Down the Rabbit Hole

Down the Rabbit Hole

In a labyrinth of ancient bustling streets, Susan Gough Henly peels back the skin of Fez culture and discovers the beating heart of Morocco.

I am pretty much naked inside the third and hottest steam room of a neighbourhood hammam in the ancient walled city of Fez. The attendant is applying rhassoul, a fine mineral-rich clay mask enriched with Morocco’s famous restorative argan oil, to my pink glowing skin, which she has just scrubbed with a zeal most Westerners would reserve for dirty floors. There must be 50 voluptuous local women here with me, some with fussy toddlers, others accompanied by prepubescent girls whose curious eyes can’t help straying towards the scrawny stranger.

I’d wanted to get under the skin of this most sacred and secret of Morocco’s cities – I just didn’t expect the experience to verge on literal. Sure, in Marrakesh’s fancy resort spas there are rarified private hammams, all marble benches and tiptoeing staff catering to precious Western sensibilities. Here, I’m washing – and sweating – in the midst of a convivial and noisy scene the way people have done for centuries, before homes had access to running water. My young guide Aisha (who I met just this morning) is lathering herself beside me before she sloshes a bucket of cold water over both of us. It is hotter than a pistol in here and we move to the outer steam room to start cooling off. In the communal changing rooms, the married women dress in pretty underwear, Western clothes and, finally, kaftans and head scarves, then we all file out into a chilly November evening as the last call to prayer rings out from the local mosque.

Fez is the cultural and spiritual heart of Morocco, its UNESCO World Heritage-listed medina the world’s largest car-free urban area. American writer and longtime Moroccan resident Paul Bowles called it “an enchanted labyrinth sheltered from time”, and today people live and work in its 9000 laneways much the same way as they have done for a thousand or so years. Donkeys remain the main form of transport. Long lines of mourners still visit the tomb of its founder, Moulay Iddriss II, the great-great-grandson of the prophet Mohammed, while its University of Al-Karaouine, founded in the ninth century, is the world’s oldest institution of higher learning.

On my first visit to Fez I had felt very much the tourist with an official guide leading me along a hackneyed path of historical highlights and shopping meccas, where I’d bargained for leather, carpet and jewellery in government-approved shops. Yet I was fascinated by this place of secrets, of veiled women and hooded men navigating narrow passageways that weave between high windowless walls. It was so radically different to Marrakesh, six hours drive to the south, which has become a sort of sub-Saharan Costa Brava, with mega-resorts and nightclubs fed by a constant stream of budget flights filled with sun-starved Europeans. Fez, on the other hand, followed a fervent daily rhythm in a time capsule, like a lost tribe in the middle of a maze, unaware that the rest of the world had moved into the twenty-first century.

It was time to take a different tack on my next visit.

A new energy is palpable in Fez, as British and French (as well as a few Moroccans) renovate its exquisite riads into boutique hotels, with artisanal, culinary and cultural tours on offer to help visitors understand the intimate fabric of life in the world’s most enduring medieval Islamic settlement. They are just the last in a long line of Berbers, Andalusians, Jews and Arabs who have come to call Fez home. While a few short years are but a blip on the Fez timeline, these newcomers celebrate its traditions and are helping adventurous souls peel away the layers of Fez culture, one hammam scrub at a time.

One morning, for instance, as roosters crow, Aisha picks me up at Dar Finn, a guesthouse painstakingly restored by Brits Beccie Eve and Paul O’Sullivan, who feel more like long-lost friends than hosts. “Fez is perfect for us,” says Beccie. “Paul has been working so long with African NGOs, he simply could not envision a suburban life in the Midlands.”

We walk over to the home of Olya and Rasheed in the Rcif district and step through their heavy wooden doorway into a courtyard suffused with birdcalls and the scent of orange blossoms. I spend the morning with them taking a cooking class and learning about Moroccan family life. Olya, dressed in casual sweatpants, dons an emerald embroidered kaftan and purple scarf and grabs a shopping basket to take us to her local market to pick up lamb and couscous, tomatoes, eggplants, garlic, cauliflower and peppers. On our return, Olya’s mother, Leyla, shows me how to knead flour, water and yeast in a ceramic bowl to make the daily bread. We then caramelise onions and steam the lamb tagine with a kaleidoscope of spices before moving onto pastilla, combining a fricassee of pigeon with chillies and cumin and layering it between thin layers of pastry dough.

I trade stories with Olya about parenting as she breastfeeds her daughter, while her mother whips up three delectable cooked vegetable salads. Then, in a time-honoured procession, Aisha and I follow local children to take the risen loaves of bread to the communal oven for baking. Every neighbourhood in the medina has five essential institutions: an oven, hammam, water fountain, mosque and school, and it is the children who do the bread runs so their mums don’t have to don their kaftans and scarves twice more each day. Sitting down to the family feast in the courtyard, I’m shown how to use the bread to scoop up the melt-in-your-mouth meat and vegetables; no other utensils required. Rasheed then prepares mint tea in a silver teapot and proudly shows me their wedding album, with Olya wearing seven elaborate outfits that culminate in a magnificent white-silk kaftan.

My appetite whetted for more adventures, I meet the owners of Plan-it Fez, who organised my family cooking class and hammam experience, among their many culinary, artisanal and cultural tours. Australian Michele Reeves is married to a local Fassi (Fez local) and Gail Leonard is a Yorkshire lass who started her immersion in the exotic at the London School of Oriental and African Studies and lived in Berlin and Tokyo before moving to Fez five years ago.

