Pigeons scatter skyward as a wailing call to prayer blares like an air-raid siren from a nearby minaret. From the roof terrace I watch the fading sun as it bathes the decaying city, its fortifications and the crumbling ruins of the ancient people’s tombs above a hill in blood-red light. Soon, the adhan (call to prayer) from all 365 mosques resonates throughout the city, echoing the same ghostly chant but with different tempos like an unrehearsed orchestra, drowning the squawks of the chickens, the incessant banging from the brass cookware shops and the shrieks of the hawkers.
At first it is disarming, but nothing can quite prepare me, or anyone, for the impact of Fes el-Bali, the ancient high-walled medina (old city) of Fez. With over 10,000 spiraling cobblestone streets and alleyways, which are too narrow for the tiniest car to get through, the city has turned the map in my hand into a squiggly-lined nonsense. A tight jumble of centuries-old riads (traditional Moroccan houses) stands shoulder-to-shoulder with elaborately tiled mosques and madrasas (Islamic schools). A head-spinning mixture of odors wafts along the tiny passages- freshly baked bread from wood-stoked ovens, sizzling kebabs, the stench of animal excrement and urine, cumin, overripe fruits, scented oils. I close my eyes to absorb the sweltering madness when a deep, loud voice penetrates my ears. “BALEK!” (“Watch out!”). A bearded man in white djellaba (long, hooded garment with full sleeves) gestures at me to stand aside and give way to him and his donkey!
Fez was the capital city of Morocco in Northern Africa until 1925, and it still remains as the country’s cultural, intellectual and religious heart. Its labyrinthine medina, Fes el-Bali, was established in the early 9th century, around the same time when Islam arrived in Morocco. The medina flourished in the 13th and 14th centuries and most of its buildings and architectural gems are from this period. It was named a Unesco World Heritage Site in 1981 and is believed to be the largest car-free urban area in the world.
Walking through the Bab Boujeloud, the monumental blue gate at the entrance of the medina, I don’t have difficulty imagining that I’ve traveled a thousand years back until I see cellular phones glued to the ears of biblical looking, mule-riding men. “What do you want, my friend? We have good leather, not from China!” Touters instantly throw themselves at tourists even from afar. “Are you Malaysian? Indonesian? Ah, Japanese! Such good people! Come, take a look inside!” Perky stall keepers beckon to me with their standard spiels for Asian-looking tourists. Haven’t they heard of the Philippines? Deep into the frantic maze of souks, merchants are more assumptive, oftentimes bordering on aggressive. Here, mounds upon piles of leather jackets, silk caftans, bloody chunks of camel meat, poultry, olives, dates, potions, strange herbs and spices my nose cannot distinguish and trinkets of various descriptions are displayed for the passing customers. Chatters of bargaining ripple throughout the medina. “No obligation to buy! Come in, have some tea!” I regretfully take heed and at first sip, a salesman has me firmly by the arm. And before I can come up with a lame excuse such as “I lost my wallet”, I find myself drowning in a pile of Berber carpets made of camel wool. The golden rule here is, never accept the first quote. Negotiation is a huge part of the Moroccan trade and prices always depend on one’s haggling skills. You must also understand that the Moroccans are supreme salesmen and if you’re as firm as a jellyfish, you’ll end up spending all your dirhams on a rug you don’t even like.
The heart of the medina and its most important site is the Al-Qaraouiyine Mosque and University. The mosque was established in 859 by Fatima el Fihria, a wealthy Tunisian woman refugee. Each of Morocco’s dynasties expanded and decorated it until it has settled to its current dazzling mold. One of the largest in North Africa, the mosque can accommodate up to 22,000 people at prayer. It eventually became an important learning center, well before the universities of Oxford, Bologna and Cambridge were founded, and served as a legitimate seat of scientific and religious knowledge. It is now considered as the oldest continuously functioning university in the world.
A strong and unmistakable waft of feces and animal skin tells me I have reached the heart of the leather district. There are three leather tanneries in the medina, all of them dating back to the Middle Ages. A teenage boy offers to guide me to the oldest of the tanneries, the Chouara Tannery, for a few dirhams. He says his “father works there”. I suspect all would-be guides in the area say the same thing. Here, the stomach-churning process of turning hides (animal skin) into durable leather has hardly been updated. The tanners begin by manually pulling hair off the animal skin. The reeking hides are then soaked in pigeon droppings and cow urine, which apparently removes the fat and remaining hair. Later on, they are kneaded for hours with bare feet until softened and then dipped in limestone vats filled with colorful dyes. After happily explaining the process, the salesman at the viewing deck invites me to check out his leather bags, which he is certain my mother would love. Yet another sales pitch!
The medina is one interesting place to lose oneself in and work up a big appetite along the way. Soon, my famished stomach takes me back to the blue gate where I find a strip of inexpensive restaurants offering traditional dishes. Moroccan cuisine abounds with aromatic but subtle spices and interesting flavor combinations. Think sweet and velvety dates paired with tart olives stirred into a tagine (earthenware pot where meat is cooked) of succulent lamb. Lamb is always a good choice, and I’m in no mood for adventurous items in the menu such as camel burger and goat’s head meat. Exhausted from all the walking, I find myself a quiet spot in a restaurant’s second floor veranda. Here, I peacefully try to make sense of the chaos below.
There are no direct flights from Manila to Morocco in North Africa, but Qatar Airways has flights to Marrakech and Casablanca from Hamad International Airport in Doha, Qatar. From Marrakech or Casablanca, you can either take another flight or ride the train or bus to Fez.