Le Maristane- an ancient Insane Asylum

In downtown Fes, on the far side of a small courtyard that is now famous for its Henne Souk, lies a building with the following inscription:

MARISTANE SIDI FREJ
A hospital hosting many different medical specialties, this Maristane was built in 1286 by the Merinide sultan Youssef Ibn Yacoub. The latter endowed the hospital well, allowing it to become a great institution by the 14th century. Leo Africanus (Hassan el Ouazzane) worked here.
This Maristane was probably used as a model for the first psychiatric hospital in the Western world ( Valencia, Spain, 1410).
The Maristane of Sidi Frej was in use until 1944.

   

 

The plaque was installed by the Moroccan association of Medical history in 1993.

Today, the Maristane is home to a set of linen stalls and other small businesses, though it retains much of its courtyard feel, and one can still see the many rooms which used to host patients. But the rowdy inhabitants that once inhabited this ancient hospital have been moved outside the medina, into the new parts of town. There is now a new Psychiatric hospital in Fes- it was inaugurated by Mohammed V in 1947 (or so says a Fassi I met on a train...).

Eager to gather more information on Leo, I asked different business attendants and local wanderers if they knew who Leo was- most were confused by my question, though some proved innovative in their confusion. One invented Leo's past and significance: he was a doctor, a famous one, the first and greatest doctor in Morocco (not bad for a hypothesis, given that the building once was a hospital). Another proved more cautious and took the time to read the Arabic version of the plaque- triumphantly he stated that Leo once worked as a scribe for the hospital. And he was rightů.

Here are Leo's own words:

"Cet hospice dispose de tout le personnel dont il a besoin: secretaires, infirmiers, gardiens, cuisiniers et autres qui s'occupent des malades. Chacun des employes a un tres bon salaire. Lorsque j'etais jeune, j'y suis reste deux ans comme secretaire, suivant la coutume des jeunes etudiants et cet emploi me rapportait trios ducats par mois."
[This hospital is staffed with a sufficient number of people: secretaries, nurses, guards, cooks and other employees to take care of the sick. Each employee is well paid. When I was young I worked there for two years as a secretary, just as many students do. I was paid three ducats a month.]

Leo displays his knowledge of the place by further describing the hospital, the ways in which patients were treated and the stories that were told around and about the place. The following story/myth is particularly detailed, suggesting that Leo may have been witness to such a scene, or heard it directly from a witness.

"Il arrive parfois que quelque etranger s'approche de ces chambres. Les fous l'appellent et se plaignent a lui de ce que, bien que gueris de leur folie, ils sont maintenus en prison et qu'ils recoivent chaque jour de leurs gardiens mille mauvais traitement. Si le passant crois l'un d'entre eux et s'appuie sur le bord de la fenetre de sa chambre, le fou l'empoigne d'une main par les vetements, et de l'autre main, lui barbouille la figure d'excrements."
[Occasionally a foreigner will come near one of the rooms. The madmen will call him et complain that they are being held here for no reason, and are subjected to thousands of abuses by the guards. If one of these bystanders happens to believe the madman and comes close to his room, the latter will cease him by the clothes with one hand and use the other to cover his face with excrement].

The fact that he should generalize this event into a normal behavior for all patients in the hospital is yet another example of Leo's very 'biographical' way of writing history. Leo bases both the content and the legitimacy of his work on 'first hand experience'; for him there are no better facts than the ones he has actually observed. This 'subjective' path to history/cultural geography sometimes leads to odd generalizations about people and places!