The Displaced Nation

A home for international creatives

How foreign is Fez? A travel yarn in two parts (Part 2)

We welcome back Joy Richards to The Displaced Nation for the second part of her travel yarn about a trip she made in May to visit a British expat friend in Fez, Morocco. In Part 1, Richards learns about the Moroccan concept of hshuma (forbidden, shameful) and reveals she rather likes “covering up.” In Part 2, she discovers she has an innate bargaining instinct while shopping in the Fez medina, but then an incident occurs on a day trip to the Roman ruins that gets her thinking…   

My traveling companions and I are about to go shopping in the Fez medina (walled city), and I wonder to myself: is this how I might feel if I were to attend a football match in England as a lone woman? Actually, women are even less obvious in Fez than they are in British football stadiums.

Morocco prizes its reputation as a “modern” country. It is so modern that the King of Morocco took a computer engineer from Fez, Salma Bennani, as his wife.

However, here in the Medina, where women wear traditional dress and all of the shopkeepers are male, the occupation of the King’s wife seems beside the point.

Shopping until you, or the price, drop

Not as confrontational as football but requiring almost as much as strategy and skill, shopping in Fez is an interactive game. Rarely will any item have a price tag on it, so buying does not happen quickly. Typically, the interchange goes something like:

“How much is this?”

“It is very beautiful.” Seller places the item into your hands. “You like?”

“It depends how much it is.”

“I give you best price. I give you very good price because your friend lives here.”

“What is your best price?”

“She” — gesturing to my friend — “is like family. I give you best price.” Seller begins to wrap the item.

“Don’t wrap it. How much is it?”

“200 dirhams, very good price, best in medina.”

“No, too expensive.”

“No, very good price.”

“100 dirhams.”

“No no. 200 dirhams best price.”

“Ok. No thank you.”

“For you 190 dirhams. Yes.” Begins wrapping again.

“No. Too expensive. 150 dirhams…”

This will continue, and may include either buyer or seller declaring that they are no longer interested and even walking away, until a price is agreed. Probably around 170 if the starting point is 200.

I start bargaining for a scarf, and somewhere through the process, I lose sight of the exchange rate and feel that haggling for ten minutes to get a reduction of 10 dirhams (about 70p) is worth it.

So I take the scarf and put it in my bag with the rest of my loot, the result of a morning’s hard bargaining.

As someone who has haggled over the price of a laptop in PC World (the UK’s largest computing store) — and done so successfully — I have slipped into this mode of shopping rather easily.

Somewhere in my memory is my Mum’s belief that any shopkeeper would “rob you blind if given half a chance.” As a child, shopping was frequently interrupted by Mum asking for a reduction in price on the basis of some imperceptible fault or inadequacy with the proposed purchase. Obtaining the reduction was accompanied by a sense of pride and challenging social injustice.

Ah, Mother, you would have been proud of me.

However as one of my traveling companions points out: “We are not in Kansas any more!”

No, not in Kansas, or in Northampton where my parents lived and I grew up — but I reckon my Mum could have popped on her headscarf, picked up her handbag and got her week’s shopping at a good price.

Mind you, she probably wouldn’t have bought her sausages at the stall with the camel’s head hanging up.

An excursion, and a close encounter

My English friend who lives in Fez suggests that we venture into the countryside to visit nearby towns and the amazing Roman remains of Volublis. We have a great day out. The roads are chaotic, and we feel fortunate to have a friendly and helpful driver, Mustapha, who repeatedly saves us from serious accidents.

But then, as we are driving past the orange farms on our way back to Fez, the police pull us over.

Mustapha has been talking to the police officers for some time and is clearly becoming agitated. He comes back for his wallet and informs us they claim he was speeding.

My friend asks him in Arabic if he has to pay a “back hander.” Yes, he has to pay 200 dirhams (probably 2-3 day’s pay for him).

He goes back over with the money, and the discussion grows even more heated. When he finally comes back, he reports that the policeman said: “You and your f***ing taxi with your f***ing tourists! You should pay 500 dirham. Perhaps we will get you stopped again.”

“These are our police,” he shrugs. “They do what they want and make money for themselves. We cannot trust them, and they are part of our government. It is not right.”

At that very moment, a 1965 country song by Roger Miller, telling of a swinging England with “bobbies on bicycles two by two” pops into my head. The reality it depicts is of course a long way from today’s Britain, where our police are accused of using excessive force in managing demonstrations and of taking payments from journalists for information.

