A Walk in the Medina: Bab Fettouh to Bab Khokha

Thursday, October 30, 2008 | Fès, Morocco

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
odds with traditional Moroccan respect for ancestors) seemed curious. But as we walked further and our surroundings grew seedier, Ryan and I began to catch on—we were no longer on the right side of the tracks. For many here in the medina's shabby eastern quarter, the daily effort to put food on the table superseded secondary concerns of public sanitation.

* * *

At the bustling square inside Bab Fettouh, Ryan haggled with some clothing sellers while I tried to find our bearings. Lacking any street signs, I took a guess and we set off, blundering our way along streets littered with garbage, horse shit, and the unsavory muck that was tumbling down from the local shantytown market. By the time we managed to regain the correct route, we had cut off a decent chunk of the walk, but no matter; we were still headed toward my main destination, and the reason I had chosen this walk—the Madrasa es-Sahrij (مدرسة الصهريج).

This madrasa, or Qur'anic school, is less well known than the larger and more easily accessible Madrasa Bou Inania (my Lonely Planet guide doesn't even mention the Sahrij), but is in many ways far more splendid. Ryan and I had the madrasa's small courtyard to ourselves for much of our time there. We circled the brilliant green ablution pool (sahrij in Arabic), marveling at the awing intricacy of the school's decoration. While clearly in need of further restoration, the madrasa—built in the early 1320s by the Sultan Abou el Hassan—today dazzles with an intimate, if slightly weathered, charm. Students still live in the crumbling rooms of the school's upper floor. While normally we would have dismissed any local's attempts to faux guide us, Ryan and I were in high spirits as we left the madrasa, and actually welcomed a chat with a local man named Mohammed in the alley outside the school.

We accepted his offer to visit a nearby rooftop with panoramic views. While the woman who owned the roof hung her laundry and eyed us suspiciously, we spent a very enjoyable half hour chatting with Mohammed about the city and its history, our time in Fes, the upcoming US elections, and other topics. Before going to pray, Mohammed said goodbye at the door to the Andalous Mosque, and asked nothing of us for his brief tour.

* * *

We continued past the mosque's imposing entrance, through a lively market square whose merchants seemed to deal primarily in either used clothes, fresh fruit, or bulging sacks of live snails that writhed and contorted in a gooey slow motion.

A few minutes later, we almost walked past a certain nondescript building tucked back from the street. My head snapped back around, however, at the sight of a car-sized pile of green and black olives. Managing to cast aside all normal social apprehensions, Ryan and I sauntered casually toward the pile and into an adjacent doorway, and found ourselves in the midst of a small olive oil factory.

Giant stone wheels spun rapidly over a mash of crushed olives, while presses creaked and hissed. The floor was slick with oil. Curious workers soon struck up a conversation with us, and were happy to explain the production process to us over the noise of the presses. They giddily posed together for pictures, after we promised to bring them copies next week.

A young woman was leaning over several huge drums of the thick, murky sludge, and doling it out to a few local housewives. She found us an empty water bottle and, for about US$4.00, spooned in several quarts of the brownish-green oil for us. It looked like something you could run a tractor with, but I was gambling that the oil's taste would make up for its diesel-like appearance. I dipped some bread in it this evening, and was not disappointed; the extra-extra-virgin taste is fresher than any I've ever savored.

* * *

At some point during our walk, we had veered off the course prescribed by the guide book. Soon we ended up in the northeastern slums of the medina. Idle teens eyed us with dodgy stares, and as he hustled past us, one well-dressed man whispered, "Attention ici"—be careful in these parts. Then the inevitable rain started falling. So much for finding Bab Khokha; we needed no further encouragement to start back.

From beside a ramshackle congregation of lean-tos, where children and dogs were squatting amidst bushes and piles of trash, we spotted the Oued Boukhareb river, which bisects the old city's western and eastern halves. We set off quickly. A few minutes later, passing the tanners dying sheep hides along the river bank, we slipped back into more familiar streets as the raindrops started to fall harder.

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