Fez : 1200 Years Old

Today the Fassi (the inhabitants of Fez) and the rest of Morocco & the Maghreb celebrate the 1200 anniversary of the old imperial city’s foundation. More details on the celebrations here. As Fez is a city dear to my heart, here is an extract from a longer talk celebrating the city, and a picture of Bab Boujloud, the gate where much of the celebrating will go on. I’ll add a little picture gallery of Fez tomorrow.

FEZ — City through Time & Space

– A city is time. All the time. All the times. Slow, fast. Viscous, smooth. Chronopolis. –

These are but first notes towards a longer something on Fez, the Moroccan city & its articulations through its history, architecture & literature over time. I spent much time in that city over the years and want to, need to return, or better, to turn around this city in a bowl in the shadow of Zalagh mountain, again and again, as it is one of the places in the world — at least as far as I know — that most fascinatingly combines the oldest and the newest.

How to write today about a place like Fez raises the question of genre: i.e. what kind of essay, if it is an essay, is this to be? An ethnographic essay? A theoretico-critical construct? Or a chronicle? A traveler’s diary or “relacion” or, maybe more accurately, a “rihla” as the Arabic travelogue is called? But I could not open my rihla the way Ibn Battuta did his: “I left Tangiers, my birthplace on Thursday, 2nd Rahab, 725 [14 June 1325] being at that time twenty two years of age, with the intention of making the Pilgrimage to the Holy House [at Mecca] and the tomb of the Prophet [at Madina]. I set out alone, finding no companion to cheer the way with friendly intercourse, and no party of travelers with whom to associate.”

No religious pilgrimage is implied in my travelogue, even if there was indeed a moment of true awe on my last visit, when a Fassi friend showed me a small, tiny, tilting, heavily braced structure and told me that this was where Ibn Arabi, al sheikh al-akhbar, had worshipped & spent daily time in during the two years he lived in Fez. It was here that Ibn Arabi finished a major text, Al Kitab al-isrâ, The Book of the Night Journey in 1198. This was another travelogue, but one whose title — the word “isrâ,” night journey — locates it squarely in the Islamic tradition where the term alludes to the episode in Mohammed’s life when the latter was miraculously transported one night from Mecca to Jerusalem and from Jerusalem to the Divine Throne, a distance of “two bow shots or less” from the deity. Now Ibn Arabi maintains that this trip is not reserved for the Prophet — that his “inheritors” can do it as well, with this difference: that while Mohammed did the trip physically, the inheritors can only do it mentally/spiritually.

Be that as it may, during my stays in Fez I mainly wrote poems, plus a few pages of diaristic notes on the town & the people I met, as well as a number of letters to my close ones back “home” and many emails to various friends and acquaintances, and, finally took some 200 photographs which remain uncatalogued to this day. How to consolidate all those already written & visualized takes plus what the process of reading & thinking about Fez brings up? For the occasion, and not wanting to start with a tourist map, let me try a little act of the imagination.

First, THE OUTSIDE. If Salvador Dali had designed an hourglass — though in this case its other name, based on what runs through it, may be more apposite, i.e. the sandglass or sand timer — he could have done worse than to inspire himself by the shape of Fez: Fez-el-Bali, the old medina, the oldest medieval town still in full socio-political function (the historical & spiritual capital, even if Rabat is the modern bureaucratic capital), is the top bulb or upper reservoir. The lower reservoir would be the Ville Nouvelle, the New Town built on the baking plain to the south-west of Fez-el-Bali by the French starting in the early years of the protectorate, and still expanding today. In between, the “goulot d’étranglement,” literally the stranglehold bottle-neck, is Fez el Djedid, or New Fez, which at its narrowest point, where it links to New Town, consists of one large 4-lane car-artery in the center, a smaller vein running east of it and the train tracks running west of center through meadows beloved by the 100s of storks that live in Fez.

