The wind in Fez was blowing mildly when we arrived. It was a good omen I thought. I was rereading The Alchemist at the time and my universe was now a lot about omens. I could hear the wind telling me that I was in the right place. But if I wanted to live my story here in Morocco, I had to be willing to learn my lessons.
The first day in the old Medina started smooth, with a humble breakfast had in silence in the house of Soraya. A thin, crepe-looking omelette, some hard bread, a little peach marmalade and some margarine. I initially thought it was butter. I am still not convinced what it really was. And a glass of warm Moroccan tea with intense mint flavour and a little too much sugar.
But the moment we left the house the journey continued abruptly. The game of faith, trust and mistrust was on. Before 10 o’clock in the morning I was crying in the Orange shop after I tried to buy a Moroccan sim card which, it turns out, doesn’t work on I phones. And I phones seem to not like being taken by strangers and force-fed a Moroccan sim card. Siri starts talking to you, in a very unsettling manner, and refuses to unlock the phone again. So here I was on my first day in the world’s most contrasting place, thinking that I was now going to be secluded from technology. Crying helped. Both me and Siri. And as my phone worked again we headed towards the Boulevard and stepped foot in what was going to be an intricate and challenging living labyrinth.
It was my first time in Africa. I didn’t put too much thinking in how Fez would receive me. My mind was drunk with an idyllic image of what I thought this trip would be. But once you get here you understand that you are facing the unknown. No matter how many travel blogs on “the Moroccan experience" you read you cannot sense the complexity of this new world until you are here. No matter how many stories you hear you cannot know the ways of the Medina until you discover them with your own senses. And to this city, and to these people, you are a stranger. And one should never fully trust a stranger. This trust game is a life-lasting game but it’s only by playing it that you get to know friendship. Partnership. Love.
The day was intense. Being constantly on the watch whilst simultaneously enjoying the smells, the jewelry, the multicolored textiles, the rugs and the local fashion. Every minute something happened and taking time to breath is not an option.
But what I learned about trust is the beautiful gift the day was going to give me.
It was a bit after 3 in the afternoon when we left the terrace of 8 o’clock, the one café-restaurant in Fes that seems to be only frequented by tourists. The whole concept – menus, interior design, service and prices – is destined to make this place a comfortable and safe choice for tourists and relaxation seekers. We were walking down towards the heart of the Medina when we ran into an entrance covered in rugs and vegetal silk textiles. It said “Tissage Barbere – Entree Libre”. There was nobody to invite us in, which seemed like a good sign, so we followed the narrow path in.
One step more and I would have stepped on the little man resting on the stones at the end of the pathway. I apologized and took a step back but he quickly jumped on both feet and invited us in: “Excuse moi Madame”, he said, “c’ést temps pour prendre une petite fiesta dans la Medina”.
We found ourselves in what seemed to be a textile artisans cooperative in Fez. A dry-skinny man was hand-wowing carpets on a big traditional wooden machine. I asked to see the carpets. They were now working on a large order commissioned by a family in the UK who was doing business with textiles and reselling the Barber rugs and bedcovers. The culture of business is innate for Moroccans. We would soon find out how versatile, creative and adaptable they are when it comes to this.
I bought a beautiful vegetal silk material from Khalid, planning to wear it as a dress with no seams, just folds. “Blue – the colour of the sky and the sea, and freedom” he said as he was wrapping the silk around me. “You now look just as a Berber woman”. He then mimicked drawing the traditional face-painted symbols women wear in the autochthonous Berber communities.
I confessed I had a burning desire to meet these women. To see how they live. And Khalid started talking about how he can take us to that place, a whole day trip in the Atlas Mountains. Hidden in that room full of textiles, we felt safe. We felt we could trust Khalid. So we gave our word that we would be there two days later, at 7 o’clock in the morning.
The tea was warm and refreshed our bodies.
We went further on, deeper into the heart of the Medina. But as the sun goes down the Medina is not a safe place for a stranger.
We got home late at night. Our hearts the size of a poppy seed.
Soraya is not bad at heart but she is a business woman to her bones. And that is not easy in the old Medina. She believes in the Quran and its teachings and she interprets it through her own mind.
Convincing us to trust her and not go with the stranger Khalid on the adventure with the Berber families, we accepted the deal. We would go on a tourist tour organized by her private chauffeur. This time a game of power and of managing expectations. Morocco is not an idyllic place. It’s not a fairy tale. Its real life is a fight for survival without any guns. If people are naïve and you can take advantage you do – it’s not your duty to teach them. If people don’t ask and talk and say what they need, you presume they don’t need – it’s not your duty to tell them what they need. The lessons would go on. And sometimes comfort zones are not safe zones.
When will I see the old Medina again? Inshallah
The wind stopped blowing and I stopped thinking of tomorrow. It will be a new day and it will be as it should. It takes time and patience to find peace in a foreign land. There are boundaries to be set and only by moving forward can one discover the limits. Adapting as things happen, being present and having faith. You need faith to move forward.
Our trip in the Moyen Atlas started shortly after 8 in the morning. Zahir, our driver, took us to the Taxi Administration to get certification for our journey. This morning we had not had breakfast so I was hungry and before anything else I asked to be taken somewhere where we could find some food. We stopped in a small city near Fez. The old Medina was closed as it was Friday, the Holy Day of the Muslims. He told us that he would wait for us in the car as we would get some food. He had no connections in this town. We would find out that this, as many others, is a business of connections. Nothing to be judged, but it often feels too much of a business and too little of an honest experience. But here we were free to find our way so we got into the first café of the old Medina. A green-eyed man came to us. A few other men were having their extra-sugared coffee and a glass of milk. One was eating a piece of bread on a piece of paper that was a replacement for his plate. We asked if we could find some food there but they had nothing but some crackers. “Est-ce qu’on peut trouver une patisserie ici?” He showed me the way down the main road of the Medina. Just a few steps away we entered a small humble pastry shop. The old man pointed at a piece of bread and some sweet backing. After testing a few pieces with his hands he handed me half baguette and a piece of sweet bread in a paper. I handed him my hand full of coins, probably 12 dirham. He picked 2 and gave me some change back. It was the most honest exchange. We couldn’t use a language to understand each other but I wanted food and he had bread. I saw a man eating at one of the plastic tables inside. He was drinking something with his bread, I asked for the same. It was milk. And for the first time in my life I had bread and milk for breakfast and it wasn’t like any breakfast I had had before. Sitting there in the old man’s shop, thinking of him taking my coins, I felt it was all worth and I was where I was supposed to be. This was the only moment that day that felt right. A pure connection and a moment in time that will never be forgotten now that it’s written.
It was the last night in Fez. And if it was to return here, I couldn’t know.
Berber women embroider what they see. The mountains, the “traisses” braided hair, the protective eye, and the sheep horns. These are their symbols and as nomads they brought them with when coming to the Atlas from Asia. They make pillow cases of out of a single piece of fabric – one face embroided the other not. One for sleeping the other for decoration. They fill it with old clothes or string rolls and often hide their money inside.
I didn’t want to buy anything. I was already tired by this arranged trip. These kind of things are not for me. But despite it all, Hamad had something in him that I felt was good. He showed me a pillow case that he had bought in the mountains from a Berber woman. It was old he said. 30 years old. A bit older than me. I thought of that woman and of the meaning of the symbols. I want to believe what he told me was true but even if not I bought it. I felt I had to take it home.