22 Apr What Walls Witnessed in Morocco
I was just passing through.
I had arrived in the golden sun of Moroccan spring as one more student in Fes — a taller, blonder, less Muslim, and more female version than the city’s millennia-long running average — and made my first foray through the city on the day of prayer, when the shops were shuttered and the streets were bare.
The Fes Medina has thousands of narrow streets, bound by towering adobe walls, which wind like capillaries through the city. Cars couldn’t fit even if they were allowed: On some streets, my shoulders touched the walls on each side. Getting lost is guaranteed, even for those who have lived all their lives in the Medina.
Established more than 1200 years ago, the Old City lives up to its title, and its age shows in the pockmarked walls. Wooden braces prop many of them up, though they list all the same. One of my fellow students described them as “leaning drunkenly upon one other.”
My first impression was of a city beige and worn, but as I quickly found out, there is more to Fes than initially meets the eye.
– – –
I wound my way through the Medina with new resolve on my second day. The city had come back to life: The alleys were full of foot and donkey traffic, and color spilled out of the shops into the streets. Purple, gold, and green scarves dangled above shopkeepers’ heads; tasseled, wine-red carpets adorned the dusty walls; alcoves glittered with bodaciously curved silver teapots.
As I explored, I discovered that the walls of the Medina had deceived me. They were ancient and plain on the outside, but often filled with exquisite color and detail on the inside. Wandering through the walls of Fes was a treasure hunt, and it didn’t take long to find treasure: With just my second swing of brass-studded doors, I unearthed a blue and white tiled palace, pillared by ornately carved wood and stone, with a white marble fountain spilling water below cascading light and dust mites.
Who knew what I would find behind the next door — orbs of oranges hanging like ornaments in a courtyard of trees, a kaleidoscope of tiles covered in years of dust, roses snaking over sandy bricks?
But before I could reach the next door, I hit a wall.
I had been caught in a current of pedestrians in a narrow street when a curtain of white fabric approached, a black sheet marking where her face would have been. I had the instinct to stop, but the momentum of people pushed me toward her, and for a moment I feared I would crack the shell of her attire. Instead, I chose to crash into a wall to let her pass.
Was a cotton sheet so much more impenetrable than a brass door?
– – –
Naturally, it took a while for my American friend Liz and I to find the local hammam. But finally, after asking half a dozen shopkeepers for directions, we followed the pointing finger of a smiling Moroccan boy down a bright-green chalked road to a dark passageway, where we would, as our expat friend Rose had put it, “enter into the bosom of womanhood.”
We approached the wooden-framed alcove at the passageway’s entrance, greeting a middle-aged man with the few words we knew in Darija, or Moroccan Arabic:
“Salaam Alaikum.” Peace be unto you.
“Alaikum Salaam,” the man replied courteously. And unto you, peace.
After several minutes of pantomiming the words for soap and lava scrub — gentle rubbing of our arms for the first, then a more vigorous rubbing for the second — a squat woman, donned in a white bathrobe, a blue towel twisted atop her head, waddled out of the passageway to take inventory of our toiletries.
The first floor of the hammam was modest in size, about 400 square feet, but columned like a palace. Three slotted, wooden benches surrounded a soft, white-marble fountain, where red-cheeked women filled tin cups with refreshingly cool water below a domed ceiling, which was polka-dotted with apertures of sunlight.
As other visitors have noticed, the hammam is a place where personal boundaries are shed as gratifyingly as the dead skin scrubbed off the women within. Bathing had never been a public activity for me, nor had I ever had someone throw buckets of hot water over my head, slather me down with olive oil soap and then scour me pink.
At one point, the plump, kind woman whom I had hired for my scrubbing swiveled me around the floor with an affectionate firmness and placed my head on her thigh. As she circled her exfoliating mitt over my body, she began a sharp, high-pitched call, which bounced off the blue and white tiled walls around us.
Then, the other women in the steam-filled bathhouse took over the song, chorusing in low Arabic. With the steam and the heat of the room, their charming verses might have lulled me to sleep, were it not for the shock of hot water thrown over my head.
– – –
“Look up,” Sandy McCutcheon said.
The ceiling above us consisted of centuries-old cedar wood, delicately carved in a sunburst of grooves and designs.
“A couple guys from the Smithsonian stopped by to take a look at this,” Sandy said. “They said it’s worth forty times what we bought the house for.”
Sandy and his wife Suzanna had bought this 300- to 400-year-old house two decades earlier, after falling in love with the Fes Medina. Sandy was proudly leading our gaggle of students up worn tile stairs and under low doorways on a full tour. We had just entered the sitting room of the top floor’s guest quarters, traditionally reserved for the family’s first-born son.
As we gawked at the deep greens, blues, and reds of Iraqi glass in the plaster-carved windows that banded the walls, Sandy pointed out a nondescript closet in the corner of the bedroom.
“You can’t see it without moving all the clothing, but there’s a little opening at the back.” He gestured to where the bedroom wall met the courtyard. “The space is just big enough for a man to lie down in.”
I imagined the outline of a small compartment inside the wall.
“That’s where a slave would sleep,” Sandy continued. “There’s a little opening near where his head would be, so he could overhear the conversations in the courtyard. Perhaps wife #1 would be arguing with wife #2, or maybe there’d be a break-in. Then you’d need reinforcements.”
Sandy swiveled around and indicated two of the windows. I didn’t notice earlier, but they were the only ones without glass. “Two other slaves slept in there,” he said.
I stayed behind as the tour moved on. I gingerly approached the guest bed, where I had a view of the citrus trees through a window into the courtyard. All I could hear from below was the splash of the fountain. The courtyard would have seemed the best place to have a secret conversation, if you didn’t know the walls were listening.
– – –
A couple of hours outside the city of Fes, violet flowers grow around the ruins of Volubilis, which was once a great city. Well, to be accurate, it was once great cities.
Berber pastoralists were the first to settle the area, around 5000 years ago, and Volubilis enjoyed a time as the capital of the ancient kingdom of Mauretania.
Then, in the second century BCE, Volubilis was swallowed by the Roman Empire, which was both inevitable and fitting, as the olive trees and carpets of crops of its fertile plains feel practically Tuscan. But of course, that too was temporary, and the city fell along with the empire.
Centuries later, a descendent of the Islamic prophet Muhammad arrived and established a dynasty, with Volubilis as the capital — until the capital moved to Fes. It took more than five centuries for Volubilis to slide into ruin thereafter. Now, columns and walls are all that’s left. Placards describe where people once crowded the streets and patronized the public baths.
Like the city of Fes, Volubilis has hosted more than a millennia of cultures and hundreds of thousands of families. Now, after a series of reincarnations — a tribal kingdom, an ancient empire, a Muslim dynasty — the place is deserted, save for tourists like me, who pick our way around its crumbling walls.
We are just passing through.
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