Paul Bowles wrote "Fez" as a travel article in 1984 and it was published as "Fez: Behind the Walls" in Morocco, with photographs by Barry Brukoff (Harry N. Abrams, Inc., 1993). It provides some of the history of this fascinating medieval city in Morocco, as well as the author's own observations on the culture, architecture and social life of its inhabitants. Bowles' ambitious political novel The Spider's House was set in Fès and first published in 1955. Paul Bowles visited Fez during his first visit to Morocco in 1931.
by Paul Bowles
If you came down out of the mountains from Ouazzane, you saw it far below—a whitish-grey spot ringed with green, which from that distance was unrecognizable as a city; it might have been a quarry or a simple discoloration in the plain. As you swung around the curves on your way down the flank of Djebel Zalagh, the perspective remained the same, but the spot broadened constantly and a definite line separating the grey part from the green became visible: it was the wall surrounding the medina. Within were the tens of thousands of cube-shaped structures, their pattern varied here and there by the thin prism of a minaret reaching above them. Outside the line were the fruit orchards and olive groves that brought the country to the very foot of the wall, enclosing the city within a solid frame of verdure, so that from this vantage point it was like a white bouquet tightly encased in leaves. In the past two decades the city has burst through its confines at several points and grown new additions outside the ramparts. But from above it looks much the same.
To call Fez one of the great cities of the world might seem to some a generous gesture. It is not commercially or industrially important; it is no longer a cultural or political center; it does not even have the most impressive examples of its own architectural style (which are not to be found in Morocco at all, but in Spain). Unlike other cities which enjoyed their period of greatness in remote times, and which are judged worthy of more or less attention according to the number of historical vestiges they contain, Fez does not have to rely upon its ancient structures for its claim to importance. Its interest lies not so much in relics of the past as in the life of the people there; that life is the past, still alive and functioning. It would be difficult to find another city anywhere in which the every day vicissitudes of medieval urban life can be studied in such detail. How much longer this will remain true depends upon how quickly the Moroccans can implement their plans to industrialize the nation, since the economy of Fez is based primarily on the market for its handmade goods. Here is a city of more than half a million people who spend their time at such occupations as hammering and chasing brass and copper, tanning and tooling leather, carding, spinning and weaving wool, and all the other slow processes whereby the raw materials of the land are transformed into artifacts. (These objects, originally designed for the Moroccan market, are now made with the tourist trade in mind, and there is a corresponding deterioration in their workmanship.)
The visitor senses something in Fez which he describes as a feeling of mystery; that is as good a way as any of describing the impression the city makes. There is no doubt that to the person with a little imagination that impression is very strong: the city seems inexhaustible, incredibly complex, and vaguely menacing. It is possible that the visitor will also find it beautiful, although this is by no means certain. Fez is not a city that everyone can like. Many travellers have a negative reaction to its dark twisting alleys, teeming with people and animals. Anyone subject to claustrophobia may well find it only a nightmarish welter of tunnels, dead-end passageways and windowless walls. To grasp the fascination of the place one has to be the sort of person who enjoys losing himself in a crowd and being pushed along by it, not caring where to or for how long. He must be able to attain relaxation in the idea of being helpless in the midst of that crowd, he must know how to find pleasure in the outlandish, and see beauty where it is most unlikely to appear.
One of the city's chief attractions (for the visitor) is also one of its major annoyances (for the inhabitants): its ancient wall. In some places people have done what was formerly unthinkable; they have built houses outside the ramparts. These miles of walls, without which Fez could not have existed, are beginning to stifle the city. There are not many gates, and to get out it is necessary often to make long detours. With the passage of time the wall seems destined to be reduced to a few vestiges of itself. New gateways will be cut through from the crowded interior to the open spaces outside. Eventually whatever is left of the wall will be lost in the new structures made inevitable by the fast-growing population and the unfolding of the city's economy. For the moment, however, the wall provides a precise demarcation between outside and inside. Automobiles can go through certain of the gates, but nowhere is it possible for them to continue very far. The ingenuous motorist who imagines that because he has got in, he is going to be able to go on, is in for a sad surprise. The street, narrow from the beginning, is suddenly allowing the walls to touch the car on both sides, and he has got to go back where he came from, but in reverse.
There is a good deal of frustration involved in the process of enjoying Fez. The blank wall is its symbol, but it is this very secretiveness which gives the city its quality. The Fassi feels intuitively that everything should be hidden: the practice of his religion, his personal possessions (including his womenfolk) and above all his thoughts. If anyone besides him knows what he really thinks, he is already compromised, at a disadvantage, since his mind functions largely in terms of strategy. Moroccans in general are not an "oriental" people, but the bourgeois of Fez are.
