Piercing horns and booming drums punch your senses. You can feel the drums in your stomach and your ears ache and ring from the shrill call of the horns.
You can’t see them yet, but you know there is no escaping this street band because the alley is only 10 feet wide. You have nowhere to go. And they are getting louder. Here they are now!
Wandering the ancient alleys of Fès, Morocco is an immersion in north African cultures. There are no exits. You are surrounded by the sounds, the smells, and the intoxicating sights of thousands of years of tradition. It comes at you and sweeps you along.
Fès cultivates ancient arts and crafts. A good guide can take you through the artists’ cooperatives and their shops. You may have heard stories about being guided to their brother’s/uncle’s rug shop in order for them to gain a commission. Well, that happens, but the rug shop is a cooperative partially funded by UNESCO (9th century Fès is a World Heritage Site). After the tour they take you to a private, air-conditioned show room, serve mint tea, and bring out stunning rugs. They are polite, but skillful salesmen.
Fès is famous for its leather works. They tan and die leather that is made into handbags, wallets, slippers and everything you can imagine. The leather works is a favorite for photographers because of all the colorful vats. But on the day I was there, they were using dull colors. The process is interesting though. Some of these vats have been used continuously for 1,100 years.
The tanning process includes the use of bird droppings mixed into the vats. So they hand you a sprig of mint to hold under your nose when you go out onto the roof overlooking the work area. The leather is treated by stomping it into the mixture. Ancient process.
The colors that they can achieve are amazing.
And you can find an array of leather items in the tiny stalls along the market alleys. I don’t think those “Nike” slippers were designed in Oregon.
Fès, like other north African cities, shows many stark contrasts. There are contrasts in wealth, education, technology, and traditions. But even in a thousand year old city people want to have modern conveniences, like television. Satellite dishes are everywhere.
After exploring Fès for several days you feel buffeted by the culture. It swirls around you and recedes down the alley.
But the echoes stay with you long after you leave. You can still hear the street musicians. You can still see the tiny stalls selling everything imaginable. You have seen so many kinds of people. But the helpful, humorous, and pious people are the ones who stick in your memory.