Cobbled streets and winding tales in the Medina of Fez
When my sister, Anniqua, and I made our plans to visit Morocco, one of the texts on our reading list was About my Mother by the Moroccan writer Tahar ben Jalloun. The story is set in two of the cities we planned to visit: Tangiers and Fez, so we decided to make it “required reading”. The other was, The Time in Between by María Dueñas of Spain. The two countries share a history that goes back centuries. You cannot understand one without taking into account the history of the other.
Like our mother, Anniqua and I are former educators and administrators. We know how to organise and put into effect all kinds of educational activities. Many years ago, without a lesson plan or learning objectives, without a curriculum or syllabus, we slipped into an adult version of our childhood game, school-school. Each of us became both a teacher and a student rolled into one. It was a resounding success. By success, I mean that we both derived immense pleasure from the mysterious Barcelona of Carlos Ruiz Zafón and Gaudí, and the ancient Malaga of the Phoenicians and later of Picasso. Now we are ready to cross over from the southern tip of Western Europe to Africa, to the land of Ibne Rushd and Ibne Khaldun, to the winding streets of the Medina of Fez where he lived and wrote the Muqaddimah.
Waiting for our ferry at the terminal on the Spanish side, I notice a multi-generational group of Moroccans chatting loudly. Spanish words are mixed with Berber and Arabic. Their exuberant voices constantly switch between languages, suggesting that they probably live in Spain and cross the Strait of Gibraltar for holidays. It’s obvious that this family is happy to be returning to the familiar. Would they want to return to Morocco indefinitely? I wish I understood what they were saying.
I’ve read a few history books about the Spanish Civil War. I know General Franco used Moroccan conscripts to help topple a democratically elected government in Spain. I wonder if the grandparents or great-grandparents of my fellow passengers fought with Franco in the Civil War – or whether they fought with France in either of the World Wars. The southern part of Morocco was colonised by the French while Spain controlled the north. I wish I could walk up to my fellow ferry passengers and just ask, but I don’t. Instead, I turn to Anniqua who is leisurely sipping coffee across the table from me.
“I wonder if anyone from their family fought in the Spanish Civil War when the northern region of Morocco was a Spanish colony, or with the French in the World Wars?” I say.
“Who?” says she, confused. Clearly her mind is on other things.
“The family at the table next to us. Don’t look!” I say in a loud whisper. But she is already looking at them. Thankfully they’re too busy talking to notice.
“The Moroccans,” I mouth.
Immediately, Anniqua taps on the Kindle App on her phone, and starts swiping the screen.
“Morocco wasn’t a Spanish Colony. It was a Protectorate,” she announces, without looking up.
“A rose by any other name…” I mutter under my breath, wondering if these random quotations were why we’d spent so much of our youth memorising Shakespeare. “And, who or what was being ‘protected’ and from whom?”
Anniqua doesn’t respond. She tells me she has found a book by someone called Edward L Bimberg, an American from New York who served with the Allies against the Axis. One click and it’s ours. I order two more cafés con leche, and start downloading the book, The Moroccan Goums on my phone. We both skim through the introduction. This is not light reading. The Goumiers who formed the Goum Units were Berber tribesmen who fought alongside the French. Their ferocity terrified the enemy which was Fascist Italy and Nazi Germany. It says that the atrocities committed by these sabre-wielding horsemen in brown and grey striped, hooded cloaks were brutal.
With each step, I feel as if I’m being pulled deeper and deeper into an ancient bazaar. We walk past tiny shops overflowing with local products, brightly coloured spices, fruit, vegetables, pickles, ceramic jars and plates.
I put my phone down and stare at Anniqua. She puts her phone down too.
“I wonder how they felt committing acts of violence for their ‘protectors’. I think I’ll look for books by Moroccan writers.” Anniqua says, swiping her phone again.
I continue reading from the book we downloaded earlier. “After these horrific acts of violence, the French allowed the women of the Goumiers to travel with them as camp followers. This was to prevent a repeat of the fiasco in Italy.” Then I have an idea. “You know, we should find the stories of the Berber women who travelled with the fighters. Let’s explore the bookshops in Fez before we do anything else.”
