Passion Points: Learning
Author Suzanna Clarke and her husband, Sandy McCutcheon, first visited Morocco in 2003 and fell in love with Fez, a city Clarke calls “the cultural and spiritual heart” of the country. They decided to buy a rundown riad with the goal of restoring it using traditional craftsmen and typical Moroccan materials—a lengthy labor of love that Clarke captures in her recently published book, A House in Fez: Building a Life in the Ancient Heart of Morocco. Indagare spoke to the Australia-based writer and photojournalist about her experiences in Morocco and what not to miss on a trip to Fez.
What impressed you the most about Fez?
The warmth and friendliness of the locals immediately endeared us to the city. Walking through the narrow streets of the Medina, where there are no cars but instead donkeys and foot traffic, we felt as though we had been plunged back to the fourteenth century. The ancient Medina has a population of around 300,000 and about 30,000 of those are artisans, so everywhere people are making things in tiny workshops – from leather and ironwork to embroidery and ceramics. The city is designed on Islamic principles of social harmony, with each section of the city having its own school, hammam (bath-house), mosque, fountain and bakery.
What experiences of living in Fez stand out in your mind?
When I think of Fez, I picture donkeys and traditionally dressed people in the cobbled streets; exchanging greetings with my neighbors as I go to the local souk to buy fresh vegetables and fruit in season; the scent of Moroccan spices, rose petals and orange blossom, and freshly baked bread; the fountain tinkling in my courtyard; the lyrical song of the early morning call to prayer, and watching sunset from our flat roof, from where you can look over the city to the foothills of the Atlas mountains beyond.
What aspects of life in Morocco surprised you most?
I had never lived in a city that was not centered around cars, and it was a revelation how much more people-orientated the Fez Medina is than many Western cities. A lot of life takes place on the street: children play, adults chat, and old people sit on their doorsteps and warm themselves in the sun. I was also surprised at how organized everyday life is. For example, my trash is collected every day except Fridays with a knock on the door by a fellow with a donkey. It is also fascinating that local women, who dress traditionally on the street including covering their heads, strip down without a qualm to their knickers in the public hammam (bath-house). They will wash each other’s backs and hair, and have long conversations. They seem much more casually intimate with one another than the majority of women in Western countries.
Are there any new customs or traditions that you took back to Australia?
Moroccan cuisine is an obvious tradition that we have taken back with us to Australia, as we both love cooking and regularly make tagines, cous-cous and Moroccan-style salads. On a deeper level, we have developed an appreciation of how fortunate we are to experience living in another culture and doing so has given us a fresh perspective on our own.
What would you recommend to someone planning a move to a foreign country?
When you move to a foreign country, it’s important not to get drawn exclusively into the world of ex-patriots, but to forge links with the locals. Learning the language as early as possible in your stay will earn you their respect and break down barriers. And it’s a good idea to try not to keep comparing your new home to what you have left behind, because it is likely you will romanticize the latter, which won’t help to deal with the realities of your current life.
What guidance would you offer to someone visiting Fez?
In visiting Fez Medina, you need to be prepared to immerse yourself in an entirely different reality. Some people find this exhilarating, while others are fearful and remain within the confines of their tour groups. However, it is fine to explore Fez on your own. You can follow the two main streets down the hill and back up again, following the eight-pointed stars mounted on the walls to guide you. It’s unlikely you will experience serious problems and Moroccans are usually friendly and helpful. If you feel this friendliness is turning pushy, saying la shukran (no thank you) is usually sufficient discouragement. Never give money to try and get rid of people who may be hassling you – usually offering to guide you or show you their brother’s carpet shop.
If you were to repeat the entire experience, is there anything you would do differently?
If I was to do such a restoration again, I would like to allow more time and money so it wasn’t so stressful. But isn’t that always the case? I also would have sacked our recalcitrant plumber, rather than putting up with his lame excuses. He was constantly telling us he couldn’t show up to work as another of his relatives had died. By the end of the process, we estimated he had lost about six or seven family members. Really, he was a most unfortunate fellow. Apart from these things, however, we were lucky to find good workers, and receive a great deal of helpful advice, which helped us avoid some serious pitfalls.
Read about Clarke’s favorite places not to miss on a trip to Fez.
The View From Fez (www.riadzany.blogspot.com), a blog written by Clarke and McCutcheon has up-to-date news and a searchable archive.
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