Our entry into Morocco was a long hot, dusty and eventful day (see "Crossing Borders, Crossing Continents") and we were relieved to arrive in Fes before nightfall. My wife usually organizes our accommodations and always does a great job, but in Fez she outdid herself. After 13 hours of travel by taxies, ferries, grandes taxis and an Alice-in-Wonderland-esque first stroll through Fes’ medina, we plopped our bags down at 9:00 pm in a beautiful, cool apartment within a dar, a traditional Moroccan house.
As far as I can tell a riad is a larger, multi-room house with a courtyard and central fountain, many of which have been converted into full-service hotels, and a dar is a multi-family house or apartment building for Moroccans. Our apartment manager described our particular apartment as a massreiya, a Moroccan “newlywed quarters” that each of the family’s sons stay in once they are married. Once the first son and his bride are able to get their own place, the second son moves in, etc. Our lodgings were cool and spacious and decorated with intricate arches, stonework and mosaic tiles. Many tourists stay in similar surroundings in a riad, but with a family of four our massreiya was a more affordable option and we liked the fact that we’d have a small kitchen and there’d be other Moroccan families within our dar.
A large family with many children lived directly across from us, our respective doors facing each other, four feet apart. We saw them often and exchanged salaam aleikums or had short conversations in French. When no one else was around their 6 year old would shake our hand, smile and politely ask for a coin. They had a teenage daughter who occasionally would round up her friends and stand in front of the downstairs door, waiting to get a look at my teenage son. As we’d walk by them and up the stairs to our apartment, we’d hear stifled giggles from the group.
Our apartment was near the center of the Fes medina, believed to be the world’s largest contiguous car-free urban area. It’s like taking a flat city and placing it into the bottom of a trash compactor: scrunching the urban terrain to create hills, transforming wide city streets into narrow lanes and alleys and having the same population in an area about one-tenth its original size. The entrance to our building was a battered, non-descript wood door that led to a dark alley. Occasionally we’d see tourists on a tour of the medina watch us enter our unmarked door in a dark alley and we could almost hear them saying Where are they going? We got to know our mercantile neighbors – the gregarious butcher, the sullen barber, the man who ran the market and sold us fresh baguettes each morning and the fellow who ran an Internet café with the world’s dustiest computer keyboards.
Fes in June is hot and just a twenty minute walk is enough to make you start sweating. We found ourselves gravitating towards the shadows as we moved through the medina’s labyrinthine alleys. As we walked though the heat, our massreiya’s cool stone walls and shuttered windows beckoned us, like a silent call to prayer. Although life in the medina was fascinating, the heat made us come back to our cool refuge repeatedly during our stay.