Smooth operators and hard bargainers

Trip Start Sep 07, 2005
Trip End Aug 18, 2006

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Flag of Morocco  ,
Friday, January 13, 2006

Early the next morning, we reluctantly roused ourselves from the visions of sheep parts dancing in our heads. Although we had no idea what time the train left for Fes, we took a chance and ran over to the station at nine, only to find that the train was leaving at that exact moment - a pronouncement met with mixed emotions by Steve and Leo, who both wanted to board the first train to Fes but who also wanted to pause for a petit minute to drink a cup of cafe.

The train won out, and the blurry eyed mom and son duo led Cori to a train compartment, where we sat for a good two hours before anything interesting happened, at which time, not too far out of Meknes (about an hour away from Fes), two Morrocan men noisily burst into our relatively unfull train car, clearly out of breath from their dash to catch the train. They quickly struck up a conversation when they learned we spoke English, and we were pleased to discourse with the locals in our own own tongue (it must be said their English was impeccable, down to the subtle idiom and obscure slang). Mohammed, or Max, as he dubbed himself, was quite a character: his quick wit and open demeanor, along with his astute powers of observation, had us talking freely in a matter of minutes. Zach, his friend and clear straightman of the duo, was quite a few years older; he had apparently met up with Max in Barcelona, which is where Zach claimed residency. Max's charm quickly won us over as the journey continued, particularly when he inquired as to the marital status of Cori's sister, Dana. He claimed to want an American wife because he got the sense that "American girls treat their husbands right," and he jokingly promised that he could make a very good husband for Dana, as he was studying to be a doctor and could provide very well for her. Within a matter of minutes, Max was apparently family. Zach, it seemed, viewed this whole conversation with amusement - as if he'd heard it a hundred times before - but he did reiterate how Max was only a year away from being a full-fledged doctor, and, unasked, he offered us pictures of his own family, including his two children.

As we neared Fes, Max and Zach made subtle inquiries about our Moroccan itinerary, including our accomodations in Fes. When we indicated that we hadn't the foggiest as to where we might stay, Max politely but eagerly suggested a riad, or upmarket guesthouse, situated in the medina, or old town, and Zach vouched for the quality of the riad, as he had stayed there once before with his wife. Max also flattered us with an invitation to dine on sheep at his parent's house, during their celebration of the second day of Aid al Kebr. We enthusiastically agreed to dine with them, and we also accepted their offer to call ahead to the riad in order to arrange our transport from the train station to said riad. All arrangements were set, and Max and Zach promised to swing by the riad about an hour after our arrival to escort us to his family's house. Before the train came to a complete stop, they reiterated the plans and then made a hasty exit from the compartment. As we disembarked, we couldn't see our new Moroccan friends, but we did locate the woman from the riad with whom Max had liaised over the phone. We approached her, shook her hand, and then she was greeted by yet another Moroccan, whom we did not recognize. After she exchanged some words wth this man, he turned to us, and said excitably, "I am with the Moroccan ministry of tourism. I do not know this woman, and I do not know the riad that she says she comes from. I have only seen her around the station this week, looking for tourists. Who was it who arranged for your meeting? What were the names of the young men who you met on the train? They are wanted by the police. Do not go with this woman!"

To our credit, we had paused briefly before proceeding to question whether Max and Zach were on the up and up. Not so much to our credit, we didn't entertain those thoughts nearly as thoroughly as we ought to have (and have since). But, naturally, when we caught whiff of this nefarious posibility, we balked and immediately called the whole thing off. Ironically, the "official from the ministry of Morocco tourism" - our Arabian knight, as Leo has dubbed him - was also on the take: as soon as he had disuaded us from getting in the car with the woman, he was quick to assure us that he could supply us with suitable lodging or a wide range of guiding options around the Fes medina. And, when we told him to take a hike, he took the first tack again and chased after us shouting, "Do not go with that woman!" and "Look, she's following you!" We beat a hasty retreat from both of them into a taxi and asked to be whisked away as quickly as possible.