I have noticed that the inhabitants have a minimal interest in what exists immediately outside the limits of their city. The dozen miles or so of high ramparts have consistently shut out not only the Berber's unwelcome person, but also his incompatible African culture. Some years ago I was working on a project for the Rockefeller Foundation, recording folk and art music throughout the country. This had to be done in collaboration with the Moroccan government. Inevitably I came to Fez and presented my credentials to the katib of the Governor. "Folk music!" he snorted. "I detest folk music! It is precisely this sort of thing that we are doing our best to stamp out." Nevertheless, since he was a Moroccan and I was a foreigner in his country, he also felt it incumbent upon him to give me some sort of assistance, so that eventually I found myself talking with a group of young musicians who played chaabiya or popular urban music. One of them politely asked me in which city I had so far made most of my recordings. I said that the great majority of them had been made not in any city, but in the country. My answer seemed to bewilder him. "In the country? But there is no music in the country."
I said that my experience had been that there was music practically everywhere in Morocco. He smiled. "Oh, you mean the Berbers! I've never heard any of their music."
"Surely you must have," I said. "You can hear it only a short distance from here, up that way, down that way—(I pointed) around Tahala or Rhafsai, for instance."
He smiled again, this time at my ignorance. "Nobody ever goes to such places," he said categorically. Aware of that, I still feigned innocence. "Why not?" I demanded. "Because there's nothing there. The people are like savages."
The Fassi is a metropolitan, bourgeois in his habits and isolationist in his attitude; he also has the reputation of being a hard man to beat in a business deal, which makes him not entirely popular with his compatriots. There is no doubt that he has an element of arrogance in his character. Aware that his city was the cultural hub of all North Africa, he has been content to let others come to him in order to learn. Civilization ended at the gates of the medina; outside was the wilderness.
From its earliest days the growth of the city has followed a particular pattern which might have been expected to destroy it rather than to play a part in its development. The place seems to carry the element of dissention within its very foundations. It has been a schizophrenic city from the outset, when, early in the Ninth Century, Idriss II founded the two communities which formed its original nucleus. Each time its two parts have been unified, a rival town has sprung into existence next door, an entity which in its turn had to be subdued and ultimately amalgamated. And from without the place has been besieged, flooded, pillaged, burned and bombarded so often that it seems incredible there should be anything at all left of it, much less the architecturally homogeneous mass which it is. Through the centuries the reigning dynasties have been obliged to wage war against its inhabitants in order to make them recognize their sovereignty. Being prepared for a siege is so much a part of the pattern of life that some middle and upper class citizens are inclined to keep a large supply of staple foods in their houses, "just in case."
The conditions responsible for this display of mass anxiety have not changed basically in the eleven hundred years since the founding of the city. One could use Fez as an object-lesson to illustrate the play of forces in the city-versus-country struggle which operates throughout Morocco and determines much of its character. Fez was built at a natural crossroads, the spot where the route from the Sahara to the Mediterranean coast intersects the east-west passage between Algeria and the Atlantic. To impose an economic stranglehold on the newly conquered land it was imperative that the Arabs control these principal arteries of transit. Automatically Fez became the strategic center, the command of which was a sine qua non for the administration of the entire region. Within the walls there grew up a prosperous commercial city with an imported Semitic culture, while directly outside in the surrounding hills, in full view of the town, lived the infinitely less evolved Africans, upon whose precarious good will the urban dwellers' peace of mind largely depended. The pagan Berbers accepted the new monotheistic religion of Islam, but clashes between two such dissimilar groups were inevitable. Despite the government's efforts to create a more homogenous population, the friction still persists.
The street goes down and down, always unpaved, nearly always partially hidden from the sky. Sometimes it is so narrow as to permit only one-way foot traffic; here the beasts of burden scrape their flanks on each side as they squeeze through, and you have to back up or step quickly into a doorway while they pass, the drivers intoning: "Balak, balak, balak..." Here is the bitter earth odor of new pottery, here the rank smell of hides being tanned, or the stench of a butcher's stall where the meat, black with flies, ripens in a shaft of dusty sunlight that points like an accusing finger down through the meshes of the latticework. In dark recesses like grottoes are mosaic fountains where women and girls scream invective as they fill their pails and the dust under their feet turns to mud. Then you are walking under an elaborate carved portal hung with ancient bronze lanterns, and you smell the feline scent of fig trees. A cascade of water rumbles nearby, but it is behind a wall and you never catch a glimpse of it.
Even in the heart of the city a surprising amount of space is devoted to private gardens. As he follows the winding, shut-in streets, the passerby cannot divine the presence of the pleasure spots behind the high walls. But they are there, and for those who are lucky enough to possess them, they add immeasurably to the charm of living in Fez.
