This was going to be two posts originally, one about Ramadan in Fes and one about trying (note the emphasis on trying) to be an independent traveller in Fes. The more I made notes (I couldn’t do my usual silver-shovel unedited, quickly posted word-dump as we were without internet for 4 days), the more I couldn’t separate the two.
I want to preface this post with two caveats.
1. I’m not stupid. I lived in Turkey for 6 years and for 2 of those years I lived in a city that even conservative Turks consider conservative. I spent one Ramadan driving around the deserts of Oman, furtively sneaking sips of water in the 50 degree heat, ducked awkwardly beneath the dashboard, pulled off the side of the road so no one might see.
I know my iftar from my suhur. For 6 years, I woke at 3am to the beat of the drummer boy under my window, refusing to let anyone sleep past breakfast. I discretely ate behind the black privacy curtains in the few places that were open during the day. I know not to drink, chew gum, snack, lick stamps, smoke, etc, etc between sunrise and sunset. I know that by the time 6pm rolls around, people (especially smokers dying for a puff) can be pretty cranky and frustrated. Hell, I taught those cranky fasters for 6 years.
I have utmost respect for their devotion, even if I do end up at the receiving end of the crankiness and in the dangerous backseats of nearly deliriously famished taxis. Not that taxis fast, mind you. The drivers. I meant the drivers. The hungry, thirsty, nicotine-starved drivers.
2. I’m trying not to generalize about Morocco, or even Fes. Meknes was awesome. Casablanca was uneventfully decent. We had a rough time in Fes but I would still encourage people to go. But go with awareness as to what you’re getting yourself into. If you have had an easy peasy time in Fes, fabulous. If you are Moroccan and think I am insulting your country and religious customs, I am not. Morocco is amazing. I’d be happy to move here in a heartbeat. Blue skies? Sweet people (especially in Meknes)? Gorgeous food? Stunning art and architecture? Hell, yeah.
I need to talk about what we’ve been dealing with, trying to navigate the winding back alleys of Fes on our own, during the first few days of Ramadan.
It’s been hot. We’re talking 45 degrees and up hot. Boiling bright sun hot. Going back to the riad after lunch hot, as only mad touts and Englishmen would be bonkers enough to want to be out in the midday sun in July in Fes. It’s heat stroke city out there.
For those who are fasting, who can’t even sneak a sip of water before the iftar cannon shot fires at sunset and the happiest call to prayer ever erupts and everyone drops everything to dash to their water, dates, soup and bread, it must be brutal.
I get it. I totally get it. I fasted back when Ramadan was in dark, cold Turkish November and it was hard.
What drove me nuts was the aggression. The anger.
I’ve travelled a lot.
I’m not just saying this to brag or show off or whatever. I’m saying this to show that I’m aware of the vibes and issues that present themselves when relatively affluent Western backpackers meet other cultures, especially less affluent, non-western ones.
I’m used to fiercely predatory bazaars and souks. I have been forcibly sat down hundreds of times and given tea until I could puke, whilst being shown carpet after unwanted carpet, unfurled before me.
I’ve been stalked and hissed at in Cairo, with men muttering slut and fuck me in my ear as I walked (with headscarf and ankle to wrist clothing). I’ve had my ass grabbed many, many times in quite a few countries. I’ve had stalkers singing me lullabies as they followed me through the streets of Istanbul. Marriage proposals from complete strangers using a really inappropriate tone of voice? I can’t even begin to count them.
Annoying, yes. Potentially dangerous? Mmm, no. Not really.
Not the same.
Let me tell you what we were up against as we tried to make out own way through the medina, using our map and asking locals for directions when necessary (like good travellers do, right?).
Twenty-something guys latching onto us as we walked. Polite insistings of la shukran and non, merci didn’t help. It made them angry. Visibly angry. Fist clenchingly angry. Ignoring them didn’t help. Stopping mid-stride, screeching to a halt and turning around didn’t help. Sometimes kindly shop keepers and passers-by would yell at the kid and send him on his way. Sometimes not. Usually not.
