From the nearby lookout in which the graves of the Marinids who ruled the Maghreb countries lie, the Old City of Fes, or Fes al Bali as it is known, appears as a round platter. Imposed over the city are the roofs of old houses, cluttered with satellite dishes, surrounded by minarets, and the leather tanneries that serve as the perpetual backdrop of all the images of the city.
Established in the ninth century CE, Fes became the Moroccan capital during the Marinid rule in the 13th century, and remained so until 1912.
After the political capital was moved to Rabat, Fes continued to be known as the scientific and cultural capital, particularly due to the presence of the University of Al Qarawiyyin. The university was established in 859 CE by Fatima al-Fihri, who came from the Tunisian city of Qayrawan. Today, it stands as the oldest university in the world that remains open.
When the UNESCO listed the Old City as a Heritage Site in 1981, it cited it as a “living witness to a flourishing city of the eastern Mediterranean having exercised considerable influence mainly from the 12th to the 15th centuries, on the development of architecture, monumental arts and town-planning, notably in North Africa, Andalousia and in Sub-Saharan Africa.”
Coming from the Levant, before entering the city from Bab Bou Jeloud, you must double check the meanings of words before assuming that you have understood them. Words that may otherwise seem familiar in a different context have taken on entirely different connotations in the Moroccan dialect.
After entering from the city gate, you begin striking a path amid the popular local restaurants surrounding the gates, and sellers of every type of meat, vegetable, and fruit, as well as Moroccan fatayer, and pictures of King Mohammed VI.
On this path, you will come across the Bou Inaniya Madrasa, which dates back to the 14th century, and was named after its Marinid founder, Abu Inan Faris.
Thus begins the acquaintance with the residents of the Old City.
While her peers were busy with school, Zainab busied herself with drawing, as though she were applying henna to people’s hands. She has been practising this hobby since she was 16, and today her henna drawings have become a secondary source of income for her, next to producing local sweets.
Zainab was born in the center of the Old City in 1969. Her father worked as a carpet maker, and “fearing for her”, he asked her to stop going to school after her second year of middle school.
Since then, Zainab has been attending ceremonies in Fes, in which there is no shortage of weddings for her to put her henna talents to use. In local tradition, henna is associated with every happy occasion, and each plight that has been reversed, as a way of giving thanks.
Zainab explains that the people of Fes have an old adage that translates to, “Henna is among the leaves of Paradise”. Meanwhile, young women are advised to “wear henna, so that God may have mercy” upon them. And so, brides will have their hands and feet hennaed before their weddings, as well as pregnant women, and those who were sick and emerge from the hospital cured.
“Even older women who have not been married” are advised to put on henna, according to Zainab, so that God may bless her with the right match.
In past times, Zainab used to earn a lot of money from her occupation, and she was able to save to buy gold. Now, however, henna artists have saturated the market, forcing Zainab to sell her gold to help her husband spend on their family, with their two sons and daughter.
Zainab swears that she will never consent to marrying off her daughter until she has completed her education as she sees fit, no matter how advanced it may be, and even if her groom offers her mounds of gold.
Zainab’s customers vary between tourists and locals, the former of whom she receives in her house, while brides and other locals receive her services in their own homes. However, she absolutely refuses to work in a shop in the market, “even if hunger drives me to death.” For, she says she has always been, and will remain, a domesticated woman, and not an “alley girl”.
Abdel Hamid Al-Marrakechi
There is a sign, in the workhouse that Abdel Hamid Al-Marrakechi works at, that has been in place since at least last May. The sign demands that leather tanners intervene and provide support against those who lawlessly attack the property of the house.
Abdel Hamid, who was born in Fes in 1974, explains that while he was alone one night, the local authorities arrived and knocked down a part of the wall surrounding the workhouse. However, Abdel Hamid objected, and a dispute erupted between them, until the authorities promised to rebuild the wall. However, it has remained in the same state until today.
Abdel Hamid, who inherited his leather tanning profession from his father and his grandfather before him, is aware that he and the other workers need to leave the house, as it is in dire need of repairs and restoration. It is evident to any visitor that the building is on the verge of collapse. But Abdel Hamid protests the decision to knock down the house without compensating the traditional craftsmen who work there.
Abdel Hamid left school after fifth grade to help his father in the leather tanning business. He describes the craft as “an easy profession, since I was raised in it. I enjoy my work.” He boasts that he can finish about 500 pieces of leather, or more, in a day.
He moreover adds that all the leather tanners inherited the craft from their forefathers, and have no other skills. How then, he questions, does the government expect them to leave the workhouses until they are restored without compensating them?
“The government wants us to leave without compensation because all the money’s been eaten up,” says Abdel Hamid. He explains that they had all heard about the national initiative launched by the king, worth millions, to restore buildings and compensate the workers. However, “there are those who are more interested in money-grabs than compensating us.”
