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Frenzy in Fez

How does a world-renowned chef think about a frenzied encounter in a Moroccan fez?

September 14, 2003

How does a world-renowned chef think about a frenzied encounter in a Moroccan fez?

Abdul pulled the van to a halt just outside the walls of Fez el-Bali, the old city of Fez. It is an enclosed medina of 10,000 or so narrow, indecipherably arranged, completely unmappable streets, alleys, cul-de-sacs, pass-throughs, corridors, homes, businesses, markets, mosques, souks — and hamams.

Over 30,000 residents live densely packed together in a labyrinth that a lifetime of exploration would never fully explain or reveal — even to a native.

Cars, motorbikes and any other kind of vehicle are not permitted inside the city's walls, as they would be useless.

It's too crowded and the streets are too narrow. Fez is a busy rabbit warren of crumbling walls, sudden drops, steeply inclined steps, switchbacks, turn-offs — and dead ends.

A thin old man in a djellaba was waiting for us by the outer wall and promptly loaded our luggage into a primitive wooden cart. We then headed to a slim break in the wall of what remains — in form, if not in function — a fortress city.

We followed our porter up and down nameless dark alleys, past sleeping beggars, donkeys, soccer-playing kids and merchants selling gum and cigarettes — until we arrived at a dimly lighted doorway in a featureless outer wall.

A few sharp knocks echoed through an inner chamber, and an eager young man appeared to welcome us into a deceptively plain passageway large enough to accommodate riders on horseback.

Around a corner, I stepped into another world. A spacious antechamber opened up onto a quiet enclosed patio, with a round breakfast table situated beneath a lemon tree. The air smelled of oleander and fresh flowers.

Looming up in the center of a vast open space of terraced patios with tiled floors rose what can only be described as a palace. It was a gargantuan high-ceilinged structure surrounded by outbuildings, a large garden with fruit trees, a small pond — and a well. It appeared to be the residence of a medieval merchant prince — all within the impenetrable walls of the crowded medina.

My host was Abdelfettah, a native of the old city of Fez. Educated in Britain, he spoke with the unmistakable accent of the British upper classes — but, as they say there, is quite the other thing.

A few years ago, he'd returned to his beloved hometown with his English wife, Naomi and two children. He began work restoring this magnificent estate tile by tile, brick by brick, doing much of the work himself.

He now wore only traditional garb — djellaba and babouches (pointed yellow slippers) — having turned his back on the world outside his walls. Abdelfettah and Naomi have dedicated themselves to preserving the ancient culture and traditions of Fez — and their own luxurious piece of that tradition.

No television and no radio were on the premises. Outside the main house and kitchen annex, Abdelfettah maintained a studio, where he spent hours each day creating indescribably intricate reliefs in white plaster, hand-carving endlessly repetitious non-representational designs and patterns into its surface.

At the far end of the garden, construction was under way for a center for Moroccan music, where local musicians and aficionados will assemble and work.

It was my host's work with plaster that spoke most articulately of his seriousness and dedication. There are no faces in Islamic art, nor any images of animals, plants, historical tableaux or landscapes.

Anything God created is a taboo subject for an artist. The artist must speak in severely constrained fashion, within the framework of centuries-old traditions and practice.

Yet despite those constraints, I saw in Abdelfettah's work — and, later, in the works of other Islamic artists — a universe of possibilities for beauty and expression. I was reminded of Moroccan food, where there may be only a few standard dishes but infinite room for subtle variations exists.

I spent the evening reading the Koran, moved by its seductive, sometimes terrible severity — and its unquestioning absolutism. I was trying to imagine the people within its pages, their very human problems — and their extraordinary, often cruel solutions.

I had a light breakfast of curds and dates, a few pastries, then decided to explore the medina. To have done so alone would have been madness.

I never — and I mean never — would have been able to find my way home. Abdul was not a native of Fez and would have been a bad choice as guide. I relied instead on a friend of Abdelfettah's — let's call him Mohammed.

When you're in Fez's old city, picking your way carefully down steep steps, hunching to scurry through tunnels, squeezing past overloaded donkeys in dark, narrow shafts, ducking beneath strategically placed logs that had been cemented into opposing walls to discourage mounted riders hundreds of years ago, it looks the way they tried but failed to make it look in a hundred movies.

You can't stand. You have to keep moving — or you're in somebody's way. In the medina, just to look around is to feel how far you are from everything you know.

One encounters a tantalizing mixture of fragrances — spices, food cooking, the dyeing pits, freshly cut cedar, mint, bubbling hookahs — and as one approaches the souk — or market, the smells only get stronger.

Baskets of snails and periwinkles gurgled in wicker baskets by the fish vendors.

Stalls displayed dried beef and jerky, photogenic piles of spices and herbs, counters of fresh cheese, leaf-wrapped wheels of goat cheese, tubs of curds, olives — every hue and type of olive filling barrel after barrel — dried fruit and produce, preserved lemons, grains, nuts, figs, dates.

A woman made waqa, peeling the filament-thin crepes off a hot plate with her fingers. Another woman made slightly thicker, larger crepes on a giant cast-iron dome, pouring batter over what looked like an oversized wig stand in a department store window.

They blistered and bubbled until solid. Then she would peel them off and slather them with a sweet spreadable paste of ground nuts and dates. She folded up one of these great floppy objects and presented me with it. Delicious.