Monday, March 3

Morocco-Andalucia, Day Six: Mixed Feelings in Fes

For some reason I was excited about coming to Fes. The rich Islamic heritage that I had heard and read about was compelling to say the least - the book I'm currently reading, Leo the African by Amin Maalouf, has a big chunk set in Fes and I was looking forward to visiting all the historical places described in it.

The highlight for me was easily the Medersa Bou Inania. I took a few minutes just imagining the knowledge that flowed through and study that went on in such a place when it was in full swing. Aesthetically it was a magical place too - it was covered in intricately carved marble and wood. I wondered what it took to keep it in such good condition.

The rest of the morning was spent visiting various other monuments: the buzz around Moulay Idriss's tomb was a bit too surreal for my particular sense of Islam. I was more interested in the various wooden bars laid across the streets leading to the Zaouia as they marked the places where non-Muslims could go no further. I tried checking out one of the leather tanneries Fes was famous for but gave up after being hit by the stench - both the literal and metaphorical as I ignored the shouts of scalping shopkeepers promising me a free look from the back of their shops.

Second to the Medersa in terms of awesomeness was Kairaouine Mosque. Well kept and obviously modernised, it still kept the classic, spiritual, vibe that made it one of the most, if not the most, important mosque in North Africa. All the more depressing that I was asked to make a "personal donation" to one of the mosque's curators just to have a look during non-prayer time. Unfortunately the Medersa al Attatrin next door to the mosque was closed for refurbishment so I wasn't able to catch an aerial view of Kairaouine.

Speaking of getting ripped off, for me Fes had already taken the record as most notorious city in Morocco so far. A minor example of this was how that morning I was sold a six month old bottle of mineral water when there were much newer ones available. This turned out to be a bit of a blessing, as I had to use its contents in order to take an unscheduled dump during the day.

I was also still being offered hotels and food (am I really that obvious a tourist?). I had resorted to my previous plan of pretending to be "bakistani" (with a b); I wasn't sure if it had any affect on the prices I had to pay, but at least I could claim to not speak English. Actually, if I'm honest with myself I don't think I was enjoying my time in old Fes that much either; luckily I was almost done with it anyway.

My final stop was to the Merenid Tombs. The tombs themselves don't really offer much but the views they afford of Fes really were amazing. You could see all of the old city, and I spent more than a few minutes making out the places I had seen that morning.

While I was taking in the view I was approached by a random guy. He managed to strike up a conversation despite my attempts at fobbing him off, thinking he was yet another Fassi eager to extract dhirims from my pocket. It was only after he left that I realised that he was just being friendly and curious - and at any other time I would have welcomed the chat.

As usual I was quick in my sightseeing; it wasn't even time for Zhur prayer yet. It was then that I made the decision to offer the midday prayer in Kairaouine, grab some lunch and then get out of Fes. I didn't even bother wandering around the city while waiting, choosing to hang out in the Kairaouine library to read instead.

Amusingly we prayed at an angle averse to the building itself. It's hard to explain but we were in the row as normal, but then each turned to our left around twenty degrees or so, enough to have a good view of the shoulder of our neighbours. I could only guess that it was due to some kind mistake in the building of the mosque and that the correct Qiblah was established at a later date, but it was funny nonetheless.

A less amusing observation was how most mosques in Morocco seem to turf you out once prayer is over. It's interesting how "commoditised" mosques become in some Muslim countries, where they are just seen as places in which to pray. It's even more depressing considering what this particular place was used for back in the day - if I had been visiting five hundred years ago I'd have been able to use it as a sanctuary as I wanted to today.

After lunch it was finally time to go. I went to the hotel to pick up my bags and settle my bill. Originally we had agreed to 100 dhirims for the night: it was late when I checked in and I was clearly desperate, although I should have realised I was being taken for a ride when I was quoted the price without even being looked in the eye.

However I refused to pay and told the caretaker that I'd been told the rate was 50. Yes it was totally dishonest and wrong both morally and Islamically but after the way I had been treated today I suspected that karma was on my side. Heck, I probably still got ripped off anyway.

It turned out that I had a good three hours before my train was due to depart. A part of me wondered whether I should have spent the night in Fes's Ville Nouvelle, cafe surfing and chatting with the many students that apparently reside there. It would have given Fes a chance to redeem itself as I made use of the parts more accessible to someone like me. But I had such a negative experience of Old Fes that I bought my ticket to Tanger anyway, even though it meant that I would arrive in a place even more notorious than Fes at a much later hour. I really don't get how a work colleague managed to kill a whole two days here.

It turned out that I had made the correct decision. I managed to check into a decent hotel, ignoring yet more unsolicited offers for hotels (all of which seemed to be down some dark ally). And despite the hour I also got to wander around for bit while searching for dinner. Tanger is a pretty happening place at night it seems.

It was while walking around that I finally figured out why I wasn't enjoying the second part of my time in Morocco. Continually looking over my shoulder, hands on my wallet at all times and wondering whether or not I'd get mugged or hassled for money isn't a very nice place to be in mentally.

As the type who comes to a country to meet its people and witness its atmosphere Morocco wasn't really offering much. Furthermore it brought out a horrible side of myself as I attempted to form a defence against it. I had become a more stingy, paranoid, suspicious and even nasty Shak and it was really someone I didn't like being.

It's obviously time for me to leave Morocco.