Finding My Heart in the Ancient City of Fes

The alleys of the old medina

The alleys of the old medina

Last week my daughter Ayu and I were in Morocco. After nearly missing our plane, we arrived in the city of Fes. Founded in 789, Fes is now the third largest Moroccan city. Our hotel was in the old medina, which I soon learned, is the old walled city. The Medina – known as Fes el Bali- is a UNESCO world heritage site and supposedly one of the oldest car-free urban areas in the world.

Our first official day in Fes involved a tour through this ancient walled city.

Through our eyes it looked like a confusing mass of semi-dark alleys, as along each one are tall houses and shops. The medina is divided into sections and each area has a specialty: shoes, copper and blacksmithing, leather, jewelry, etc. Both Ayu and I immediately felt disoriented.

It was like being in a giant rabbit warren for people.

Adding to the disorientation was our guide. He was tall and knowledgeable, unmistakably a scholar and native who cherished his city and all the ancient ways. But as we meandered around, I began feeling tense. He was clearly opinionated and saw the Arab people and Islam as far superior than all others.

Now I have no problem with people of different faiths. I have travelled extensively throughout the world but his viewpoints, bordering as they were on fanaticism and superiority, made me uncomfortable.

But what could I do?

Ayu following our robed guide 

Ayu following our robed guide 

If I attempted to counter him, he could anger and then what? We had no idea where we were or how to return to our hotel without him. As I struggled to decide what to do I asked myself this question:

“Shakti, what is it for you to do in this moment?”

The answer I received was this: ”Be the presence of love.”

Okay, I could do that.

I breathed in my surroundings, decided to subdue my apprehension and open up to the experience.

As we walked around the medina, we visited various artisans. We wandered into a shop specializing in woodcarving and in salvaging old doors and moldings. Then we entered the tannery area where we learned that the workers made and dyed leather the same way they had for centuries.



We walked into a building and up three flights of stairs to view the tannery from above. From our expansive vantage point we saw men cleaning then stripping the leather from the skins and dying hides in various natural colors. Fortunately because the weather was slightly cold, it quelled the stench.

We descended and turned into another alley, heading toward the rug dealers where we learned the difference between traditional Berber weaves, Arab designs and Jewish ones. Later we saw a woman embroidering tablecloths in the ancient reversible style and a family weaving on traditional looms.

And then we went into the apothecary.

As Ayu and I sat down, the owner, Khalid, came over to greet us. He walked with a slight limp. His smile was genuine and his eyes kind. He began showing us some of the traditional herbs and medicines he had such as eucalyptus crystals and seeds from the nigella plant used for sinus and allergies.

Khalid's Shop

Khalid's Shop

He had just let us smell authentic Argan oil when his son came over. “Pardon,” he said looking at us. “I need to consult with my father.” We shook our heads in acquiescence and the two men huddled together. Then Khalid turned to us. “Excuse me please. One minute.

We watched as Khalid walked over to the two men his son had been serving. One was a red headed foreigner. Khalid addressed him in English. “Are you in pain?” he inquired.

The man nodded his head. Khalid asked him to open his mouth and I internally recoiled. The man had missing teeth and clearly needed a visit to the dentist. I guessed one of his teeth was rotting or was abscessed. Khalid got busy making a potion for him, pulling down jars and mixing things in a glass beaker. Then he coated a cotton ball with his concoction and inserted it into the man’s mouth.

Witnessing this, I instantly knew Khalid was a genuine healer.

He’d stopped a “potential sale” with us to serve this man in pain. When he returned I asked him to help us with an eczema remedy for my other daughter. After questioning us about her constitution and life style, he got busy mixing liquids and then bottled them for us with instructions for application.

We went on to buy a few more oils and herbs. I was deeply touched by the experience of being in this mans’ shop. I’m fascinated with traditional remedies and fantasized how interesting and insightful it would be to learn from someone like him.

As we were saying goodbye, I turned to Khalid. “I can see that you are a true healer and I think you have helped many people.” As my words came out, Khalid looked at the ground shyly.

But then as we stepped back into the alley he said to Ayu, “you are a lucky girl to have such a mother.” I was slightly startled and looked at him. He met my gaze, smiled and held open his arms. I walked over to him and we embraced.

As we did, I could feel tears sting my eyes. I turned away in gratitude, my heart opened.

Then our tour guide looked at me and said, “You must be Italian.” It seemed like a non sequitur but I replied “Yes. My grandmother was half Italian and had a great influence on me.”

“I could tell,” he continued and smiled. And like that, he suddenly warmed to us and began chatting away as if we were old friends.

Later when Ayu and I were processing our day, she told me she was as perplexed as I was by our guide but then said, "I think the whole purpose of today was to meet Khalid.” Instantly I knew she was right and my heart smiled. I had done what I’d set out to do that morning, embrace the day openheartedly and it changed everything.

Have you ever had an experience like this?

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