A Step Back in Time - Fez El Bali, Morocco

Text and Photos by Farah S. Kamal

I was trying to pave my way around the maze of narrow, unmarked and poorly lit streets that webbed all over the many hills over which the city of Fez is built. Photographing around some of the 9,500 streets there, it felt as if I time travelled back to the 8th century. Fez El Bali, the medieval walled city of Fez is the best preserved Medinah of the Arab world and home to the University of Al-Karaouine, which is the world’s oldest university.

My first trip to Fez was exactly a decade ago. I remember wondering how these structures are still there and the traditions haven’t changed much. I was not a travel photographer then, neither was I interested in writing, but I never forgot those narrow lanes and the vibrant souks. Fast forward to a recent trip to Morocco, travelling from Marrakech in a coach to Fez while driving through Atlas Mountains and the Sahara Desert, I stepped back in time to this ancient town once again to photograph and document people’s stories.

Between 789 and 808 AD, Fez was established by Idrisid dynasty as its capital. The city is divided in three main districts; the Fez Jadid, the French as the Ville Nouvelle and the Fez El Bali where I spent my time exploring. With a population of 150,000, this old walled Medinah is the city centre and the largest urban area in the world where you don’t find cars or buses. Besides motor bikes, the mode of commuting is animals like donkeys and horses.

It was evident because some streets are only wide enough for two pack mules to pass one another while some barely pushed me to the edge to let past another sideways.

The day-long slow paced walk around the area was amazingly full of interesting sights, sounds, smells and people. At every corner, there are old palaces, royal gardens, artisan's workshops, souks, mausoleums, and mosques. The area also has a lot of interesting markets, stores, eateries of all kinds, mini tanneries, leather goods, carpets, metal work, knife sharpening, and making replica old-age guns.

I started strolling from the Bab Boujloud admiring the mesmerising Bou Inania Madrasa, photographing its breathtaking cedar woodwork, sculptured stucco and its marble and onyx decoration. I stopped to snap a picture or talking to people at small storefronts where smiths, joiners, tailors, butchers, bakers, candlestick makers, metal and traditional potters are busy in their trade. There were array of colourful stalls of fresh produce, olives, cheese and breads. After some time, I lost count of how many trades I covered. They are endless; you name it and it is there. The streets were full of vendors calling you to buy their merchandise but being a Karachiite, I knew how not to get trapped and use my haggling skills. The children and women were darting in and out of small centuries old houses, carrying breads hot out of the oven for lunch or grocery, or carrying trays of dough and cheese balls on their heads. The humid and hot July weather wasn’t the best one to explore these souks; however, fresh juice stands at every corner was a life saver.

In Fez El Bali, you can find medieval towns in ancient state of construction unlike some of the medieval towns of Europe, where the structures are well-preserved have modern amnesties on the inside. I was thrilled to see that almost everything in Fez El Bali is hand-made from scratch using ancient techniques. Hajraa, a middle-age woman at one of the shops, demonstrated how she folds and makes flaky thin layered fried bread. I could not resist and grabbed one to eat with a handful of olives and a chunk of cheese from the next stall. The kissaria or covered market made me ecstatic enough to indulge in shopping for traditional Arab jewellery and photographing the ancient stores and artisans carving intricate designs on silver. Also found were different kinds of laces and silk treads and the stores where silks are woven on handlooms.

A fascinating cultural experience is the visit to Fez Tannery, certainly an unusual and different one. I never saw tanneries open to tourists anywhere. Despite being stinky, I had some excellent views of leather tanning process. From the balcony of the top floor of a multi-storey leather store, I took pictures of workmen cleaning hides and the stunning colours in the tubs tanning the leather.

Exhausted, yet exhilarated, I eventually called it a day while sitting with friends in a restaurant for a Moroccan dinner around a huge platter of Tajine and mint tea.