Charles participated in the 2013-2014 NSLI-Y Morocco Academic Year program
Recently, NSLI-Y Marrakesh took our major trip. It was a bit sad, but at the same time I am happy we went because it was my favorite out of all the ones we have taken. Fez stood out to me as a city that displayed a genuine culture, rather than succumbing to the commercialization I have felt in other Moroccan cities. Besides Fez, we visited Meknes, Rabat, Volubilis, and Casablanca briefly.
The beginning of this trip immediately distinguished itself from the others. We took our usual minivan to Meknes, but once we got there we were split up into pairs to complete a scavenger hunt but with a twist; we were to make our way to Fez on our own as the sun set on us. While this might seem like a daunting task, Fez is relatively close to Meknes, roughly 45 minutes travelling. Our Darija (Moroccan Arabic) and Standard Arabic have also progressed to a point where becoming lost is easily remedied by asking for directions. My partner and I found the three places on our list, the old Islamic Madrasa (school) Bouinania similar to Madrasa bin Youssef in Marrakesh. Then we visited El Hedim Square (like Jemaa al Fna in Marrakesh), and finally the Mausoleum of Moulay Ismail, the second ruler of the current Moroccan dynasty Alaouite which began in 1631. Afterwards, we visited a nearby underground warehouse that used to store grain. After grabbing some msmn (Moroccan oily pancake delicious goodness) we hopped on the train to Fez.
The train ride was relatively peaceful, except for the interesting fact that it was running on Moroccan time (read: late), since we bought tickets for the 7:30 arrival at around 6:20, yet the 5:30 train mysteriously showed at 6:30. The train was nothing fancy, but the landscape and scenery we passed by were beautiful and at times made me feel like I was riding to Hogwarts.
After arriving at Fez, we took a cab to Bab Boujloud which is situated at the top of the old medina (old city). This is important because the old city consisted of two streets: Tala3 Kabir and Tala3 Saghir, meaning big rise and small rise respectively. So while the old medina of Fez is a notorious place to get lost, heading up was always a safe bet. The first morning we went to Café Clock, a trendy café located right in the heart of the medina; about two months ago a second Café Clock was opened in the Kesbah of Marrakesh. We received a lecture from Meriem El Haitami, who took us through the history of Morocco’s feminist movement beginning after 1956. While she gave her lecture I sipped on the Café’s magical almond milkshake. The variety and freshness of Moroccan juice has won me over and I’ve grown especially fond of their strawberry, almond, and special avocado concoctions.
After Café Clock, we took a tour of the city with a Sharif (like sheriff but in Arabic, meaning descendant of the Prophet Muhammed). We entered a roof above several tanneries and were able to observe the bustling industry immersed in its work. Contrasted with the more commercialized Marrakesh, the old medina of Fez seems to operate with less regard to tourism and preserves a stronger sense of its cultural history and identity.
In the evening we went above the city to Borj Nord (North Tower) and were greeted with a breathtaking view as the sun set. The city seemed to be situated in a small valley with green, gently rising hills on each side and it was amazing to see the contrast between the old and new city as well as seeing the landscape dotted with the varying colors of cemeteries, schools, and riads.
One of my most memorable experiences during my stay in Morocco also happened in Fez. As we were walking down one of the Tala3 in the evening, we became friends with this Moroccan boy (Ayoub) we met and over the course of our three day stay in Fez he became close friends with us culminating with the tea invite that is so iconic in Moroccan culture. So I and a few of my friends delved through the maze of side streets and after navigating the stairs of his dimly lit riad we were seated in what seemed to be a combination of his parents’ bedroom/dining room. From there, we chatted in Darija, talking about our favorite Moroccan TV shows and exchanged stories. When the tea arrived, it was accompanied by these delicious, fresh baked Ghriba (Moroccan cookies) and Ayoub’s mom and younger sister joined the conversation. While it seemed normal to be invited over to Ayoub’s house for tea, I realized afterwards how strange that would be in America. While sometimes it feels like Moroccans brag about their hospitality too much, experiences involving Moroccan hospitality tend to create the most memorable experiences.
Fez is my favorite Moroccan city. The character of the old city, visiting historical landmarks like Al Karawouine (the oldest university in the world), seeing the beauty of nature from Borj Nord and from Volubilis have all left an indelible impact in my mind and will always remind me of the amazing time I had on this trip.