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Eric: Medina tour

June 28, 2010

We had a guided Medina tour on the first Saturday in Morocco after the program started. We walked down into the medina, first stopping by a communal bakery. Families living in the medina make their own bread, known as khobz, and then put the raw dough in plates with a piece of cloth for identification. The plates of dough are then sent to the bakery, where the master baker would put the dough into the wood-burning oven and take the khobz out when they are done. He also could remember which dough belongs to which family and put the khobz on the right plates. The bakery also sells other types of bread.

We were then taken into this very narrow alley, which was only one person wide, as opposed to regular medina roads where about three people can fit (or one person and a donkey). Considering the population of Fez, the streets of the medina are always crowded, and we had to stop several times so we could stay as a group. Every so often we had to flatten ourselves to the side of the streets so we didn’t get trampled by carts, donkeys, or tiny motorized carts.

On our way to the Medrasa, which could mean a school, or lodging place for students, we came across this little kid who apparently knew our guide. He first recited the first five lines of the Quran, proceeded to say goodbye in Darija, Modern Standard Arabic, English, French, and Dutch, and then sang “Twinkle twinkle little star.” It was pretty impressive for a child of his age. According to our guide, he is the best student at the school he goes to. The food market was also on the way. Like in Italy, there were people selling seafood, vegetables, fruits, meat, and more. The difference is that each vendor has his own cubicle, there are a lot of cats around the place, and markets are a lot cleaner in Italy. Taiwan’s market would probably stand in between Italy and Morocco in terms of cleanliness.

Fez is still the spiritual center of Morocco today, having one of the most important mosques in the Arab world—the Qaraouyine Mosque, currently the 4th largest in the world and the 2nd in Morocco, after Hassan II Mosque in Casablanca built recently. Themosque also is considered the oldest continuous operating university in the world, starting at 859 AD. Since it is a mosque, non-Muslim cannot enter. We did peek at the inside (see picture below) from one of its 14 gates (appropriate for the mosque’s size) in the medina. But the religious school (madrasa) is open for public to visit. We visited one that has ceased operation for the sole purpose of history and tourism (meaning they charge you at the door for a ticket).

The madrasa has really impressive exterior and interior. Walls are decorated with facades, curving of Arabic calligraphy, and different geometric shapes of different colors. The wood windows are also very well decorated. According to our guide, the madrasa did not just study religion, but also the sciences. For a student to be admitted to the religious school, he has to recite the entire book of Holy Quran (114 chapters of different lengths) by memory.

After the madrasa, we visited one of the city’s textile operations, which makes scarves, head scarves, bed sheets, and different fabrics that later could be made into other cloth items. We each had a head scarf wrapped around our heads in different styles. The people there (who obviously have done this before) told everyone to put our cameras on a bench (ready in the middle of the ground), and just started to snap group pictures. I got a black one, and apparently looked like some kind of terrorist/ninja when my face is covered according someone else in the tour.

The last place we visited was the tanneries—the leather making places, which are one of the most famous place in Fez, mentioned in almost every travel guide. Animal skins are first soaked in water mixed with lime for a few days, then moved to different vats to be dyed into different colors. The place didn’t smell very good because of the use of pigeon poop, which contains ammonia that helps soften the leather. Even though we were watching from a balcony above and had a sprig of mint in our hands, the smell just kept coming. It got pretty gross after standing there for a while.

At the end of the tour, the guide pretty much left us in the middle of the medina. Following the signs set up to help guide tourists, a group of successfully made it to Cafe Clock following the signs directing towards Bab Boujeloud. I actually remember the way home from there, maybe I have gotten used to Fez…?

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