I did not sleep well the first night. We were in a room in the basement, so it was nice and cool, but all night we heard the noises of the Medina.
The wild cats fought with each other. People passed by and stopped and talked and yelled. Construction workers worked to restore some of the collapsing walls. It was not quiet by any means, although my sister claims it died down at about midnight.
We woke up bright and early to go have breakfast upstairs. And let me tell you, the breakfast was, once again, delicious.
Our housemates were already eating, so we got our own table.
We were served piles upon piles of crepes, thin and layery with something sweet on the bottom, yogurt with fresh fruit in it, fresh orange juice, coffee, and another round corn-buscuit-type thing. All this came with honey, sugar, Laughing cow cheese, and preserves. We ate a ton. So good.
Here’s me in my Duggar-approved outfit (sort of…) enjoying my breakfast. Actually, as you can see we’d already eaten most of it. (And we all know my hair is not looking its best at this stage in my life, so let’s just move along.)
We had plenty of time to eat (since we got up there around 8:30…needlessly worried we would miss something or there wouldn’t be enough food left for us) so we had time to make our dinner plans with the lady who owned our guest house while we waited for our guide. We’d decided to go out for an expensive dinner at a place that had live belly dancing and other shows throughout a multiple-course meal. Little did we know that this dinner would be my sister’s absolute favorite part of the trip…at my expense.
At precisely 9:30a.m., our guide arrived snappily dressed and ready to take us on our private tour.
There he is with my sister (at the end of the day, obviously, once we’d all had time to bond). His name was Hakeem. He was, as he told us with no prompting, 33-years-old, single, and living with his parentsbrothersister-in-lawauntnephewgrandmother in a very crowded apartment outside the Medina. He finished his degree in Moroccan culture and history, and was working on his Master’s in English Language and Literature. He also planned to get his PhD. He joked that studying so hard is what made his hair start to turn grey.
He was enormously pleased to discover I had just finished my Master’s, and that I spoke Spanish, and urged me to continue studying at all costs. I liked him.
Hakeem showed us some amazing architecture and taught us about the historical aspects of the city. He also constantly cracked jokes and laughed at them himself with a breathy, Ernie-type laugh. He’d say things like, “The Medina was built in such a confusing way in order to confuse invaders, as well as tourists so they would have to pay for tour guides” (Ernie laugh.)
He took us back through the bustling streets where the same sights and sounds from the day before awaited us.
He took us into some traditional mosques where he explained the architecture (I was already somewhat familiar from my visit to the Alhambra). I had never realized before, although I should have, that in Muslim architecture, it is forbidden to use pictorial representations. That’s why everything—from the shapes to the numbers of things to the decorative writing—has meaning. It’s the complete opposite of a Catholic church which will have tons and tons of pictures and statues representing different biblical characters and stories.
This is an example of the writing. It is poetry or verses from the Koran.
This is me making a wish on a special “wish-making” place. I asked Hakeem if he was wishing for a wife, to which he Ernie-laughed. Moving on and ignoring the hair.
In addition to Muslim architecture, we also got to see the Jewish quarters and visit a synagogue that was recently renovated.
A little blurry, but that’s us inside the synagogue.
And those are our hands. We’re actually below ground where there is a tub where soon-to-be brides are “cleansed” and family members supervise from above.
Hakeem said that once, a government asked Morocco to turn over its Jews to which the king replied, “We have no Jews here, only Moroccan citizens.” I thought that was kind of cool.
Hakeem also took us to the local baker where families all bring their bread for one man to bake. Hakeem said bread is sacred in their culture, and if they find a piece on the floor, they pick it up and kiss it and put it up high somewhere.
Now to you or me, all that bread looks exactly the same, perfectly round and thick. But the baker (whose father was a baker, and whose father’s father was a baker) has all the family trays memorized by distinct markings.
We also went into a little preschool school house.
There, we tried to speak in Arabic to the children. They recited some lessons for us and we were asked to sing “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star” for them. My sister shied away, but I just burst out into song with no shame since singing to preschoolers is now my specialty.
