Fez is the most daunting city in Morocco, its French-induced schizophrenia marked to an extreme degree. The old and new cities are two separate and contradictory worlds, each a riposte to the other. The new, French-built town is notable for its enormous tree-lined avenues, grand colonial statements that could only have been built with parades in mind. As an individual, you feel inadequate; you’d have to be part of an army to really feel at ease there.
Fez el bali, on the other hand, is an army’s worst nightmare, a 10th-century labyrinth 15 square kilometers in size that was designed to confuse and entrap the enemy. It works just as well on tourists. Take a few steps off the main drag and in minutes you’re lost — thoroughly and hopelessly lost. There are streets so narrow a fat man wouldn’t make it through, and one in four turns out to be a blind alley. The Fassis watch you go in, and wait for you to come back out. Sometimes they wave you away, and you don’t know if they’re doing so because the street’s a dead end or because they don’t want you to go in. Either way, you’re confused. The residential streets are monochrome and sunless (it’s cool in the medina), the life inside the thick, donkey-gray walls of the houses entirely hidden from view. There are no windows. Doors have separate knockers for strangers and friends. In the richer houses, there are patios and courtyards and fountains, but you never get to see them. You see nothing but what people allow you to see. Even the Kairaoine Mosque, an immense structure holding 20,000 people, is almost entirely obscured by the maze of streets that surrounds it.
If Fez el bali is both labyrinth and spider’s web, it is also a hive — a busier city would be hard to imagine — whose streets are lined with cells in which insectlike figures work lathes with their feet to produce wooden boxes and kohl holders, hammer brass plates and engrave silver ones, rarely looking up from their work as the crowds flow past. The streets of the medina are too narrow to allow anything but foot traffic, so heavy loads are carried by donkeys and mules. Their owners ride aloft with proud, stubbly faces, crying “Balek!” (“Look out!”) to the people below, as the animals stagger under crates of Coca-Cola bottles, gas canisters, sacks of rubble.
Entire areas are given over to the souqs: the metalworkers’ souq, the carpenters’ souq, the cosmetic and herbal souq, the jewelers’ souq, the spice vendors’ souq and the dyers’ souq (where the cobblestones run with dyes and surreally large balls of fantastically colored yarn lie around in the street). There are also the foul-smelling tanneries, where, from the heights of the surrounding rooftops, you can watch animal skins being dyed in a honeycomb of vats.
To navigate this labyrinth, I pay a boy the very generous sum of 50 dirham ($6) for the afternoon. His duties are simple: to take me somewhere when I want to go somewhere, otherwise to let me wander in peace. All this is explained to him by Mohammad, the owner of a small tiled restaurant near the tanneries. The restaurant is my chosen retreat from the madness of Fez, and Mohammad, who has the long, supersubtle face of a 19th-century diplomat, is my adviser. The advice, though, is all ambiguities and carefully modulated shrugs. He gently interrogates the boy, instructing him firmly that I do not want to be led into carpet shops and am not interested in buying anything. Afterward he pronounces him honest, reliable and good, and the price of 50 dirham generous.
Too generous, as it turns out. The boy has the defectively narrow, sloped shoulders one sees often in Morocco, and he shuffles ahead of me unceasingly, a little golem of the labyrinth condemned to wander its streets forever. He cannot understand why I keep stopping all the time to look at things. Looking at anything seems to disturb him. He has a fresh scar on his cheek and wounded eyes. He makes me feel paternal.
For a while all goes more or less according to plan. But as the afternoon wears on, my little golem’s brain catches fire with the idea of money. First he tells me he’s going to give the 50 dirham to his mother — a terrific idea, and I praise him for it wholeheartedly. Then he tells me that if I give him 100 dirham, he can give 50 to his mother and still keep 50 for himself. Next he wants me to buy him a miniature electric piano he’s seen in a store, and to hell with his mother. The piano costs just under 200 dirham. Pretty soon I’m walking around Fez with the constant drone of money in my ears: “Cent dirham, monsieur, merci monsieur, cent dirham.“
I find a rare open space to sit down in, and for a while the boy shuts up. A few feet in front of me an unshaven man in a dusty brown suit is talking business with a group of cronies. Evidently they’re settling up some bills; money changes hands. Then they say goodbye, and the guy in the suit throws his cigarette away and walks over to the patch of grass behind me. He kneels down, mumbles a few words and starts to pray, his head pointed toward Mecca. For several minutes I hear him muttering and groaning to himself like someone in the throes of a nightmare. He prostrates himself repeatedly. His whole body shudders with prayer. Then he gets up, straightens his pants, waves casually to a friend, fires up another cigarette and strolls off without a trace of embarrassment. He’s back in business.
As usual, getting out of the medina is the hardest part. For one thing, I no longer have any idea how far inside it I am. Am I at the center or near the edge? I haven’t got a clue. My golem has now been joined by several other golems, all wanting a piece of the action, and I’m starting to feel like a walking dollar bill.
It’s just at this time — at the end of the day, when you’re tired and the fading light makes everything just a little bit sinister — that the remorselessness of Fez hits you. It’s not as if you can find a subway stop or consult a map — maps are useless here. There are almost no street signs, and you wouldn’t be able to read them anyway. Shopkeepers who went out of their way to help you at midday now shrug their shoulders or point vaguely into the distance if you stop and ask for directions. They too sense the darkness falling and the slight but insistent panic it engenders in exhausted strangers, but now they turn away with indifference. They know the game. At twilight the tourist coughs up his dough. The kids will get their money.
And so they do. By the time I finally catch sight of the Bab Boujeloud — the gate through which I entered the medina eight hours earlier — swarms of them are running round me with their hands out, and the word dirham has turned into an incessant, maddening drone. I start to run, and the kids run too. When I finally make it into a taxi, they’re throwing themselves against the doors and pounding on the windows and pressing their faces against the windshield. The driver, who’s seen this a thousand times before, does what I’ve been wanting to do all afternoon: He shakes his fist and screams.