In the old Medina of Fes, the day begins early. From a deep sleep, the first notes of the call to prayer reach through the walls of the old tower house, Dar Sienna. This is how the city is called to life each day, after the first sign of light is spotted. It’s a 5:30 a.m. wake-up call that is so mesmerizing and haunting we can’t help but run up to the top of the house to hear it from the roof.
This is how the days have begun here for centuries. We’ve heard rumors that the unrest in other North African countries might erupt today in Morocco, and there are protests planned in all major cities, including Fes.
But when we ask about the unrest in nearby countries, everyone seems adamant that the same will not happen in Morocco. “There is some corruption, so maybe that will change,” one man tells us. “But here, the King is doing good things. Everyone likes the King.”
This sentiment toward the King seems to be universal with everyone we meet. Morocco’s King Mohammed VI is part of the Alaouite Dynasty, which can trace itself back to the Prophet Muhammad.
The King has emphasized the importance of separation of religion and state and has been active in addressing concerns of underemployment and poverty. Perhaps that's why, as protests have spread throughout North Africa and the Middle East, the anti-government fervor has not taken root here with the same ferocity, despite attempts by young people to spark interest via Facebook and Twitter.
And while Feb. 20 saw the largest number of demonstrators, some 15,000 nationwide, the turnout was much smaller than the hundreds of thousands of protesters elsewhere.
In Fes, things were quiet. People had stocked up on goods in anticipation of the potential unrest that never really came. And while the new town -- a bustling modern city sprawling around the Medina's ancient walls -- would see some protests, they were small.
Back in Dar Sienna, we are invited to share in daily bread baking with Fatima, a student who works in the guesthouse. The recipe is tried and true: Fatima knows it without measuring, likely something she was taught years ago by someone who also didn’t need measurements.
Fatima recently graduated from the university with a degree in English literature and continues to take I.T. classes.
“Like this,” she shows me, her expert hands working the dough into a perfectly round loaf while I push mine around into a sorry excuse for a circle. Mohammed, another young worker at the Dar, and my husband take photos of us and share photography tips with each other.
As we knead the dough, we talk only briefly about the protests and strikes that are happening around Morocco. Our talk instead veers in a more personal direction, and we quickly leave the topic of politics to hear more about Fatima’s hopes to get a Master’s degree in English literature in the U.S., and about Mohammed’s eight brothers and five
We also talk about what it was like to grow up in the Fes Medina. The UNESCO World Heritage-listed Medina, founded in the 9th century, is the largest pedestrian area in the world. It’s also the home to countless mosques (someone told us 300, another told us 800) and the oldest university in the world.
Many people choose to move out to the new town, where Fatima lives, but Mohammed still loves the old Medina and plans to stay.
Before long, it’s time to take the bread to the communal oven. While some families now buy bread from bakeries or chain grocery stores outside the Medina, many are still baking their bread in the neighborhood oven.
You can spot these ovens from above by the way they’ve charred the walls around them, black holes in a crowded mouth of discolored teeth. Mohammed leads the way, showing us jokingly how he used to carry the bread on his head as a child.
We soon notice there are small boys doing exactly this, the loaves on flat planks balanced perfectly as we all follow our noses to the oven, which had been stoked since 5 or 6 a.m. and will bake the neighborhood’s bread all day.
We turn our bread over to a man who marks each of our loaves with his finger. It is then delegated to a shelf with other bread to rise in the delicious dim warmth. Behind us a handful of boys file through with their bread, and the pile on the shelf grows. I begin to wonder how we’d ever get our same loaves back and ask Mohammed this.
“You’ll definitely get the same loaves back,” he says nodding with certainty. Mohammed tries to explain the system to me as the men unload a dozen steaming loaves from the oven and pile them deftly back onto their home boards.
When we come to pick up our bread four hours later, I know it was ours by the way mine is slightly misshapen (and unfortunately, a little tough) and Fatima’s is perfect. We pay our dirham and head back to the Dar, passing through the same streets countless others have walked for centuries.
We boil some mint tea, fill up on an ancient recipe, and do what young
people do in every city where there is a degree of change and hope -- we
talk about what the future will bring.
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