Fes (Fez), Morocco
June 23, 2019
“The soul is the weariest part of the body,” Paul Bowles wrote in his novel The Sheltering Sky set in North Africa. I took exception to that. The spirit was willing, but the flesh was fatigued and dehydrated, so much so that I slumped in the middle of a busy intersection in Fes – and slept. My body shut down for 15 minutes in the shadow of the center island’s stone monument. With the sun still high at 4:30 PM, I pulled my cap over my eyes and dozed off under the sweltering sky of Morocco.
That very public power nap got me back on my feet to complete the day’s urban trek. In Fes, it could involve a hike up a hill. While I was snoozing, a hilltop fort had caught Ki’s squinting, wandering eyes. We could barely make out people, the size of ants from this distance, walking around the sand-colored walls.
Was I up to climbing it? Though recharged and rehydrated, this lazybones bargained for a ride up, citing the late hour for a hike. The cabbie threw an incredulous sideways glance before driving us through the spiraling road up the slope. We realized the fort was not popular to foreign tourists – just the kind of place we wanted to visit.
Alas, the hilltop fort-turned-museum had just closed for the day. Borj Sud, the southern, less touristy twin of Borj Nord, was built by a rival kingdom centered in Marrakesh in the late 16th century. Both forts acted as strategic defense and control of the walled Fes el-Bali in the valley, now they were vantage points for panoramic views of modern Fes. In the old days, city gates were opened and closed as the powers that be watching from afar saw fit.
The lookout was at the right elevation and distance for surveillance of the citizens’ comings and goings. The hills, indeed, had eyes. The urban sprawl across the valley could be scanned in a single line of vision from where we stood. Even centuries before CCTV and artificial satellites, people lived under the spying sky.
Like clockwork in the late afternoon, the hill would come alive with the sound of adhan, the Islamic call to prayer, amplified by minaret loudspeakers, emanating from and echoing throughout the valley. We reached the hilltop just at that time.
From where I came it would be church bells ringing. Here it was more personal and urgent. It was a voice calling, a singsong chant I could feel on my skin like the gusts of wind swirling around me. The call to prayer was a prayer in itself, one that pervaded the space under the searching sky.
Ki excitedly called me to the opposite valley. The sound of adhan had dissipated in the whispering wind that blew to the vast, sweeping sky of North Africa. The emptiness was two-toned: dried brown of grass and olive green of trees. We were the only two souls looking out beyond the edge of the city.
Then it hit me. In this unguarded moment at a place of utter vulnerability, there was nowhere to run and no one to call for help or, at least, bear witness. As thoughts of two Scandinavian hikers beheaded by extremists in another Moroccan mountain crossed my mind, a man suddenly crossed my path as if from a mirage. He smiled and walked on. Whew! Actually, he came from a village I belatedly saw further on the plateau.
Evening was upon us, yet the sun remained relentless. Ki and I started down the hill on foot for lack of any form of public transport. The slope was dotted with olive trees just slightly taller than our short frames.
It was our first time to see unharvested olives still hanging from the branch. Tiny yet stubbornly green in this arid land, they thrived under the severe Moroccan sky. Small wonder, then, that the country was among the largest producers of table olives in the world.
Approaching the base of the hill, we came across unidentified (for the lack of signage) ramparts, most likely belonging to the larger ancient borj. Crenellations on the stone wall indicated it was a citadel, or kasbah, a ubiquitous structure all over Morocco. Unlike the hilltop borj, these ruins were seemingly forgotten and left crumbling on the hillside without protective barriers.
The dirt path leading to it was overgrown with weeds, which brought out Ki’s inner Indiana Jones. He proceeded to inspect and document our archaeological find with his phone. I fell far behind. Soon a group of women walked past and disappeared toward the main road as quickly as they came. It always caught me by surprise how people could seemingly appear out of nowhere here. I similarly left in a huff when I caught a whiff of fresh human excrement. The place was not entirely abandoned.
Back at street level at sunny 7 PM, we still had an hour or so of daylight left, but not enough time to walk back to our hotel before dark. Google Maps advised us to get on a city bus at the stop near Bab Jdid, the gate at the southern end of Fes el-Bali.
Ki tried his survival French on three armed police officers patrolling the area. They graciously waited with us and cocked their long firearms to flag down a bus. Normally, it never happened sans digital documentation, but taking photos with police was strictly prohibited in Morocco. We shot a quick merci and squeezed into the packed bus.
We had explored coastal Casablanca and Tangier, but it was in Fes that Ki and I filled our speck of space within a piece of limitless land and sky that was North Africa. The experience, equally exhausting and exhilarating, was tempered by perspective. At the end of the day, I concurred with the words of Paul Bowles: “How fragile we are under the sheltering sky.”