A Tale of Two Cities
To an ear disoriented by deep sleep it sounds like bagpipes warming up or a very ancient siren being cranked into life. Then, after a moment of struggling wakefulness, it coalesces into a rough approximation of a voice, albeit weirdly stretched and distorted. Just as it seems to grow clear and explicable another voice chimes in, at a different pitch and much further away, then another, close by, hard, hooting and metallic, then another and another, until waves of overlapping, over-amplified exhortation burst from the darkened city. If I knew Arabic I would know they were saying, ‘God is Great. There is No God But God. Prayer is Better than Sleep.’
I check my watch. It’s 4 am.
Soobh Fegr, the dawn summons, is one of five calls to prayer that mark the Muslim day. I have heard it many times, but never anything as spectacular or prolific as the prayer calls of Fez, a rolling wall of sound rising from over fifty mosques, cradled in a bowl of hills.
Infidel that I am, I fall to sleep rather than prayer, and by the time I wake sunlight is thumping against the window and the only sound is the trilling of birds.
I step out on my fifth-floor balcony. All the trees in Fez seem to be clustered in the hotel gardens below me. Three enormous jacarandas, wispy casuarinas, orange and lemon trees, fat, spreading palms and amongst them a great congregation of birds, rushing from one tree to another, perching, pecking, preening and darting away. It occurs to me that they may well be birds from Lincolnshire or the Wirral down here for the winter. They recently tagged an osprey that had flown from Rutland Water to Senegal, over 3000 miles, in twenty-one days. Which is a lot quicker than we’re going.
Like Chefchaouen, old Fez was a security-conscious city. Until 1912 and the arrival of the French, no-one could enter without a pass, and even then they would be expected to conduct their business and leave within forty-eight hours. The city gates were locked at sunset and those who failed to abide by the rules would likely as not end up, along with others who fell foul of the law, with their heads on spikes outside. And all this well into my own father’s lifetime.
As was their wont, the French built their own separate new town and left the medina alone. Thanks to this enlightened, if crafty, policy, it remains, according to my Cadogan guidebook, ‘the most complete Islamic mediaeval city in the world’. It’s also a mysterious, labyrinthine place, enclosed and secretive. I need an interpreter. To interpret not just the language but the city itself. Which is how I meet Abdelfettah Saffar, known to his English wife as Fats and to his friends as Fettah.
‘Like the cheese,’ he says with a well-worn smile.
He has a house in the old town, which he’s been restoring for three years, speaks impressively good English, once lived on a houseboat on the Thames and at one time designed a Moroccan-style bathroom for Mick Jagger’s house in Richmond.
He’s shorter than me and about twenty years younger, with a neatly trimmed black beard, white djellaba, bare feet tucked into a pair of babouches, backless yellow slippers, and an efficient black briefcase.
Twenty-first-century Fez may look medieval, 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.
Fettah says he has something special to show me. It doesn’t look promising. We squeeze up narrow stairs covered in threadbare red carpet into a shop packed tight with leather goods of all kinds. We pass through ever smaller and more claustrophobic rooms, until, without warning, we’re at the back of the building and light is spilling onto a wide terrace.
With a dramatic flourish, this tight, concealed old city, is thrown wide open. Below us, like a giant paintbox, is a honeycomb of fifty or sixty stone vats, each one around 4 feet across, filled with pools of richly coloured liquid ranging from snow white through grey, milky brown and pale pink to garnet red, metallic blue and saffron yellow. It is a complete and immaculately preserved mediaeval tannery.
Water, heaved up out of the Fès river by a massive wheel, is distributed amongst the vats, in which the tanners mix the heavy combination of water, hides and dye using only prehensile feet and the pressure of the muscles in their legs. This is a young man’s game. The tanners have no protection from the sun, and temperatures can rise above 50°C/122°F in high summer. For a day’s work in these conditions Fettah reckons they take home 100 deram. Around £6.
And it’s not only the heat they have to endure. A sharp acidic stench rises from the kaleidoscope of colours below, a combination of the sheep’s urine and pigeon shit used in the dyeing process. The tanners have had to get used to it. A tour group watching them from an adjacent balcony are offered sprigs of mint as nosegays.
Apart from the slow, rumbling creak of the water wheel, there is no sound other than voices, splashes and the sound of wet hides slapping on the side of the kilns. If I close my eyes I could be in a great open-air bathhouse.
Fettah reminds me that the Fez of 600 years ago would have had 200 such tanneries, as well as 467 funduqs, 93 public baths and 785 mosques.
There is a minor jam along one of the passageways on our way out of the medina, caused by a donkey shedding a load of mattresses. No-one seems impatient to pass, nor to pass comment on the Laurel and Hardy-like attempts at reloading. It’s the way life is in this extraordinary city. The walls of Fez have kept the modern world at bay. What I have sensed today is little different from the impressions of two French travellers, the Tharaud brothers, who came through here in the 1930s.
‘In Fez there is only one age and one style, that of yesterday. It is the site of a miracle. The suppression of the passage of time.’