PAULA MEHMEL: Shoot The Rapids — Morocco Day 5

Today was a deep dive into Morocco, its history and culture, as we took a walking tour of the old city portion of Fes.

Today Fes has a modern city and the medieval Medina, which together have 1.5 million people. Fes was founded in 789 by Iraqis who sought to bring Islam to Morocco. Prior to that time, the country was filled with only Berber and Jewish people.

The Berbers are the indigenous people of the country, who sadly got the name, Berber, from the Romans, who used it as a short version of barbarian. The indigenous name is Amazingh, but today either Berber or Amazingh is fine.

When the Islamic community came into the country, they outlawed the Berber language and made Arabic the official language of the country and only 20 years ago did Berber again become an official  language along with Arabic.

One of the reasons that Morocco is so unique is because of the spirit and the hospitality of the Berber people. It is different than any country I have ever traveled in, to be honest. The kindness and the sincerity of the people I have encountered is connected with a culture that has historically lived with other religions and welcomed Arab and Jewish refugees dating back to the Spanish Inquisition, as well as welcoming Jews following the diaspora in 70 CE.

Our tour guide explained that the reason Morocco has not had many of the problems that other Islamic countries have had is because they do not have any of the religious organizations that are associated with fundamentalism. They seem to incorporate the best parts of Islamic tradition without the negative results of extremism. It is a completely different vibe, without the toxic masculinity that results from strict interpretations of the Quran. To be honest, this place feels like a unique oasis where people follow their faith without being compelled to do so.

As I mentioned in a previous post, Moroccans are ruled by a benevolent king,  who has deliberately elevated the role of women. They are equal by law; women can divorce men, and polygamy is only allowed if the wife signs an agreement to it, making it rare.

One other fascinating fact we learned today was that the very first country that recognized the independence of the United States was Morocco, by signing a treaty of peace and friendship in 1786, a document that remains the longest unbroken relationship in U.S. history.

All of this history was imparted by our guide as he took us on a walking tour of the Medina of Fes. Fes is listed as a UNESCO World Heritage site, with one of the most intact and impressive medieval cities in the Arab world. A visit to Fez is like stepping back in time. The Medina is rich in history and buzzing with life as Morrocan locals go about their day and visitors explore its wonders.

Our guide explained to us that all of the homes have a very plain outside, so that people are not aware of how opulent the inside is. The reason is twofold. One is not to show off and the other is for safety, so that thieves wouldn’t know who is rich and who is poor. That explains the very simple exterior of our riad, which opened up to an incredibly ornate space.

One of the things that struck me as we walked through the Medina, which is surrounded by 14 kilometers of walls, was a deeper understanding of the story of Sodom and Gomorrah. In that story, Lot and his family were trying to get inside the city gates for protection from marauders. And as I looked at the gates of the medieval city, I had a better sense of how those walls and doors  kept people out and how welcoming people was a hospitality and safety. For the record, that story is horribly misinterpreted, and it’s about hospitality.

As we walked the labyrinthine Medina, which has over 900 streets, I was really glad we were with a guide. And I was also very glad that we were doing this during a Friday during Ramadan. Normally, it would’ve been incredibly packed and I think utterly overwhelming. However, because of Ramadan, there were fewer food sales people, and because it was a Friday areas that normally would’ve had wall-to-wall people had very few, as Friday is the holy day for the Islamic community.

As a result, instead of a highly stressful walk through packed areas, we often had wide open spaces with lots of room for our guide to stop and explain things to us. There was one occasion when a large group of Africans from places like Nigeria and Tunisia came  through to visit a mausoleum for the man who first brought Islam to Africa as the first part of their journey to Mecca, where I got a bit of a feel for what it would’ve felt like on a normal day. This occurred right after the afternoon prayer session and it made me thank God we were doing it when we were.

Our day included a visit to the al-Quaraouiyine Madrasa, which is an Islamic school of higher ed, one of the oldest psychiatric hospitals in the world, begun in 1286, with a focus on music and herbs as a way of healing and the oldest continuously functioning institution of higher education in the world. It was founded as a madrassa in 859 AD, by a woman, Fatima al-Fihri, the daughter of a wealthy merchant. To say that I was blown away by the history of this place would be an understatement.

We also visited several artisans. The Medina is divided into sections based on the craft that is sold there. There were sections for wood, copper and metal, rugs, textiles, spices, essential oils, ceramics and leather. At each place, we learned a bit about the process and, of course, had a chance to make some purchases. Personally, I hate bargaining and prefer consumable goods, but Santa made a few purchases for next Christmas. I did appreciate learning how the crafts were made.

The most interesting was the tannery. We were fortunate to visit there when it wasn’t horrifically smelly, but we were nonetheless given mint to put under our noses to help deal with the stench. Apparently, during the summer, it is unbelievably bad.

In addition to the entire city being a UNESCO site since 1981, the tannery itself is a UNESCO site. It is a cooperative that has been run by the same 50 families since the year 1000. That in itself was mind-boggling. We saw how the process of the leather was made, beginning with dipping it in a vat full of limestone and pigeon droppings for two weeks, followed by two weeks of coloring in natural dyes, (mint for green, saffron for yellow, poppies for red, etc.) and then drying it. It truly felt like a step back in time.

Our time in the city ended with a lovely meal in a riad where we enjoyed incredible Moroccan food. I wish I could let you taste the food because it was so incredibly rich and delicious.

Our guide then took us on the back alleys back up to our riad, as he wanted to get home in time for Iftar. We had walked down into the Medina through the main thoroughfare and the walk back was very steep up some very sketch, narrow alleyways. I am glad we were with a guide because this is not a place I would want to get lost.

The route back felt like Diagon Alley from Harry Potter. Our guide was quite mortified, I believe, when we walked past a drug deal. I literally saw the exchange of money and drugs, but immediately averted my eyes as I did not want to draw any more attention to ourselves.

I must say, I feel incredibly safe here, but it also gave me a picture of what things look behind the scenes and why I would never want to get lost in the Medina.

When we got back to our riad, we went up to the roof to watch the sundown and listen to the call to prayer that echoed from mosque to mosque to mosque throughout this huge city. And as I listened, I had a deeper understanding of what makes Morocco such a unique place.

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