At the risk of repeating, in a very formulaic manner, several other entries in which we begin the paragraph, "On further reflection..." or "We have learned a valuable lesson..." both are true and we will reflect for a minute. Contrary to our normal approach, we trusted our instinct but forgot to use our heads - our most potent weapon. But we've also learned that, at the risk of offending a potential host, we need to consult our instinct and our heads and then one another. This is because, after we all starting talking about the experience, we realized that we had each picked up different inconsistencies or irregularities in Max-Zach's story and, if we had had a few minutes to talk about our apprehensions, we might have put two and two together. The experience has probably also made us slightly more wary of friendly foreigners inviting us into their home, and we anticipate it will be an ongoing struggle to balance our desire for cultural interface with our fear of being brutally assulted or just swindled. Such are the ongoing lessons learned the hard way on the road.

Luckily, we arrived at our hotel in the Ville Nouvelle only sadder and wiser, and we decided that lunch might be an appropriate antedote. So around the corner we went, and we each enjoyed a modestly-priced three course fixed price menu. We scarfed down hearty bowls of a type of Moroccan tomato soup with pasta, chickpeas and veggies for an starter. Leo was then presented with an enormous bowl of couscous, steamed veggies and lamb, while Steve helped himself to brochettes, or skewered chicken kebabs, with saffron rice, and Cori ate all of her lamb meatball, tomato and boiled egg tajine. We concluded our meal with carmel flan, sliced oranges with cinnamon, and the ubiquitous steaming silver pots of mint tea. Given the rainy weather and our offputting experience with Max-Zach, the meal was a warmer welcome than we first enjoyed, and we lingered in the restaurant, despite the plastic chairs and mismatched cola glasses.

After our very late lunch, we caught a taxi up to the old medina of Fes El-Badi, a labrynthine maze of muddy alleys, midieval souks, and crowded mosques. Fes was founded as two cities around 800 AD by a collection of families from Andalusian Spain, repelled from Cordoba by the Castillians, and a collection of families from Kairouan, Tunisia. Within a few centuries, the two towns were united and became the intellectual and spiritual capital of Morocco. Indeed, Fes still functions as a center for spiritual piety and learning, as the high concentraton of mosques and medersas attest (merdersas are cultural and religious estblishments functioning as residential colleges and boarding houses for anyone attending the nearby university, as well as Islamic schools of learning in their own right, with places for prayer and reflection. They are pronounced "madrasas", as we hear on the news). Fes' twelve-century-old university, the Karaouiyine Mosque, was also a major center of learning in the world around the last turn of the millenium: wise men such as the Spainish philosopher Averroes, and even Pope Sylvester II (909-1003) attended the university. In fact, the university is credited with helping to revive Europe from the Dark Ages by importing knowlege from across the Mediterraean, jump-starting universities there. But, despite these acheivements, tourists may remember Fes for its impenitrability - which is certainly our first impression of the place. WIth one look at the gate into the medina and another glance at our map, we knew that navigating the jumble of streets alone would be impossible, so we sought, for a reasonable fee, the assistance of a guide who could show us around. We quickly found our man, Jozud, who, in his former life, played center for the Fes professional soccer team; we definitely got the sense that he was well known and well liked in the city.

Jozud escorted us through one of the main gates into the medina, the Bab Boujeloud, decorated in glazed cobalt blue tilework on the outside and moss green tilework from the inside. We quickly realized that the actual steets were even more confusing than the ones on our map. Medinas, we learned, follow the same basic structure throughout the country, each containing all of the elements needed to support a complete muslim life. At the center of each medina, as one might imagine, is a mosque. Not too far from the mosque is a hammam, or bath house where the faithful may take time to wash in ritual fashon before begining their day.

Despite an impressively intense committment to thier faith, the Muslims of the medina are not always praying, so their towns must also support other less lofty activities such as eating, working, and sleeping. To varying degrees, souks, or markets, are also found in each medina, not only to provide for the material needs of the population, but also, as we quickly discovered, fleece tourists of their dihram. Our guidebook indicated that the closer a given product is to the center of a medina the more important it is to the life of its people, but nothing we found could confirm or deny this claim (including our tour-guide), so we suspected that whoever wrote that chapter of the book paid way more than they should have for something sold near the center of a medina.

