Fez, Morocco (Part 1)

May 23 – May 26, 2019

We were in Fez, Morocco for a week during Ramadan, the holiest month of the year for Muslims around the world during which they fast (not eat or drink during the daytime) and pray several times per day. In Fez, the announcement that the sun has gone done and the fast can be broken was sounded every night with several cannon shots and calls for prayer over loud speakers all across the city. At first, it sounded like a city wide alarm, a bit unnerving if you don’t expect it to be at that volume and tune.

We arrived to Fez at night, after 9pm and were met at the north entrance of Medina by the housekeeper of the house that we rented via Airbnb. The housekeeper, Mrs. Latifa, brought with her a young man, Abdul, that spoke English a bit better and was supposedly there to be of service to us during the week of our stay there. Mrs. Latifa and Abdul led us from the parking lot, through a labyrinth of small, extremely smelly and dark streets, down to a tight dead-end corridor where they opened 3 locks on a short metal doors of our seemingly fancy accommodations. The house looked great in pictures, it was quite spacious and well decorated but it was far from good in reality. As always, everything seems worse at night, especially when it’s exaggerated by the smell of a sheep (or goat) sty that must have been located right on the other side of our bedroom wall. The bathrooms were not only in bad shape and in desperate need of renovations, but also smelled like an outhouse. As we sat at a dining room table to have some Moroccan pancakes for dinner, one lonely cockroach scurried up the wall right above deda Heinz’ head (happy to report, we haven’t seen additional giant insects during the next few days of our stay there). To make matters worse, our house didn’t have any WIFI and our phone signal was not good inside those thick, high walls. So, we were effectively staying in a dead-end place with no way to get a hold of anyone in any sort of an emergency situation. This didn’t help our nervous travelers.

Baba Mila was already not in favor of joining us for this part of the trip, wishing we would have invited them to join us anywhere else but Morocco. They arrived with a boatload of misinformation, all based on fears, especially fueled by the recent terrorist act where Danish and Norwegian female hikers were captured and executed by a group of Muslim extremists. Danish media has been constantly televising detailed reports of those murders, fostering easily spread stereotypes about this part of the world. We weren’t worried for our family, and kept saying we’ve done our research and if we were ok with taking our 3 kids there, we were certain they would be fine too. However, with our arrival to bad accommodations through the seedy part of Medina, led by Abdul, a typical Moroccan salesman, getting to the dead-end street to a door with 3 locks and no cell reception or WIFI, these fears amplified. It didn’t help that Abdul played on baba’s tourist fears, telling us that we “have to have someone with us at all times to move about Medina, because it wasn’t safe without a guide (he was thinking of pit pocketers), how we would get taken advantage of and we would most certainly get lost”.
It took a lot of energy to deal with the bad accommodations, getting everyone settled in for the night and to process my own feelings about our upcoming stay in Fez.

Yes, it turned out we did end up staying in the unusual-for-tourists part of Medina. On numerous occasions, when locals encountered us close to our accommodations, even if they only spoke Arabic, they would be attempting to tell us that we were lost, pointing south towards the other part of the town. It was really clear that not many tourists ventured up north off the main street markets. On one occasion, as we were about to turn left through a passage off the main drag, one of the merchants thought we were about to get lost and yelled ‘Madam, madam, just straight, stay straight, Champs-Elysees is straight”.

The first morning after our arrival, Petra, Pedja, and I went out to get some groceries for breakfast while baba, deda, and the boys stayed in the house, locked the 3 door locks and were plotting a plan for what they would do if we didn’t get back after a certain time. They thought we were crazy for not calling Abdul to take us around, but instead, we insisted on getting out on our own, ‘braving’ our way through those windy, confusing, labyrinth streets. MEDINA OF FEZ HAS OVER 600K PEOPLE LIVING IN IT AND OVER 1,400 SMALL STREES ALL IN ONE SQUARE MILE. Anyway, long story short, just 4-5 blocks away from our place, there was a local food market with no tourists there, where we got all we needed for breakfast. All the merchants were warm, kind, nice guys, and were extra helpful since I’m sure they were also surprised to see us in their neck of the woods. For that first trip out of our apartment, we took photos of every turn we made to make sure we would be able to return back to our place. It was like throwing “digital crumbs” behind us to be able to find our way back to the house (GPS is not precise enough within the walls of Medina).

Once we were back and had breakfast, we all got ready to go out for a walk through Medina without a guide (so brave of us, ha? 😉). A group of 7 is chaotic enough, adding a guide to the mix would have been too much for us. We were right. As the days went by, we learned our way around Medina so well that we were comfortable walking anywhere and finding our way.

However, that first morning, as we walked out of our place and locked the doors of our house, we heard a woman in the house next to us screaming as a man was beating her. We couldn’t see anything, but the woman continued to scream loudly, our kids were disturbed, my mom was freaking out, Pedja kept telling me to move along, and I kept standing under the window thinking what we could/should do. What an unfortunate, eerie, horrible experience as our family’s first encounter with Morocco after the night of fears that we have been trying to calm down and assure everyone that this will be a nice vacation, and that there is nothing to worry about!