But even if the British law enforcement system isn’t all squeaky clean, I know that when my partner was done for speeding recently, it was not due to the whim of a corrupt police officer. The evidence was fair and reliable, and the fine went to the court — not into the pocket of any policeman.

A plethora of questions, and precious few answers

I’ve been in Fez for a couple of days, and I still have very little idea of the forces that govern people’s behavior: the modern state and its representatives, the traditions of the medina and the controls of hshuma, or both?

Many Westerners are now living in Fez, some of whom are buying up cheap traditional properties. I wonder how they perceive fitting in to the future of this medieval city.

Reviewing the events of the past couple of days, I realize I have many more questions than answers:

  • Was it simply an accident that one of my female friends, who refused to be hshuma-ed out of smoking on the street, got hit on the hand by a stone?
  • Why does the babysitter my friend employs for her daughter, Francesca, have to stay the night rather than walk home through the medina?
  • Will the young boys who, according to some expat observers, sniff glue — and who now have access to satellite TV — uphold the traditional values? How many of Morocco’s young men respond to the call to prayer?
  • Moving on to the country’s young women: how do they make sense of the various and contradictory influences on their lives — and decide what to wear? What do they want, and are they allowed to want it?

The friend whom I visited, who is English and a single mother, told me that as a Western woman, she is a “third sex” in the Fez medina, neither male nor female in terms of what she is allowed and expected to do. She sees opportunities in this strange and wonderful place that would not be there for her in England. She also acknowledges that there will be a point when this way of living is too claustrophobic for her and Francesca.

Overall, Fez is a “find” for a tourist like me — I was delighted to find somewhere so exotic and so accessible from Britain. And, if I step back into my memories of traditional working class culture of the 50s and 60s, I think that we Brits were not always so different to the people of Fez medina. Our world has changed, and theirs is apparently changing now as well.

Or is it? I am left with a feeling that modernity poses a considerable threat to those living and working in this walled city, many of whom would find it easier to maintain the status quo of a traditional Muslim culture.

Would I go back to visit? Yes. Would I live there? No. When I said good-bye to my friend, I was sad to leave her. Our visit had been memorable as well as highly stimulating. I hope she can continue to live safely in her chosen city, and I also hope, and pray, that if the cracks in this fragile society become too wide, she will notice them and remember as Dorothy said, “There’s no place like home.”

Images (top to bottom): The markets of the Fez medina; camel meat for sale; the ruins of the Roman town of Volubilis (Oualili); and the Royal Palace at Meknes, about 60km north of Fez.

STAY TUNED for tomorrow’s interview with Australian author Gabrielle Wang, whose books for children and young adults encourage them to broaden their cultural horizons.

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5 responses to “How foreign is Fez? A travel yarn in two parts (Part 2)

  1. amblerangel July 26, 2011 at 4:39 pm

    What a great post! Loved it! I understand the third sex concept very well

  2. ML Awanohara July 26, 2011 at 4:53 pm

    Funny you say that — I understand the “third sex” concept very well, too, from my days of living and working in Tokyo. 🙂

  3. Jack Scott July 27, 2011 at 5:45 am

    A fascinating piece on a fascinating country. Turkey shares the same demographic time-bomb with her North African and Arab neighbours. Half of the population is under 30 and with too few jobs to go round the Devil might make work for idle hands. Young people across the Middle East are fighting for their daily bread as much as for political freedom. Turkey mitigates the risk with strong economic growth, conscription to keep the restless boys onside, a rudimentary social security system to dodge destitution and European Union ambitions to export surplus labour.

  4. ML Awanohara July 28, 2011 at 10:06 am

    How right you are to bring up the demographic time-bomb as well as the economic situation. Didn’t the young men of Britain start sniffing glue when unemployment was running high under Thatcher in the 1980s? But presumably Morocco’s — and Turkey’s — social controls are stronger than Britain’s — Britain being the ultimate post-industrial, post-modern society.

  5. Suzy August 14, 2011 at 1:11 pm

    I haven’t been to Fez, or North Africa for that matter, but it seems you found similarities between your home and a place with such stark differences. While I know Italy is much different, I can see those differences in dress and behavior for women in that country as well. I guess I feel you should be able to wear what you want, but some places you have to assimilate into that culture. The concept of the “third-sex” is an interesting one!

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