From the high ground to the north of the medina the three cities of Fes can be seen. The University area with its’ rash of cranes and building projects, modern football stadium and new, free access, teaching hospital. The ultra modern business zone, a glass and concrete crenelated skyline. Finally the old city, with it’s Medina, like a dull pimple, barely rising from the sprawling town, looking like the contents of an enormous bag of so many white and earthy coloured Lego bricks dropped onto the valley floor by a careless child. The boundaries between dwellings are indistinct; the narrow passages separating them indiscernible from this distance.
As with most cities the dominant sound is that of the traffic, a constant drone punctuated by the horns of ‘Petite Taxis’, scooters and 3 wheel delivery pick-ups, each demanding right of passage through the tight streets surrounding the medina. Several times during the day an indistinct hum may be heard a sound that slowly builds until the chants of individual performers can be divined. Each voice, distorted by crude electronics, and by ageing vocal powers, joins a cacophony of chanting. These 5 or 10 second wailing phrases, each snapped at the end, are followed shortly after, by the next mournful cry. The effect, heard from a distance, is quite powerful, almost threatening, it commands your attention and draws you to it.
Like other Moroccan cities, Fes has a heart bounded by gates and walls, the limits of the Medina, that powered vehicles do not transgress.
Handcarts and donkeys are the trucks of the Medina, steadfastly moving through the tightly crowded alleyways, stoically unfazed by the oppressive crush that is their daily lot.
This is the domain of the artisan and the retailer. Nobody is still. Any person entering the ancient Medina is preordained to make, sell or buy something. If you are not there for one of these functions, then you will be out of place. No matter why any person thinks they are coming to the Medina, if they are not earning their living there, then they will be there to spend their money.
Every nook and cranny, within the Medina, uninvolved in direct selling, is taken by people who are turning raw materials into sellable items. There are chickens kept on the upper floors of an old ‘inn’, which was used in ancient times by camel caravans. Originally the downstairs was used to stable the camels and is now used for the sale of animal feed, much of which is bought by the chicken ‘farmers’ and the donkey truckers. The upstairs bedrooms, once occupied by the camel drivers, is where the chickens now roost. They are sold in the Medina as live meat, once their egg production has dropped off.
Another ‘inn’ is now used by artisans as light and sunny workshops, where the ubiquitous pierced brass lamps were being made in every shape and size by men sitting on the floor and using the simplest of hand tools. These inns are accessed through uncompromising narrow arches in otherwise blank walls. To poke your head through one of these entrances takes a certain amount of nerve; it feels like a transgression into a private area.
Once through the portal, a large semi-circular courtyard fans out, open to the sky, enclosed by a curved two story wreck of a building. There were a good number of these old ‘inns’ in the Medina and it was not difficult to imagine a long, heavily laden caravan of camels forcing its way between the dark, restrictive, walls to reach their stabling. Here the camels could rest and feed, whilst their drivers haggled for the best prices for the goods they had brought to the market.
In the Medina every wall presented doors and behind every door, you could bet that there was a surprise in store. This miserable, dirty, crowded, shadowy place is, in fact, a sham. There is light to be found but, you need to know where to look for it; in the homes, ‘inns’ and mosques. The light is reserved for ordinary lives lived behind the doors that punctuate the dun coloured walls. People toil in the relative cool of the Medinas’ lanes, with the buying, selling and making all taking place in the intensely cool shade. People live and pray in the intense glare of sun light, which pours in through once open and now glazed roofs,.
Fes is three cities in one and the Medina is two cities in one. Having visited both, Chefchaouen and Fes, the I could reflect on the age difference between the two cities, which is nearly 700 years, with Fes being the oldest. I cannot say that I liked ancient, darkly tanned, weather beaten Fes, shored up by it’s many wooden crutches with walls spragged by stout timbers.
I can say it was interesting and a world apart from the young, bright and undeniably pretty Chefchaouen, with it’s colourful buildings and much wider lanes and it’s youthful ability to stand up unaided.