My bedroom was inspired by the deep hues and dark wood tones of a place I had never been to. In my mind, the aubergine purples, deep burgundies, rich fabrics, and fanciful pillows encapsulated my idea of an entire country. An epiphany came to me in a flash! I decided that I wanted to sleep in the desert. My travel ideas happen to be of the impregnable kind and so my mind was set.
It’s funny when you physically take off for a journey that your mind has already visited countless times. It was the height of summer and I anticipated being in a desert filled, sandy landscape for over 7 days. The knowledge that I was also traveling during Ramadan had my backpack filled with knee-length dresses, cover-ups and was altogether more conservative than I was used to for my favorite season.
I arrived to Fez prior to the start of a tour and I took a Petit Taxi to my hostel. As the instructions on my print-out indicated, the cab driver called the hostel so that someone could meet me at the entrance of the medina. A dizzying antiquated town of many twists and turns, the area right outside the medina wasn’t as bustling as I expected it to be at 5pm. My taxi pulled up and a gentle quiet soul with glasses met me wearing what looked like a male dress and pointy slippers. He smiled at me, and without a word carried my backpack through a short walk inside the medina. We arrived at the end of an alleyway and were greeted by a large upside down hand on an even larger wooden door.
Once we entered, I went to the check-in desk and my greeter offered me a glass of tea as another slim young man checked me in. “Okay my friend, that will be $12. Passport, please.” I handed him my passport and sat down admiring the open ceiling layout and mosaic tiles that surrounded me. “Normally, I don’t do this, but the workers aren’t here right now. But that’s how it is sometimes you know? Tell me where are you from?” “New York,” I answered. “Really? I would like to go there one day Enshallah, well we are done – here is your towel and your room is right here.” “Thank you, what’s your name by the way?” “My name is Aziz, if you need anything just let me know.” With that, I went to my room to freshen up and afterwards realized that I hadn’t eaten since my before my flight from Marseilles.
I went into the kitchen where Aziz was talking to my greeter. “Hi, excuse me,” I said politely, ” Do you know where I can get something eat?” Aziz replied, “It is Ramadan my dear, it will be very hard to find something – but if you like, you can come with me to buy food for when we break the fast.” “Sure,” I said excitedly. I couldn’t believe a simple question turned into a personal guide through the dizzying Fez medina! I felt a little like Andrew Zimmern from Bizarre Foods and Anthony Bourdain. From pastries drizzling with honey, to chicken kidney skewers, I asked Aziz what things were every chance I got and walked through with a man who had the midas touch and knew everyone. “I grew up here, so these people are my family. This is the way we have done things for centuries,” he told me as we picked up bread, chickpea soup, fruit and eggs from different vendors. “And what about the one who greeted me? What’s his name?” I asked realizing I never asked. “Oh Marjuan, he is my friend from when we were little, and now he works for me in the hostel.” Aziz kept it in the family and I felt humbled that I helped prepare our hostel dinner that evening (including clean-up) for the breaking of the fast at 7.
A bit later on, everyone headed to the rooftop for hookah and good conversation. Many of the travelers who were staying at the hostel had to go to bed early as they were leaving on a 6am train so that left me up there with the stragglers, until Aziz came upstairs to unwind. “You like shi-sha?” he asked me. “Of course!” I answered and I watched him and Marjuan set it all up. Medhi, another childhood friend of Aziz stopped by to hang out and to snore! We chatted the night away and turned in at around 2 AM, heard the late night call to prayer and enjoyed a wonderful night on the hostel’s rooftop.
It’s hard to believe I hadn’t even spent 24 hours in Fez before I had to meet my tour, but I learned a great deal. Marjuan was wearing a Djellaba (which Aziz helped me to pronounce correctly with proper Arabic accent: Jeh-la-ba) and babouche slippers. On the door, Hamsa hand (or Hand of Fatima) was a symbol of protection that was used to ward off evil. I saw Aziz give Dirhams out left and right on our medina market run without saying a word, or even waiting for a thank you. He also fed the entire hostel, “but only during Ramadan.” Way more than fasting, Ramadan was about charity and sacrifice. The second time I left I told Aziz I couldn’t wait to come back to Morocco and pay him a visit. “Enshallah, my friend” (Allah willing; or “God” willing), he said to me as I said goodbye until the next time.
Over the course of 11 days, the contrasting landscapes and amazing people blew me (and my preconceptions) away. I have a love affair with Morocco that even the hagglers in Marrakech could not shake. I can’t wait to visit my friends Aziz, Marjuan, and Medhi in the future and I know they’ll be excited to see me back on that rooftop.