Fes, Morocco, Sunday(?), 22 May 77
It seems like only yesterday that I posted my first letter.
Mon 23 May. That's as far as I got the other night before being distracted by conversation and called upon to play Master Mind and backgammon.
Today has been a "rest day" in Fes (fez, the cap, is apparently a Turkish invention and no relation, though there are plenty to be seen here), while the driver has been fitting the auxiliary drive shaft for 4WD etc. Besides, it is quite a fascinating place, formerly the capital of Morocco, divided into 4 sections: the old Arab part dating from C9, the Berber (desert/mountain people) part from C13, the Jewish quarter (from when they were thrown out of Spain in C15) and the European (French) part from C20 (1923-1956). We had an Arab/Berber guide who, I am certain, got a cut of all our purchases, mostly sheep and camel-hair blankets and jalabas (men's robe with hood, good for desert?), the female version of which is a kaftan.
We watched combs being filed out of hot pressed horns, all manner of other artisans and traders and bludgers at work, a tannery in the open air, for which, however, we were provided with mint leaves to stick up our nostrils and, to be sure, something was necessary. "Our" girls were made up in Berber fashion with markings on cheeks, chins and noses with mascara to the immense amusement of all the locals. We all prayed in Arabic for good weather with our fingers dipped in the fountain of a C14 religious university rather in the style of the Alhambra (with the Koran written all round the walls), and drank the local specialty of almond-milk with ice cream.
The Medina (or bazaar) is the oldest part of the city and is an indescribable maze of dark, smelly alleyways lined with arrtisans' shops and every sort of merchant's shop and peopled by thousands upon thousands of milling locals, some busy, many idle, most dirty and noisy; amongst them, touts for all sorts of enterprises and, no doubt, pickpockets and thieves various; also overladen donkeys and mules. It takes some getting used to again to be quoted prices 100-200% above that finally accepted, and one is always certain that even that is far above the "proper" price. Arabs are the world's masters at haggling. I found this medina more interesting (and more genuine) than the Grand Bazaar in Istanbul and it seems at least as big. I'm informed that Marrakesh is even more interesting. We also saw a carpet factory with girls as young as 6-7 tying 40,000 knots/sq. metre.
Needless to say, Morocco has been a rewarding experience, from the moment all our 9 bottles of wine, 8 bottles of whisky and 12 bottles of cognac were revealed by a border inspection, through the uncannily Australian-like countryside of gum trees and wheat (and sugar cane and cork trees and goats) to the fascination of the markets, such as one we saw yesterday at Ksar-el-Kebir with veiled women, incredibly overloaded donkeys and mules, inquisitive children etc. We haven't seen many camels yet (must be nearer the desert) and, also surprisingly, the weather has been anything but scorching hot. There's time yet.
We're back in the lands of kebab and flat-topped houses, even made, in the countryside, of straw and mud, as in so much of Asia. The land in the north looked surprisingly fertile, but haphazardly farmed. Agricultural exports, apparently, are second only to phosphates (from Spanish Sahara). The women colour their scalps, palms and soles red with henna, supposedly for aesthetic reasons. The French language of the lower classes is rather scanty, but English does just as well in the hustling bazaars.
Tonight we are supposed to be going out for a subsidised meal in an old "palace", in traditional Moroccan style.
Tomorrow we leave on the next stage - 3 weeks to Kano in Nigeria, across the Sahara. If it interests you, we are to take the "northern" route to Oujda, Sisi-Bel-Abbès, Laghouat etc. Tonight will be our second night in this camping ground - our last "luxury" stop for a long, long time (though the empty swimming pool and cold showers were a disappointment to some). The night before last we slept on somebody's farm in the middle of nowhere and made friends with the goatherds.
0700 24/5. We have a late start this a.m. (0900 departure) on account of a late night last night and more work to be done on the truck. The driver has promised that it's the last sleep-in for a long time. Last night we left a guard on our children-surrounded truck in town and wandered through filthy alleys to a restaurant of unimagined oriental luxury in an old harem palace where we lay back on cushions and listened to music being played and watched a fountain in the central courtyard through Moorish arches, and were served Berber soup, kebab and cous-cous by a black Berber waiter (servant?) in red uniform with fez.
The local rosé was excellent, as was the cous-cous. After the meal a dancer/contortionist/juggler writhed about the floor doing balancing tricks to the sound of music with our tea-tray on his head which, to the acute embarrassment of us all and no less to his, I'm sure, he dropped on the mosaic floor and smashed to pieces. He blamed the unevenness of the floor. Our drugged guide claimed he was drunk. Anything is possible here.