When they were not speaking, the children would wait quietly with their arms crossed for further instruction. I was incredibly impressed with their discipline, which Hakeem told me is something that is instilled in children from a very young age.
It was fun to see those things around the city. But Hakeem, like any Moroccan tour guide, had an agenda. And this agenda was to take us to places where we would spend money. He received a commission for taking us to these places. I didn’t enjoy the high-pressure sales situations this created, but the man’s gotta pay for his education somehow.
So first, he took us to a family who made scarves from cactus silk.
Then, he took us to a tannery where they dip leather goods into pigeon poo, then camel pee, then different types of natural dyes made from berries and plants. As you can imagine, the smell was not pleasant, so they gave us mint leaves to hold over our noses. I practically shoved the mint leaf up my nostrils, but it did not stop the smell, so eventually I ditched the mint leaf and just dealt with it.
The white bins are the pigeon poo. The rest are the dyes. At the tannery, we ended up buying ourselves some reasonably priced sparkly Moroccan-type slipper shoes. They were about 100 Durham, or 10 Euros.
We walked through the store (with a salesman glued to my side who kept calling me, “My sister.” For example, he’d say, “Do you want to look at belts, my sister?”) And eventually we picked out a couple of cute leather purses, which the salesman confirmed were of the latest style. Really, I could have taken or left the purse, but my sister urged me so we grabbed them.
I asked sales guy, my brother, how much the purses were and I should have known I was in trouble when he responded, “Let’s just keep walking through the store and then we’ll talk about a deal later.” Well, he wanted quite a bit for those purses, and we did negotiate a little but not as much as I think we could have.
Signs that the deal did not go down in our favor:
- “My brother” embraced me in an inappropriate hug and pretty much tried to kiss me on the lips after we had made the deal.
- The cash register lady smiled broadly to herself while counting the money.
- They threw in some “free” key chains.
Well, we had learned our lesson. And Hakeem felt really bad when we mentioned jokingly a couple of times how we felt that we had made a bad deal. He kept telling us about the fine quality and assured us that we would not get a bad deal at the places he took us to.
But then he took us to look at pottery.
Yes, it was hand-made and hand-painted. Yes, it was so sturdy you could stand on it. Yes, it was pretty in some cases. But under normal circumstances, I never would have spent 14 Euros to buy my roommate a tiny little decorative dish. But at that point, we knew we had to buy something and suddenly Durham seemed like nothing to me. Just paper.
We walked miles and miles that day, through the Medina and the Jewish quarters. We were with Hakeem from 9:30a.m. until 5:oop.m. As we were having our afternoon coffee, we mentioned our dinner plans to Hakeem and I asked him curiously what we should tell a taxi driver to get him to drop us off at the right place after dinner was over.
Hakeem immediately became panicked at the thought of us returning late at night, alone, to the guest house. He suggested we get home before dark (which was impossible since dinner started at 9:30p.m.). Then he went through what we should say over and over and where we should walk. He taught us to say, “No thank you” in Arabic; he said anyone pestering us would respect if we said that to them calmly. But then, we told him what restaurant we were going to and he said that he lived right by it and knew the owner (Hakeem knew everyone, it seemed.) He said he would stop by that night and make sure we had a safe way to get home.
He also offered to be our body guard for the next day, or to just take us around to museums. We didn’t have any plans, and while I was fond of Hakeem, I wanted some less-structured time to just hang out. He really was impressive, though. In a city where people work with their hands producing textiles and food and goods, and where professions are passed down from generation to generation, here was a man who had focused on education. Not that either path is right or wrong, but it seems it would take a lot more discipline and dedication to become as well-educated as he was in a city like Fez and a country like Morocco.
“Do you think Hakeem really liked us, or do you think he just wanted a big tip?” I asked my sister after we got back to the guest house.
“It’s hard to tell,” she responded.
“I guess we’ll see if he actually shows up tonight at dinner.” I said.
Many surprises were in store for us that night at dinner.