The taxicabs that take you to Fes el Bali are reason enough to visit Morocco. Outfitted with fuzzy dashboards, hanging beads, and silk drapes, each one is a unique reflection of its owner’s personality. And, of course, you drive through the countryside with the unmistakable sound of Arabic folk music blaring from the car stereo. But your ride into town is just the beginning.
When a driver delivered my family to one of the medieval gates of the walled city and sped away, we suddenly realized why so many travel sites suggest hiring a guide to help you navigate the place. The city is only one and a half miles wide by one mile long. Theoretically, it’s small. But in reality, it is a stone maze of narrow twisting streets—some barely two feet across. They wind around, above, and below each other, and the deeper you go, the more lost you become. The rooftops and sky disappear as you descend into the dark, damp labyrinth.
A teenage boy kindly offered to show us through the city to our hotel. En route, he told us that every neighborhood in the city was built with five things: a mosque, a fountain, a communal bath, a shared oven, and a school. Centuries later, these still function the same way they always have. Families bring their bread dough to the local ovens, the baths are fully operational, and minarets broadcast prayers five times a day. The urban fabric of this place is genuine and gritty—its ancient past bleeds into the present.
The urban fabric of Fes el Bali is genuine and gritty—its ancient past bleeds into the present.
Our guide stopped in front of a large green door hiding in an alleyway and identified it as our place. I felt certain I had made a mistake bringing my family on this misguided expedition, but before I could formulate an apology, we were led into a courtyard that can be described only as something from another world.
Every surface was covered in tiny mosaics, ornate woodworking, or marble craftsmanship, and evening starlight shone down through an open ceiling. The door to our room was draped in fine Moroccan silk, and the interior was just as luscious. Moorish lanterns threw red shadows across the stone walls and kept me company as I drifted off to sleep under a Berber blanket.
Fes is noisy and crowded. The lanes are lined with artisans and peddlers selling everything from silk shoes and hand-painted dishes to pirated DVDs and live chickens. Because the streets are so narrow, freight is still delivered by mule, and the air is thick with sweat and smoke and cinnamon.
But it’s not just the brilliant colors and bizarre sights that make the place remarkable. It is a living museum. If you buy a scarf there, chances are it’s made of thread spun by the local children who run cords of sparkling pink and orange fiber along the alleyways. If you purchase a handbag, it has been colored by a textile worker in the tannery, where men wade waist-deep into clay vats of dye to pigment leather skins.
Places like Fes el Bali rattle my Western senses. The exotic spices, the cloaked women, and jangling sounds are utterly unfamiliar. Maybe all this is strange to me because, in a way, when you visit an old city, you are traveling back in time. In the midst of my comfortable, contemporary life, I don’t pay attention to my roots or wonder about the origin of things around me. But in a place where past and present embrace, I can’t help but see the connections.
Sometimes, the daily grind can become so rote that we have to physically leave the familiar to reawaken our senses to the value of “ordinary things.” And when we stop to think about it, we’ll realize just how much we take for granted. This insight is a priceless souvenir—one that can’t be tucked in a suitcase or displayed on a shelf—and I experienced it on our last day in Morocco.
My son and I had walked up to the terrace to watch the sun rise over the hills, sprinkling yellow light onto the white buildings below, and I was reminded of how it does the same on our windowsills at home. In that moment—when the foreign became familiar—I saw myself, and the place I knew and loved, as if for the first time. What souvenir could be more valuable than that?