Anniqua raises her eyebrow, a common expression of hers since childhood. “Do you really think anyone has recorded, transcribed and translated oral stories of Berber women?”
“Probably not, but we can look anyway,” I say and continue reading.
Once we’ve arrived in Fez and settled into our hotel, we head for the old city. We enter through the Blue Gate of Fez. It has horse-shoe shaped arches typical of Moorish architecture. I step closer to examine the ornate patterns on the blue ceramic tiles on the gate and almost bump into a man with a hood pulled right over his head – like a shady character in a spy movie. I glance around and realise that almost everyone is wearing the same hooded robe, the only difference being that a woman’s jalabiya has a lot more embroidery and beads on it.
“Now this is what you call democracy in fashion,” says Anniqua following my gaze.
“They look exotic, like something out of a movie set. Intrigue, suspense, secret documents hidden in the folds of the flowing robes.”
“So you read The Time in Between? Did you watch the movie too?
“Yes, of course. Brilliantly written and directed.”
We decide to keep going. On the other side of the Blue Gate, we’re greeted by a labyrinth of cobbled streets. With each step, I feel as if I’m being pulled deeper and deeper into an ancient bazaar. We walk past tiny shops overflowing with local products, brightly coloured spices, fruit, vegetables, pickles, ceramic jars and plates. People start drifting closer to one another as the streets get narrower. Our shoulders brush against hooded strangers. Every so often, I catch whiffs of oil-based perfume, jasmine incense, and sweet, flavoured smoke spilling out of shisha bars. Then, rising from the general buzz of the bazaar, the clear melodious voice of a muezzin’s call to prayer fills the medina. We walk towards the sound.
Just off one of the narrow streets is a grand entrance that leads into a compound that is both a mosque and a university. Al-Qarawiyyin University was built with a mosque at its centre. We decide to step in for a quick look before it fills up with worshippers.
“Did you know that Al-Qarawiyyin University is the oldest in the world that is still operating? And that it was founded by a woman, Fatima al Fihri?”
I give Anniqua a quick look to see if she just read that off her phone. No. She is looking at the painted stucco walls and tile decoration on the walls of the inner courtyard. This architectural style is similar to the Alhambra in Granada. The traditional architecture of Morocco and Southern Spain has so much in common. I walk up to look at the motifs carved into the stucco.
“I think we should go now,” Anniqua says, making her way to the entrance. “The courtyard is filling up.”
“Wait,” I say. “Who says this university is the oldest in the world?”
“The UNESCO and Guinness World Records,” she says, stepping out into the street again.
“So, they must have original books by Ibne Khaldun in the university library then,” my mind is beginning to churn.
“Probably. Ibne Rushd and many others too This is where the Muslims came when they were expelled from Spain. They brought knowledge from the centres of learning they had set up there to Fez. A brain-drain from Spain,” she adds with a smile.
“The Golden Age of Islam when people wanted to learn everything about everything.” I say wistfully, adding, “Once European nations spread their wings and landed here, it was all downhill.”
“Or,” Anniqua asks, “were they able to land here so easily because things were already going downhill?”
Anniqua has a way of turning my musings on their head, forcing me to reformulate my ideas. This time I can’t think of a reply.
“Either way,” I say, “the French did not protect their Moroccan Protectorate very well.”
“True.” Anniqua concedes, “Some of the biggest demonstrations against French colonial rule happened here in Fez, here at the University. In fact, Moroccan women waged a guerrilla war alongside the men and were more effective than them.”
“Because they were covered?”
“No, the French thought Moroccan women were apolitical and less aware of what was going on.”
“Never underestimate the intelligence of a thinking brain.” I say. “Hmmm, and that reminds me, we need to find a bookstore and look for stories by Moroccan women.”
The writer is the author of CON YANCI When Chickens Fly and blogs at Tillism.com