“Now, we are Fez!” Mohammed, our driver, announced in his broken English.
I sat up, bolt upright, shut my laptop and looked out the window. Something about the air in Fez gave off a sense of rawness that was so characteristic of Morocco herself. But if the streets of Marrakesh, where we’d just come from, were dipped in the deep terracotta hues of sunset, the labyrinthine streets of Fez’s centuries-old medina were kissed with the dusty sand-coloured tones of the Sahara.
Mohammed’s sharp voice cut through the air as he called the hotel to get directions, turning the steering wheel with his free hand. We weren’t even in the medina yet, but we were already lost. I didn’t mind, though. To me, one of the most eye-opening experiences of traveling anywhere is getting lost.
As we circled around attempting to make head or tail of our location, we’d ended up passing through a street that curved around the edge of a hill overlooking the rest of the city below several times, giving us a spectacular bird’s eye view of the entire city more than once.
Bakeries, grocery stores, dimly lit teahouses and spice shops lined the road, and bearded old men sat in silence outside small restaurants, sipping mint tea and frowning as they scrutinized their surroundings. Young men pushing carts laden with everything from bread to clothes to old machinery shouted their way through the crowd, and pairs of women dressed in bright-coloured Moroccan djellabas shuffled in and out of the medina.
Children scurried about, weaving through the crowd and shrieking gleefully as they played together. Just inside the gateway, fruit sellers hawked their wares on wooden tables, and the aroma of freshly roasted corn wafted through the air. Just being inside the medina was a feast for the senses.
But some things stay the same no matter which part of the world you’re in: crowds of men of every age huddled together inside teahouses, rapturously watching soccer games on the TV, their conversation interjected with bouts of cheering and jeering.
The entrance to the riad we’d be staying at for the next two nights was an inconspicuous glass double door almost completely hidden behind two grocery stores, which left us feeling more than a little hesitant. But the humble entrance belied the exquisite interior of the riad. We were led down a tastefully lit hallway decorated with bright Moroccan zellije tiles of blue, red, yellow, white, and green, which opened up to a wide open-air courtyard whose emerald green tiles glinted in the sunlight cascading down from above. Plump white pouffes and ottomans neatly circled small hand-carved wooden coffee tables, and the faint scent of sandalwood drifted through the entire riad.
This, I learnt, was a hallmark of Moroccan and Islamic architecture. Traditional Moroccan riads were often purposely designed to have unimpressive exteriors that suddenly open up to elegant inner courtyards enshrouded in privacy, symbolizing the primacy of inner beauty over outer appearances.
In fact, Fez’s entire medina was infused with this elusive sense of hidden beauty. Every narrow alleyway and shophouse-lined avenue within the medina seemed to radiate so organically with a rugged sense of practicality that still somehow managed to be delicate in its beauty. Wandering through the maze of streets in the medina, I found so much attention to detail in the otherwise mundane.
Public water fountains dotted the streets, each of them breathtakingly decorated and painted in vivid colours that came together in an explosion of luminosity. Huge wooden double doors that stood at the entrance to almost every riad, restaurant, Sufi zawiya (spiritual centre), or mosque were embossed with calligraphy and arabesque carvings. Some of the streets in the medina were covered with wooden lattice structures that served to provide shade from the desert sun and filter just enough sunlight to brighten up the narrow walkways without making it too warm. And despite the abundance of butcheries and fish stalls all over the medina, no matter how many times we walked past, there was never any stench or any kind of unpleasant smell that is so often associated with wet markets, because the produce in Fez is always fresh.
The myriad alleyways winding through the medina appeared to be deceptively stuffy, yet the minute I stepped out of the blazing warmth of the streets outside the medina and into any of the alleyways leading into the medina, I was enveloped in a cool embrace that seeped into my skin and instantly refreshed me.
It turns out that the materials used to build the houses within the medina were specifically chosen because of the cooling effect it had both inside and outside the house.
Even though a unifying colour scheme of creams, browns, and greys runs through most of the medina, occasionally, the desert-like hues of the medina were interrupted by vibrant splashes of colour that popped out of nowhere.
As I made my way from site to site within the ancient medina, I came across a rainbow alley packed with displays of oil paintings, bracelets, carpets, bags, and prayer mats. A group of street artists had taken it upon themselves to literally brighten up a dark alleyway within the medina.
As I continued wandering around, I caught a whiff of an overpowering fragrance which beckoned me further and further into the medina until I found its origin: a small shop selling pink rose water that was being made and bottled on the spot. A bespectacled young man in a lime green t-shirt, camo pants and a red taqiyah (Muslim skullcap) stood amidst huge woven baskets of pink rose petals and neatly packaged glass bottles of rose water, diligently simmering the rose petals in water.
Because of the brown monochromatic colours with which she’s predominantly painted, Fez herself may initially come across as rough around the edges and even drab compared to other Moroccan cities.
Yet the maze-like streets of its pristine, ancient medina immediately sweep residents and travelers alike into a cradle of veiled beauty whose authenticity is at once rejuvenating and calming in a world that, in so many ways, has lost its heritage to the throes of modernity. I know I’ll be back here again, one day.