As he turns around, he sees old man carrying bags filled with wool on their bent backs, yet he is certain they are not tired. He points at one of them and says: “If this man doesn’t work, he’ll get sick.”
Sanaa takes a visitor on a tour inside her house in Ain Azlitan, one of the oldest neighborhoods in the city, having been built during the Zenata era in the 11th and 12th centuries. The neighborhood is named after a water spring that took its name from a Berber tribe called the Azlitan.
Sanaa was born in another house in a nearby neighborhood called Talaa in 1979, until her family moved to their current house in 1995. The house’s captivating architecture, as well as its strategic location and spaciousness, made it an optimal location to turn it into a first-rate touristic guest house in the heart of the city.
“My father worked a lot, and his family is rich. We have agricultural projects in areas neighboring Fes, which allowed us to buy this house. We get a lot of people, Moroccans and foreigners alike, knocking on our doors and asking to buy it,” says Sanaa.
She noted that there are about 30 guest houses in Azlitan, “which used to be owned by locals, but they all decided to sell the homes and leave.”
As for Sanaa’s family, they saw things differently. “My mother doesn’t want us to leave and be replaced by foreigners. She would say ‘we are Moroccans and our roots are in Fes,’ and she completely refused the idea of leaving,” says Sanaa. Her mother, moreover, did not want to move into the city center, where buildings are different and lack the same traditional style of architecture.
Fatma Al-Khalfawy Al-Hosny
Fatma Al-Khalfawy has been sitting in her small store in the Old City for 15 years. There, she receives customers who buy the local embroideries, and talking on the phone to the women who embroider in their homes to notify them of new orders, particularly those for guest houses and hotels.
Fatma was born on the outskirts of Fes, before her family moved into the city when she was two years old. Her father was a traditional Moroccan shoemaker. Fatma went to school as a girl, but her teacher was unable to adjust to her being left-handed, and continued chastising her until she eventually dropped out of school altogether.
She has business smarts, having worked in a sweet shop since she was 15 years old, until she got married at 18.
Fatma’s husband wanted her to leave work, and so she did and stayed at home, until the time neared for her husband to retire, who worked as a bus driver from Fes to Tetouan in northern Morocco. According to her calculations, his pension would barely suffice for their family to survive, and so she told him that she would “go out and work”.
Surely enough, she bought embroideries from women who work out of their homes, which she then sells to people in clinics, bookshops, and other crowded places. Eventually, she settled in her small store, which earned her a reputation among tourists.
From her drawer, she pulls out a bunch of thank you cards written in different languages, and pictures of guest houses and hotels decorated in the embroidered fabrics she sold, as well as cut-outs from magazines in which she has appeared.
Fatma (77), whose husband died years ago, says that she will not give up her work, because she wants to be financially independent, and to never have anyone spending on her.
Begoña Barajon Robles
Spanish native Begoña Barajon Robles sits on the roof of her house in Fes, closing her eyes as she listens to the maghreb prayers from nearby mosques. Finally, she says, “They are speaking to God now.”
Begoña, a yoga instructor, moved to Fes in April 2015 to learn Arabic at the American center there. At the time, it had never crossed her mind that she would end up living there and opening a yoga studio in the Old City.
“I wanted to give back to the community here, and they had been seeking a yoga instructor to teach female survivors of domestic violence. Thus began by work, and then my colleagues at the center began asking me to instruct them,” she says.
This wasn’t the only change in Begoña’s life in Fes; about a year ago, and after long-staning negotiations with Sufi scholars and with her imam, she announced her conversion to Islam, with a few conditions.
Born to a Catholic family, she had been somewhat religious until her teenage years, when she lost faith. At the age of 20, she had yet another crisis of faith, and found herself constantly questioning: why are we alive? What is the purpose of existence?
She turned to meditation to try to find the answers she sought, then slowly began regaining her faith in the existence of God. “We are all the same, so long as we believe in God, we are all Muslims by faith, so what difference does it make? I don’t care what is written on paper, only what is in my heart and that I am a good person, irrespective of religion,” she explains.
“But I need the papers to be able to enter the mosques and play with the people in this spiritual capital of the Islamic world. I pray for a better life for us and our families and the world.”
“I told the imam that I refuse to kill sheep during Eid, and that there are many ways to sacrifice to God without killing. I also told him that I would not wear a veil, and that I would continue taking my mother to pray at church.” Her imam told her that such matters are between her and God, so long as she respects the five pillars of Islam, “which don’t include killing sheep in the first place.”
Her eyes search the horizon at sunset, and she says her favorite thing about Fes is the absence of the constant tension and anxiety that accompany life in European countries, and the freedom to express one’s faith, also unlike European countries.
“If you declare that you believe in God here, no one thinks you are strange!”
Photography by Lina Shannak