Strategically situated at the narrowest point, on a small plateau, an open space visible from both bulbs, there is a large rectangular parking lot with at its center a square restaurant straddling the times: shaded, outside tables, belonging to an older Mediterranean (if not necessarily fassi architectural) dispensation arrayed on all sides of a square building recognizable everywhere even if the tall neon Arab script on the golden arches didn’t announce it as a McDonald’s. Though there is no “’” in the Arabic word as spelled out on the sign, the final possessive “s” of its English grammatical mode has been faithfully, incongruously and meaninglessly transcribed into the Arab letter “seen” directly attached to the “daad.” In the translation of the name, the possessive quality has been made invisible, lies hidden in the transcription as a meaningless “ess” sound, the hissing snake of late capitalism?, bringing to mind Frantz Fanon’s observation that “the business of obscuring language is a mask behind which stands out the much greater business of plunder.” (here the slide wld have been useful)
But how much is this critique of US commercial venture based on personal vexation? Isn’t it true that one reason to travel outside this country is to finally find a place where all is not the same, architecturally and commercially speaking. (Remembering here too my immense annoyance when in Beijing I finally reached the heart of the old Forbidden City, the hidden secret center of the Kingdom of the Middle, only to discover right smack in that bull’s eye a well-known Seattle based coffee-shop franchise.) And for sure, the Fassis may not like the American-ness of the McDonald’s, but they like the modernity of it — especially those from the lower bulb, the French built New Town; the inhabitants of the upper bulb, Fez-el-Bali, economically poorer in the majority, and as conscious inhabitants of an old medina, will frown more at their children’s demand to be taken there — though many will give in and bus it or walk over on a holiday for a McDo — as people are want to say here, using the French language filter & hip abbreviation the old colonial metropole — as invaded as Morocco by US franchises — uses.

And so, from the skewed perspective of the balcony of my hotel room in the New Town I see the neon sign of the Macdonald’s right there hanging like a cut-throat menace over the bottleneck of my Daliesque Fez-as-san
dglass — or maybe it can be read as a sort of Maxwell’s demon, sorting out the traffic from the old to the new, from the new to the old, creating and upholding a line of separation that cuts the city at least in two, with the small red taxis, the cheapest means of moving around the town, as visual red corpuscles pulsing through the city’s aerteries.

But then this city — like many other cities — has always thrived, has in fact be born out of, such a doublet as new and old town. As soon as you draw a line you may create a universe as Spencer Brown suggests in his book Laws of Form — as you inscribe a difference, you will have created a left side and a right side, rive gauche, rive droite as they say in Paris. You may not even have to draw the line, it may be given you by the topography of the place. Here in Fez it is the river and so, from the very beginning on the city was always double: the mythologo-historical founding Kings, Idris 1 and Idris 2, are said to have both founded the city — what is now Fez-el-Bali — each on either side of the river in the 9th century, so that there always already were two Fez’s to begin with — (Fez=axe, splitting instrument, maybe the two-bladed Cretan axe) something that perpetuated itself through time, as the first wave of immigrants came from the East, maybe from as far away as the Arabia, and settled on the eastern shore of the river, while the next wave of immigrants coming from the north, from Al Andalus, settled on the western side of the river. In bad years the fighting between the people inhabiting the two sides of the river could be so fierce that the river was no longer enough as a border-separation and that the inhabitants built a wall right down the middle of the city. This was so during the Almoravid and Almohad period, i.e. until the middle of the 13th Century. When the Merenids — Berbers from the Beni Merin tribe — captured Fez, the Fassis never took to this new dynasty who to them were mere Berber chiefs of a nomad tribe from the eastern plains. So much so that Abu Yusuf Yaqub who reigned from 1259 to 1286, didn’t feel secure enough to dwell among the citizens in the city on the two river banks, and in 1276 started work on Fez Jedid, the New Fez, enclosing this new city — a compound of palatial and administrative buildings — in a double wall 750 meters away from Fez-el-Bali. And a bit later on had the interior wall of the old Medina built previously along the river, torn down — to make Fez-al-Bali one again and simultaneously insist on the new doubleness Old/New-Fez.

All of this constant growth by mirroring, doubling, in- & ex-folding needs to be further thought through — & can be visualized through the three distinctive architectural styles that define the current triple layout of the city: old traditional housing (narrow alleyways, blind alleys galore, blind house walls with only one opening for a door, that gives on the inner court letting sun & light in, etc.) in Fez-el-Bali; later classic Arab architecture of the palatial & military kind with Ottoman and Occidental influences in Fez Djedid; and colonial French & modern architecture in the Ville Nouvelle. All three of these stages are, however, totally alive and functioning now in the present — & the three styles have of course also given rise to a range of hybrid structures that would be worth analyzing in some detail. (UNESCO has declared Fez-el-Bali a “Historical” town and is helping to restore it — which of course involves sordid tales involving money, power-brokers and all the King’s men: too long and complicated a story to tell here now.)