Another guy shoulder butted Doug and tried to pick a fight in a dimly lit back alley as we came back from dinner. Others shouted out insults from the sidelines. They insulted Doug’s hat (masculinity belittling bullshit); they told me I needed a nice French massage (more gender belittling bullshit, except sexually degrading rather than trying to pick a fight).
One guy cornered us at the end of a long, narrow alley and insisted we go with him to Restaurant X. When we said we didn’t want to go, he started shouting and swearing at us, telling us we were disgusting foreigners who didn’t deserve to be in Morocco, in Africa, and that I (fucking woman!) was nothing like his mother, his sister– good women, honourable women. Not like me, no, I’m a worthless, disgusting, filthy, stupid woman. He followed us out of the alley and onto the main street, still shouting, glaring, swearing, arms waving wildly, snarling, lips curled in a sneer.
Yeah, go cry, you fucking woman! Cry, like a woman! Fuck you! Cry, you stupid foreign woman! Fuck YOU!
For five minutes. He followed us. Shouting. I can’t even remember in which language he had shouted.
With people watching from the sidelines, a meter away, doing nothing. Watching.
I actually ended up crying. I was so worn out from it all.
I was horrified, humiliated.
A barber offered me a stool in his tiny barber shop, and a sip of water. No one mentioned what the shouting fellow had said or done.
I stormed up the steep, narrow cobbled street, away, quite blind with angry, sad, frustrated tears.
I never cry in public.
Some other touts declared themselves to be our self-appointed guides (politely declined in 2 official languages) then shrieked at us to get the fuck out of their country NOW.
Many directions we asked for were met with a self appointed guide who insisted on accompanying us the 15 meters to where they wanted us to go (their buddy’s restaurant, for example, not where we had asked to go). This came with a persistent demand for, say, 3 euros (we gave 10 dirhams- about a euro- to get them to eventually go away, but this usually elicited a glare and declaration that we were cheap and selfish). For a service we didn’t want. For a 2 minute guide we didn’t need. To a place we weren’t wanting to go.
We felt like a commodity. We felt incredibly unwelcomed, unwanted, resented.
Around us, fights broke out. Arguments, fist fights, wrestling. Young guys brimming with aggression. Older men frustrated. Lots of shouting, not just at us.
We asked people what to do. We asked the owner of our riad. We asked other travellers.
They told us a few things. I don’t quite know what to do with this advice.
1. Ramadan makes things worse, much worse. Touts are even more persistent because they need to get money for family, for the iftar meals, for gifts, for the pricy sacrificial lamb (or cow or goat) for the upcoming Eid al Adha. The pressure is on to bring in cash. Added to that, no smoking. The heat. Dehydration. A surprising upswing in the use of hash during the holy month (inexplicably still okay, it seems, even when cigarettes are haram). Tempers flare like at no other time. One Swedish girl noted that a guy had pulled a knife on her group of friends. A Frenchman noted a fistfight outside the doors of our riad. Every day, we heard loud arguments, shouting. Exasperated voices.
2. Don’t ask for directions. Don’t talk to anyone. If they talk to you, ignore them. If they are persistent, politely say la shukran (no, thanks) and carry on ignoring them.
On Day 3 (which was Day 2 of Ramadan), we hired a guide for half a day, just so we could walk about with a buffer, a protector, someone we could ask questions, ask for explanations without having to worry about the tangly aftermath. We don’t usually hire guides. We carry a map at most, and wander. We’ve been doing this together for 5 years. I’ve been doing it since 1994 on my own. We like to meet people, talk to shop keepers, have conversations, explore, learn, follow our curiosities. For the past decade as a teacher in Turkey and in China, I have been welcomed into hundreds of homes and lives. I’ve been fed. I’ve drunk tea. I’ve had long, meandering conversations about everything. I usually felt like there was a chance— even if only a slim chance– that I could be allowed in.
Not in Fes, not in the first few days of Ramadan.
This is not to say that the Fassi folk are rude or mean or anything like that. Most people were…fine. Indifferent. A few shopkeepers (old men, mostly) were incredibly sweet and returned my Ramadan Mubarak with well wishes of their own. Overwhelmingly, people were…okay. Closed, separate, busy with their own lives.
Except, of course, for those 20 or so guys every freaking day who latched on and made everything really, really fucking awful.