Thursday, January 12, 2006

Rampage in Fez

My "guide" passed me off to a licensed Moroccan guide for the day in Fez. His name was Ahmed along with every other Moroccan male I met. Ahmed was courteous, intelligent, professional, skilled, and generally unlike my original "guide". He spoke excellent English. He was even honest, if by that you mean that he was open about the fact that he got kickbacks from some of the merchants he directed me to.

Ahmed took me to the Medina, an enormous and ancient walled city that still has people living in it. As I mentioned before, I wasn't all that thrilled in the beginning about visiting Spain and Morocco, but I was thrilled to see this ancient city for two reasons: first, because it was an entirely new experience. I had read descriptions of places like this, but until you see such a thing for yourself you can never really grasp what it is like. Second, I write fiction about places like that city, and the experience of actually being there will allow me to describe the place more vividly.

The streets were so narrow that one must often stand aside to let pass a heavily laden mule. We walked through deep dim canyons beneath massive yellowed walls that seemed to radiate the cold of the winter day. The streets were too narrow for any car. Even scooters could not traverse these streets because of the many stairs and steps, probably following the contours of an earth buried now for a millennium beneath the concrete. In many places the streets became caverns, roofed over by ancient builders seeking more space in the wealthy and growing city. The walls were continuous, high and massive, eighteen-inch-thick brick and mortar with an occasional block of embedded ceder for pliancy. There was no space between individual buildings; any break in the walls was another street. Old and unsafe-looking electrical cables snaked along the walls, often just above the small doorways --old for electrical work, but astonishingly young compared to the walls that they adorned.

Still, ancient as the city was, it swarmed with activity. Behind the heavy walls were shops and homes, workshops and temples, and little tea houses catering to somber rough-looking men. It was a working, breathing city, not a mere tourist setting. In consequence, the streets were overrun with men, mules and donkeys bearing burdens to such an extent that I was astonished at the energy that was spent in merely moving things from one place to another. Mules with baskets on each side on top carried food and supplies and raw materials into the maze of cobbled streets and carried out again the products of the craftsmen, many of whom worked with their hands very much as their forefathers had done a thousand years earlier. The narrower alleys could not even pass mules, and for them we had donkeys, intricately packed to make the most of their small size. Some burdens were too awkward for animals. Several times I passed a line of men carrying long boards and beams, raw material for some construction project, probably some sort of maintenance for the ancient buildings.

Shortly after we entered the walled city, a woman intercepted Ahmed and walked along with him for a few paces speaking with animated hands as I trailed them, wondering what she was saying. Ahmed told me that she had met a man before who wanted to buy her house and that the man looked like me, so she wanted to show me her house. I was still struggling to take in this new environment and maybe for that reason I found the experience so surreal as we were ushered into the woman's house, my mind confused, as I tried to sort out the odd story. Was this just what Ahmed said it was? But even accounting for differences in culture, it was just too odd to countenance.

I ducked through a low doorway and started up a flight of narrow winding stairs. My shoulders brushed both walls as I climbed. Perhaps Ahmed had meant that he was thinking of buying the house and that I was just along as he inspected it. Or was this a common tourist incident, a face-saving excuse for the woman to show me her house in exchange for money? Should I offer her a tip or would that be taken as an insult? I just didn't know enough about the culture to decide what to do.

The stairway terminated in a surprisingly large square room. Inside, the room was chilly but it had the atmosphere of a home. I can't describe the furnishings well because I was distracted by my speculations and by the young woman inside. I recall some sort of wooden loom. I seem to recall that there were two of them, or two different devices. Although I cannot say what it was that gave me this impression, I was quite certain that the looms were used to weave carpets. I think that they contained half-made carpets.

The girl was quite attractive and she seemed to be surprised by our entrance. We had caught her reclining in a large, deep alcove that seemed to serve as a bedroom. Perhaps she had been lying down and started to rise when her mother entered ahead of me. At the other side of the room was another alcove and on another wall was what looked like a third alcove that had been walled off for privacy, leaving only a small tunnel-like doorway. The woman, by motions, invited me to look inside this hidden alcove but I pretended not to understand, reluctant as I was to invade their privacy further.

The girl came out into the main room and then the woman and my guide led me up another flight of stairs. As I entered the stairway, I turned to look back at the girl and she met my eyes boldly for the first time. It was a striking experience. I conjecture that women of the Muslim world, through centuries of having to hide their face and body, have evolved the ability to attract men with just their eyes. Part of it may be cultural, but I think that selection would have played a part as well. Women who could attract men with their eyes would have an advantage over women with merely pretty faces or nice bodies. They would tend to end up with the most desirable men, usually the men best able to produce and raise healthy and safe children. Therefore the women with the most remarkable eyes would have had, on average, the most children that lived to reproduce, passing this feature on to their daughters and granddaughters. Perhaps this is why I found the eyes of the women of Morocco so striking.

As I climbed the stairs, another thought occurred to me: had the woman simply wanted me to meet her daughter? For what reason? Two rather different reasons occurred to me, but again, I was too unfamiliar with the culture to make a guess. The guide offered no help whatsoever, as he showed me the city from the flat roof of the woman's home. My mind was still spinning and so, again, I remember little of the view. I do remember noting that the center of the roof was only basketwork, loosely woven so that it could be seen through. I realized that the large "room" of the house had in fact been a courtyard, built to be open to the sky. It was now covered over --whether permanently or only for the season, I never learned.

By the time we got back downstairs I had pretty much decided that it was Ahmed who was in the market for the house, that I had merely misunderstood. The girl proceeded us outside to the street, leaving the two of us briefly alone for the second time as I followed her out. She actively sought to meet my eyes as I passed her and I smiled, the only flattery I could offer one whose language I did not speak. She smiled back shyly.

As Ahmed led me away through the streets, I tried to get him to explain what had just happened, deliberately not looking back at the girl; there was too much about the culture that I didn't know. Ahmed insisted on his first story, that the woman wanted to show me her house because someone who looked like me had wanted to buy it. Now I think that I should have tipped her.

Well that's it for today. I hadn't planned to tell the story of the girl with the striking eyes because I'm going to look enough like a hound when I talk about my date with the Spanish TV actress. Still, it was one of the more singular things about my trip so I decided to include it. I'll get to the remarkable salesman tomorrow.

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