One of the first cities in Morocco I ever had the chance to visit was Fes. For the first three months I lived here, Fes was sort of a central location in my life before I knew my final site, and with every trip there, I got to know the city a little bit better.
When final sites were announced last year, most volunteers were sent to live outside the Fes region, many toward Marrakesh or Ourzazate in the south. All of us, it seems, live at least five or six hours from at least one major city in the country. I’ve had a chance to visit a few of those other cities now, like Oujda and Kesh, and I have to say, I’m thankful to be one of the handful of volunteers placed near Fes, because it’s just a really great city, and I wanted to say a few things about why that is, because if you were to come visit me, this is one place where I’d make sure we spent some time.
I recently went to Fes to meet up with Caity Connolly’s parents on their vacation and took the opportunity to do a little Christmas shopping, as well. This is actually something about Peace Corps communities that I find really fascinating: the people who are your friends really, in some ways, become more like family than friends. Caity has definitely become a sister and Avery, a brother, and it’s funny because in a week or so, I’ll get to meet Avery’s dad in Fes, as well. The idea of traveling five hours to meet your friends’ parents in America just sounds a little absurd to me, but here, it’s just what we do, because we recognize what a big deal it is to have your parents come all this way.
So, when we pulled into Fes, the first must-stop location was McDonald’s. I almost never ate McDonald’s in America. If I did, it was because it was close and the only thing open. Here, though, it’s become a symbol, a little taste of home that I can’t seem to get enough of when I’m in Fes. Although, it’s a strange experience to walk in and say, “I want a Menu Cheeseburger and biggie fries,” or in Arabic, “bghit wa7d menu cheeseburger u l-frit kbir, 3afak.” Something about saying the word “cheeseburger” just seems so out of place with my life that I always catch myself doing a double-take when it happens, and I find little things like that funny. I’ll find that I’m giggling to myself a lot over little things like that, and I’m never sure if that’s weird, but it’s been part of what’s enriched my life over the past year, that something as simple as ordering a cheeseburger is silly to me.
After cheeseburgers with Avery, I’d had my eye on purchasing a leather backpack for myself for months. I’d seen one a few different places, but I’d never had luck bargaining, and I thought if I tried to buy one in Fes, the leather capital of Morocco with its beautiful tanneries, maybe I could get the price down a bit. So, I headed into the old medina near our hotel and descended the tlaa sghira (the street in the medina that’s a “little climb”) until I came to a store with leather items. If you were negotiating for a new jacket or a nice backpack, the mul hanut (owner) would hold a match to the hide to show that it was real leather: “See, it doesn’t burn.” Okay, I get it: it’s good quality leather. When the asking price ended up being the price I was prepared to pay, I forced him down another twenty and then settled on a payment. One more handshake a small leather camel as a free gift later, and I had myself a beautiful new backpack.
Of course, after Avery heard about my success, he decided he, too, needed a leather bag of some sort, and we headed back down into Fes el-bali, the old medina, to find a leather briefcase for him. Have a look at our finds:
For dinner, Molly, Avery, Nicole, and I joined Caity and her parents at a really nice restaurant in the medina, their treat. They brought gifts from the land of the free, home of the brave, including Reese’s pieces and candy for Ave and Molly and a taco kit (with hard and soft-shell tacos with seasoning) for yours truly – the closest thing anyone has done to date sending me that Cheesy Gordita Crunch from Taco Bell on my Official Wish List (recently updated).
The next day, we woke early and ate cheap pissara (bean soup) just inside Bab Boujaloud, the large, blue gate that is one of the nine or so gates into the old city. Fes el-bali boasts something like 9400 streets and twists and turns, and I’m pretty sure we explored all of them in the next few hours.
When we joined Caity’s parents, we headed down the tlaa kbira to return again to the tanneries, where we shopped and enjoyed watching Moroccans adding dye to leather hides – some of which were camel, others cow hides. I recently found out that an enzyme in pigeon poop is essential to adding dye to the hides (and may also explain why Moroccans give you mint leaves to hold to your nose when you get close to the tanneries). Thus, pigeons (hammama) are pretty important to life in Fes and sort of unite the city with nature in a unique way.
After that, Avery and Molly and I embarked on another adventure to hunt down a ceramics store in Fes where we were able to watch everything from men sculpting tajines to building beautiful mosaic tables and fountains to peering inside of an old mud kiln which housed large urns. They were a bit too expensive for me to be able to afford, but it was still worth seeing, still worth noting that Fes isn’t just known for its leather but for all kinds of art.
Finally, we joined up with Caity and her parents on the roof of their hotel where we sat chit-chatting until around midnight. Sitting around a table with a view of the new city and a fall breeze coming on, and I just had this good feeling deep down sitting there with people who were like family. I get it. I get why it’s so important to share this experience with someone you love. Not just to say, “Yup, okay, this is where I live,” or because this is our lives here, but because this place, in its own little way, is like a peek into a mysterious world. And to be able to share that is something I’ll always cherish.
But more than that, so much of my life this past year or so has been about being connected to people in a way I cannot fully describe. Whether connected to volunteers through this strange experience that binds us together through the similar difficulties we face or whether connected to Moroccans through our shared hopes and dreams and love as we seek to understand one another right down to our differences, something in this world calls and beckons us to be more than just human beings going about their lives on different paths that briefly cross. Something asks us to acknowledge the kindred spirits we share, to treat one another less like friends or acquaintances or two people from two different countries… and more like family. Even the closest of brothers and sisters endure their tiffs and must face tough questions about who they are if they are ever to survive together as brothers and sisters. To live into that calling is difficult but necessary.
As I rode in the taxi returning to the bl3d (countryside), I thought about my own sense of family, my having been adopted and with that, my willingness to “adopt,” so to speak, the people I’ve come to love and find so different from me. Fes is, in some ways, a second home, a home away from home. It’ll never be Nashville or Jackson, but sitting at the gates of Bab Boujaloud will always be kind of like sitting on the steps of the Nashville Parthenon, feeling connected to a world that branches beyond here and now. If for any reason those of you back home are still thinking about trekking to Morocco, I hope I will be able to show you a little slice of this place, that you too could sit in front of the large gate and feel like the world were at your feet.