From the street a house is a high wall with a door somewhere along its uneven length and possibly a handful of tiny grilled peepholes sprinkled in a haphazard design across its surface. Some thirty feet above the ground there may be a huge cedar beam sprouting from the facade at a forty-five degree angle and supporting a triangular bay that juts out high above the street, providing the raison d'être for that vast expanse of virtually empty wall below it. With the exception of the door, which is usually studded in a mosaic of brass nail-heads, there is no suggestion of decoration or even of a preoccupation with the kind of surface given to the adobe or plaster that covers the wall.
The inside of the house is another matter. When you step into the glittering tile and marble interior of a prosperous Fez dwelling, with its orange trees and its fountains, and the combined pastel and hard-candy colors glowing from the rooms around the courtyard, you are pleased that there should be nothing but the indifferent anonymity of a blank wall outside–nothing to indicate the existence of this very private, remote and brilliant world within. A noncommittal expanse of earthen wall in the street hides a little Alhambra of one's own, a miniature paradise totally shielded from the gaze of the world.
In the less sumptuous homes the door necessarily opens directly upon the patio. Nevertheless, even here from the street nothing is visible but a short blind corridor which makes a right-angle turn before opening into the courtyard. This is invariable. Whether the women are visible or hidden, their presence and collective personality are constantly suggested by the diaphanous curtains of white muslin that hang across the doorways and around the canopied beds; it is impossible to imagine the color schemes in the rooms, too, save in relation to the women who live in them. The men are in and out of the house, day and night—but the women literally pass their lives inside the house, and this is evident.
A courtyard may have as many as three galleries that go part or all the way around it; the rooms can be reached only by going along the galleries. Stairways are steep, inlaid with mosaics of very small titles, and sometimes tipped with white marble threads. The house looks in upon itself; the focus of attention is the stone basin of water in the center. The women must have total protection from the world without. The architect, having provided this, is then free to become decorator, and can concentrate his attention upon the delights of applied geometric design in plaster filigree, woodcarving and paint. A large house may have several separate patios, each one multiple-storeyed and with many rooms; a humble house has a central open space with two or three rooms giving onto it. The very poor sometimes live in rooming-houses, each family occupying one room and having the use of that section of the gallery outside the door, conditions which necessarily give rise to disputes about rights to space and violation of private property.
Fez is still a relatively relaxed city; there is time for everything. The retention of this classic sense of time can be attributed, in part at least, to the absence of motor vehicles in the medina. If you live in a city where you never have to run in order to catch something, or jump to avoid being hit by it, you are likely to have preserved a natural physical dignity which is not a concomitant of contemporary life; and if you still have that dignity, you want to go on having it. So you see to it that you have time to do whatever you want to do; it is vulgar to hurry.
For all their religious orthodoxy and outward austerity, the people of Fez are not ashamed to be hedonists. They love the sound of a fountain splashing in the courtyard; on the coals of their braziers they sprinkle sandalwood and benzoin; they have a passion for sitting on a high spot of ground at twilight and watching the slow change of light, color and form in the landscape. Outside the ramparts are innumerable orchards, delightful little wildernesses of canebrake, where olive and fig trees abound. It is the custom of families to out there on a late afternoon with their rugs, braziers and tea equipment. One discovers groups of such picnickers in the most secluded corners of the countryside, particularly on the northern slopes above the valley. Not long ago on one of my walks I came across a family spread out in the long grass. They were sitting quietly on their reed mats, but something in their collective attitude made me stop and observe them more closely. Then I saw that surrounding them at a radius of perhaps a hundred feet was a circle of bird cages, each supported by a stake driven into the ground. There wee birds in all the cages and they were singing. The entire family sat there happily, listening. As urbanites in other places carry along their radios, they had brought their birds with them from the town, purely for entertainment.
The changes brought about during the past fifty-three years since I first saw Fez are relatively superficial; none has been so drastic as to alter its image. The medina is protected by the form of the land on which it is built; its topography is roughly funnel-shaped, and it is not likely to be bulldozed like so much of Cairo in the time of Abd el Nasser. Yet with the increasing poverty in the region the city clearly cannot continue much longer in its present form. Those of the original inhabitants who can afford it are moving to Casablanca, leaving the medina at the mercy of the impoverished rustics replacing them. A house which formerly sheltered one family now contains ten or twelve families, living, it goes without saying, in unimaginable squalor. The ancient dwellings are falling rapidly into disrepair. And so at last, it is the people from outside the walls who have taken over the city, and their conquest, a natural and inevitable process, spells its doom. That it should still be there today, unchanged in its outward form, is the surprising phenomenon.
Copyright © 1984, by Paul Bowles
One good reason to visit the fascinating ancient city of Fez, Morocco is for its annual Fès Festival of World Sacred Music. The 21st Fès Festival of World Sacred Music was held from September 9–13, 2015. [In French and English].
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