The history of Fez is the unfolding, the dedoubling of these urban spaces under mainly outside impulses (the inside, those who live inside the walls, tend to want to keep things on an even keel, unchanging, if possible, though it never is possible.) At this point in the final full son-et-lumière presentation of my piece you would here a voice in Arabic reading extracts from the Nashr al-mathani, The Chronicles, of Muhammad al-Qadiri, the historian of Fez born in that city in 1712 and dying there in 1773, while an English version of the text would scroll by on the screen, alternating with English voice/Arabic text. Here are a few excerpts from this text, in an English translation by Norman Cigar, to give a flavor of Fassi historiography:

Among the events of this year was the burning down in Fez of seventeen shops in Suq al-‘Attarin al-Kubra, with the consequent collapse of its walls and great loss of property. I do not know what caused it, but a short time later there was a similar fire in the every same place, when even more shops were burned down. This one was caused by one of the mirror-makers who left a lit brazier in his shop, in which there was sulphur, and this was ignited by the flame during the night.

Now, what is truly interesting here is that, in the margins of al-Qadiri’s ms., a later (but not too late) copyist has added a further note, clarifying the incident: “There was gun-powder in one of the shops, and its owner was smoking, A spark from the tobacco flew from the pipe which was in the mouth, onto the powder, causing a great explosion in the shop, God knows best.” History is indeed a palimpsest of writings, a visual construct too. Al-Qadiri goes on:

On Saturday morning, 14 Rajab (14 Oct. 1674), the sons of Yafrah were executed and their corpses paraded through the streets of Fez, since they had done their best to induce the city of Fez to revolt against Moulay Ismail. Once Fez had fallen, they had fled to a certain mountain, but he got the better of them and put them to death. They were from the people of Figuig who had originally gone to Andalusia and had emigrated after the ‘Misfortune’, settling in Qarawiyyin Fez.

Meaning on the right bank, the bank of the Andalusian emigrants — & thus the historiographer keeps the old separations and family kinship lines alive across the centuries. If history — & I could have given many more examples from Al-Qadiri’s Chronicles (there’s a wonderful single sentence chronicle for what must have been a happy year, the year 1695 that reads in its entirety: “Among this year’s events was a violent windstorm which, however, caused no damage.”) — if history is the tale of what happens to the city with most of that coming from the outside, let’s look at the inside of the city for the few moments that remain.

So now, a few quick notes on the INSIDE. If we try to read Fez closer to us, it may come as a surprise that maybe the best “text” dealing with modern Fez is a novel written by a foreigner — the American Paul Bowles (check out his official website here) — even if the book in question, “The Spider’s House” is rarely considered one of the author’s major books. And yet, I think it a major achievement, even if against Bowles own preferences. He had wanted to write an apolitical book, in fact a book without any sense of a “chronopolitics” — i.e. a generic tale of his usual foreign wanderers in some heart of darkness, in this case picturesque Fez — but as he was writing the book, history took over. Here is how he spoke of this in the 1981 introduction to the 1955 book:

I wanted to write a novel using as backdrop the traditional daily life of Fez, because it was a medieval city functioning in the twentieth century. If I had started it only one year sooner it would have been an entirely different book. I intended to describe Fez as it existed at the moment of writing about it, but even as I started to write, events that could not be ignored had begun to occur there. I soon saw that I was going to have to write, not about the traditional pattern of life in Fez, but about its dissolution.

Which is of course not really true: the “traditional life of Fez” has for a millennium been riddled with
political & cultural upheavals and the events that will mark the beginning of the end of the French colonial days are in that sense not absolutely different from other moments of political turmoil. But Bowles has otherwise excellent insight into what was happening, even if he came to it against his desire. He had thus hoped for the end of French rule in Morocco with as much intensity as the Moroccans, though he, the American had hoped & believed that after Independence “the old manner of life would be resumed and the country would return to be more or less what it had been before the French presence.” What he had failed to understand, as he writes in the preface, “was that if Morocco was still largely a medieval land, it was because the French themselves, and not the Moroccans wanted it that way.” But this modernization has not necessarily destroyed the “medieval” parts of the city, it may in fact be that it is paradoxically only through modernisation that the medieval city can survive — while the lower bulb of my sand clock, the Ville Nouvelle, is now reaching exorbitant proportions.

