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Getting to know Mohammed


A proud mosque protected by the medina's ancient walls. Copyright: Victoria Brooks, 1999.Unlike the brilliant novelist Paul Bowles, who confessed to Gertrude Stein that he loved Fez at first sight, I too admired that most ancient and walled city, but wasn't so instantly enamoured that I wanted to exile myself there (or to anywhere in Morocco) for life. Though oddly enough, after three days of relatively aimless wandering the medina in Fes el-Bali, the old section of Fez, Morocco's ancient Imperial City, I became attached to it by the invisible yet silken thread of emotion. And when our three days in that ancient Imperial City were up, I was reluctant to leave.

 

Our experience there, like a desert storm that sweeps across the Sahara, began and ended before I knew it. Our time was filled with unimportant pursuits of the heart. Simple pursuits that somehow made me happy. My husband Guy and I did nothing but wander the medina's long corridors, never-ending, like the streets in a dream. But Fes el-Bali is as real as the flesh and blood of its residents, and as historic as the first Islamic community founded by the Prophet Mohammed. That community, called Medina, is the one all others are patterned and named after.Fes el-Bali, washed in gold and edged with green. Copyright: Victoria Brooks, 1999.

Over 20,000 Fassis (the people of Fez) live and work in Fez el-Bali, the gated and walled 1000-year-old communal-style Arab structure that is the glory of Fez and the largest living medieval city in the world. Many of the medina's older Fassis, the children, and the disabled, have never left the shadowy confines. They have never seen the last rays of evening sun turn the green hills that encircle Fez into a necklace of gold and jade.

Corridors from an Arab dream. Copyright: Victoria Brooks, 1999.Fes-el Bali is an intricate arabesque proud of its heritage yet confining and overcrowded. To some it is a claustrophobic maze of six-story high walls that turn twisting streets into blind alleys, alleys into corridors, and corridors into narrow paths. Its reputation to strangers is steeped, like Morocco's ubiquitous mint tea, in mystery. We were advised and warned by the guidebooks and the hotel staff. "You must take a guide," they all said. "It's dizzying, claustrophobic and dark," they warned with wise shakes of their heads. "And you will certainly become lost, like any stranger."

Throwing this advice like salt for luck over our shoulders, we entered the medina alone on our first day in Fez, our first day in Morocco. We had devised a plan. It was this: When touts and faux guides bothered us, we would pretend to speak a language only understood in outer space. This way we reasoned (if you can call this reasoning), that those after our dirham, the Moroccan currency, would soon tire of our babble and find saner marks. This worked like a silly charm. We were soon to find first-hand, the mystery of the medina is discovered by wandering guideless and guileless (except where touts are concerned), savoring the press of the crowds and desert heat, experiencing it slowly -- similar to the distinctly Moroccan pleasure of sipping fresh mint tea. Two government licensed guides, not

We took our pleasure in rounding corners and becoming instantly lost in the labyrinth. The smell of donkey dung, the fragrance of spices, or freshly cut cedar our only guide. Often the narrow paths were lit by flickering gas lamps, dancing their shadows down the riddle of corridors, and up the maze of high stucco walls; walls that are a front for airy mosques, tiny dark schoolrooms, fragrant bakeries, and the steamy hammans: the communal bathhouses fired by wood, fed by the underground water, and drained by a failing 13th-century sewage system. All this is hidden by small keyhole-shaped doors, dabbed in sky-colored paint or studded with brass, that lead to inner courtyards, outer bazaars, and the secret life of the Arabs beyond.

Behind the closed door of the tannery. Copyright: Victoria Brooks, 1999.Even the Fassis' clothing smacks of secrecy. Both sexes wear the hooded jallaba, giving the men a monk-like aura. When the deep hoods are worn covering the head, they take on the unsettling appearance of the Ku Klux Klan.

We became adept at dodging touts, hustlers, carts and donkeys, and placing the 'right' amount of coins directly in the hands of blind or disabled beggars. They lolled and leaned on the stony ground, back-dropped by the arched doors of a minareted mosque and the sounds of a splashing mosaic fountain. We chattered with the politest of children and exchanged bonbons and crayons for smiles as radiant as the first full moon. We traded stories with carpet sellers over glasses of mint tea, fragrant and floating thick with white flowers. We met not one but two Jewish Moroccans, both dead ringers for Sammy Davis Junior. They even had his sense of madcap humor. They were also gay, and proud to tell us so, although homosexual acts are illegal. We drank tea with two shy, yet proud young men who lived in not shabbily-genteel, but shabbily-palatial surroundings; yet the pasha's palace they lived in had neither water, nor electricity. We read postcards from a Japanese tourist written in English to a middle-aged Fassi; a Fassi whose American was so good, if we shut our eyes we would have sworn he came from New York. Sadly, he couldn't read. His name is Mohammed and he first took our hearts and then took our money.

