CHRIS ALLEN: Morocco Journal — The (Female) Face Of Morocco’s Future

The future of Morocco may look a lot like Fatima.

This 28-year-old dynamo took on the Fez establishment — the “all-male” Fez establishment — to fulfill her latest goal. She opened her five-room inn inside the medina last July and is already looking to do bigger things.

Fatima in the entry of Dar Settash.
Fatima in the entry of Dar Settash.

Fatima (she uses only her first name), got a degree in hotel and restaurant management and worked in the hospitality industry for a while. Then she decided she would rather work for herself, not someone else.

“I can’t work under someone,” she said. “I can’t be a simple employee.”

She set out to open her own hotel. And it wasn’t easy.

Fez is still a conservative city, and it was hard as a woman to find the financing and obtain the proper permits.

“‘So you want to go into business?’” she recalls hearing from nearly every man she encountered. “‘You’re not going to succeed.’”

Perhaps most discouraging was the attitude of her father.

“My father was really against this, 100 percent.”

She would not be deterred.

“You should close your ears,” she said, pressing her hands to the hijab covering her head. And she never lost faith.

“Everything I need, I ask God. If we are good believers, He will help us.”

Fatima found a dilapidated three-story house in a narrow back alley of the medina, the oldest part of Fez. The medina is a 750-acre area enclosed by wall 10 miles in circumference. It contains markets, restaurants, hotels and houses and is home to about 250,000 of Fez’s 1.5 million residents. It dates back more than a thousand years.

She bought the building for 800,000 Moroccan dirhams, about $80,000. She had to invest another 80,000 dirhams ($8,000) to restore it and add en-suites to each of the five guest rooms.

The money came from her family and from her future husband.

As hard as it was to get past the words of her father and to work through the details to fit an ancient house to accommodate modern guests, perhaps the hardest part was fighting City Hall.

It took a year to get the permits. Every single person she needed to get licenses from was male. None of them responded in a timely manner. Over and over, she heard from them that she was bound to fail.

As is typical in Morocco and many other Middle East and North African nations, not only did she need money for all the permits, she needed money to make sure the money she paid for the permits actually got acknowledged. She had to grease a few skids.

It took a full year to get the final license, but Fatima didn’t wait. The hotel was ready, and Fatima opened Dar Settash even before she had all the paperwork in hand.

She has registered Dar Settash — the name means 16 Doors, for the 16 gates through the medina wall — with Booking.com and works social media to promote her fledgling business. The night we visited, three of the five rooms were occupied, but she was concerned about the upcoming slow season. Another inn opened just a few doors down from Fatma’s, but she does not consider that competition.

“We help each other out,” she said.

Guests to Dar Settash step through the door into an atrium open to the sky. Soft chairs, low tables, a sofa and pillows greet them. Intricate carved woodwork climbs the walls to the top. To the right is a sitting room with couches and love seats. To the left is one of the bedrooms, the only one on the ground floor, with a double bed, chairs and an en-suite up a steep flight of wooden stairs that was not part of the original building.

On the second floor, up a narrow, winding set of stairs built centuries ago, are four more rooms, some just singles, some doubles, all with en-suites . Prices range from 500 to 700 Moroccan dirhams, about $50 to $70. It is not a bed and breakfast; the hotel is not equipped to provide daily meals. But special events can be arranged on the rooftop overlooking the medina and Fez. Lucky guests will get cookies baked by Fatma’s mother.

Fatima says she can lead tours to other parts of Morocco. She offers cooking classes for tourists and even native Moroccans. For one of her classes, she takes students to the countryside outside a village near Fez and cooks over coals from burning wood, the old Berber style.

These classes, and really the hotel in the heart of the medina, is one way Fatima is hoping to conserve Moroccan heritage.

“I feel we’ve lost a lot of our culture,” she said. “It’s not Moroccan culture anymore. It’s sad. They’re lost between European and Moroccan.”

Fatima is one of a new generation of Moroccan women who are become more important outside of traditional roles. Although it’s a struggle, Fatima is demonstrating that women can be business owners and employers. She has hired two people to work with her at Dar Settash. She is contributing to the economy and the workforce.

The hotel has been open less than a year, but already Fatima is planning her next moves.

“I would like to see a chain of Dar Settashes across Morocco,” she said.

But Fatima has been fortunate, too. She has the support of her family and her future husband. And she has the self-confidence that comes with having solid goals and a base of experience.

So what about her father, now that the hotel is open?

“He’s very proud,” she said with a smile.

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