Few have written so well of the inside of a city such Fez-el-Bali than Bowles. Here, quickly, a few short extracts in which Stenham, the American visitor, is walked back to his hotel at night through the medina by a Berber guide:

Now and then he had the distinct impression that they were traversing a street or an open space that he knew perfectly well, but if that were so, the angle at which they had met it was unexpected, so that the familiar walls (if indeed they were familiar walls) were dwarfed or distorted in the one swiftly fading beam of light he played on them.

It would be fascinating to compare Bowles’ Fez to the Fez of Abdellatif Laâbi’s youth, as remembered by the poet in his 2002 book Le Fond de la Jarre (a childhood memoir of absolute sweetness, in Laâbi’s work the opposite of his life in Rabat & the Meknes prison).

But I have to conclude, and to do so in the absence of a visual, of a film of the inside of Fez, let me read you an extract from the Tunisian writer Abdelwahab Meddeb’s book Aya dans les Villes. It is a single sentence, a fast walk covering maybe three hundred yards down the main thorough fare south starting from the Karouyin mosque, and part of a sequence that travels in such single-sentence writing fashion with a sweeping movement through Fez covering, I would suggest, the same distance and in a related manner, that Orson Wells’ camera covers in that opening shot of A Touch of Evil — and has the same paradoxical form: one single movement that crosses over from Mexico into the US, just as Meddeb’s writing in a single run-on stroke crosses from Old Fez to New Fez. Although Meddeb’s writes in French, I hear/see below that French the Arabic line in what Dina al-Qassim has theorized as an act of “calligraphesis.” So here, a pen as fast as any camera:

The gaze in movement fixes on a mosque which exchanges the pillars and arcs of masonry bricks, coated and whitewashed, for wooden cornices and pilasters, beams and posts that introduce an Anatolian orthogonality unknown in a city so close to the Atlas mountains whose animated street stalls propose the evening soup and attendant sweets, in the continuation of the huge blind walls only occasionally pierced by very small loop-holes, beyond the corner the wall swelling out into a human sized apsis that juts forward, reverse of a mirhab cluttering the passage, to the small oratory links to the dark shed with the stretch of a barrel vaulting, long and narrow, a depository transformed into a movie theater programming Egyptian and Hindu films, a quavering bell announces the imminent start of the next performance, the eye scours the multiple yellow spots of the lamps dotting the approaching darkness in a line that leads to the noisy café of the keefed ones, the front of the place garnished with large tin cans, flower pots and odiferous plants, next to multiple cages made of jonquils housing birds tamed for their song, the doves coo, the canaries interlace their arpeggios, while the nose succumbs to the scents of basil and carnations, which chase mosquitoes and invite the angels incarnated as ephebes satisfying the eye of the onlookers who tango on waves of nostalgia.

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2 Responses

  1. Anonymous says:

    sara Zine((sarazzine@fastmail.co.uk)
    Does the process of calligraphesis necessarilly involves experential knowledge linked to an intimate impregnation with the sounds & the signs of the language (in this case Arabic); or can it stem from purely theoretical knowledge, in this case from the simple knowledge that Meddeb’s native language is Arabic ?
    I was stunned when I checked the link to Fez that you mention, to find out that the website Magharebia is a “site“sponsored by the US Department of Defence Africa Command, the military command responsible for supporting and enhancing US efforts to promote stability, co-operation and prosperity in the region. It identifies trends, solutions and successes that can serve as models for progress throughout the region.”
    Scary…very scary reference as far as promoting stability goes!

  2. Anonymous says:

    sorry this is the continuation of my previous commentbut space has run out: A good occasion to point out soethig that I had wanted to do & left it undone:
    Re your posting on Cheikha REMITI’ N’ta Goudami,
    N’ta Goudami does not mean “face me”.
    The full title of the song is “N’ta goudami wana wrak” literally
    ·N’ta/goudami /wana/wrak”
    ·You /in front of me/& me / behind
    ·The clue to the meaning is in words of the song in which she speaks of a lover who keeps running away from her & her after him.
    ·So at worst, it could be translated as: You run & I run after you / running away/ Don’t leave me behind/etc.
    ·“Face me” in Arabic would be said “oug’oud goudami” or “gabelni” (spatial significance) & “gabelni”(moral significance only)
    Thanks for including the correction so that Cheikha Remiti may rest in peace.

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