated fields of vegetables, poppies, and row after row of orange trees, sagging with the weight of their fruit. The village mosques along the way carried distinctively boxy North African minarets.

* * *

Outside of class, Jacqueline and I spent much of our first few days in Fes searching for housing in
the medina, along with Ryan, another member of the Fulbright group (and fellow Baltimore native).

We organized a visit to our first potential home by a series of emails and phone calls. As arranged, one afternoon a nearly toothless wisp of a man named Yousef met the three of us in Rcif (رصيف), a tumultuous main square in the old city's heart. He left the square behind and lead us on a circuitous uphill walk through a district of tailors' shops, where men hunched over sewing machines or stood in the narrow streets, spinning long strands of silk into thread. At the home’s dark entry passage, we opened our cell phones so Yousef could unlock the door.

We stooped through the doorway, only chest height, and entered what was once a stunning riad—a traditional Fassi ("from Fes") home built around an open courtyard. The owners were clearly working to restore the riad to its former glory, but it wasn't there yet. Ornate zellij tilework covered the courtyard and its small fountain, but was itself covered in a fragrant layer of pigeon droppings. I still wonder if we were right to look elsewhere.

* * *

After a few more such visits, last Saturday we settled on an apartment in the medina's Ziat neighborhood. That afternoon the apartment's owners, Abdelrahim and Fatima El-Aamouri, and their sons Ahmed and Othman, invited us for tea, though they are fasting during this month of Ramadan. Eager for some cultural contact, Ryan, Jacqueline, and I sheepishly obliged.

At their home a block away from our apartment, Abdelrahim decided to teach us all about traditional Moroccan music through his music DVD collection. Our education began with lavish Andalusian wedding songs and grew progressively more outlandish from there, until we found ourselves watching a Gnawa brotherhood dance, in which one of the dancers performed a lively number with a goat while jerking the confused animal around by its horns. (Jacqueline guessed right—that video didn't end well for the goat.)

After watching the dance of the ill-fated goat, I understood why one of our Moroccan teachers chuckled knowingly to himself in class when he taught us this popular rhyming couplet:

ما دمتَ في المغرب
فلا تستغرب
(So long as you are in Morocco, let nothing surprise you.)

No comments:

Post a Comment