“Life happens on the inside here and our goal is to give people access to that inner world. Food is the offers a fast route into Fassi life,” Gail explains as she guides me on a fabulous souk tasting trail. After learning about myriad dates and spices, and how halal butchers kill the chickens in cages outside their shops (“they cut their throats right, left, right so that they die looking towards Mecca”), we head to the honey souk located in a traditional fondouk workshop.

According to the Qur’an, the lord inspires bees to roam freely to eat as many flowers as possible so that their nectar is both delicious and has health-giving properties. “This,” says Gail, 
“is very important in the medina, where faith is an essential ingredient of daily life.” We taste honey from orange blossom, thyme, lavender, fig, eucalyptus and acacia, and sample culinary argan oil and salted, aged butter. Moving onto street food, we sit down with the locals to enjoy a bowl of b’sarra, dried fava bean soup laced with garlic and olive oil, which I have to admit is more palatable than the steamed sheep’s head and stuffed camel spleen.

I move to Riad Idrissy, painstakingly restored by English designer and chef Robert Johnstone, whose other passion is the Ruined Garden next door, where he creates private banquets of slow-cooked mechwi lamb (roasted meat) as well as Roman and Sephardic Jewish feasts, each a tribute to his culinary anthropological research. He also offers lunchtime street food in the garden that “knocks off some of the rough edges” of what Gail has shown me in the markets. “Sometimes visitors, however adventurous, look like they’ve been caught in the headlights,” he laughs. “Walking around the medina is such a visceral experience.”

Thoroughly fortified now, I join an artisanal tour with Welsh resident and artist Jessica Stephens. Jessica started sourcing crafts for theatre designers five years ago and fell in love with the city. “Nothing is false or polished here. You really feel like you are stepping into something very authentic. It is like walking through a living museum,” she says.

We start in the Sbarine dyeing quarter, one of the oldest streets of the medina, where carpet weavers and tailors bring their threads to be dyed. We meet Mohammed, a man whose hands are permanently stained indigo. Jess pays all the artisans for their time, to change the age-old hustling dynamic. Almost all the craftspeople we meet are called Mohammed, testament to the fact that crafts and spiritual life are intricately linked in Fez. There is Mohammed, the last bone worker on Comb Street, who fashions buttons and combs from sheep horns. Then there’s Mohammed, a metal worker in the Seffarine Square copper-guild district, who is crafting a 100-chicken pot, the mellifluous beating of hammer on metal ringing through the air. And, at the Nourredine family cactus-silk weaving cooperative, another Mohammed tells us, as he clacks jewel-bright threads on his ancient loom, that he has no idea how long his family has been in this fondouk (business) because their craft goes back too many generations.

We visit the leather souks above the Fez River where, mint leaves pressed to our noses, Jess explains the centuries-old process taking place below us. Men in dye-stained shorts spend their lives washing, kneading and colouring fetid goat, camel, sheep and cow hides in huge open-air vats to transform them into Fez’s famed butter-soft leather, which is dyed with the likes of henna (orange), indigo (blue), cedar wood (brown), poppy (red) and saffron (yellow). And the secret to its suppleness: well, it’s the extra soaking in pigeon poo – whose ammonia acts as a softening agent – followed by kneading with bare feet.

Finally, Jess takes me to the Centre for Training and Qualification of Craft in Fez, set up by the King of Morocco’s Mohammed V Foundation. Here we watch young Moroccans learning ancient crafts such as carpet knotting, basket weaving, babouche making and plaster engraving. I buy gifts in the shop at fixed (and remarkably low) prices, knowing that all the money goes directly to the artisans.

I end my visit at Mike Richardson’s Cafe Clock, tucked in a 250-year-old former courtyard house behind the enigmatic thirteenth century water clock, whose mechanisms have been, rather appropriately, lost to time. With nfar trumpets used in Sufi music hanging from the ceiling and free wi-fi at its tables, Cafe Clock embodies the richness of Fez past and present.

“Music, art, faith and craft are intrinsically linked within the medina but often only within a familial environment,” says Mike. “I decided to create a fun and relaxed cultural cafe to meld the best of the best. Our ethos is that all can join the cooking school, jam sessions, lectures, live concerts and film screenings.”

And they do. The night I’m there, gnaoua musicians play to a rapt audience, half comprising curious tourists, half locals. The young Fassi staff, their eyes bright with pride, dance with anyone who is keen. Everyone else is too busy eating Cafe Clock’s signature camel burgers, which, I admit, go down a treat.

Get there

Emirates flies daily from Sydney and Melbourne to Casablanca, via Dubai. From there you can take a train or private car to Fez.

Stay there

Dar Finn is a lovely low-key guesthouse in a restored traditional riad, with rooftop terraces and a private walled garden with plunge pool.

Riad Idrissy is a beautiful guesthouse in a classic riad, painstakingly restored by English designer, chef and gardener Robert Johnstone.

Tour There

By Prior Arrangement, owned and run by Australian Carol Prior, offers customised travel itineraries with guided tours, hotel bookings, private transportation and a range of adventures.

Words Susan Gough Henly

Photos Susan Gough Henly

Tags: history, morocco, unesco

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