Lost then Found (In shāʾ Allāh!) in the Streets of Fez, Morocco

“In shāʾ Allāh ” roughly translates to “God willing”, and was a frequent utterance from our Muslim hosts in Fez. With their (and God’s) help and some practice, we avoided getting too lost and enjoyed the culturally immersive experience.

Our excitement to visit Morocco was followed by a degree of hesitation. It was still technically “Africa” and a very different culture than either of us had experienced to date. It was colonized by the French and there were still lasting signs of the influence here and there. It quickly proved to be more “exotic” than almost any other city.

Muslim Adahn around midday

At the airport, women in hijab helped taxi in aircraft while others cleaned bathrooms in white uniforms. The passport control agent stared me down through the thick security glass and asked me what I do for a career. I explained I am a financial advisor by trade. With one last uninterested glance, he stamped my passport and waved me on. Next, I queued for a line to a police officer who then checked the same stamp, mere feet from the passport agent’s booth. Finally, all passengers were subjected to a baggage scan as we LEFT the airport. After my bag went through, I was asked by an attendant if I carried a drone. Confused, I answered no, but just a camera and was ushered on my way.

Outside, a crowd of taxi men loomed like vultures to pick up tourists. When I stated I would only pay $15 (the max our Airbnb host told us to pay), the seemingly head honcho taxi guy rounded up two of his drivers and instructed one of them to take us. Both drivers acted like they would rather do anything BUT drive us the 10 miles to the city. It was very strange. The ride was harrowing. Hannah, the driver, and I conversed in a mix of English, Arabic, French, and Spanish. As he haphazardly weaved back and forth over the white street lines, he pulled his phone out to converse with us on “Google Translate” via the car’s audio system. This was impressive considering the car was definitely from sometime in the 1990s. We found out he was 36, very single, and was insistent upon us taking his phone number to share with any of Hannah’s girl friends back in the USA. He repeatedly asked about friends, sisters, or any female acquaintances that were single or unhappy in their relationship. He stated several times that Moroccans do not have rights, he hated living there, and finding a wife in the USA would lead to a better life. The irony was not lost upon me during the ride. Fez boasts 9000 streets and avenues yet its citizens cannot forge their own path to happiness.

With the ride behind us, Hannah and I were unceremoniously dropped off outside a medina gate, with the explanation that his car would not fit. With all our belongings on us, we hiked into the streets. Almost immediately, children and young adults assailed us with offers to help find our hotel, or warnings that various ways were wrong. This was a scam and ploy we had read about. It was an effort to squeeze money out of tourists or abandon them in other dead-end streets to extract more money from the helpless. While Hannah had the patience to reply and say no thank you, I just blatantly ignored them. It had been 8 months of various scammers and sales traps, I was in no mood. Eventually, our Airbnb host’s porter, Jawad, was sent to collect us from a street corner about 2 blocks away.

Spice Aisle at the main supermarket, Carrefour (same company as the French supermarkets)

The broken, worn wooden gates loomed quietly in the darkness as we followed Jawad. This looked nothing like what we booked on Airbnb. Yet, he swung open the doors, tapped on a window to notify his boss we had arrived, and led us into the splendor of the riad. A riad is another term for palace in Morocco, and they are beautiful and numerous. Blue tiled mosaics and old cedar timbered ceilings met us just as they had in the south of Spain. The stairwell leading up to our bedroom displayed bright green and dark blue stained glass. Jawad helped us drop our bags and led us onto an adjoining terrace overlooking the center of the riad. A quiet fountain lapped water while the night’s stillness set in. Jawad next took us out onto the roof overlooking the medina. Soft yellow lights illuminated Islamic minarets and rusty satellite dishes while the frigid air woke me from my stupor.

Our host provided us with some basic Arabic as a way to work within the confines of the medina. Our first lesson was “salam” which was short for the longer phrase “As-salāmu ʿalaykum” which means “Peace be upon you” and is a traditional greeting for Muslims. The next was “ʾIn shāʾ Allāh”, which translates roughly as “if God wills it”. A more common translation for us is “God willing”. This one was used often. Several times during the visit, various people asked Hannah and I, newlyweds, if we had children yet. When our answer was not yet, the immediate following response was, “In shāʾ Allāh, soon soon!” The final term was “La shukran”, which means “no thank you” and was used frequently on children offering to be tour guides or direct us to attractions. To my surprise, the terms worked and sometimes caught locals off guard or gave them a smile with satisfaction that a visitor was making an effort to learn their language. Or, perhaps my pronunciation was so poor that it was funny. Either way, we got by.