I can picture him now, casually leaning his short, stocky body against the small keyhole doorway of his jallaba shop. Mohammed, with his T- shirt and grubby jeans, was an astonishing contrast to those residents who wore the traditional Moroccan garb: the ankle-length hooded robes of brown cotton, or stained blue flannel, or carefully pressed yellow and cream striped silk. We ran into Mohammed daily while we wandered the medina. We got to know Mohammed, like we would any other friend.

Desert at dawn. Copyright: Victoria Brooks, 1999.The morning of our second day, Mohammed invited us into his carpet shop. That was the day he asked us to read the letter from his Japanese friend. We sat together, knee-to-knee, Guy, Mohammed, and I, on a waist-high pile of silken Berber carpets. I watched Mohammed as he listened to the faraway voice of his friend. Hands clasped between thighs that were covered by grubby jeans; head bowed, showing a tender bald spot. From time to time, he would thoughtfully nod his head in agreement and say "hmm" when his friend's words surprised him. That was the day Mohammed warned us not to pay full price for anything, to anyone -- ever. We were happy to listen, grateful for his advice.

Donkey's parking lot. Copyright: Victoria Brooks, 1999.Our final morning came swiftly, like nightfall to the desert, before we were ready for a changed landscape. As we took our simple pleasures from the medina, it seemed familiar, like the pages of an exotic, favorite book. Yet it still left us "in a state of perpetual excitement" the way it had affected the famous Paul Bowles. And where matters of the heart were concerned, although we hadn't purchased a carpet or a jallaba from our friend Mohammed, when we returned to tell him our time was like the last grains of sand in the hourglass, he seemed content with us for our company alone.

 

Later in the Palais Jamai, while packing in our room that overlooked the medina, the call of the meussins, the religious call for prayer, roused us from our work. Lured by the sound, we stepped again through the proud gate they call Bab Bou Jeloud, for one fond last look at our medina. We were drawn to a final foray down the ancient walled city's narrow corridors that held a surprise in every hairpin turn. We bid Mohammed a final fond farewell.

The sweet children. Copyright: Victoria Brooks, 1999."Come," he said, leading us boldly through the dust and the flies and the children whose faces and fingers were sticky still from the last of our bonbons.

We followed our friend without question, as we always did. After all, he was the heart of the medina, and he knew it like the back of his hand. I could hear the rumbling of the wheels of a donkey cart behind me in the corridor that masqueraded as a road. I picked up my pace to keep close, to keep up, to hear Mohammed's American-accented voice.

"I know of a shop that has the silk jallaba you're hunting for," he said.

"No," I insisted. "We only want to buy from you."

"No problems!" Mohammed's voice was gentle, yet effusive. "This shop has hand-loomed silk jallabas, found nowhere else. I know the guy that runs it. And he has the brown color you want."

The 99th shop of silk jallabas. Copyright: Victoria Brooks, 1999.Around one more curve of this Pandora's box. We felt the heat and the press of the clothing bazaar. We passed tiny shops, all so similar, door fronts draped like windows with swaths of material, or hung with gold-threaded caftans and the ever-present tasseled, flowing, hooded jallaba.

"Don't forget to bargain," Mohammed cautioned before we entered the shop. "And I won't take a commission… My goodbye gift to both of you, my friends…" he added with typical Fassi / American-style candor and warmth. Mohammed said all this to us, as we trailed his short sturdy figure and entered the 100th shop of silk jallabas.

There, on the dirty glass counter, my hooded robe awaited… desert-colored, soft, like silk. We bargained hard and fast against the sands running through the hourglass. We purchased not one but three jallabas. My fawn-colored silk, looking like the Sahara desert in the soft, unnatural light, and two more. All this while, the salesman made unhappy noises about the purchase price. We were driving him out of business, he said. Taking food from his family's mouths, he shouted.

Mohammed, ever our protector, chastised the shopkeeper for his bad grace. Now it was time to go, to thread our way one last time around blind corners that, at first, had been as difficult to connect as the dots of a maze, but by The medina's touch. Copyright: Victoria Brooks, 1999.now had been penciled in our minds so many times we didn't even need Mohammed to lead the way.

