By Dianne Cheseldine
Travel and Transformation Gold Winner in the Sixteenth Annual Solas Awards
Finding an oasis in the ancient medina of Fez.
Only a small plaque indicated the entrance to my riad, Dar Attajalli, meaning House of Transfiguration. The door opened and with one steep step I entered a new world. The young employee, Idris, greeted me with Salaam Alaikum in a soothing voice. He was tall and slender and moved with ease as he crossed the tiled floor of the courtyard. He was casually dressed in blue jeans and a light-colored cotton shirt, sneakers and a baseball cap, his dress contrasting with the old courtyard surrounding me. He lifted my heavy suitcase as if it were weightless and showed me to my room, the only one located on the ground floor. It was more beautiful than I had imagined, dimly lit with a huge bed clothed in an emerald-green spread and amber pillows displaying Berber designs. The floor was covered in carpets and several leather poufs in varying shades of blue, brown and red. The window of my room opened onto the courtyard from where I could contemplate the patterns of the wooden panels aligning the walls. I could hear the soothing sound of the fountain twenty-four hours a day.
After several flight delays out of Portugal and two sleepless nights, I was bleary-eyed and exhausted, but after ten minutes of swaying back and forth in the rickety cart that carried me to my riad, I was finally here. I had arrived in the Medina of Fez, the old walled city in Morocco that I had heard and read about for years. The medina was founded in the ninth century. It is home to Al-Quaraouiyine University, originally founded as a mosque and considered by some to be the oldest continuously functioning institution of higher education in the world. This ancient walled medina is known for its ornamented entryways and the narrow car-free streets are lined with vendors calling out to passersby to enter their shops filled with perfume bottles, vats of spices, hanging lamps, leather bags and belts, poufs, and purses.
After a long-awaited rest, I stepped out of my room on the first morning into the light-flooded courtyard to find Idris and my guide seated on low turquoise couches, waiting patiently for me to awaken. They stood up to greet me and assure me the late hour was not a problem. Idris indicated that I could take my breakfast on the terrace several floors above. Arriving there out of breath from the climb but excited to see the view awaiting me, I found myself looking out upon a mesh of madrassas, fondouks, palaces, residences, mosques and fountains. The entire medina lay before me, all the structures mirroring earthen tones, giving the impression they were attached to one another. Only their rectilinear shapes distinguished them from the surrounding desert hills. This intricacy reminded me of the geometric designs of mosaic tiles, individually striking but reflecting unity at the same time. The overall impression was interrupted only by the minarets towering above this sea of dwellings. After eleven hours of sleep followed by breakfast, I felt serene immersed in the subtle shades of color and sense of peace surrounding me in the riad and beyond.
It had been almost twenty years since I travelled to Morocco with two friends from the Basque country during a sabbatical year I spent in Spain. We had crossed the Atlas Mountains by Jeep with our Spanish-speaking guide and ended the trip in Marrakesh. The memories of the warmth and dignity of the people we encountered, the array of vibrant colors everywhere, the aroma of spices in the souks, the intricate patterns of the carpets covering the floors of mosques and shops alike, and the muezzin’s lilting call to prayer five times a day had beckoned me all these years. I had always regretted that our schedule hadn’t allowed us time to visit the Medina of Fez. Therefore, when I was in Portugal years later, I booked my ticket to Fez.
Wherever I travel, I seek to experience an interconnection with another person, one that often surpasses language. I open myself to opportunities that present themselves, even though they may be fleeting. Often others are more wary of being so open with strangers and even wonder if I am too trusting. Perhaps at times I have been, but extraordinary moments of shared mutual humanity have resulted from such encounters. I did not doubt that Fez would also open doors to me, especially since I was traveling alone and would have more freedom to follow where my instincts might lead me.
Now I found myself venturing out from the riad each day to explore the medina I had gazed upon that first morning. What I discovered was a world of small shops whose walls were covered from floor to ceiling in rows of belts, handbags, slippers and bottles of fragrant oils. This display of colors and shapes allowed the eye no respite. The shopkeepers do not allow such a moment either as they insist immediately upon arrival that you drink a cup of mint tea while they press you to decide which item to buy. “Which one you like, Madame?” “We offer you best price.” or “Today you very lucky. We offer special price only for you, Madame.” After the day spent in the bustling medina, I always looked forward to returning to the riad and Idris’s warm welcome.
As I made my regular climb up the narrow staircase to the terrace for breakfast, I marveled at how Idris did the same so many times during the day, carrying trays filled with plates, utensils and glasses filled with fresh fruit juices without spilling a drop. He arrived faithfully each morning, happy to see me enjoying my breakfast while I gazed upon the old and mysterious city. The trays contained warm bread and always a different dish of jam such as strawberry, tomato or date, which must have delighted Mohammad’s palate. The Qur’an points out that Allah makes date palms grow and suggests that it is important for those who are thinkers. There was always Jben goat cheese, plus freshly made yogurt and dates in addition to a pot of tea, milk, sugar and honey and a refreshing fruit juice to savor. My favorite was the smooth avocado made crunchy with dates and almonds. After carefully placing the breakfast tray before me, Idris proceeded to water the purple bougainvillea and orange and yellow hibiscus adorning the terrace walls. I felt his gentle nature as he focused tenderly on each of them before he disappeared quietly until needed again.
On one of my outings, I decided I could not leave Fez without entering a carpet shop. Of course, there was the obligatory offer of tea to delight the senses while I scanned the stacks of tightly rolled carpets. “Which one you like, Madame?” came from over my shoulder. Before I could compose any type of response, the shopkeeper was pulling out carpets and unfurling them at my feet. Several hours and cups of tea later, I found myself waving goodbye as I left the shop, amazed by the whole affair, hugging my purchase tightly under my arm. To this day I can’t explain how a huge rug that had spanned the length of the shop could be folded neatly into a package that fit easily into my overstuffed suitcase. When I finally arrived at the riad, Idris took my package from me and placed it carefully on the brass table in my room.
As fate would have it, on my last day in Fez I lost my way back to the riad. I told myself that perhaps Allah was warning me of the dangers of overconfidence in my sense of direction. Each time I came to a junction of pathways, I looked in both directions, hoping to recognize the sign of a familiar shop or some other marker to guide me. But nothing told me I was heading in the right direction. Surely Allah the Merciful, the Beneficent, would show me a sign! Maybe in the shape of an old brass doorlatch beckoning me to enter a secret inner chamber. Or in the familiar whiff of tea coming from a simmering pot I had passed before. At the point of exasperation and fearing I would miss my train to Casablanca, I suddenly came across the small kitten I had photographed the day before, still sleeping amid the freshly tanned babouches. Whew! Hugely relieved to have regained my bearings, I was soon looking up at the plaque Dar Atajalli. Grateful for finding my way at last, I stepped into the soft splashing sound of the fountain and the steps of Idris as he crossed the courtyard to greet me.
I barely had time to close my suitcase and take a final look around the room that had been my home for the last few days. The cart was scheduled to pick me up soon for the short journey to the Bab Guissa gate through which I had first entered the city. I stood waiting anxiously in the doorway, filing my neglected nails at the last moment. Idris came up to me and gently took the file from my hand to complete what I had begun. Not a word was spoken.
Dianne Cheseldine is Professor Emerita of Foreign Languages at Truckee Meadows Community College in Reno, Nevada, where she continues to teach a course she developed during a sabbatical year in Spain titled “From Spain to New Mexico: A Cultural Journey.” Her interest in languages and cultures stems from her family’s move to Ethiopia when she was thirteen. She has always loved teaching, which has allowed her to open up the world in a small way to students as they proceed on their life’s journey.