As the woman was screaming and the man was obviously hitting her (we could hear slaps), I was franticly thinking what we could do to but Pedja and my mom were telling me to move along and our kids were visibly scared. Some man passed by when I gestured to him ‘Do you hear this?’ and then I said “Police?” The man put a finger on his mouth and said, ‘No police’ and gestured back that he was going to do something about it. Not sure that he did anything except alerted someone that a crazy tourist wanted to get the police involved for something that is unfortunately more common than not. Even the police probably wouldn’t do much. Later that evening, we had a heated family discussion about that situation and what should have been done. We were not in agreement about when a person has an obligation to intervene, what interventions were appropriate in a foreign country, what sort of a situation is a cultural difference that visitors like us cannot get involved, etc. Needless to say, we didn’t reach consensus that night and some heated emotions were shared.

With all this said, the second day in Fes, we kind of got used to our sheep or goat neighbors, we didn’t notice the smell as much and we didn’t see any additional insects and there was no additional signs of domestic violence. I made ‘friends’ with our local food merchant, one who went out of his way to get us everything we needed, and another one who kept an eye on us and once saw that I had some money hanging out of my bag and ran over to point it out, keeping my possessions safe.

Before we arrived to Morocco, I mentioned to Pedja that I would like us to take a side trip to the Sahara desert if we could find an affordable option. He was not happy about the long drive, each way 7-9 hrs, and doing all of that in two days/one night. I’ve done something similar (although longer) with my Danijela in Tunisia almost 20 years ago and I remembered it as the best part of our trip then. I couldn’t push too hard on this idea until we got to Morocco, but then I realized that I would really regret it if I backed down on it. I said I would go with whoever wanted to come with me and the rest of them could stay in Fez. It turned out, thanks to our bad accommodations, everyone was in agreement that they would rather spend the time in the car than stay in Medina.

We looked for tourist agencies that would offer us an affordable side trip of this kind, but that wasn’t easy. All of those trips are at western tourist prices and they were all more expensive than what we had in our budget for the 7 of us. Finally, we did end up negotiating a price that got us a private vehicle to take us to Merzouga and back (7 hr drive each way (9hr with several stops and lunch)), camel trek to the some luxury tents with dinner and breakfast included. This was our first (and probably only) glamping experience. I ended up getting a nickname of our family’s master negotiator as well as the “honor” to negotiate other smaller deals later on in the market.

Overall, people in Fez were so kind. They were especially good to Nikola; every single person we met was great to him. Nina carried a Moroccan flag the first two days there so he was fun for the locals right off the bat. He wanted to talk with everyone, he stopped at every other store, and it took us forever to move through the market because he was interested in everything. One of the merchants was selling some small wooden carvings and Nina slightly bumped his table as he was passing by. I started apologizing, straightening up the little figurines as the man kept saying ‘its ok madam, it’s ok madam’. Then he asked me to follow him to a nearby house. I was saying ‘I have no time, the rest of our family is ahead of us’, but he asked me to wait a minute. He ran in the nearby house and brought out his grown son, a young man, 26yr-old with Down Syndrome. The merchant didn’t speak English, he just kissed his son and then kissed Nina’s head. Words were not necessary. Some of these moments are priceless and there were plenty of these types of situations. People everywhere are usually good, they see good and they spread good.

There are cats everywhere in Medina (almost no dogs at all, but thousands of cats everywhere). Petra walked around with some bread in her small purse feeding the cats, one after another. Some were in horrible shape while others looked well cared for. We didn’t see any cruel human behaviors directed towards cats. If we were coming home after Morocco, I’m certain that Petra would have ended up bringing home a new kitten.
On our 4th day in Morocco, we ended up leaving our things in the house and took a two day/one night trip to Sahara. That experience deserves its own post (after this one).

Upon our return from the Sahara back to Fez, as soon as we got back to the apartment, Maksim and Nina were asking when we were scheduled to leave again. They were visibly upset that we were back at the same place. Baba and deda were great, putting their best faces back on, Petra has been my trooper, lifting everyone’s spirits up and Pedja was Pedja, fine with our circumstances, looking at them as a good learning experience for everyone. Then at some point that evening, we heard banging on our metal doors, Pedja was upstairs so I had to go answer the door but I didn’t want to open for them. Some woman kept yelling in French, saying “Madam, open the door” while I kept yelling from my end “We don’t need anything, we won’t open the doors”. The banging and yelling stopped after 4-5 minutes but with no cell or WIFI, we were all disturbed that in case we were in any sort of a danger, we would have no way out of there. That night, we decided that as soon as we woke up the next morning, we would go look for another place to stay for the last 2 nights. Pedja, Petra and I went out early in the morning, to the more touristy part of the Medina and found us 2 rooms in the most charming, welcoming, perfectly located hostel that we would recommend to anyone visiting Fez. That experience will be part 3 post of our trip to Fez. One learning though is that renting a whole place to ourselves wasn’t the right choice for this part of the world. We would have been better off staying in a hostel the whole time.

As we wrapped our 7-day-stay in Morocco, we were all, including baba and deda, in adamant agreement that our first few days of stay in Fez were as equally valuable, memorable and wonderful as the other 2 experiences (Sahara and typical touristy stay of the last 2 days). It was good to see the other side of life in the Medina and not just the more colorful, touristy paths. The contrast between the life we lead and the life we briefly saw was a reminder of our privilege, as well as our ability to cross the tracks and leave it behind us. This privilege makes me uncomfortable and aware of the unfairness in the world. I am not sure what exactly I can do to make it better. For now, I’m processing it all, albeit too slowly, expecting for these puzzle pieces to fall in place to show me a new vision after this current journey.

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