Pink Saddles & Djellabas, Edith Wharton’s Fez In Morrocco

by Inka Piegsa-Quischotte

My jaw nearly dropped.

“Madame,” my new best friend Mohammed gushed, sweeping his right hand through the air. His inviting gesture wasn’t directed at the back door of a stretch limo though. His left hand grabbed the tattered stirrup of a mule covered with a pink saddle.

A light breeze coming off the mountains through which the Fez River cuts alleviated the day’s heat and ruffled Mohammed’s immaculate, beige djellaba (loose-fitting robe). On his head perched a baseball cap with the shield rakishly placed over his left ear.

Oh Edith, I thought, you would enjoy this.

The Edith of my thoughts was Edith Wharton, whose book In MoroccoI had read shortly before embarking on my trip to this North African country that never ceases to fire the imagination.

Like Wharton on her month-long travel in 1918, I had arrived in Fez via Tangier and Marrakech. Edith traveled in style in a government owned “motor” but when she came to Fez, the “motor” had to be abandoned quickly for the primary means of transport to move around the narrow streets and alleys of the Old Town and the medina: mules which came equipped with those distinctive pink saddles. The color of the saddles delighted her no end.

Nothing much has changed in nearly a hundred years and I really shouldn’t have been surprised.

Still, stepping out of a modern five-star hotel, in the Nouvelle Ville of Fez, having been told that transport was waiting outside, I did a double take at the prospect of having to mount four legs instead of four wheels to go about our business.

The business in question was my wish to buy a small riyadh, one of the traditional Moroccan mini-palaces of many tiny rooms, courtyards, roof terraces, rose gardens, hand-painted tiles and whispering chandeliers. I went about finding my dream place in the traditional Moroccan way: making use of a go-between. I asked the receptionist and he immediately recommended a friend of a friend of his cousin, who knew about several available properties and would be only too happy to show me around.

That’s how I was introduced to Mohammed in the hotel lobby and ushered me outside to the waiting “transport.” Without further ado, I heaved myself into the pink saddle. Mohammed grabbed the reins, and off we clip-clopped towards Fez El Bali, the oldest part of the oldest city in Morocco.

Late afternoon sun bathed the enormous walls surrounding Fez in a golden light tinged with red. Fez, like no other town in Morocco, casts a spell over the visitor from the very moment he catches sight of the majestic walls and the white washed houses beyond which tumble down the cliffside towards the river. In Edith Wharton’s poetic words:

It was as though some enchanter after decreeing that the city should be hurled into the depth, had been moved by its beauty and with a wave of his wand held it suspended above.

Whereas in places like Casablanca or Marrakech, modern times mingle with or sometimes impose upon the traditional. In Fez they are no more than freckles on an otherwise immaculate skin.

Once we were through the archway of one of the gates and into Fez El Bali and the medina, it was clear that the only way forward was either by foot or mule. Cars are prohibited and, comically enough, some alleys don’t allow mules either.

A labyrinth of endlessly criss-crossing alleys and narrow passages that would have put a minotaur to a test unfolds with images of veiled women, proud, blue clad Touraregs and swishing djellabas in black, dark brown  and beige.

Cross-legged artisans sit in front of their small workshops, hammering copper and brass into beautiful shapes and styles whilst just across the alley a halal butcher loudly praises the freshness of a severed camel or sheep head dangling nearly into the face of passersby.

I almost got dizzy from the assault of shouts in French and Arabic and the sounds of busy craftsman at every twist and turn. The mixed smells of roses and orange blossoms with freshly slaughtered meat and the billowing  smoke from an oven further away. Not to mention the mouth-watering smells of sizzling kebabs, simmering tagines and other Moroccan snacks offered loudly from the tiniest of stalls.

“Mind your head, Madame,” Mohammed warned.

I ducked just in time as we turned into yet another alley entirely covered by straw mats overhead, creating the impression that we were traveling in a tunnel.

At the end of the tunnel, Mohammed brought my Rosinante to a halt. I looked to my right and saw a huge, sand colored wall looming into the sky.

“This is our first property,” he said and helped me jump down.

Where is the entrance?I wondered, before finally discovering a wooden door the same color as the wall.

Mohammed pushed it open and my mouth just formed an OHHHH. The nondescript door revealed a courtyard right out of Edith’s book. Apart from her literary career, Edith Wharton was also a renowned landscape architect and interior designer, and her eye for these details shows through in her descriptions of more stately riyadhs.

Orange trees in full bloom surrounded a small fountain and three stories of galleries rose above. Stone benches, decorated with blue and white patterned tiles were just visible in recesses below the galleries. And, sure enough, the chandelier of my imagination, albeit somewhat dusty, was hanging from a wrought iron chain high above.

“Bonjour, Madame, bien venu,” said a deep voice from right behind me.

It belonged to a tall Moroccan, dressed in traditional clothes who could have been 50 or 80 for all I could tell. Time and age lose their meaning in Fez. I didn’t even think about stating my business straight away. Lengthy introductions followed, all in the particularly melodious French most Moroccans luckily speak.

Curious dark eyes peeked out of several corners and, respectfully waiting for a gesture from the patriarch. Out came a bevy of women and girls who ushered us into a rose garden beyond the courtyard and proceeded to serve us mint tea. I settled down on the plush cushions and enjoyed my tea. I wished I never had to leave.

Street noises did not penetrate beyond the thick walls. The only sounds to be heard were the lively chatter, twittering of birds, and the ever present rushing waters of the river below.

Another one of Wharton’s observations sprang to mind: how associate anything so precise and occidental as years or centuries with those visions of frail splendor seen through cypresses and roses? Frail splendor are indeed the crucial words to describe Fez. It is crumbling everywhere, but underneath lies the strength of 1200 years and the splendor of defiance.

The riyadh I was visiting was no exception. I have no idea how old it was, but I got the impression that this particular building would never fall down.

After more tea and pleasantries, I got the tour. I stopped counting rooms after I reached 15. Stairs led up and down a warren of halls, kitchens, bedrooms, living quarters, and storage dens. The whole outlay boggled the mind. Finally, we reached the roof terrace and I gazed at the view Edith so aptly described: just below the window the flat roofs of a group of little houses descend like the steps of an irregular staircase. Indeed, the adjacent roof terraces were so close that I got the impression I could step from roof to roof and walk right down to the river without ever setting foot in the street.

In the cool evenings, the roof terraces are populated by the inhabitants of the house, enjoying the breeze and having a friendly chat with their neighbors. Children are everywhere. You simply forget which century you are actually in. Scenes like the one I was enjoying would have been exactly the same in the times of Sultan Murad III when Fez was part of the Ottoman Empire.

Everyone waved, asked me my name, and no one was in the least fazed by this tall, blond foreigner who had landed in their midst.

Once the tour of the house was over and I had duly admired everything, negotiations took place in which the go-between played the role of “interpreter” although it wasn’t necessary. But he needed to earn his commission and it was a question of pride to be heavily involved.

I didn’t make a commitment then, but it wasn’t expected. The purchase of a house is an important decision – and this is true not only in Fez. We departed with reassurances to return for a future visit. Another thing to bear in mind: even when bartering for less expensive items, a word is a word and it is taken very seriously. Once you have committed, there is no going back.

Mohammed graciously showed me a few more wonderful places of frail splendor during the next two days. But alas, I didn’t buy a riyadh on this occasion.

Fez has left me with the reassuring feeling that there are still places in this world where tradition and history are more important than the progress of modern times. I will be back to have another look next year. My go-between will be waiting patiently, because as a true citizen of Fez, a year means nothing to him.

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