The claim in the guidebook may be true, however because as we also learned, it is very difficult to locate the center of a medina. Although the medina we were walking around in Fes is reported to be the largest in the world with nearly 800,000 people living there, it is actually comprised of a very large number of smaller quarters that are contained by a common external wall. For this reason, it was not uncommon while walking through the medina to pass through a number of large entrance gates and to encounter several independent mosques. In this regard a medina is set up something like a picture within a picture within a picture; with the smallest frame containing anywhere from 40-60 families. Although we asked why there were not larger medinas within the medina complex (say a 400 or 4000 person medina) our guide was not able to give us any real answer.

What we suspected, or at least what we surmised with our limited understanding of medina life, is that the real explaination has something to do with food. Interestingly, in addition to souks, hammams, and mosques, each quarter also contains a central bakery that is responsible for baking the bread for the entire quarter. Each day the wife (who in traditional muslim families is not allowed to leave the house at all) would send to the baker a lump of dough to be baked in the central oven. The impossibility of remembering the specific cooking and delivery instructions of each family, we reasoned, is the real reason that quarters contain such a small number of families.

Jozud concluded our day with a visit to a local bronze-worker, one of the few handicraft specialists open on the second day of Aid El Kebr. We were encouraged to follow the owner of the shop upstairs to a large drawing room, decorated with bronze peices and made comforable by several cushioned sofas, and we were, in traditional fashion, offered mint tea while we were given a lecture on the finer points on bronze engraving in Fes. The owner proudly recounted how his business was commissioned with the engraving of the bronze doors for the royal palace in Fes (apparently the king maintains several royal residences sprinkled around the country - it is good to be the king). He guaranteed his plates and pots were bronze, not brass, which bend and flex, and, with a histrionic flourish, he tossed a brass plate on the ground, proving that his products were the genuine article. Although we weren't particularly impressed by his demonstration, we did like his plates, and so we embarked on the odessey that is bargaining in Morroco. The owner first listed a price on a sheet of paper, and we proferred an offer for 50% of the price he listed (guidebooks say one should usually attempt to pay about 60% of the original price vendors pitch). He demurred, and we motioned to leave, at which point he pulled Steve away, because bargaining for bronze plates is apparently business reserved exclusively for the male domain. Before Steve went off to do his "man's work," the three of us decided that we wouldn't go above ten percent more than the price we had originally pitched, which was eventually the price agreed upon. Steve and the man rejoined Leo and Cori, and the man then reiterated the price - plus a five percent addition on top for the use of the credit card with which we indicated we would pay. That was five percent more than we wanted to pay, so we again motioned to leave, at which point the owner caved and offered the original price. Not satisfied (or perhaps plenty satisifed but simply hoping for a little extra), the owner surrupticiously approached Leo while Steve monitored an employee charging his card and said, "Your son, he bargains too hard. Too hard. We give him too good a price. You should give me a tip, fifty dirhams extra, to make it a fair price." Leo, quite savvily, insisted she had no money on her (for, after all, why should a woman be intrusted to carry small change or large bills, anyway?). So the man was left to usher us out, shouting after us, "Are you happy? You bargained too hard! I hope you are happy. Are you happy?" Steve assured him we were happy and we left, resolving to engage in the ritual dance of the bargain as little as possible thereafter. How exhausting and inefficient.

