Thursday, 7 May 2009


SUNDAY, and we decided that if I was going to see what the Medina had to offer, we should ask Alkantara to contact their guide and the man with the wheelchair, a rare piece of equipment in this part of the world, and, as we were about to discover, struggling to make our rickety,wobbly passage through the thousands of men, women, children and donkeys crammed into the narrowest of alleys, an object of wonderment to the populous, if all the curious, but not unfriendly stares were an indication.

Sandhya wanted to visit the shop where argan oil is made. Another rarity - bouncing with vitamins of all sorts. I'd read about it too. Make sure you're not palmed off with the inferior stuff diluted with olive oil, we were warned. Our guide knew his stuff however; this was the real MaCoy, and the white salwah chemised and businesslike young woman who claimed her establishment to be a woman's co-operative, soon launched into her sales routine. Orange flower, lavender, rose, chamomile and eucalyptus skin creams and hair oils. Oils for cooking and salads and, mixed with honey and pounded almonds, as a delicious dip for bread - tastes slightly of burnt chocolate. Four women squatting on the floor were hard at work peeling the tough outer skins of what looked like a knobbly nutmeg. Separated flat seeds were then either roasted for the culinary oils, or ground between flat, hand-turned grindstones and thence into a bowl. The amount of oil produced was minuscule, and it was easy to see why a small bottle cost so much. What wasn't so clear was why we were asked to give the women dirhams before leaving the shop. My idea of a co-op is that everyone is payed an equal share of the profit, and not a small pittance dropped into a basket.

Next stop, an instrument maker. Musical instruments of every kind. We were shown and had explained to us any number of strange stringed or woodwind examples. The one which intrigued me above all was described as the most ancient type of string fiddle in the world. I asked the elderly owner, a great and revered craftsman musician, if I could handle it carefully. There were just two strings, and to my ear, they gave the same sound. But in his hands a tune of strange sorts was coaxed out of it. He seemed delighted to have his picture taken.

Our guide standing behind him.
On to the great mosque Kairaouine, 'the oldest university in the world' according to our guide, and founded in the 9th Century by Fatima, one of two sisters who each endowed Fez with thoelogical establishements. The massive doors were being closed for noon-day prayers as we arrived, and we were told to take our photos quickly. I aimed my camera and shot, hoping I'd managed to snap the breathtaking splendour of the outer courtyard, which moments before had been crowded with tourists, but its light must have been too brilliant because I only captured the family who were emerging as the
doors closed.
A last look at the streets. Outside the ancient Caravanseri which a thousand years ago stabled camels, horse, mules and the merchants and drivers from every part of the Oriental world, and from the wild Northern lands too, no doubt. Gold, jewels, spices and slaves were weighed and exchanged inside. Now it is The Museum of Wood. Trunks mainly of Cedar, several different species, diagonally sliced and highly polished stand in the lower floor. The higher floors are where rich merchants slept and feasted.

The Tannery: showing in the distance the dwellings of the thousand year old city, housing the hundred thousands of Fessi citizens. Leather goods of all kinds, slippers, purses, are sold in the cramped streets.

Sandhya wondering how to exit the carpet warehouse after having been seduced by rounds of mint tea and a sales speel so polished, erudite and long winded that we almose went home with this wondrous Berber hand-woven kilim.

A last look at the Alkantara garden. And the street close to the Bab, the Medina Gate where we were to meet the taxi for the airport. The street where we did buy (Mark, white tee shirt right) bags of black and pale green olives, dried apricots, gigantic delicious dates, bags of perfect almonds and dried muscats on the vine.

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