And so, having been bullied by a twelve-year-old the previous evening, we now rejoin our two heroes as they breakfast on the terrace of their hostel, trying to summon up the courage to step outside once more, into whatever new adventures await.
Breakfast on the terrace was vast, a banquet consisting of a fruit bowl, yoghurt with raisin bran, eggs, cake, toast, and for some reason, a bowl of lukewarm kidney beans. Sleep in the dorm had come easy; thankfully we had no snorers. I’d been woken in the night a couple of times by a girl getting up to use the bathroom, and I had my suspicions she was suffering from food poisoning. It was something about the way she walked.
Fez was already hot by the time we hit the street. We stocked up on water from a nearby mini-market, waved away a local hustler who half-heartedly tried to beckon us over (it was still early in the morning, to be fair to him), and headed towards the Bab Bou Jeloud: a huge, ornate blue gate around the old town of Fez and its market.
As we stood outside the great gate taking photographs, a friendly old man in a lanyard came over to us.
“You want visit the markets? I am very good guide. I can show you all kind of wonderful thi–”
“It’s okay thank you, we’re good by ourselves.”
The old man frowned.
“It is very big market. You will get lost.”
“We like getting lost. It’s fun.”
The old man seemed to like this. He laughed and gave us a thumbs up.
“Very good, very good. Good luck.”
Lifted by this friendly encounter, we set out to begin our exploration. We’d made it two metres before we were stopped by another man in a lanyard. This man, however, was covered in shit and off his tits, and when he tried to speak to us his throat made a sound like someone dropping a boulder into a vat of custard.
“Erm… no thank you,” I murmured, hurrying on by.
We dove into the depths of the markets, fearless on our high of coffee and fresh fruit. Cloth awnings were strung across each street to keep the worst of the sun at bay. The alleys were narrow, not from design but from the vast quantities of rolled carpets and mannequins and pots and pans that had been piled down the length of them, reducing the walkable space to perhaps a metre across. The guidebooks will tell you that there are many different markets in this area; that many small souks lie close but separate, but let me tell you: the entire old town – several square kilometres – is one enormous, endless market. There are places where the crowds thin out and the shops grow quieter, yes, but the market never ceases entirely. There is no single alleyway without storefronts, without hawkers and hanging tat. Everywhere you go, any direction, for hours, is a part of this vast, dizzying colony.
We got lost; of course we got lost. The map we were using didn’t detail every single alley – how could it? – which meant we misread directions and soon found ourselves adrift, at the mercy of the winding little streets: streets so cramped and old that the only sky you could see was a thin sliver of hazy desert blue above, which often disappeared entirely. In a bid to orient ourselves, we followed the occasional tour groups that passed by, letting go of one and latching onto another, like Tarzan swinging from vine to vine. We passed through a dozen ancient squares, each one home to a different craft: woodworking, metalworking, smithing, weaving.
We stopped for a drink off a square called Place Seffarine, home to a dozen metal workshops, and we sipped bottles of cola as the air rang with the din of hammers bashing copper pots into shape. Close by (although it took us another hour to find it) was the University of al-Qarawiyyin, the oldest university on the planet – founded over a thousand years ago, in 857 AD. We explored some of the building’s old dormitories – or at least, I think we did. It was hard to know exactly what you were looking at in the great torrent of human traffic, like trying to identify coral varieties in the midst of a tsunami.
In Marrakesh, we’d been disappointed by the uneven balance between macabre and pleasant. In Fez, however, it’s a lot more even: the intricate designs of the mosques and the alien heave-ho of the markets was pleasing enough that we found it easy to overlook the occasional shyster or gory butcher’s display. And, thank god, there were no poor sickly donkeys to be seen. The only donkeys we saw in Fez were nice and fat.
Several whirlwind hours passed in the markets. From a bird’s eye view, we probably only shuffled along the length of a couple of football pitches, but down in the scrum of it all time works differently. To finish up, we visited the Tannerie Chouara – the city’s most famous tannery. I didn’t really know what they did in tanneries, but I’d seen photos of beautiful multi-coloured pots laid out in the sun, surrounded by layers of uneven tan buildings.
Sam had researched it beforehand, thankfully, which meant that we were already aware that there is no direct path to view the tannery; no single entrance to pass through. Instead, to gain access you have to enter one of the hundred leather shops which surround the giant courtyard – all of which offer a view in from their balconies. We chose one that seemed reasonably legitimate, assuming we would probably have to give a small monetary donation. We decided 5 dirhams each was fair – but I readied a further 20 dirhams, just in case we got haggled higher and wimped out. Hey: I know what I’m like.
