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Sahara

Day 6: Fez

Fez, Morocco 
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The nearest thing to a supermarket.
Michael Palin - SaharaTwenty-first-century Fez may look mediaeval, but it's a working town. Thousands live, shop, worship and do business without ever having to leave the medina. The streets are narrow, and though all motor traffic is forbidden, you're quite likely to be run down by a mule or squashed against the wall by an overladen donkey. In the Arab fashion, domestic life is discreet and hidden away, but commerce is open, visible and upfront. It's also organised traditionally, into guilds of craftsmen. Each guild area announces itself with a distinctive scent, what Fettah calls 'a geography of smell'. The acrid whiff of pigment in Dyeing Street, cedar wood shavings in Carpenters Street, leather in Tanners Street, the fragrance of fresh-made sweets and nuts in Nougat Street, the seductive sizzle of grilling meat along Butchers Row.

A traffic jam in old Fez can be a treat for the nostrils. At one point on Talaa Kebira (Main Street) I'm thrust to one side by a man with a tray of freshly baked bread on his head, who is trying to avoid a woman carrying a basket of fresh vervain, who, like him, is trying to avoid a mule laden with fresh oranges.

We pass along an alleyway of open-fronted stalls, which rings with the sound of metal beating. The din is cacophonous and comforting, and through the smoke from their fires I can see men and boys, forging, beating and shaping copper and brass into an inexhaustible supply of low-tech utensils. There are huge bowls, some 3 or 4 feet wide, in which meat, dried with salt and spices, will be preserved through the winter (a throwback, says Fettah, to the siege days, when the city gates sometimes remained shut for months). There are tall fluted instruments for distilling perfumes like rosewater, crescent moon and star fixtures for cemeteries and mosques, and stacks of teapots. Down the street a young boy and an old man with thick gold-rimmed glasses are stooped over a low table, stitching together pointy-toed leather slippers like the ones Fettah is wearing, and a little further on a man is turning table legs on a spindle, using one foot to drive it and the other to guide a chisel tucked between his toes.

An arched gateway, sandwiched between two small shops, gives onto a courtyard where lime is being daubed on animal hides to strip them clean. This funduq is a monochrome world, full of ghostly surfaces so thickly coated with white lime and plaster that it's difficult to see where the layers of paint end and the buildings begin. A tall black African stirs a vat of fresh lime with a wooden pole, as stocks of fleeces sway through the archway on the backs of donkeys.

There is not a single piece of machinery here. It is a glimpse of a pre-industrial age.
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PALIN'S GUIDES

  • Series: Sahara
  • Day: 6
  • Country/sea: Morocco
  • Place: Fez
  • Book page no: 33

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