With a kiss on each of Mohammed's bristled cheeks, and promises to return one day, we left the walled city behind for Marrakech -- where I saw a silk, desert-colored jallaba for less than half of what we'd paid for my faux- silk purchase, in that mysterious medina they call Fes-el Bali. But getting to know Mohammed, with his dirty jeans and heart-crushing ways, was worth the touch of the medieval medina.

Royal Air Maroc is the magic carpet to Morocco and flies from Montreal, Canada, and major cities across the globe. For information phone 1-800-344-6726 or the New York office at (212) 974-3850. In Canada, phone (514) 285-1937.
www.royalairmaroc.com

Donkey's parking lot. Copyright: Victoria Brooks, 1999.Our final morning came swiftly, like nightfall to the desert, before we were ready for a changed landscape. As we took our simple pleasures from the medina, it seemed familiar, like the pages of an exotic, favorite book. Yet it still left us "in a state of perpetual excitement" the way it had affected the famous Paul Bowles. And where matters of the heart were concerned, although we hadn't purchased a carpet or a jallaba from our friend Mohammed, when we returned to tell him our time was like the last grains of sand in the hourglass, he seemed content with us for our company alone.

Later in the Palais Jamai, while packing in our room that overlooked the medina, the call of the meussins, the religious call for prayer, roused us from our work. Lured by the sound, we stepped again through the proud gate they call Bab Bou Jeloud, for one fond last look at our medina. We were drawn to a final foray down the ancient walled city's narrow corridors that held a surprise in every hairpin turn. We bid Mohammed a final fond farewell.

The sweet children. Copyright: Victoria Brooks, 1999."Come," he said, leading us boldly through the dust and the flies and the children whose faces and fingers were sticky still from the last of our bonbons.

We followed our friend without question, as we always did. After all, he was the heart of the medina, and he knew it like the back of his hand. I could hear the rumbling of the wheels of a donkey cart behind me in the corridor that masqueraded as a road. I picked up my pace to keep close, to keep up, to hear Mohammed's American-accented voice.

"I know of a shop that has the silk jallaba you're hunting for," he said.

"No," I insisted. "We only want to buy from you."

"No problems!" Mohammed's voice was gentle, yet effusive. "This shop has hand-loomed silk jallabas, found nowhere else. I know the guy that runs it. And he has the brown color you want."

The 99th shop of silk jallabas. Copyright: Victoria Brooks, 1999.Around one more curve of this Pandora's box. We felt the heat and the press of the clothing bazaar. We passed tiny shops, all so similar, door fronts draped like windows with swaths of material, or hung with gold-threaded caftans and the ever-present tasseled, flowing, hooded jallaba.

"Don't forget to bargain," Mohammed cautioned before we entered the shop. "And I won't take a commission… My goodbye gift to both of you, my friends…" he added with typical Fassi / American-style candor and warmth. Mohammed said all this to us, as we trailed his short sturdy figure and entered the 100th shop of silk jallabas.

There, on the dirty glass counter, my hooded robe awaited… desert-colored, soft, like silk. We bargained hard and fast against the sands running through the hourglass. We purchased not one but three jallabas. My fawn-colored silk, looking like the Sahara desert in the soft, unnatural light, and two more. All this while, the salesman made unhappy noises about the purchase price. We were driving him out of business, he said. Taking food from his family's mouths, he shouted.

Mohammed, ever our protector, chastised the shopkeeper for his bad grace. Now it was time to go, to thread our way one last time around blind corners that, at first, had been as difficult to connect as the dots of a maze, but by The medina's touch. Copyright: Victoria Brooks, 1999.now had been penciled in our minds so many times we didn't even need Mohammed to lead the way.

With a kiss on each of Mohammed's bristled cheeks, and promises to return one day, we left the walled city behind for Marrakech -- where I saw a silk, desert-colored jallaba for less than half of what we'd paid for my faux- silk purchase, in that mysterious medina they call Fes-el Bali. But getting to know Mohammed, with his dirty jeans and heart-crushing ways, was worth the touch of the medieval medina.

Royal Air Maroc is the magic carpet to Morocco and flies from Montreal, Canada, and major cities across the globe. For information phone 1-800-344-6726 or the New York office at (212) 974-3850. In Canada, phone (514) 285-1937.
www.royalairmaroc.com