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The Mysteries of Fez

From the big public garden, the bou Jeloud, I walked to the 19th-century Dar Batha Palace to look at the small collection of carpets and arms and pottery. A smiling woman accompanied me through the cool rooms, turning the lights on and off as I trailed happily after her. The palace is most remarkable for its architecture and its slightly overgrown Andalusian garden. The arcades leading to what were once the women's quarters are oddly Japanese in feeling, reminding me that despite the Hispano-Moresque style, it is essentially an Oriental palace. Secular Islamic architecture was based on four conditions: heat, slavery, polygamy, and the seclusion and segregation of women. So this lovely palace is not without its ghosts. I wondered if the attendant was the descendant of one of those Circassian slave women or Turkish sultanas.

From the shaded cloisters of the museum, I walked along the Talaa Kabira, or the Upper Ascent, and the Lower Ascent (which descends), known as the Talaa Seghira. In a spice shop, Mr. Khalid, the gentle and elegant owner, suggested that I take home one of the dried chameleons hanging from the ceiling like a desiccated gray mouse, should I someday have difficulty holding the attention of a lover. I bought several. Khalid was also happy to sell me handfuls of fragrant dried verbena for a calming infusion, and chunks of waxy attar of roses and musk to scent my fine robes. For a small fee he made designs in henna on my hands, my feet, and, as an added honor, my neck. If I was self-conscious before, I was now, on every visible surface except my face, decorated with lacelike maroon-colored designs of birds and vines and flowers.

The dark-eyed, mischievous boys selling sweets from handcarts, enormous blocks of nougat in vivid butter-yellow and pistachio-green studded thickly with nuts, tried to put chunks of candy into my mouth as I passed. There is no obligation to buy, you are told, if you eat the moist dates or the pink almond nougat dropped into your palm, but one is never sure. It would be possible, I thought, to buy nothing and to eat my way through the souk, drinking the small glasses of hot sugared mint tea that the carpet sellers and antiquarians offer if you happen to stick your head into one of the dark, aromatic shops which look like Aladdin's den. But since word spreads quickly, absorbently, through the souk, preceding you by only minutes, it would not be long before one's stately progress was shy of dates and candy.

In the tailors' shops and behind the high, orderly piles of olives or dried lavender or decorated candles for the mosque, the men sat cross-legged, chatting with friends, drinking tea, calling to passersby. Each trade has its own area, including the neighborhood of the potters, outside the city walls, and the tanners and dyers at the edge of the medina.

Tiny Cafe Laglali is where Fasians go to have what they think is the best tea in the country; I and sat outside at one of the small, rickety tables. From the stall across the street, I bought a piece of flat coarse-grained bread and a bowl of fava beans cooked in cumin and oil and sprinkled with chilies.

I walked to the Place Nejjarine, with its small and lovely fountain behind a carved-wood proscenium arch. There was once a fonduk there, a lodging house and stable for travelers. Wandering through the modern market of embroidery and silk known as Kessaria, I came upon the sacred wall surrounding the tomb of Moulay Idriss II, which Muslims visit in search of good fortune. I rubbed the walls for good luck.

There is an old hammam at the Palais Jamai Hotel, where one may have a traditional massage and steam bath in an enormous tiled room. I wore my bathing suit, reluctantly, and sat expectantly on the heated tile floor, and an attendant came in to scrub me with loofahs and a brown gluelike soap made from cedar and olive oil. I stood under a cold shower and sat again on the hot floor while the attendant pulled and stretched me (I was happy for the bathing suit) and rubbed my shoulders. I breathed the heavy steam, convinced it had the fragrance of frankincense, or myrhh, while the sometime weariness of travel fell from me, and my head cleared, and my skin looked as pink as the nougat in the souk.

I sat in the garden of the Palais Jamai Hotel, overlooking the old city, to wait for the evening call of the muezzin. I like best the earliest call of the day, long before first light, when I am awakened by the voice of the muezzin calling from the top of the near minaret, his call echoing and re-echoing as the chant is begun, seconds later, in towers across the city, sounding as if a round were being sung in the dark of my bedroom. To the uninitiated it sounds like a mournful love song.

Beneath me the walls of the medina turned the color of lavender as the sun slipped slowly into the distant desert. I had not met with a well-placed blade, or poison, or intrigue of any kind, for that matter, but I had been studious, very mindful of angels and jinni, and certainly I had found refuge.


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