It’s rare that hype meets expectations. Having read a dozen books on Fes and the Maghrib before coming, I knew I had set my expectations high and was bracing myself for disappointment. My experience in Egypt had taught me that today’s reality is far from the nostalgic past we read of before. The chaos of the market place and the struggles of life overwhelm the lives of people as a crust of harshness and mistrust envelopes everyone. But if you stay long enough, you learn that the crust is but a thin layer of dust which gathered and solidified over a beautiful diamond, easily broken away with a gentle scrub to reveal the soft and gentle nature the Egyptian people have innate within them.
So arriving into the city of saints, I expected something similar. As I walked off the plane, I was expecting to see the harshness of modern life etched on the faces of the workers. But Fes was something different; There was a deep serenity to its people accompanied by a penetrating gentleness which immediately draws you in. Unlike every other airport I had been to in the region, the overarching pictures of the King were strangely absent; it is Allah who rules these lands and the people knew that. As we queued up for the passport check, we spoke to a fellow British Moroccan whose parents had moved over from Fes. From the exterior, a judgemental person would say he wasn’t the most practising of people. Allah knows best of his reality, but his words of love for Allah, his religion and the city of Fes showed a deep love for his faith. “Fes isn’t what it used to be. Tourism has brought bad things to this city”.
As we came out of the airport, something was missing. Where were the airport workers rushing to force your bag out of your hands for your “convenience”? Where were the dozens of taxi drivers berating you to take you by the hand and “guide” you to the car? Instead, there was a quiet row of drivers with one man coming towards us and a billboard with all the prices listed. A small amount of bartering and a point towards to board quickly settled the price and we were off. Even in the markets later on, sellers would delightfully offer you a sample of their products to try before buying, showing no compulsion to any transaction after. One of them even turned to his friend and said “leave them to think about it without pressuring them”, turning around to busy himself with something else as we discussed what we needed. These lands were different to the rest.
As we set out into the New Madinah of Fes, our first stop was the local mosque for Asr salaah. It’s difficult to describe the peace of a masjid in a picture. Its secret cannot be captured by material lenses, and every photo looks disappointingly plain. The beautiful architecture is just a shadow of the deeper spirituality which overwhelms this place as the mosque fills with people who come to pray their prayers. This religion is a reality which modernity cannot kill. But, being the keen photographer that I am, I couldn’t help but try and capture something of the beauty this place holds. Neither a picture nor story can ever truly reflect the experience, but in the absence of anything else, it seems magnificent through the faintest of tastes.
As I stood there with my friend, an old, gentle man approached us with the light of piety gleaming from his face. Our dress and complexion clearly showed we were not from these lands, and his approach to us was to offer a welcoming embrace to the city he loves. I wish I had taken a picture of him, but I also know it would never do it justice. As I mentioned I was from Syria, his eyes instantly teared up and his voice broke over the suffering of our brothers there. Despite his age, he insisted he lead us around the local area to show us our way around. As we walked through the local shops, his constant duas and prayers for us showed the love which embued in his actions. We were his brothers old enough to be his grand children, yet he insisted on treating us as his honourable guests and show us the best of what this city had to offer.
Our final visit was to the family of my friend here in Fes. Only anticipating a short visit, we were presented with a roast chicken with Moroccan tea and sweets. There is not such thing as “just tea and biscuits” over here.
An experience is determined by the lenses you look at it with. I remember hearing a conversation by some non-Muslims who had visited Morocco. Their experience of Morocco and its people was so different to ours, but perhaps that was just a reflection of what it was they sought; alcohol and drugs. As our motto goes:
The least you get is what you ask for
Of course, nothing is perfect, but I often feel that our experience is just a reflection of what we choose to see and feel. As for me, there are many things which words cannot begin to describe. But from my travels so far, I know that the experience is simply what the person can make of it themselves and their ability to perceive the reality around them. For now, I think I’ll keep the Rose tinted glasses on.