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Fez at the time of the sacred music festival
Harpers & Queen, December 2004

Fez is the most complete survival of a medieval Islamic city in the entire Mediterranean world. That dense warren of streets, a labyrinth of life, is overlooked by the ancient tombs of its saintly scholar citizens and still dominated by the minaret towers of its ancient sanctuary mosques. It lies like a string of cloudy pearls in a well-watered valley, guarding the approach into central Morocco at a strategic gap between the olive groves of the Rif mountains and the Cedar-wooded summits of the Middle Atlas. Not even Siena, Venice or Cairo can compete, for in Fez it is not just the fabric of the city and its garland of enclosing wall that has survived, but also the old system of life, complete with medieval guilds, communal bakeries, hammams, water-pipes, food markets and mule-driving porters. When one talks about Fez el Jedid - ‘new Fez’ - it is not a reference to some new suburb but the royal quarter built back in the 14th century.

Fez is, however, undeniably difficult to get to know. It has none of that African space, easy charm and languor of Marrakech. It is by contrast a place of narrow alleys, high walls and dark shadows inhabited by the proud Fassi, a famously pale, canny, clannish, introverted and learned community. The architectural star sights: the Bou Inania Medersa, Attarine Medersa, tomb of Idriss II, Fondouk Nejjarine, the view over the ancient Qaraouiyine mosque, over the leather tanneries and from the Merenid Tombs can all be picked off in one hectic day of tourism, which, intermingled with palatial meals and visits to hard-nosed carpet dealers, a cabal of brass workers and the working potteries, is what 90% of all visitors get from the city – and its fluent multi-lingual commission-hunting corps of guides.

Fortunately there is another way. Once a year this secretive city opens up its heart to travellers drawn to the sacred music festival held for ten days at the end of May and the beginning of June. Instead of hassled crocodiles of tour groups strung out along the alleys there are morning colloquiums of sages, a mid afternoon concert staged beneath the shade of a giant holm oak in the courtyard garden of a 19th century palace, a free concert for the local population by the Bab Boujeloud gate, topped off every evening by a grand concert in an open air theatre made by closing off one of the 13th-century gateways to the royal place. Instead of standing beside shattered-looking tourists nervously fingering their tightly packed ‘bargains’aquired at a carpet emporium you may find yourself waiting for the arrival of the Queen of Morocco or the cavalcade of the President of Senegal. Around midnight in the old garden of Tazi Pasha the local Sufi brotherhoods play to a mixed crowd of street urchins, writers, artists and fellow musicians sprawled over cushions beside an old fountain. My friends had all asked what they should wear, “Oh you know any old kaftan, or something in linen and as much jewelry as you can carry… and hunt out a turban or an old wide-brimmed hat.” We blended in remarkably well with the crowd.

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