We’re standing in the tiny kitchen. We want to leave but will wait a few moments for the proprietor to finish his prayers. His daughter doesn’t want to take our money and besides, his prayer mat blocks the only exit.
We found this place by accident. Our blood sugars low, we needed something to eat and we spotted this hole in the wall, this hatch. The sign overhead informed us of tea on the terrace with panoramic views. Peering in through the sunken opening and past its solitary hotplate we saw nothing and assumed that the salon de the was to be found next door as part of the adjacent palace.
I beckoned to the bearded cook that we would like to go through but he indicated that we should descend the few steps into the sunken opening. Like the gentleman I am I asked K to preceed me.
“No. You first”
We were led through a second and bafflingly disused galley kitchen, up a flight of stairs at the back and into what appeared to be a family living room, if a little over populated with tables. There were sliding doors at the rear and the view was indeed panoramic – over the medina with its minarets and the more distant hills crested by Merenid tombs.
Storks and larger birds of prey hovered over the city as we surveyed the walls and the koranic script and photos of Mecca that hovered over us. This was not what it had looked like from out front…
Fes is home to several mosques – the Qaraouiyine Mosque, the Jamaa Andalous – that are major in terms of both importance and scale but you wouldn’t necessarily know it even if you were standing right outside. In this medieval warren of alleys looking up reveals little more than a blue crack of sky. The presence of the mosques is betrayed only by peeking through the doors at the airy courtyards and ablution fountains. A sacred and reserved place; this is as far as the non-muslim can go.
We are restricted to the dizzying and at times panic-inducing crush of the souks. If you want to understand the early Islamic attitude to space, come to Fes. It is the largest intact walled city in the Islamic world and the world’s biggest car-free urban space. Two hundred thousand inhabitants and nine thousand four hundred streets; not one of them wide enough for four wheels.
As we navigate the bazaars we regularly need to hug the walls, making way for charging beasts of burden – donkeys, horses – or men pushing carts. It’s as if they are conspiring to drive us into the the clutches of the market vendors – hard cases who sell their wares about two inches from your face. We are stripped of any western notion of personal boundaries here; rarely left to browse, or stroll. It is exhilarating but exhausting.
We are not without options though when it comes to escaping the mayhem. Attached to any self respecting Mosque you will find a madrasa, or medersa as they are called here – an Islamic school. They tend to be tranquil spaces and in Fes there are a number of historical and spectacularly beautiful examples. Best of all – the non-muslim may enter.
The Medersa Attarine was built between 1323 and 1325 and is a treasure of Andalusian-Moroccan art. If you have been to the Alhambra in Spain you will know what I’m talking about. Seeing this place has the effect of expanding one’s sense of Andalusian space. The penny drops that a single culture straddled the straits north of here; that there is a little of medieval Spain here just as there is a lot of medieval Morocco in Spain.
When we finally find the Medersa Sahrij we are tense and tired. We have come to the Andalusian Quarter – founded by refugees of the Reconquista – and have lost ourselves several times since crossing the river that rushes past the tannery. The souks here are shabbier, the streets dirtier, the fake guides more insistent. So we aren’t exactly thrilled to discover that the medersa is closed for restoration. For the next five years.
Sometimes though something special happens when you least expect it. The attendant is amenable to a bribe and unlocks the massive wooden doors for us.
“You will have to be quick or I will have a big problem.”
We step down and in off the alley. The attendant opens the inner door of heavy lattice and retreats. We have the place to ourselves. It is in disrepair, unkempt and deteriorated and is without a doubt the most beautiful space I have seen in Fes so far. There is something about the Andaluz-Morroccan art, pre-restoration – something that makes this a moment; a glimpse of something hidden.
Here we feel closer to the people who built it than we do in restored sites elsewhere. The distance between us and them is mapped out in the crumbling plasterwork and the sun-baked mashrabiya. Espacio, tiempo…I am looking at the original work and can touch with my hand what a 14th century artisan made with his.
Seats of learning weren’t the only places to provide haven in an Islamic city. Fes may well have been the place that gave rise to the custom of turning the home inward, of living around a tranquil courtyard and fountain. Built on a meandering river the land here is dotted with natural springs and bourgeois palaces and riads were built around them.
We stay in one ourselves, the peace and calm of our own beautiful courtyard compromised each night by the absolutely ridiculous, comically exaggerated snoring of our host. That and the never ending 5am call to prayer. Space, it seems, was treasured above all else in the Islamic city and therefore hoarded in the home or measured out in mosques and madrasas rather than squandered in squares and public parks.
It still is – the other direction we can go in for some open air is up – the city is peppered with rooftop terraces. From this vantage point one can at last appreciate the ornate minarets; we dine under one and watch the pair of kestrels that nest in one of its cavities. There are no street views – ground level is sunk too deep in the crevices…
The proprietor rises from his mat, smiles and thanks us for waiting. We pay him for our tea; then we squeeze through the tiny hatch and out into the narrow lane – back to the crush of the heaving souks, the wide open space of our discoveries.