The Medina of Fez, Morocco
The squawk of the chicken and the frantic flap of its wings in the seconds before it has its throat cut is unsettling, to say the least. Then there’s just silence as red seeps into the white feathers on its neck. The other birds in the shop seem not to have noticed the death of their friend, or perhaps they just don’t understand. There’s no fuss from them even though their lives can surely be counted only in minutes.
It’s one of the first things I see as I walk down the main street of the old medina here in the Moroccan city of Fez. Quite an introduction!
Well, I say ‘main street’ but just five minutes later I find another ‘main street’. By the end of the day, I’ve found half a dozen more. All of them have on display the same brutal reality of life – the only shop with sugarcoating is selling local candies.
In one small square, men sit on stools outside banging copper into place as they make pots in front of the crowds rushing past. I peek through a wooden door that I’m passing and see workers with large looms creating future wares. Follow the right little alleyways and you’ll come across the infamous tanneries where the animal skins are treated in the open air and plain view.
It feels rough and raw – but I guess that’s because I’m comparing the Fez medina to the Western cities where I grew up. Outside the earthen walls of this old part of town, things are a bit more relatable. But when you’re inside them – in the crooked alleyways with just glimpses of sunlight, smoke billowing up from stoves, the glow of lamps reaching out from stalls – you lose perspective of time.
Not just the amount of time you have been wandering through the enormous labyrinth – and it’s certainly easy to lose track of that. But also the medina’s position in the timeline of Morocco’s culture. It may be 2015 as I wander through the souks and residential areas but, in many ways, it could be any century from the past millennium.
The medina of Fez was founded in the 9th century at around the same time that Islam arrived in Morocco and the imperial rule that would create the country began. It grew in the 12th and 13th centuries to about the size that it is today. Many of the buildings that loom over the small streets are from this period, renovated to keep up with modern usages but retaining the original character of this period.
Many of the madrasas, the fondouks, the mosques and the palaces – they were built during the great expansion of these early centuries. You can see the detailed design on their walls and with their structures. One of the madrasas, the al-Qarawiyyin, is said to be the oldest university in the world.
Fez was the capital of Morocco until 1912 and, although political power may have moved to Rabat, this still feels like the cultural and spiritual centre of the country. It has an energy that is inescapable that comes as much from the buildings as it does the people.
I wonder how different the behaviour is here these days compared to hundreds of years ago. I suspect not too much. It’s one of the reasons I find it so hard to place the medina of Fez in a particular place in time. The donkeys that walk up the steps carrying goods to shops have probably always done that; the men sitting and smoking on wooden stools in front of their carpet shops would never have look out of place; the markets full of fruits and vegetables on the outer edge of the city wall has probably always been just as busy.
And then there’s that poor chicken slaughtered right in front of me. That’s probably also just how things have been done here for centuries. It makes the sight a little less confronting, I have to say. I like that Fez doesn’t feel modern and it doesn’t feel sanitised for tourists or for contemporary expectations. As I said, it’s raw and it’s rough and that’s what makes this medina such a magical place and a real highlight of urban Morocco.