We retired to the Ville Nouvelle, to sip mint tea and mull over the day. And, as we sat and watched and ruminated, it began to dawn on us once again how few women there were in public; in fact, in almost all the cafes we wandered by in Fes, groups of men gathered around tables, smoking and drinking tea, greeting each other with the ritual four kisses on alternating cheeks, and strolling the streets together, often arm in arm.
Meanwhile, headscarfed women (and occasionally burka-ed women), scurried by in groups, seemingly eager to get themselves off the street as quickly as possible. Rightly or no, the absence of women made us all feel uncomfortable and slightly indignant. We became even more so when we learned of the Moroccan Women's Code, which was ostensibly reformed in 1996 but nevertheless still features provisions allowing for polygamy, the requirement that women obtain their male guardian's permission before they marry, and Islamic repudiation (a man need only say to his wife, "I divorce you," three times to his wife in order for it to be so. She returns to her family, if they'll have her, entirely shamed, without any marital property and, if she's had them, without her kids.) And, particularly in Fes, women simply wearing western dress, like us, were treated somewhat coldly or with leering stares and glares, as Leo noticed. Still, and despite all of this, Moroccan women could well be poster girls for Virginia Slims, since they truly have come a long way, baby. For most of the existence of the Fes medina, "hiram" women, i.e., all wives and mothers, were prohibited from appearing in public: elaborate overlapping wooden screens were erected in doors and windows and in public areas of private houses, which allowed the women to view visitors or messengers without them getting a glimpse of her. (For fun, or perhaps at the horror of it, Leo and Cori began to talk to each other through enlaced fingers). Indeed, even elaborate wooden contraptions were erected around windows over front doors, affording wives a view of those knocking on the door by leaning her head out the window but "protecting her" from public view. In comparison, women's current freedom to drive, vote, and hold meaningful jobs is, we suppose, enlightened in the Muslim world.

The next morning we reconvened with Jozud after moving to a hotel closer to the medina, and we began another perigrination around the area. Travelling through the medina was an experience that challenged our senses; it was a veritable olfactory extravaganza. We initially wandered through food stalls of fruits and nuts, with dried apricots, pistachios, sunflowers and prunes piled high in various barrels, while strands of figs were laid in rows nearby. Next came more fruits and vegetables, and the sweet citrusy aromas of oranges and tangerines wafted by, only to be supplanted a second later by the scent of sweet almond pastries, mint teas, and bread baking in wood-fired ovens. Mingled with these scents, though, less recognizable and perhaps less pleasant smells tickled our noses: wet, wooly sheep skins, pungent olives, donkey dung, sewer gasses, the dank muskiness of damp clay buildings, and everyday body odors (ours and other people's).

Meanwhile, our ears and eyes feasted. The occasional haunting call to prayer provided an intriguing backdrop to the many tiled and sculpted mosques and medersas. Bright orange and yellow silks made of cactus were draped in some doorways, while blood-red Berber and oriental carpets hung in others. Women passed by in busily-patterned robes and headscarves with pointy slippers, and robed men in traditional jellaba plodded along, sombre and a bit ominous. Woodworkers, sitting in small mud shops, displayed rude, traditional tools made of wood themselves, while a television blaring cartoons in arabic played in the background.

Jozud first guided us into the largest and most sumptuous of the nine medersas in the city, the Bou Inania Medersa, completed in 1355. The medersa stands as testament to the wealth and attention lavished upon institutions of learning back when Europe was still lagely living in a hovel: the one storey building is paved with marble and onyx, and it is surrounded on three sides by a cloister, where students lived. The courtyard, replete with a fountain and a small room adjoining facing Mecca, is inticately designed in blue, yellow and green zellij tilework, a time and labor-consuming art of fitting small and interconnecting pieces of tile together to form a coherent, repeating geometrical design. Above the tilework is an additional layer of tiles with flowing cursive arabic script, proclaiming Koranic verses. And above the script is stuccowork plaster - made from plaster, bone and egg whites to guarantee white color - carved with various verses and geometrical designs. Gracing the top of the cloisters are elaborate stained glass windows, one even dating back to the time of construction, although truth be told, the original looks substantially rattier than the newer versions. Finally, a heavy cedar door, decorated with brass geometric designs, stood between the hustle of the street and the tranquility of the courtyard. We were all quite impressed.

Equally impressive is the Fondouk El-Nejjarine, a former caravanserai, meaning that the establishment once provided food and lodging to visiting traders in luxury goods. Although the fondouk was classed as a UNESCO world heritage site in 1916, the place became quite ratty during the Protectorate, during which time the French police force set up shop here. Thankfully, more forward thinkers launched a program of restoration, which was complete in 1998; we did get the sense that much of the medina in Fes is set for restoration by UNESCO within the near future - an orgy of spending, to be sure. The fondouk now houses a museum of wood, perhaps not all that wonderful in its own right, but the woodwork within the three storey building really was quite impressive. We particularly liked the terrace on the top of the building, affording views of the sea of ramshackle mud houses in the medina and a satellite dish growing out of each one.

