Researching Fez prior to our arrival it was clear that we should expect hardcore hassle ringing to the croaky voice of the old dude knocking out the call to prayer every 5 minutes. I expected an ancient walled city brimming with medieval life and Fassis going about their daily life to the bell of centuries past.
The plane touched down with a thud and the aircraft erupted in applause as people seemingly they thought they were goners. I hadn’t realised, but was glad to be alive in any case.
Security at Fes – Saiss was slick and within minutes we were welcomed back to the slice of Northern Africa that is Morocco. The airport really is an engineering feat of minute proportions, it wouldn’t surprise me one bit if it turns out that it’s someone’s kitchen in disguise. From the airport there is a bus that ferries passengers the 40 minutes into Ville Fez for a couple of quid. Naturally, as we walked out into arrivals we saw it driving off. And obviously – It was the last one of the day. Taxis are a fixed price of 120 MAD (£8) and we were off into the night in no time without even the slightest hassle.
Two things struck me as odd as we made our way towards the Medina (where our hotel was) firstly it was absolutely freezing cold. Colder than the UK we had left behind, and without sounding naïve I had just never been to Africa before and not felt a blistering heat. Secondly, the roads were empty. It was around 9pm and the city looked deserted.
Once at the hotel the owner introduced himself unsurprisingly as Mohammed. It is a trend which extends throughout the Muslim world. Guaranteed if his name wasn’t Mohammed it would’ve been Ahmed. He didn’t get the joke when he brought me a mint tea and I asked if it had vodka in. I decided to go to bed. En’ route to the room a woman busts out of a room and introduces herself in French, I stood listening to her and didn’t have the slightest clue what she was talking about. I looked at Charlie and neither did he. I spoke the only French I knew ‘non Francais’. She switched to English and started telling me how she was from Senegal, did I want to come in for a drink. Normally I might have considered it, but it was late, Charlie looked red eyed and within no time at all we were asleep. That’s strictly not true, as anyone that has ever been to an African/Asian country can testify. Horns rang out, people shouted, and a dog that must’ve taken a dislike to my face earlier parked itself outside my room and sat barking all night. It was freezing cold, and when I was woken by a knock at the room door around 1am I wondered what now. Miss Senegal was at the door “is my music too loud” she smiled. I hadn’t even heard it. “You should come in, your boy is sleeping yes”. I looked over at Charlie hoping he had woken up. He hadn’t. So you have to understand the checklist that went through my head. Single – No. Would she get it – Definitely not. Has she got alcohol – Maybe. Two out of three failed, I made my excuses and went back to a half slumber, making sure we would get up and out early in the morning.
Fez was one of those places that I had always thought I would end up going to, but was in no rush to do so. Any visit to an Islamic country should always start in the same place – The Medina. This is usually the beating heart of the city, a bewildering maze of dead ends and alley ways fringed with every craft you could imagine, the smell of spices in the air, and a constant battle against camels, donkeys, motorbikes and general folk just going about their business. The Medina in Fez is slightly different.
First of all I have to say, we walked around 20 miles throughout the city and not a single time did we get any hassle. In fact, we found Fassis to be overtly friendly, helpful and more than willing to try and understand my broken Arabic and mispronounced names of some of their most revered sights. Unfortunately that’s where it ends.
Stepping out into the Medina I have to say that I was feeling skilled. Within minutes we were lost. And not just lost as in we could retrace our steps, but completely unfathomably lost. I know that’s the beauty of it and I love getting lost. But the streets were filled with donkey shit and litter. It was freezing cold and the tanneries stank the place out. It turns out that there are several routes through the Medina. For example, if you like Islamic culture you follow a blue route, there are other routes for crafts and things. Problem is, the signs randomly end. But when we did finally find the places we wanted to go it really pissed me off that we were either not allowed in because we are non-Muslim or they were closed, and/or under construction. Let me elaborate on my initial point, we have been all over the world and been in some of the most spectacular mosques on earth since I absolutely love Islamic architecture. In Cairo I recall escaping the midday sun on the floor of a Masjid in the Islamic quarter. Istanbul, Dubai, Malaysia, Indonesia – I have even had work published for the Middle East online about a visit to the Grand Mosque in Abu Dhabi. It really annoyed me that these ancient, centuries old buildings of absolute beauty and splendour were off limits to us. We were in the largest medieval Islamic city on earth and couldn’t do anything. After a few hours checking out a few Babs (gates) we walked into the new city a mile or two down the road. The only thing we found of any interest was a shopping centre that sold alcohol (Carrefour) and so we walked back to old Fes wondering what to do next.
I had spotted some cemeteries that looked like they had a good vantage point over the city, I decided we would head there, then to a castle on a hill adjacent. Once at the graveyard we spotted a human turd on the ground, rubbish was everywhere. It lost its appeal and we made our way to what was the war museum that was naturally closed. We were now amongst green hills and looking out over Fez I wondered what had gone so tragically wrong that such a city could fall into such disrepair. Charlie and I sat and looked over a gated city that would’ve once been the centre of Islam for miles around. A city that not just mattered, but that was palatial in its grandeur, the emerald in the crown of Morocco. It was hard to imagine looking over tired sandstone walls that once Fez was a place of rarity. That some of the greatest Islamic minds of centuries past studied in this once behemoth of religious theory.
Fez is a city trapped in years gone by surfing along on a slither of history that will soon be forgotten. Was it not for the immensely friendly people we met then I would never think about Fez again or recommend it to anyone. The city is in dire need of a clean-up, of investment and a wakeup call that we are now in the 21st century and it is possible to employ modern values whilst still keeping an ancient ones. Sadly it seems the Moroccan government refuses to give the city and the people the boost they need, which is sad. Considering we have been welcomed with open arms by an amazing bunch of people we will leave Fez hoping that change is on the horizon before the place crumbles.