Sunday, May 19, 2013

Travel Writing About Morocco ~ The UK Independent almost gets it right

Over the years The View from Fez has run an occasional series on travel writing about Morocco. We have given bouquets to the best and brickbats to the worst. It's been a while since our last travel writing story as a majority of travel stories lately have been well researched and written. 

A small part of the massive Fez Medina

However, this week we came across a piece on Fez by Stephen Bayley from the UK Independent. It is certainly well written, however, at times pedantic. Stephen's piece has all the hallmarks of an embedded journalist. His reflections, while sitting with a "large glass of Celliers de Meknes syrah and a view of the kasbah" - are amusing, if not always accurate. He starts off with a bold assertion about the name of the city...

It's Fès, not Fez. The latter is a hat of Turkish production, a dark red truncated cone with a tassel, not much favoured by the locals, despite what some guidebooks tell you. And Fassi is what the citizens of Morocco's fifth city call themselves. The confusion with the name is one of several misunderstandings about this astonishing place. Nineteenth-century orientalists, French expeditionary soldiers, drugged-up Americans of the Beat Generation (who enjoyed a cannabis jam known as majoun, taken internally) all knew Fès, but it has not secured a place in popular imagination in the same way as Marrakech.

For the record, the name of the city is Fes or Fez (Arabic: فاس‎ Moroccan Arabic: [fɛs], Berber: Fas,). If you are French you can write it Fès. The point is that as a transliteration from the Arabic, you can take your pick. As a local photographer put it, "Fes, Fez or Fas, we don't mind - jeeb laz ou l'caz - come for something good, or just leave!"

Access was always a problem: the erratic rail link from Tangier and Casablanca was an impediment to all but the intrepid, then British Airways failed to make a service from Gatwick work. Now a twice-weekly flight by Ryanair from Stansted gives us all the chance to be an explorer.

It is obviously a long time since the intrepid Stephen Bayley travelled by train to Fez. The services between Tangier and Casablanca are inexpensive and go almost hourly. There are also good (CTM) bus services and if you feel like a treat, a trip from Casa to Fez by car is available for around 1,500 dirhams. Ryanair is not the only airline and flights from a number of European cities make coming to Fez, either directly, or via Casablanca a low cost trip.

Part of the huge slipper souk in Fez

This is not a city abandoned to the fey pleasures of frivolous European travellers. Instead, it teems and squirms: urgent but polite, and elegant while often rough. The souk combines filth and mystery with the medieval sense which only a sweating Satanic blacksmith in a carbonised vault and a man next door specialising in severed goats' hoofs can bring. Even lawyers sit in cubbyholes in the souk.

It is this orientalist view where the writing gets carried away. For a start the Medina of Fez contains many souks (markets) - slipper souks, vegetable souks, ceramic souks, leather souks and so on - and "filth and mystery" are in the eye of the beholder. Rubbish collection in Fez is on a daily basis, which few cities in Britain or Europe can claim. And few of the lawyers I know would appreciate their offices being described as "cubbyholes"!

Fès food is an anomaly. There is a weird mismatch between what's abundantly available in the souk and what appears on menus. The souk teems with sellers of herbs, spices, fried fish, lemons, escargots, goat, tripe and artichokes, but restaurant menus are repetitive. Boiled salads – including nerveless cauliflower – are served in miniature tagines they were evidently not cooked in. Insipid grey "chicken in sauce" appears everywhere. I looked in vain for harira (the ethnic soup) or méchoui (a whole cooked lamb) or any sense of freshness and precision in the cooking. Solemnly, our guide said, summoning-up unhappy memories of things ill-digested past: "In Fès, one does not eat fish." Still, smells memorably define the souk. Lemon verbena is an insistent presence, but so too is donkey.

This is perhaps the strangest observation in Stephen's piece. That he couldn't find harira is a mystery as is his failure to find fabulous food. Maybe he needed to escape from his guide and the up-market restaurants and check out the food stalls and street food cafes. While many of the so called "palace restaurants" serve up the kind of tourist fare he mentions for coach loads of package holiday tourists, there are wonderful alternatives both in the Medina and the Ville Nouvelle.

One of the many food souks

That someone actually told him that "In Fès, one does not eat fish", is beyond belief. Not only are the fish markets stocked with wonderful fresh fish, but there are also local treats like the fresh trout from the Atlas mountains, John Dory fillet tagine with saffron and lemon confit, lobster, spider crab and the famous Oualidia oysters.

Fresh fish in Fez

Always there is music half-heard through walls. And the lingering memory of wondering if I have ever felt more clean than after the hammam. We soon learnt that the medina is not as un-navigable as they say. After a day you can find your way and there are no risks, apart from the chance acquisition of a carpet.

But you have doubts. Why, when mint tea is so popular, has no one made a teapot which pours efficiently? Most times, the liquor escapes more readily from the loose-fitting lid than the congested spout. And what is the psychology of a modernising country which insists on making Berber slippers, camel saddles, leather accessories, djellabas and carpets which no one ever willingly buys?
One does feel sorry for Stephen and his loose-fitting teapot, his lack of harira and the fact he didn't understand why people buy djellabas, carpets and slippers. About 90% of the goods produced in the Medina are bought by Moroccans, many of whom (whose teapot lids fit better) do like to wear slippers and djellabas. The Fez Medina is a living, working Medina with thousands of artisans producing goods which are consumed. That a camel saddle might look like an exotic addition to someone's European apartment, does not mean it's not needed on a camel.

You can read the full text of Stephen Bayley's piece here: Keep it under your hat, but Fès is for real

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HK Jen said...

My thoughts exactly. We're also fed up with the CRT being in cahoots with the big cheeses in town and sending any journalist who contacts them to either Maison Bleue or Palais Faraj.
Fair crack of the whip and all!!

Morocco travel said...

Even I had heard that in Fez they don't eat fish but to my surprise they do. One cannot know the truth until they go morocco and travel to different places.