We wandered further on, headed for one of the most venerated shrines in Morocco, the Zaouia of Moulay Idriss II, which contains the tomb of the second Idrissid ruler - a dynasty in Morocco. Moulay was considered to be the founder of Fes in the ninth century, and his body had been laid to rest on top of the hill in the center of Fes. Moulay Ismail, a ruler in the eighteenth century, decided to create a type of pilgrimage shrine around the founder and so simply plunked down a mosque around the burial place. People still come to receive blessings and a beneficient force (baraka) at the shrine, and the streets leading up to the mosque are lined with shops selling candles, incense, and a festive nougat candy, colored in pink and green pastels, which pilgrims bring back to their families as souvineers from the holy city of Fes.

Under the principle that the guide gets a commission from various handicraft shops, Jozud took us into a number of "traditional" artisan souks, including needlepoint shops, ironworkers, carpet outlets, natural pharmacies, and stores for musical instruments [including lyres, horns, lutes, and tambourines]. And, as we now expected, extracting ourselves without purchase was often met with disappointment, a guilt trip, or, sometimes, anger.

We did have a more difficult time passing up purchase in the leather shop we were led into, though, partly due to the goodies we could have picked up and partly because of the natural charisma of the salesman there. The salesman, Mohammed [everyone in Maroc is named Mohammed], first led us up several sets of stairs and over to a balcony that overlooked the largist tannery and dying pits in Africa. The shop was several floors up because tanneries are notoriously stinky businesses, and we imagine tourists would refuse to purchase anything, let alone stick around, if they were subject to large doses of the malodorous operations. So we went upstairs by the balcony and found a huge complex of over one hundred large clay pits laid out below us. One half of the pits were colored white, some with greenish tinge, while the other half were deeply colored in many different hues - blue, yellow, red, green, black, purple. Mohammed explained that skins of goats, camels and sheep are brought to the tannery [selling or buying dog or donkey hides has been outlawed], sold, and then submerged for various periods of time, depending on the type of skin and the outside air temperature, in the whitish-colored vats, which we discovered contained a mixture of pigeon shit, water and acids. Apparently, a whole science has developed around finding the best pigeon dung, because much of the operation hinges on the substance, as it rids the hides of hair and flesh while softening them and making them supple. Accordingly, only the excrement of wild pigeons is sought after, as captive pigeons often create runny dung that borders on diahhrea, which spoils the batch altogether. Moreover, one cannot simply scrape pigeon shit off the roof of cars or other surfaces, because the scraping would take away the pigment of the surface and ruin the batch, as well. So only wild pigeon poop found on nearby houses with specially whitewashed roofs will do the trick. After the hides are cleaned of fur and flesh and have become supple and stretched, they are laid out to dry for up to several weeks, and then dunked for a day or so in special vats containing natural dies made of plants and minerals: saffron for yellow [urine of medina residents and camels was once used until authorites banned that], cobalt for blue, various tree bark and cinnamon for brown, etc. We were distrigued by the process and tempted to buy, and although Mohammed did his best, which was very good ["no matter that you do not have a house; you still need a place to rest your feet when you are weary - try this hassock"], in the end we decided not to purchase. But we certainly will remember the tannery - a repugnant business but a lucrative and honorable one for those with stomachs strong enough to stand it.

We brought our time in Fes to a close with an overpriced but tasty meal in the medina in a typical upper middle class house. Before delivering us to the restaurant, Jozud explained that the house was a fairly typical dwelling in that it had a large main house with a smaller apartment attached. The father and mother lived in the larger house, and the eldest son, once he marries, is expected to live in the smaller apartment, caring for his parents and inheriting the larger house once his father died. The house in which we ate was rather nondescript from the outside but on the inside proved to be a beautiful courtyard decorated in fancy tilework, with a fountain in the middle. The adjacent rooms were plushly apholstered in dark fabrics, and this is where we sat to eat our sampling of Moroccan salads, including eggplant puree, minted carrots, Moroccan potato salad, spiced zucchini, and more. We each endulged in a tajine of lamb, prepared several different ways, and finished the meal with fresh tangerines and mint tea - a freshing end to an exciting day.
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