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The Walled City

Opinion | October 8, 2015

The old city of Fes is a world unto itself. It’s the oldest of the Islamic Medinas, and sans light bulbs, radios, and the odd television, it is easy to imagine it would have been the same centuries ago. The alleyways of the city are narrow enough at night and in the afternoon lull following Friday prayers, but come during a crowded time and you will find that it is best not to be in a hurry to get anywhere. Shop owners move their wares into the streets, hawking goods that artisans can be found making nearby out of cotton, skins, wood, and metal. They are constantly hustling, and yet there is no sense of desperation in the way they approach you, only confidence and hospitality. If you engage in conversation long enough, rest assured your throat will be parched with sweet, hot, mint tea—equal parts water and sugar.

You will see old men and women hobbling, young men walking with urgency and confidence, young women with purpose, little boys and girls carefree and lost in their own worlds. Tourists walk with cameras and foreign accents, both in their speech and in their dress. There seem to be mosques on every block, but to call them blocks would be misleading, much as the streets themselves can be: they are winding, curvy, hilly affairs, with side alleys and gulleys shooting off in every which way. Some are proper thoroughfares and are easily recognizable, while others are barely wide enough to let a father walk through with his young son by his side. So often are these alleys covered by archways or next to decorative doors that to a stranger they start to blend into one another despite their singularity. There are dead ends and T’s, sharp turns and slight curves. It is a maze in the most literal sense of the word, the only constant being that ascending paths will lead you to the city walls and gates, and that the same paths in the opposite direction will bring you to the heart of the city. Thanks to its bowl-like topography, it follows the rule of the ocean: the surest way out is up, and the fastest way in is down.

Fes has always been a place for diving deep. It is home to the oldest formal educational institute in the world, the University of al-Qarawiyyin. Walking through its halls and the mosque inside of it is akin to strolling through a work of art, such is the detail found in its structures. Everything is hand-designed, hand-carved, hand-painted. The intricate wooden inlays, the marble columns, the calligraphy that is chiseled into the walls and moldings, every centimeter is the work of an artisan, the product of his singular attention and dedication. Perhaps it is as grand a metaphor as can be found in a center of scholarship and learning: that knowledge and mastery take time, but when done with diligence and patience, they can enlighten the world for centuries, even millennia.

Oh, it is a marvelous city. There are Merinid tombs atop a hill outside the walls, and the entire old city is visible from there. It’s incredible to see the walled city, sprawled out in all of its glory until it hits this majestic wall. It offers an explanation for the madness of the streets: real estate is limited in the confines of the wall, and for centuries the technology to expand significantly upwards was inadequate. And so the people used everything, leaving no square inch unaccounted for.

The streets are prohibitively narrow for cars and their larger mechanical relatives. This scarcity of space is not a deterrent to large animals, however. Donkeys carry vendors’ wares on their backs and in the carts that they pull. Occasionally you will see motorcycles or scooters, and the strange creature that is a motorcycle-trailer hybrid, but the donkeys are the only ones that can clear a street, perhaps because of the droppings they leave in their wake from time to time. Horses are less common, their riders sitting high and mighty like grooms on their way to see an imam. Cats are everywhere in Fes, slinking silently on ledges and dodging feet in the streets. At night they reclaim the space from the people, eyes shining like jewels under the streetlamps. It’s hard to catch glimpses of rats here, though they must surely exist in a city of such density. But perhaps their fearfulness and low profile should not come as a surprise.

It is a city that is neither queasy nor wasteful about its consumption. For instance, if you walk down Tal’aa Saghira, one of the main roads of the old city originating from the gate known as Bab Boujloud, you will come an assortment of stacked crates filled and topped with clucking, captive chickens. It is no secret what they are there for. The same people who may throw them scraps will soon throw their bones as scraps.

Even more illustrative is the case of goats and cows. They are slaughtered and their meat is sold at the butchers’, which often double as restaurants and delis. You can order meat that was functioning as muscle merely hours before at the front of these shops, and it will be served fresh in tagines and sandwiches, with couscous and on skewers. The bones are used in stews and soups; the remains are left in the street for cats and bugs and the Earth to take nourishment from. Flies take their fill at every opportunity they can carve out between lazy swats. The skin of these animals is sent to the tannery to be treated with limestone, pigeon poop, and all sorts of dyes and oils until the skin that once covered bones and held things necessary for living can do so once again, this time for the kings and queens of the food chain. Nothing is wasted; all the intermediate steps are carried out in the open, sparing no gory, smelly, unsightly detail. The hunger for what the bodies of these beings have to offer is not left unsated, but the process is not left unacknowledged either. The sacrifice of the animals is truly treated like one. The prayers recited on them are taken to heart.

To leave a description of Fes without a description of prayer would be a grand disservice. Bab Boujloud in particular takes on a magical aura around Maghrib— the prayer that is offered just after sunset— looking especially grand as swallows flutter around, flying in large ellipses around the gate, above the taxis that hurriedly arrive and depart just outside the city boundaries. As the sun sets and the sky is taken over by competing swaths of orange and purple and the city is bathed in soft light, the call to prayer starts from a lone minaret. Within half a minute, it is joined by a few other voices, and then a few more. In an instant the whole city is a synchronized symphony, calling people to the God of the sunset and everything above and below it, reminding them of His greatness and inviting them to prayer, to success. As the birds circle and people pause their work, the pace of the city slows slightly. Fes takes a breather before resuming in its bustle, busily making preparations for dinner.