In case you just skimmed this over your morning coffee, here is it again:
Bab Bou Jeloud. It was 3 o’clock in the afternoon when we found ourselves in front of the western gate of the old medina of the imperial city of Fes. We had gotten off the train just a couple of hours ago, and after hurriedly checking into the Riad where we were staying the night, we made our way here to get lunch. Menus were being thrust towards us from all directions.
“Couscous! You want couscous?”
“This place is in your book. Look, look”
“We have very good tagines”
“You want terrace to enjoy panorama? Come here”
We gave up and went into Le Kasbah, the nearest restaurant. This one had seating in the terrace, facing Bab Bou Jeloud. Even at this absurd time, there were quite a few tourists inside. A waiter, our waiter we found out later, was casually flirting with the lone Japanese woman in the corner. He seemed to know enough Japanese to maintain a steady conversation. He ambled over after a while; we ordered lemon and chicken tagine and settled down to wait. Outside the Bab, there was a car park where taxis were dropping off and picking up tourists. On this side of the gate, the alleys are too narrow for any kind of motorized transport and the mules seemed to rule. My friend took out her cameras and started to shoot while I decided to educate myself on some local history.
Fes is the oldest and the grandest of the imperial cities of Morocco, and its old medina, the Fes el-Bali is the oldest living Islamic medieval city in the world. The medina was established in the eighth century by Idriss II, the heir to Idriss I who established the first imperial dynasty in Morocco. The city originally consisted of Berbers and Arabs from Tunisia and soon grew to be the intellectual capital of the country; the first university in the western world, the Kairaouine Mosque and University lies within the medina walls. With European imperialism and the rise of the cities of Marrakech and Rabat, Fes started losing its place as the political centre of Morocco. But the city is still considered the moral, artistic and intellectual capital of the country, and the beginnings of Moroccan nationalism and the freedom movements can be traced to the streets of Fes el-Bali.
The lemon and chicken tagine turned out to be decent, but the bowl of complimentary B’sara, a Fassi butterbean and garlic soup was excellent. We paid downstairs and set out to get lost in the labyrinth that is the old medina. As soon as we turned right into the alley of Talaa Kebira, shouts of “Indian”, “Namaste” and “Shah Rukh Khan” went out from the shopkeepers in the souks on either side. We smiled and walked down the street towards the minaret of Medersa Bou Inania. Talaa Kebira, unlike the alleys of the medina of Marrakech seemed to be a real market, and not just one geared towards tourists. We were at the end of a vegetable and meat souk from where locals were buying fresh produce. Soon the produce market gave way to phone centres, and the ubiquitous pottery and leather stores.
The Medersa Bou Inania, built by Bou Inan of the Merenid dynasty in the fourteenth century is considered to be one of the finest theological colleges in the country. This medersa is open to everyone except at prayer times, and so we were able to go inside. In addition to the minaret, the medersa contains a large mosque with elaborate tile work, plasterwork, and wood carvings.
Out of the medersa, and we continued downhill on the now-familiar Talaa Kebira. Now and then, just around a corner or by a nondescript phone booth we would catch sight of beautiful fountains with amazing blue-and-green tile work. We were well inside the medina by now, and had to stop every couple of minutes to let the mules with their heavy baggage go by. Soon we caught sight of the lovely, green-tiled minaret of the Ash-Sherabliyin mosque and ahead, the slipper-makers shops after whom the mosque was named. The shoe sellers came next followed by leather workers where we stopped to pick up a couple of leather purses.
We then followed directions to the henna souk, which for some inexplicable reason was filled with shops selling organic blue Fes pottery. The shopkeepers were friendly but refused to haggle. Their reason: “You are from Shah Rukh Khan’s city. You must be rich, you can pay this much!”
Place an-Nejjarine, which houses the carpenters’ souk and the Museum of Wooden Arts & Crafts, was somewhere near here, and we went around a few alleys a couple of times before getting there. The carpenters’ were making silver colored thrones to be used in wedding ceremonies and one of them stopped to talk to us about his work. We didn’t get anywhere as we did not know any Arabic but we did gather that he watches Hindi movies all the time. Like that’s any surprise to us anymore! There definitely are more people in Morocco watching Bollywood movies than there are in India!
We headed east towards the Kairaouine Mosque & University – by now, we had veered away from the Talaa Kebira quite a bit, and had only a vague idea of the direction we were heading. Needless to say, half an hour later we were still looking for the university. We decided to head back to the Riad but that was easier said than done. The Riad was somewhere in the northern medina near Bab Guissa, so we figured we would head in the general direction until we hit the medina wall. Helpful shopkeepers kept us going but they warned us against people in the streets who might offer to give us directions. We finally reached our Riad sometime after seven, just as the cry of the muezzin reverberated through the city, and rushed to the terrace. The old city of Fes spread out beneath us, the ruined tombs and the cemetery on the hills behind us, the prayer call going out from every mosque in the city – “one of the prettiest sounds at sunset” (as Barack Obama put it recently) here in this soulful, walled city is definitely one of the prettiest things that this world has to offer.
(Pictures of Bab Jeloud, fountain and Fes pottery by MR)