Sunday, January 28, 2007

The Medina: an introduction

The taxi drops us off at a massive blue keyhole gate in the old city wall and the first impression that strikes me is one of sheer energy - the noise and motion of many people in a small space. Next I notice a rich mixture of odors, from the fruit stands and spice vendors, but also from the muddy road and the animals on it. I hear Arabic, French and English over strains of Shakira and Manu Chao competing with traditional instrumental melodies. Down the street, a donkey is laboring under the weight of the load of propane tanks it is carrying...past an internet cafe. The medina is sensory overload, and it is exhausting in its juxtapositions.

The place: the medina is old Fes, whose new section was built by Merinids fleeing Andalusia late in the Reconquista and whose original streets have been worn down by over a thousand years of passers-by. It is full of beautifully tiled fountains, intricately sculpted stone arches and ornate woodwork, but it is also a maze of winding, narrow streets packed with an endless variety of small shops and stalls hawking oranges and cassettes, silk scarves, fresh pastries and computer accessories. The medina claims the world's oldest university (though Cairo contests this boast) and is home to a royal fortress/palace, a green-roofed mosque and a spectacular madrassa. Lora and I follow a series of signs through a Berber carpet shop and up the back stairs to a rooftop view of the minaret, the surrounding hills and the chaos below.

The people: Ibrahim, who shows us his family's antiques in the "museum" above his jewellry shop and kisses our cheeks à la française, exemplifies Moroccan hospitality. The young men in the street leave a harsher impression, hawking their cheap bracelets, pushing their tourguide abilities, or simply catcalling in our direction. One shop owner chases us down to return 11 dirhams (about $1.50) Lora had dropped in his changing room, while one fruit vendor shouts and tries to charge me after I take a photo of his wares in the sunshine (I shout back and delete the photo).

Life: You can buy traditional dresses and headscarves in the same shops as European imports, and local crafts next to "made in China" knockoffs, and the Coca-cola in the cafe got there on a donkey's back since the streets are too narrow for cars. The road is alive with noise and motion, but if you step through the right doorway you might just find a deserted shop or a quiet garden hiding behind the wall. After three hours of wandering, I am exhausted. Lora has bought (with her fierce bargaining skills) a keychain and a scarf, and we two have eaten our way along, with fried bread from one stall and eclairs from another, with the fruit vendors and coffee along the way. By my rough guesses in the guidebook map, we have followed one street most of the length of the Fes al-Bali neighborhood and seen only the tiniest fraction of its offerings. I collapse back into the taxi, cheerfully overwhelmed by the medina and already eager to return.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

We're ranked in the Top 25 at #24 in the AP poll this week. Well, Vanderbilt basketball is anyway.

Ibn Saud