The Muslim call to prayer often told us what time of the day it was or how much time had passed since it sounds 5 times each day. Locals flocked to one of the many mosques to pray, leaving just a carpet or pole across the front of their shop to “close” it for 15 minutes. It seemed they either trusted tourist not to steal or each other to protect their goods. We also loved Moroccan food. A tajine was a common dish. It is best described as an earthern-ware slowcooker full of chicken or beef, vegetables, and prunes. Another favorite was Royal Couscous which consisted of copious rich saffron couscous with vegetables, raisins, and meats. A last one was a pastille, which was a sort of fried sandwich, or pastry, with saffron chicken inside and cinnamon/powdered sugar outside.

The Medina of Fes is a winding labyrinth of 9000 streets in a 540 acre area. It was founded in the 9th century and it is also home to the oldest university in the world. Each neighborhood boasts its own mosque, with over 300 in the walled area. The Fes medina is one of the largest medieval Islamic cities in the world. The medina itself is shaped like a convex crescent, with the center at the bottom of a steep hill. The extremely narrow roads and alleys are only accessible to pedestrians. It was not uncommon for us to step into a doorway to sidestep a cart full of hundreds of pounds being pushed up or careening down the steep cobblestones. Around short corners, there emerged donkeys and mules laiden down with Berber carpets or a dozen orange propane tanks. Every short block brought a surprise.

OSHA Approved?

One depressing moment that occurred for me during the trip was the occasional revelation that children’s innocence is being altered by their situation. Many countries showed us that children are children: they play, cry, argue, fight, love, and learn. In Morocco, we were often greeted by children with a “Bonjour”, “Salem”, or “Hello”. Some appeared genuinely curious about Americans, but many were more manipulative. They typically started telling us, “That road is closed!” or “The Medina (tannery, copper smiths, etc) is that way!” which often pointed down a blind alley or deep into the labyrinth’s belly. The intent was to create a need for a guide, or abandon us in a maze of small streets to ask for money to take us back to the right destination. What saddened me was the way some, at the very young age of 5 or so, had already learned how to manipulate tourists in order to make a living. Fez heavily relies on the subsidy of tourist dollars, but nonetheless I wished that kids were allowed their natural curiosity without needing to extort money in addition.

One of our favorite and most memorable days in Fez was when we met Theo and Laura, two newlywed civil engineers from North Carolina. One morning, I was clumsily folding our sodden wet laundry outside in the riad and this couple emerged from their room. We exchanged “hellos“ and I quickly learned they were on their honeymoon and asked if they had ventured alone into the medina yet. Moments later, we set off to have lunch together. Over the course of the remainder of the day, we shared a meal of Royal Couscous and aubergine salads while laughing at the difficulty of travel in Morocco and the odd atmosphere of our riad. We got along well together and I found myself laughing with them as if we had known them for years.

Upon returning home for the evening, they let us borrow their blow dryer to hasten the laundry process. We also toured one another’s rooms, taking in the different décor and styles. One funny moment was the 4 of us standing in a cluster in the balcony of the riad watching the coming and going of staff, wondering about the power dynamics and work culture of the palace. Theo sent us all cracking into laughter when he likened us to a scene in Great Gatsby where they all gossip in the attic. I speculated there was a game going on where the guests guess the real owner of the riad at the end of the stay. If you were correct, your breakfasts were free (not a real thing). That evening, I participated in a job interview up in our room while Hannah joined them in their room with some cards for several games of rummy. After my phone call ended, I joined, and we shared more stories and a fun final few hours before parting ways as friends and off on our separate adventures with offers and hopes to meet again in Texas or North Carolina.

At 6:30AM the following day, the guttural, melodic Adahn echoed through the window and into the high ceilings of our room. It summoned the Muslims of Fez to begin their day with prayer, and Hannah and I to continue our journey deeper into the beautiful country of Morocco.


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