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The Unadorned Buildings of Fez

Sage shares experiencing the beauty of the architecture in Morocco and how it brought her to appreciate the beauty she sees in her every day life.

Sage Baisden from Villanova University submitted the following article to ISV Magazine. Do you have a story you’d like to share?

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In Fez, all of the buildings, excluding the Kairaouine Mosque and University, have the same smooth tan exteriors. Our tour guide, an average sized Muslim man in a long brown hooded robe called a djellaba, smokes five cigarettes over the course of our three-hour walk through the old city, and begs our forgiveness every time he lights a new one. He explains that the buildings’ decidedly bland façade is in following with the teaching of Islam. The smooth stucco structures that hide the population of this once capital city are meant to be the great equalizer.

“This way, there is no outward difference between the rich and the poor,” he says gesticulating with his left hand as he takes another drag from his shameful cigarette.

“Everyone is equal on the outside, just as everyone is equal in the eyes of Allah.”

This idea gives me pause. As we continue our tour, I begin think of the beauty that this thought holds: The way that the obvious compassion of this religion seeps into every corner of Moroccan life, climbing up the unadorned outer walls and creating a kind of non-decoration that cannot be matched by any ornamentation. In that moment I am sure I have never seen or felt anything quite like the buildings of Fez.

***

Jessie and Judith Hui are the Australian exchange students that accompany me on my journey. They both stand at around five feet tall, have beautiful thick dark hair, and matching smiles. Both spent the entire summer traveling through Europe and fancy themselves experienced backpackers open to any experience. I am not yet quite so free. We sit on the roof of the riad, a traditional Moroccan structure that features an internal garden, and watch the sun set over the Old City. A half-eaten plate of the vibrant vermillion strawberries we bought in the medina earlier that day sits in front of us. We pass them around to the others sitting at the table not wanting to horde our spoils. A pot of cloyingly sweet mint tea with leaves floating on top of the amber liquid sits in the middle of the table. Directly across from my perch on the wide bench-like seat sits a German woman holding a bag full of what appears to be earwax.

“It’s soap” her heavily accented voice replies to my unanswered question. “It’s for the hammam.

The hammams are a popular tourist attraction. Essentially public baths where tourists pay to be scrubbed and bathed in the traditional Moroccan way, the hammams play an integral role in the history and culture of Morocco. Dating back to ancient times, these baths have become an integral part of local life.

Sage Baisden shares her experience abroad in Morocco
Sage Baisden shares her experience abroad in Morocco

My travel companions look at each other, excited by the chance to experience something worth writing in their travel journals. I look down at my lap horrified at the thought of stripping down for strangers.

“What do you guys think?” Judith says, already gathering her notebook, pens, and strawberry stems, so that we may all head out on our next adventure. “Should we do that tonight?”

Jessie nods enthusiastically ready to follow her sister into the unknown.

“I think I am just going to stay here” I state quietly ashamed.

That night I sit on my bottom bunk and read, my self-consciousness bubbles over inside of me like the fountain that sits in the middle of the riad.

***

After four and a half hours driving along the over the perilous pavements of the Moroccan countryside, we arrive in Essaouira, a beachside city that boasts a booming fishing industry and unadorned white washed buildings that look like they were plucked out of Greece.
Essaouira, a beachside city that boasts a booming fishing industry and unadorned white washed buildings that look like they were plucked out of Greece.

 

After four and a half hours driving along the over the perilous pavements of the Moroccan countryside, we arrive in Essaouira, a beachside city that boasts a booming fishing industry and unadorned white washed buildings that look like they were plucked out of Greece.

One of the main tourist attractions is a chain of restaurants that allow you to pick the fish you will eat. Whole prawns, whiting, and crab sit on rows and rows of trays dead and ready for consumption. There are about ten of these restaurants on the edge of town facing the beach. You cannot pass them without being shouted at by the proprietors of these eateries who hope that you will spend your dirham at one of the many identical restaurants.

We bypass the restaurants and walk right on to the beach instead, laying out towels so we can sit and eat another bag of strawberries. The heavy winds blow the fine sepia sand in every direction. I decided to abandon my post and walk towards the water. The expansive ocean makes the shoreline seem so close, but five minutes into my stroll I realize that I may be further away from my companions than I am comfortable with. The gentleman to my left attempting to gain my attention in hopes of garnering some sort of sexual experience further cements this moment of uncertainty; however, not wanting to miss out on the opportunity to tap my toes in the frigid water, I continue my journey.

I reach the ocean and allow my feet to be baptized by the salty sea. I look back and discover that I can no longer see my friends. I look forward and see nothing but the watery turquoise expanse kissing the azure sky. A smile creeps across my face as my sense of independence slowly builds inside like a mosaic being laid out tile by tile on the inner walls of a Mosque.

***

We sit inside the riad, perched on edge of the indoor fountain as our henna dries, sharing a hookah and listening as the call to prayer sounds throughout the old city.

The sweet smoke climbs through my nose and tickles my nostrils as it escapes my body. I take another drag just so I can watch the smoke climb from inside of me into the large opening in the center of the riad. Two boys that we room with walk over and share the shisha. The five of us sit for hours and talk as the hostel staff brings out plate after plate and pot after pot of sugary cookies and tea, as the day slowly turns to night.

Wishing to be alone in the midst of the chatter I take a moment and close my eyes. With my sight gone I focus on the noises that surround me: the bubbling of the fountain, Judith’s quiet breaths as she takes another drag off of the hookah, the slight lisp of the tall blonde Canadian who is studying abroad in Germany, the scattered voices that managed to travel from the medina and into the riad, the soft meow of the cat that just had kittens right outside of the door of the hostel, the clinking of glasses as we all partake in the ancient tradition of sharing a cup of mint tea with friends. As I slowly open my eyes, a newfound love for the Moroccan tradition swells inside me like the waves of the icy ocean, and steam of the hammam, and wraps tightly around me like the rich fabrics that cover the inside of the riad.

***

At one time, I did not believe that I had ever before seen anything quite like the unadorned buildings of Morocco. Looking back, I am not sure that this is true. In moments of clarity only hindsight can bring, I have come to realize that every day of my life, I have seen the unadorned equality of Fez. I see the tall plain buildings that hold so much beauty on the inside in the faces of those I pass every day on the sidewalk, or sit next to in class. I see them in the face that looks back at me in the mirror, a face that has somehow returned home appearing exactly the same on the outside, and yet has managed to become new and unexpected on the inside. We all carry our experiences inside, and hide behind the mask of the everyday, the expected. It is only when the doors to our internal worlds are thrown open that we can see the fountains of insecurity, the mosaics of independence, and the fabrics of newfound love that lay within.

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  1. Thanks very handy. Will certainly share website with my friends

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