Let’s be honest. I was terrified about visiting Africa alone. As my plane lowered over the Fez runway, my heart tried to jackhammer itself out of my chest. I did not know what to expect but I certainly felt like a wimp as I tried to imagine it. When I landed, it seemed that everyone was a man, and the men were glaring at me.
I asked a guard for directions. (Dear Madame Lindeman: Thank you for teaching me French!) Unfortunately, the guard responded by scolding me for leaving my hair uncovered and traveling without a chaperone. I resisted the urge to attribute this to my oh-so-youthful appearance.
Fortunately, before leaving Spain, I had found the governor’s twenty-four year old nephew, Medhi, on couchsurfing.com and commissioned him to be my guide. I exhaled when he rescued me from the airport. We drove straight to La Medina.
Fez-ians are predominately Muslim (98%) and native to Morocco. In a unique way, however, Fez is the most diverse community I have visited.
The city is a twilight zone where elements of past and present coexist. On sidewalks, heavily veiled women pass heavily lipsticked ladies. In the streets, six-person SUV’s zip past lone farmers pulling donkey carts. Ladies waddle in burkas as they roll Samsonite suitcases. Men with camel-bone canes totter across electric train tracks.
Side note: These cane-wielding old men cross train tracks as leisurely as if they were crossing a gentle stream. This is touchingly innocent, but downright unnerving. I half expected them to stop to pick daises while I anxiously ripped my hair out. So I jumped down, tossed one of the grandpa’s over my shoulder, and whisked him to safety.
Ok I didn’t, but everything turned out ok anyway.
Medhi and my first stop was La Medina. La Medina is the world’s oldest bona fide feudal market. Craftsmen set up shop along passages in the seventeenth century, and still today, the clientele gets lost in them. Apparently, the original architects crafted tiny, winding alleys so that the buildings would block the sun from all below. Indeed, it’s a merciful twenty degrees cooler in the market. So I spent a good deal of time there. Brilliant business strategy.
When I got hungry, I avoided the sea-urchin shaped bread with protruding spikes of cheese. A tout poured tinny water out of a sack that looked like a bagpipe, and I politely tasted and discarded it. Eventually I found a bowl of muesli and ordered up. Unfortunately the “muesli” was actually rice, over which the vendor ladled a vat of yellow and pink yogurt. It stirred memories of the neon, multihued Trix yogurt Sarah and I enjoyed as five-year olds. I ate it. I really did.
Around every corner bobbed men with various ailments—cross-eyed touts, blind wanderers, and one-armed beggars. Passersby smiled, but none with a full set of teeth. One never knew when to expect an incoming over-ladden donkey. These required pedestrians to jump into vendors’ stalls to make way in the overfull, 5-foot wide passages. Chicken-like birds with bubbly chins squawked at ear-level and palm-sized owls and cats spooked in the corners. The cats, true to their hygienic ways, were the sole spots of cleanliness. They stood out in the crowd like water in a desert.
Medhi kept an eye on me, occasionally tugging me from side to side to keep me away from pickpockets. My sixth sense told me much was transpiring that I could not see.
At first I thought Medhi was the most popular guy in town. He stopped frequently to put his arm around men’s shoulders and speak in low voices, clapping them on the back and shaking hands. Later I realized that he was merely asking strangers for directions, but all men of Fez are part of a fraternity.
Women were excluded. They spoke only with one another, and at night, they were entirely absent. Ladies giggled and chatted with one another, but did so in shadows and whispers.
Gender relations in Fez left a lasting and troublesome emotional impression on me. I found myself turning to the beauty and popping colors of the religious art. Everywhere I looked, there were displays of handmade tiles and tapestries. (What’s more, thanks to the Victoria & Albert museum in London, I knew their history! Islam prohibits the representation of earthly images, so Moorish and other Muslim tribes focused on intricate patterning and bright color.)
Amongst the acid trip of color, motion and the unexpected, it seems silly that I felt so conspicuous. In a city of contradictions, it is difficult to tell whether I was. But no matter what, I am proud of myself for facing my fear of traveling alone in a country of mixed reputation, especially with regard to women’s rights. It was the first challenge of nerves that I have faced since boarding the first plane across the Atlantic.
I feel stronger for having done it.