by Beth Arnold
An ongoing series about uprooting our lives in America and moving to France. For what's happened before, see previous Jours of Our Lives entries here.
I OPENED THE sliding glass door of our swish room in the Palais Jamais, which once was the palatial home of a grand vizier to the sultan. This posh hotel, an oasis in the Moroccan landscape, is one of my favorite places to stay in the world. As I stepped onto the terrace, the sun was up and shining, the air cool. I looked down upon the hotel’s manicured Andalusian gardens and sapphire pool and, beyond, to the ancient medina that sprawled across the panorama. Its warren of path-sized streets and buildings bloomed with the minarets of scads of mosques. We knew they were there but not in such numbers.
The morning call of prayers had been our crowing rooster that someone was up, while dawn still had the good sense to hold back. I slid back into bed while Jim showered. Within minutes, a flock of petite birds were hopping into our room, flitting up on chairs and the foot of my bed. No doubt they had breakfasted on the plates of nuts, fruit, cookies, and crumbs of croissants in the elegant Palais many times before, but no luck with us. Our stash was covered, though the brave little birds added to my curious morning sensation that some people unwittingly refer to as cheerfulness; or in this case, perhaps it was the dizzy delight of waking as a sultaness.
We took a short drive with a couple of stops along the way, but next was the medina, which I was dying for Jim to experience. I had taken this tour of Fes years before, and I knew how shocking this old center is to the Western sensibility. Picture a noisy human ant colony bustling through the business of the day. Enigmatic energy pervades the exotic sights, sounds, and smells that jolt the brain. Dyers of textiles, cutters and molders of brass trays and pots, weavers and woodworkers diligently work in dimly lit cave-like rooms with dirt floors to create the exquisite crafts for which Fes is known. Old wrinkled men with white beards and young men with black hair work briskly, and the traditions and skills are passed down to each new generation. The tanneries are outdoors with big vats of rank-smelling dye. One’s eyes are agape, senses standing on end—when suddenly you’re warned to jump out of the way for a donkey packing some sort of goods, even the garbage. No cars can get through.
The stalls of the sellers are jam-packed with fruits and nuts, djellabas and the cloth to make them, household essentials, spices, henna for hair dye and impermanent tattoos, brass works, and rugs. Fried fish, boiled eggs, breads, sweets, and brochettes are cooked and sold. Crates of live chickens are awaiting the ax or to be taken home by a buyer. The streets are alive with workers and shoppers, babies slung on their mother’s backs. Darlings, it is madly untamed though not in the fashion of the old American West. It is rather a sense that time has stood still (though the life within continues to turn at a furious pace).
The walls in the medina are centuries old and gloomy, so you can literally walk by a palace and never know. It’s always the interiors that reveal the fantastic colors, fabrics, mosaics, and tiles of this culture. We stopped at several mosque doorways to get a glimpse of the rich inner sanctums, but tourists are allowed into the Medersa Bou Inania, a deep-rooted theological college and a striking example of the fine Moroccan plasterwork and woodcarving.
One of the most beautiful palaces you can visit in Fes is the home of the rug cooperative Aux Merveilles du Tapis, which has a huge selection of old and new Arabic and Berber carpets. I must alert you: It is dangerous to be surrounded by such beauty. One sits on a lush banquette and is served a glass of steaming mint tea while a selection of handsome carpets is brought for her scrutiny. The clever merchants start with the new ones, which, let me tell you, are something to shake a stick at. Then they tantalize you with the old ones which have an opulent patina of age and design, a history of life that sings.
Aux Merveilles du Tapis
The last time I was in Morocco, one of my excellent guides from Olive Branch Travel told me the story of the women and their rugs. In the olden days, women were said to leave their house only twice—when they married and when they died. They might go to the hammam for a bath in the cover of night, but the point was that women weren’t seen publicly—not in the mosques or even when male visitors came to their homes. The ladies were hidden behind screens through which they could peer. Their only close contact with a larger world was with female relatives, and they used their spare time to weave rugs in which they told their stories in symbols. Creating them was their outlet, their means of self-expression in which they could connect with themselves and the universal spirits who cosmically saw and heard them. How powerful! Madame Loves-All-That (me) felt conjoined in their sisterhood, their language in art and woven voices. I didn’t buy a carpet back then, but we needed one now, and I had an idea this was my great opportunity. In other words, I set myself up. (I blame this penchant for acquiring beautiful things on my beloved mother and brother.)
Jim and I were drawn to the Berber pieces, which were patterned with tribal symbols and icons. Of course they were old ones. Jim stayed out of it, but after three hours of my-mama- was-Scotch/Irish haggling, we became the owners of les tapis de Maroc and at a miraculous third of the price from where we started. I like to bargain, but had never been at it like this—with pros. It was astonishing. Right place/right time/out of my mind, proud and pleased with myself. Jim tartly suggested the guilt would arrive later.
We consumed a delicious lunch starting with the typical first course of salads—various mixtures of aubergines, onions, courgettes, peppers, tomatoes, beets, carrots, olives, and beans slathered and cooked in olive oil and savory spices that define the distinctive Moroccan palette. Omar led us back through the snaking streets, and we made one last stop at one of the hand-painted ceramic shops. The plates, bowls, dishes, and mosaic tables of all sizes and shapes are another of the remarkable crafts found in Fes. I know which dinner-party-sized slab I want when I get my mas in the South of France.
What a brilliant, long, and exhausting day! But after freshening up, we continued on to dinner and maybe the best meal of our trip. La Maison Bleue is another old palace with a wonderful restaurant and rooms to be let where you can imagine Humphrey Bogart delivering his lines (this is one of my gauges for authentic and cool). Course after course of delectable food was marvelously delivered while mysterious North African music—the playing of lutes and the wailing of chant/songs—sounded through the room. The musicians danced while spinning the tassles on their fezzes.
AS I WENT to sleep, it was the voices of women—their chorus in carpets—that sang in my head.
This column is dedicated to my mother, Bobbye Ann McAlister Arnold.
April 5, 2004
Unless otherwise indicated, photos by Beth Arnold. Not subject to use without permission.
Beth Arnold lives and writes in Paris, where she produces her "Letter From Paris" new media project.
Jours of Our Lives illlustration by artist (and couturier) Elizabeth Cannon. To find out more about her, click here.
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