Tanneries, as you’ll know if you have read my previous Morocco entries, fucking hum. They smell like everything bad in the world. They smell like a big lot of poo has been left in the sun, and some dead things have been thrown into that big lot of poo in the sun, and it has all baked there for a few days in 40-degree heat. The reason they smell that way, it turns out, is because that’s precisely what happens there.
After being handed our mint bushels – ‘Moroccan gas mask, ha ha ha!’ – we were led by a slim man in a football shirt through his leather shop, past one million handbags and belts, up a staircase and out onto the world’s most pungent terrace. Despite the fact that the air smelt like boiling ass, I didn’t hold the mint to my nose; I didn’t want to look a fanny in front of the leather men.*
*A sentence never before written in the entire history of humanity.
From the balcony, the man in the football shirt showed us each courtyard in turn – there were three. The first, several storeys below, looked like the world’s worst-reviewed public baths: dirty rags lay strewn around half a dozen deep basins, filled with chalky congealed water. If I had to describe it in a word: unsanitary. The man told us this that this was the part of the process in which they took the fur off the animal skins by submerging them in… something. I don’t remember; it was too smelly and my brain stopped working.
The next courtyard, the man told us, was where… something else happened. I don’t know what. All I know is that the process involved thousands of litres of pigeon shit, and that’s why the place smells so bad. The pigeon shit maybe… cleans the skins? Or something? I dunno man. I dunno.
The final courtyard was the one where they dye the leather; the courtyard from the photographs. The courtyard that, on Google, looks like this:
In real life it looked like this:
I asked the small man a long-winded, bumbling question, the gist of which was: why does it look so shit in real life. He nodded thoughtfully.
“We change the dye every month. This month is dark.”
No way of knowing whether that’s true, of course, or if it simply always looks like a festival latrine and he just hadn’t the heart to tell me. Regardless, we lingered a while to watch the leather men work and take in the sights, sounds and – sigh – smells.
Back at the hostel, we drank lemonades on the terrace, sprawled before an enormous fan, decompressing after the morning’s chaos. The day had really started to heat up as we tried to navigate our way out of the market, uphill all the way, and my nerves were temporarily spent.
As we lay sprawled on the sofas, I saw the girl from our dorm step out onto the terrace and set about trying to get her own fan to work – to no avail.
“You can share ours, if you want,” Sam called over.
The girl thanked him and came to sit with us. She introduced herself as Kat. She was a doctor of psychology, from the Netherlands, and she was the same age as us – 29.
“Thank you for the fan,” she said. “I’m not feeling too great today. I got sick last night.”
Kat was friendly, and after chatting for an hour we decided to head out together for dinner. We found a restaurant close by, and headed out for tagine. I had a beef tagine this time, rather than veggie, and it was much more interesting. Veggie options in Morocco aren’t… great. It was nice to meet somebody new, and I was glad of the chance to show Sam what hostel life is really like: meeting strangers and heading out with them like old friends. However, I also slightly wished we’d gone out with just the two of us: I could tell we were both on our best behaviour in front of our guest, which made things a bit less fun as we had to temper our usual fart jokes and hilarious pant-shitting stories.
After food, we decided it was a good night for boozing. We headed back to the hostel and asked Abdul where we could buy beers. He told us there was a Carrefour supermarket a mile or two away, and we could get a cab there for around six dirhams. Our trio headed to a nearby town square and hopped in a taxi, and managed to haggle a price of 10 dirhams. Six was a little ambitious.
We ran around the gigantic Carrefour searching for beer. It was very strange to be in a giant, modern supermarket; it looked just like any Asda or Tesco back home. Only hours before we’d been staring down into a vat of dead cows and pigeon turd, and paying for the privilege. We bought a lot of wine and beer, and left the supermarket to stand in the humid heat of the night and flag another cab down.
Getting back was harder: no cab would take us for 10 dirhams, or even 20. Stubborn, we waited around, until finally a man in a tiny three-wheeled contraption approached us. It looked like a motorcycle with a little truck on the back. We gave him the address, told him 20 dirhams. He nodded, and untied the back of his wagon for us to climb in. Sam sat on the floor, Kat and I sat on a rickety iron bench behind the driver, and we bounced all the way home, laughing with the wind in our hair.
One of Kat’s backpacker friends, a German guy called Rafael, joined us back at the hostel. We sat on the rooftop in the oily dark, listening to the city below and the evening call to prayer, and we chatted into the night. Sam and I hit the hay before it got too late, as we had to get up early for the final leg of our trip, to Tangier.
Dare I say it: we had finally had… a good day?!?