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december 3, 2004 -> Rabat and Fez: morocco  

Rabat is unlikely to feature in a one (or even two) week tour of Morocco.  Greatly enhanced by the Almohad Dynasty (12th-13th century CE), it is one of the Morocco's 4 “Imperial” cities, but much of modern Rabat is the invention of the French Protectorate, which administered most of Morocco from 1912-1957.  Today, Rabat is the capital of independent Morocco, and like many other “new” capital cities, is notable for its cleanliness and modern architecture, but derided for its perceived lack of soul.  We had come to Rabat for one reason only: to get our Brazilian visas. 

The first view of Rabat that a visitor is likely to see is also one of the most impressive.  Emerging from the immaculate Rabat Ville railway station, one is amazed by the wide avenues, the modern buildings, the corridors of tall palms.  Here, young men and women wore western dress (though women still wore the headscarf), and self-important men hurried along in dark suits.  It was hard to find a man in a Jedi robe.  I had laughed when I read that King Hassan II had been fond of saying that Morocco was like “a tree whose roots lie in Africa, but whose leaves breathe in European air.”  In Rabat, the saying seemed to make a little sense.  And Rabat was not without its important historical sights, either. 

The astoundingly ornate mausoleum of Mohammed V stands next to the 12th century ruins of the Hassan II Mosque, a field of fractured pillars that once held up an enormous prayer hall.  At the other end of the pillars squats the mosque's incomplete, rectangular tower.  It is 16 meters wide, which (following the rules of Almohad architecture) indicates a planned height of 80 meters – taller than the Grand Mosque in Cordoba, Spain.  From the patio beneath the tower, we could see across the harbor to the old medina with its crenellated 17th century walls and gigantic wooden entrance gates.  Rabat's souks were nowhere near as large or exciting as those of Marrakech, but the prices were better, and the store owners much more relaxed.

The Brazilian consulate was not easy to find: street numbers in the embassy district appeared to have been allocated in order of construction.  When we arrived there were no other applicants in the reception hall.  Apart from the secretary, there didn't appear to be anyone working either.  We filled out our forms and prepared for a long wait.  What exactly, we wondered, did the Brazilian Ambassador to Morocco actually do?  A few minutes later, a jolly man with a fleshy face and grey hair called me to his office.  He ordered tea for the three of us, lit up a cigarette, and chatted with me amiably as he processed our application.  He seemed very relaxed, and I told him so. 

“Yes,” he drew on the cigarette, “But last week was horrible!”

He explained that the Consulate staff had been busily preparing for the King of Morocco's state visit to Brazil, which included a few nights on a private island near Rio (owned by an eminent plastic surgeon.)  The King and his family had just left Morocco; the hand-off of responsibility from the embassy to Brazilian officials had been made.  He asked about our itinerary, and grew wistful when we mentioned northern Brazil.  He was born and raised in Recife.  Just two hours after we arrived, he handed us our visas.  We couldn't believe it.  We had been expecting a two or three day wait.  The next morning, we boarded a train for Fez - the capital city of the Merinid Dynasty (13th – 15th century CE.) 

The hotel touts of Fez reached new levels of proactivity.  We were accustomed to knots of flier-clutching touts accosting us as we exited buses, trains, or taxis.  But the Fez touts actually solicited business on the train itself, hundreds of kilometers from Fez!  In a scene that grew ever more hilarious, a series of earnest young men entered our cabin and sat down.  After a few minutes, they would venture a “Hello!” or “Are you English?”  Wind-up stories of American friends, English teachers, family life and tourism experience would follow.  Finally, they would tell us of the excellent, cheap, perfectly-located hostel owned by their father, uncle, or best friend.  The third tout actually collared the second, much younger tout, and gave him a scolding in the corridor.  “We're relatives,” he said unconvincingly when he returned to the cabin. 

Unfortunately, Fez was a dump.  There were piles of trash everywhere.  This “Imperial” city needed a royal clean-up.  The old city walls were stained and crumbling; they didn't look like they would make it another century.  The money and attention that had been lavished on Marrakech had largely ignored Fez.  Across the street from our hotel was the fading – though still grand - home where Morocco's Declaration of Independence had been signed.  Next door to the house was a US$400 a night riad, which I toured with the manager.  From the terrace, we could look down into the historic courtyard.  “It's a shame,” he admitted, and suggested that public funds and international aid were finding their way into the pockets of unscrupulous officials. 

Between rain showers, we toured Fez with Aziz, a licensed guide who spoke English, French, German, Arabic and Berber.  The highlight of Fez was a visit to the tanneries, a reeking honeycomb of colored vats where cow hides were tanned and dyed.  Half-naked men scrambled across the vats like worker bees – it was hard to believe that this archaic industry still existed.  We stopped at the entry portals of several famous mosques and schools, but were not allowed inside.  Aziz was friendly and knowledgeable, but increasingly distraught at our lack of purchases from commission-paying shops.  When we said goodbye on the second day, he desperately tried to sell me a wood-framed mirror that he had brought from his house.  He kept saying that I had expressed interest in such a mirror, but I was sure that I hadn't.  Only later did I remember that he had pointed to a mirror somewhere in the souks and said, “They are beautiful, aren't they?”  I might have mumbled affirmation.  It was a Jedi mind trick. 

We ended up staying in Fez for five days; mostly spent catching up on our journals and updating the website.  My favorite place in Fez was the rooftop of the Kasbah restaurant, a voyeuristic perch with views over the triple-arched “Blue Gate” that led into the branching lanes and alleys of the souks.  Several evenings I sat alone on the cold terrace, listening to Arabic trance music, smoking the sheesha (declining the hasheesh, which I only just realized is sheesha in reverse), and entranced by the daily routines of the yogurt seller, the bread vendors and the restaurant touts.

Scott

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