City out of Time

Walk through the Bab Bou Jeloud, the Blue Gate, and wander through the streets and narrow passageways of Fez el Bali (Old Fez), and it’s not hard to imagine you’ve gone back in time. Fez is one of the world’s oldest continuously inhabited cities, dating back to the early ninth century.

Inside the walls of this ancient habitation, alongside buildings of stone, mortar, and wood, you’ll find palaces with elaborate tiled entryways. There are ramparts, balconies, courtyards, and apartments – all in the sand gray hues that intimate there is a desert not too far away. The cobblestone streets of Old Fez are a maze of alleyways and tunnels – too narrow for a car to get through. So the traffic is mostly people and donkeys. Here’s what it sounds like. Listen for the donkey driver’s cry of “Balek!” (“Out of the way!”)

More than 200,000 people inhabit the old city of Fez, in an area roughly one and a half square miles (3.9 square kilometers). For the folks who live here, it’s one enormous extended family. For a child growing up here, the alleyways of the old city are one extended playground.

Morocco is an Islamic country, and in Fez’s medina – that’s another name for the old city – there are literally hundreds of mosques. Five times a day you can hear the call to prayer throughout the city, but probably the best place to hear it is from a rooftop, where it’s just you, the pigeons, and a timeless sound.

The guerrab  dispenses water in the medina

The life of the medina hums right along, like a human hive. It’s easy to be drawn through the alleyways and tunnels replete with sounds and evocative smells, past sellers of fruits, herbs, spices, and foods of every description, including a major dose of dates and olives; past stalls and stores selling leather goods (supplied by Fez’s ancient tannery), sewing materials, carpets, ornamental brass objects, electrical supplies, school supplies, hardware, and yes, video games and cassettes. Like any venerable bazaar, it is the mold from which all shopping malls spring. Walking through the medina, you are accompanied by the floating attractions, such as the children carrying trays of dough or newly baked bread to and from the local bakery. And then there’s the guerrab.

Moving amid tourists and street hawkers, the guerrab carries a goatskin full of water and dispenses it in a brass cup to anyone who wants a drink. Along with the bell, his signature sound, the guerrab wears a broad-rimmed hat, fringed with tassels, and a costume sometimes bedecked with tiny mirrors. For a few dirham, the Moroccan currency, he’ll let you take his picture.

Street hawkers; the guerrab’s call and bell
Sounds of bargaining

On the streets of the old city, there’s a mixture of Western and traditional dress. Men still wear fezes in Fez, but you’re more likely to see them wearing a cloth or embroidered skullcap. Women are often veiled and wearing long kaftans.

In the ecology of the marketplace, tourists are both predator and prey, taking photographs at every opportunity of people who – for the most part – really don’t want to have their picture taken. In turn, the busloads of tourists who make their rounds through the medina are hit on by hawkers, stallkeepers and would-be guides. The sounds of bargaining ripple through the medina, and the merchants of Fez are master salesmen.

Rhythmic hammering at Place Safarine

Fez has a rich tradition of craftsmanship. Whole sections of the old city belong to artisans who work in brass, stone, textiles, wood, and leather.

The Place Seffarine is a bustling courtyard of stalls and workshops. Stone chiselers patiently ply their trade, and nearby men hammer intricate designs onto brass trays. Sometimes it seems as though the rhythm of one is picked up by another.

And then suddenly it’s dusk, and the trail of sounds and smells expands and intersperses throughout the old city. There’s magic in the air, and what better place to hear it than at the Blue Gate, the place where most people enter and leave the medina. In the throngs of humanity that parade by, and in the café patrons who sit and watch them, there’s an air of expectancy, punctuated by the excited chirping of the birds who roost here. It’s as if, in the midst of all this apparent chaos, there’s a last-minute chance to make some sense of it all. And for a fleeting moment, the music that is hidden in all things reappears.

The Blue Gate at dusk


Not that anyone needs an excuse to visit Fez, but a good one would be the annual Sacred Music Festival, which takes place in Fez every summer. Hamid Mernissi – owner of Sarah Tours – was responsible for introducing me to many of the wonders of Fez. He has also been instrumental in helping to organize and promote Fez’s Sacred Music Festival. For more information on the festival and traveling to Morocco, check out