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March 26, 2001—Letter from Fex:  Back to the Future

We’re just back from Fez.

One of the four imperial cities of Morocco, it was for centuries the intellectual, religious and cultural capital of the country.  Heavy rainfall this past winter ended a long drought and the fields on the road from Rabat were green with new wheat.  Great swathes of brilliant red poppies, blue salvia and orange marigolds swept across the landscape like a super-charged pointillist painting.  As our Mercedes whizzed down the four-lane highway, we saw men in long djellabas herding flocks of plump, cafe-au-lait-colored sheep and women turning the earth with wooden plows.  The silver green leaves of olive trees shimmered in the sunlight.

Passing through an ornately tiled gate into 9th-century Fez is like falling through the looking glass. Fez el Bali is the largest medieval medina in the Mahgreb of North Africa.  Its labyrinthian maze of cul-de-sacs, dark alleyways and narrow cobblestoned streets, impossible to navigate without a guide, has been declared a world historic monument by UNESCO.  It is the home of the most vibrant and bustling marketplace in the world, thronged with vendors hawking everything from sneakers and day-glo toys made in China to glistening piles of olives and silver teapots for sweet mint tea.  One could spend weeks wandering through the craft workshops, which produce exquisite pottery, handloomed fabrics, and carved wood using painstaking, centuries-old techniques.  It is a conservative, intensely Islamic world where the haunting call of the muezzin echoes five times daily from the rooftops.

There are many mysteries in Fez, and on a single visit one can scarcely begin to unravel the tangled threads that make up life there. But a question that occurs to a traveller is how this hermetic, yet fabulously energetic city fits into the 21st century.  One answer may be that Fez is experiencing a genuine cultural renaissance that is drawing people from all over the globe to its gates.  Morocco has always attracted artists—the painters Delacroix and Matisse, the writer Paul Bowles and fashion designer Yves St. Laurent are just a few that come to mind. But after a decline of several centuries, Fez is thrumming with a new energy that is being felt far beyond the walls of the medina.

The signs of this renaissance are there if one looks closely.  We met one urbane artisan who, after studying in Paris and working in London, has chosen to return to the medina where he was born, with his English wife and small daughters.  They are meticulously restoring a stunning riad (house with garden), using his skill at carving plaster, which they plan to open as an arts center for visitors who want to experience the music, theater, cuisine and traditional handicrafts of Fez.  (His last commission was a carved plaster bathroom for Mick Jagger in London.)  One of Fez’s most successful events is the annual World Sacred Music Festival, now in its seventh year.  This festival attracts thousands, with a program that features gospel music from America, Zulu chants from South Africa, and Sufi chants from Pakistan and Egypt.

Going to Fez, we thought we were dropping into the past. Instead, we discovered an unexpected route to the future. More on Morocco in the coming weeks.


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