Twenty years ago when I arrived in Fes, I discovered my visa was running out for Spain and since I had to travel to Germany by land to catch my flight home I disappointedly boarded the next bus to Ceuta the following morning. I spent the night in the Ville Nouvelle, I did not see the old city. I did not see Fes. And it always seemed like unfinished business.
When we stepped off the train in Fes from Casablanca and took a taxi to the ancient medina it was a moment of sheer elation. After so many years of longing, we were finally there. Fes medina is now filled with luxury riads and I was tempted to choose a middle range one simply because we might never have that opportunity again to sleep in such a resplendent sign of our tradition. We were met at one of the many gates and taken to our destination by a man with a cart, red faced and puffed after what seemed like a sprint through the labyrinth alleys of the medina. The ancient medina is a car free zone, only accessible by foot or donkey.
Before you arrive in Fes everyone warns you that you will require a guide. It is impossible to find your way around at first because all the alleyways look the same and it is difficult to find any markers of landscape. I thought we were adventurous enough to try it without a guide but after our first day in which we walked in circles and did not find any of the landmarks we were looking for I decided to be a sensible tourist and do what we were told.
Considering it was only three days since we had left Australia the impact of visiting these places is very difficult to put into words. It was just overwhelmingly beautiful. It seemed fitting that we started with Masjid Moulay Idriss II because he was the founder of the city and the son of Sheikh Moulay Idriss I who is considered the Father of Morocco. It seemed that through greeting him, it was like greeting the whole country and it’s rich history and honouring the beauty that brought me into Islam in the first place. As I was standing in the courtyard I heard a voice cry out ‘Marhaba Hajja!‘ and I turned and realised an old man was talking to me so I in a somewhat startled voice replied ‘shukran/thankyou’ to which he said ‘Yes! Shukran!‘ and went back to sweeping the fountain. Later I discovered that Zeph had taken a photograph of him at some point during our visit.
We also visited the tanneries briefly and whilst we were there I remembered that Sidi Ali al Jamal was close by as I had read that his zawia was in this area of the old city. I had planned to try and find it myself as it is not well known like the big mosques but since we were close by I asked about it and some old men who worked selling leather items described to my guide how to get there. First we passed by the zawia where his daughter is buried but it was closed so then we found our way to the Zawia of Sidi Ali al Jamal.
It was locked but there was a phone number on the door and my guide rang the number and soon a woman came and opened the door. My camera battery died the moment she opened the door. We entered into a lovely courtyard filled with fruit trees, it was still a family home tended by his descendants.
I think my expectation got the better of me on this visit, I had longed to visit here for so many years that to be standing there and with a rather stroppy ten year old, just left me not knowing what to do. It was only when we left and I thanked the woman and took her hand that those expectations just dissolved briefly and with tears in our eyes we said goodbye and stepped back outside the courtyard walls. She invited us back for the Thursday night dhikr but I had no idea how we would find our way there alone in the dark as it was quite a long way from where we were staying.
That night I lay on the bed in my room and imagined the dhikr that was occurring and how much I longed to be there. And I thought about how that was such a common theme in my experience, sometimes being so close to these things yet not being able to partake. And I stared up towards the incredibly high ceiling in the room and it felt as if we were sleeping in the very heart of the universe.
Fes felt like the heart of the world and I was so grateful to be there.
The following day we found our way back to Al Qarawiyyin for the Jama’a prayer. To be able to pray Jama’a beside the courtyard was a wonderful experience. And something we returned to do again when we visited Fes for the second time just before returning to Australia. The second time with my lovely friend M who had come from Belgium for us to be able to meet in Fes!
And still, every Friday now, I transport myself back here in my memory.
The film Fez – City of Saints is available to watch on Youtube.