Updated: Jan 11, 2019
… out of the oasis and into the big city. If Chefchaouen was a swirling mass of blue Earth, Fès was the entire galaxy. 600 acres of tiny cobbled streets, hee-hawing donkeys, buzzing motorbikes, and shouts of ‘balak!’–watch out, get out of the way! It was disorienting to pick up and move cities so quickly, but oh, did we learn to recalculate and navigate, if only to not be in the way.
Similar to how one retreats inside herself to find solace and stability, it’s because of this enduring whir of activity, I imagine, that Moroccans seek modern-day refuge in the sanctity of their quiet homes. In fact, many of the buildings we explored or spent the night in in Morocco were designed with two principles in mind: protection and modesty. Kasbahs, for example, were fortresses built to protect the family or group of families living inside them. Their high walls were designed to be impenetrable and uninviting, while the inside was a calm and safe oasis for family life. Since the ’90s, many traditional Moroccan houses, known as riads, were turned into guesthouses. Like kasbahs, riads were built to protect what's on the inside from any danger on the outside. And while Moroccans may have built their homes to keep enemies out, the people themselves are warm, welcoming and hospitable. It’s a guiding principle of Islamic culture to be modest and not show off, especially if you're wealthy. Their homes and fortresses reflected this way of life.
We saw this guiding principle reflected in the people of the Fès medina, too. Artisans and mongers, selling their wares just steps from the workbench they were made on. Women, most in traditional dress–a headscarf and modest clothing–navigated the tiny streets, buying their fresh produce, fish, and spices. If Gwen and I visited Fès 50 years ago, it wouldn’t have looked much different; 150 years ago, it wouldn’t have looked much different. We have so much planned obsolescence in our Western society, it was both refreshing and climatizing to visit a place with a relatively unchanged way of life.
Of course, we knew we were lucky to recognize the differences. A life in the medina isn’t easy. Today, if you live in the medina, it’s often because your family can’t afford to move out. Congested channels of constant activity don’t translate to affluence–not in Morocco, not anywhere.
Yet, despite the chaos, and despite yearning to retreat to our own quiet oasis, we were grateful for the temporary visit to their otherworldly orbit.
This is the third post in a multi-part series about Morocco. Stay tuned.