Tuesday, July 17, 2012

So, You Want to Restore a House in Fez?

Christina Ammon is a travel writer who recently spent several months in Fez. In a fine article written for Oregonlive, Christina explores the often complex issue of restoration in the Fez Medina. We republish an excerpt, with permission.

photo: Christina Ammon

Restoration in Fez, Morocco, is a balancing act

The 1,200-year-old Medina in Fez, Morocco, may be car-free -- but taking in its exotic sights while hopscotching around donkey droppings is the pedestrian equivalent of distracted driving. I'm overwhelmed: drawn toward a pyramid of bright lemons, repelled by a heap of steamed snails; enamoured of silver teapots, then shocked to come face to face with a severed camel head hooked on a butcher's booth.

I'm on my way to meet David Amster. Although the American expat directs Fez's Arabic Language School, his passion for "old things" puts him squarely amid recent efforts to restore the Medina.

Fès-el-Bali ("Old Fès") was declared a UNESCO world heritage site in 1981. It's easy to see why: Among its 9,500 alleyways are stunning mosques, the world's oldest university and lively souks, or markets. Fès-el-Bali is considered the best-preserved medieval city in the Arab world, the cultural equivalent of an old-growth forest.

But the centuries are taking a toll. As I tread the uneven cobblestone toward Amster's house, I note the ageing physical structure of the Medina. Shop doors are askew. Hand-chiseled tiles called zellij are faded and chipped. Old wooden beams collect the dust of ages. But while in some places the wear and tear adds to the aesthetic, in other places it's precarious: Ceilings bow, and walls fissure. Some structures look downright dangerous and, in fact, are. Houses in the Medina regularly collapse, resulting in fatalities.

More often than not, local residents lack the money to make major repairs. Fortunately, the U.S. Millennium Challenge Corporation and the Moroccan government, working with the local agency ADER-Fès, are helping fund the preservation of the Medina. On a smaller scale, foreigners are restoring riads (traditional houses with courtyards), often turning them into hotels or -- as in Amster's case -- private residences.

But as the overhauls proceed, restorationists confront an important question: How do you usher a medieval town into the 21st century without turning it into a museum for tourists?

I pass a rose water seller, hop a puddle and press against a wall to let a donkey pass before finally arriving at Amster's 250-year-old riad. Inside is the most glorious bachelor pad I've ever seen.

From his courtyard, we gaze up to an open three-tiered structure. Daylight pours through the open roof, highlighting wrought-iron railings and embossed wooden door frames. What the house lacks in basic amenities (like a working kitchen), it makes up in small wonders. A stone wash basin sculpted from a Roman column sits upended on the floor, and a collection of old wooden doors leans against a wall. There are a mortar and pestle, a Sufi money box, an old butter churn and a stone carved toilet seat in the corner.

"I'd offer you a drink," Amster says after our tour. But true to bachelor form, there's nothing in the fridge except a stack of antique textiles. "Keeps the moths off," he explains.

Before we set off to his favorite cafe, I point to a deep fissure over the door. "Not all cracks are evil," he explains. Vertical cracks are stable, whereas horizontal cracks are prone to buckling.

Amster is a purist when it comes to restoration and believes in doing just enough to stabilise the structures and little more. He sees beauty in the Medina's time-ripened walls: the deep stratas of peeling plaster and paint, the weather stains of rainstorms and the crystals that form when lime seeps through and collects on the facade. In Amster's view, a scuff mark left by an overloaded donkey rounding a corner too sharply or a worn-out zellij step in front of a mosque is not a blemish. It's heritage worth preserving. Not everyone agrees.

"In some ways the preservation of the old is an elitist concern," he concedes as we walk toward the cafe. The average Medina housewife would happily swap out her zellij countertop for easy-to-clean tiles and modern accoutrements. Better still, she'd prefer having enough money to move out of the dark Medina to the wide, bright streets of the surrounding Ville Nouvelle, or New City. "Moroccans generally don't think of old and worn as cool," Amster notes.

Read the full article here: Restoration in the Fez Medina

Christina recommends further reading: For a glimpse into Moroccan culture and into challenges and rewards of restoring a Medina riad, A House in Fez by Suzanna Clarke is an enjoyable, fun and rewarding read.


No comments: