Fes:Ville Nouvelle et Medina

We arrived in Fes early Sunday afternoon, just as the city was waking from its lunchtime torpor. The train ride from Rabat was smooth, we all rode first class- glad to enjoy comforts we don't really indulge in back home. The tough part was getting one year's worth of luggage (times nine people) on and off the train in the two minutes allotted at each station for transfer of people and belongings. Everyone had a slightly harried look as we stood at the station, waiting for the American Language Institute affiliate to come and pick us up.

ALIF (American Language Institute in Fes) runs a comfortable language program for both Moroccan and foreigners to study English and Arabic. Classes are held in the old living quarters and bedrooms of a 19th century townhouse, replete with mosaics, plaster carvings and marble floors. The courtyard adds to the general "Moroccan dwelling" image- lush gardens and tempting fountain. Long classroom hours invite reveries of Moroccan lifestyle and peacefulness- careful investigation of wall carvings reveals an interesting surprise: Hebrew characters attesting to the Jewish heritage of the previous occupants. A little unnerving when you know that Morocco lost most of its 350,000 strong Jewish population to emigration, the creation of Israel and the fear of persecution after the 6 day war. Today,Morocco is home to 7000 Jews, hardly enough to attest for centuries of 'peaceful' cohabitation of Jews and Muslims.

Finding living quarters for each of us was a simple process. Aside from one courageous fellow (Kenneth) who asked to live with a Moroccan family we all sought refuge in promises of comfort or authenticity. Those who chose comfort were walked to a nearby apartment, shockingly huge and empty. Amy, Bonnie and I were to spend many a night there trying to fill the furniture voids with the sounds and warmth of our voices. Those who chose authenticity were sent to the Medina, where they settled in the rooftop bedrooms of a restored townhouse. Each bedroom had been tastefully redecorated- carved iron windows, mosaic tiles, earth walls and the playful light of terrace living. Allessandra, Elias and Jessica took possession of their temporary castle, occasionally inviting us victims of 'modernism' into the peacefulness of their picturesque surroundings.

The diametric differences between these two living styles epitomizes the chasm that separates the Medina from the Ville Nouvelle (new town). In the Ville Nouvelle, modern Moroccans drive modern cars, with modern horns, in modern streets with modern shops. Even the business hours are modern- with shopkeepers closing businesses on Sunday (the Oh so Christian Sabbath day! Christianity oddly rhyming with modernity on this side of the Mediterranean).

On the other hand, in the Medina, cloaked women walk narrow cobblestone streets, sidetracked only by the occasional mule carrying hand ground wheat from one steep, narrow neighborhood to the other. Tourists, westerners and non-Fassis stick out like sore thumbs, inviting calls and comments from all shopkeepers and bystanders. But the sound of their sometimes playful, sometimes nagging voices (and mind you, this really depends on the eye of the beholder!) is quickly drowned in the overhaul of visions and emotions that necessarily strikes the Medina stroller. Smells alternate from the very good to the very bad, sights flirt from the very light to the very dark and the cautious traveler is soon engrossed in his quest for discovery and survival. Fes is not a maize, but it feels like one- making it easy for able children to adopt a confused traveler, as he struggles with the apparent clarity of his guidebook map.

Amin adopted Jon and myself, easing our progress through the Medina. He brought us to all places we asked for, protected us from runaway mules and stubborn mule-drivers, helped us down tricky stairways and barked loudly at anyone who threatened to distract or annoy his prey (for prey we were, source of his daily nourishment and income).
Being held prisoners by a young wizard was no real inconvenience to Jon and I, and we were only too happy to run into him at the onset of each of our Medina explorations.
Amin is 10 Dirhams and 10 years old. He doesn't speak much more French than that, but his eyes shine with all the curiosity and excitement we could endure. He led the way, both confident and immensely vulnerable. On two occasions he threatened to disappear under the weight of a truck, modern dangers which Jon and I seemed to have a much better understanding of than him. We would take over then, with menacing looks and motions to the truck drivers. Don't screw with my guide....