I had no idea how profoundly my life was about to change when I journeyed to Morocco in February of 2009. Here is some footage and photographs from those first days in Fez and Sefrou – I really had no idea that the rest of my life would be connected to these places – but that’s what happened. I’d just left Spain after a month of amazing friendship, camaraderie, and fun …
It’s bizarre how I ended up living in Sefrou and Fez. I studied Arabic at the University of Hawaii. I’m not sure why (my best supposition is that the universe needed me to be my daughter’s daddy and set me on this path – nothing else really makes sense). My major was cultural anthropology and my minor was in film. I took a lot of classes that interested me. I took Arabic for three years – even though I didn’t have much talent for it.
After I left Honolulu, I took trains across the USA, then bought a ticket to Spain from New York City. In Spain, I wandered south from Barcelona to Valencia then Grenada. While in Grenada, I met a lot of really spectacular people. We went to the Moroccan quarter where we ate great Moroccan food and drank sweet mint tea. One of my new friends said “You should go to Morocco. It’s incredible.” He told me how simple it was to get to Morocco from Tarifa using the ferry which takes you across the Straits of Hercules to Tangier. That was too much to resist.
Morocco wasn’t a part of my plan, but off I went. I landed in Tangier, caught a train to Fez, spent a couple of days exploring the old medina and then went on couchsurfing to find a local host so I could learn about the culture. I found an English teacher in Sefrou who agreed to host me for a few days. I thought Sefrou was a suburb of Fez, but actually, it’s a different city about 30km to the South. It was pouring rain and after a taxi ride that took far longer than I expected – this incredibly cute little woman came and picked me up at the gates to the old city of Sefrou.
The subsequent flooding kept me (and an Italian couchsurfer) in Sefrou far longer than we’d expected. I was staying at the teacher’s parent’s house. They were incredibly kind people and by the time I left – the little teacher (she’s only 4’10”) and I had become interested in one another. As I traveled to different cities in Morocco – we texted each other. She suggested I come back to see her in Sefrou. I did – and to make a long story short – ten years later we’re still married. We have a lovely 8-year-old daughter and as I write this – we live in Honolulu, Hawaii.
I rented my first apartment in Sefrou while we went through the arduous and difficult engagement and marriage paperwork and processes. I loved my little apartment. It was in the poorest section of the old medina. The walls were a sky blue color and it sat above the running waters of the Oued Aggai. My neighbor was the only other (non-Peace Corps) foreigner living in Sefrou, Jessica Stevens – a Welsh artist. We became great friends. The apartment was simple but it was peaceful and it worked. I really did love it.
Once we managed to get through the marriage process – one of the first things my wife and mother-in-law did was insist that I move out of the neighborhood I was living in. It was a very low status neighborhood filled with the poorest of the poor and my in-laws were ashamed to have their daughter living in such a place where prostitutes and beggars lived. I wasn’t happy with this – but there wasn’t much I could do – as a newly married man I was discovering that my mother-in-law had more power in my marriage than I did. I saw only one way to solve that problem. We would move out of Sefrou instead of looking for a better house closer to my mother-in-law.
My wife and I were both working at an English school in Fez and commuting every day – so it made sense on many levels but I have to admit – it was a newly married man’s power play. I found a big, light apartment in a large building above the best bakery in the Ville Nouvelle of Fez. The owner of the bakery (The Bakery of the Universe) had kicked out all of his Moroccan tenants and decided he wanted to rent only to foreigners. This made the building a little bit creepy – not because of foreigners but because we were alone in it.
I was stressed out trying to navigate being married to a Muslim woman and trying to claim some measure of independence from my mother-in-law (the move had helped but my wife was still being completely controlled by her mother – which meant that I was to some extent also). The line I’d drawn was on the wedding ceremony – I was poor and Moroccan weddings are big expensive affairs that involve inviting hundreds of people. My mother-in-law was already planning a huge wedding – that I would have to pay for. That would have been okay if I was keen on the type of wedding she was planning – and I wasn’t. I wanted something more exquisite, more exotic, more wonderful.
I reached out to Berber nomad friends I had met in the Sahara and began to plan a desert nomad wedding. It was all out war with my mother-in-law. At first she refused to attend but finally, I managed to convince her that it was her only chance to see her daughter get married. I bussed my wife, myself, her family and a couple of friends from the English school to the Sahara and we had one of the most extraordinary weddings I’ve ever heard of. I won the battle and won the war but the process destroyed my nerves, put me on a warfare mentality when I should have been on a honeymoon mentality, and completely wore me out.
My wife was having issues at the English school we were working at, the ALC or American Language Center. Mostly the issues had to do with the school using different teaching methods than she had used in Moroccan schools but some of it had to do with her accuracy in using American English. She was taking it very personal and in my hyper-stressed out wedding warfare state – it was stressing me out too. I wanted to share our wedding with my readers on Vagobond and in the hustle and haste of planning the wedding, transporting everyone, getting married, and then getting back to the school on time after our four day weekend – I cut corners and simply copied and pasted my journal entries about the wedding onto my blog with all of the remarkable pictures. I suddenly felt like I could breathe again.
The problem was that in my journal I had been writing about the wedding and I had also been railing with frustration about the director of the ALC and the problems my wife was having with him. That was what I pasted on my blog. It was a stupid mistake. At that point, nearly everyone who knew English in Morocco read my blog. It took about two hours before the director (and everyone else at the school) had been made aware of my harsh words about him and the ALC. I was asked to finish the semester and resign. My wife had already been asked to step down and take some teacher training – which was what had gotten her (and me) upset on our wedding trip.
I had already booked our honeymoon – a trip to Turkey. Since I no longer had a job waiting when we got back, I decided it might be a good idea to find an English teaching job in Turkey for myself and for my wife. I admit, I was still trying to get my mother-in-law out of my marriage. I arranged for us to interview in the middle of our honeymoon. That worked and we ended up moving to Manisa, Turkey and teaching there for about seven months.
My wife returned to Morocco when she got pregnant – at this point, I finally bowed to the wishes of my mother-in-law and we rented a nice apartment in a respectable neighborhood in Sefrou – just a five minute walk from her house. Our daughter was born in Fez and we lived in our apartment in Sefrou for just about a year and a half – until we finally got my wife’s USA visa approved and then we emigrated to the United States in 2013. I am grateful that even though I am an American citizen by birth, I got to go through the immigration process and live an immigrant story in the USA.
Sefrou, Morocco and Fez, Morocco
Fez (Fes) is the second largest city in Morocco. It is, arguably, the most important city and is the spiritual capital of Morocco. It has the best preserved car free ancient medina (city) in all of the Arab world consisting of 14,000 alleys, streets, and derbs through the heart of the old city. . When the Muslim and Jewish peoples were expelled from Spain in the 9th century – many of them came to Fez and nearby Sefrou in the Atlas Mountains to the South. Fez is home to the world’s oldest university, castles, forts, palaces and much much more. There is nowhere else quite like it.
Sefrou, to the south, actually has an older medina than Fez and was the original capital city after the exodus from Spain. It was once called Little Jerusalem and had the largest concentration of Moroccan and Berber Jews of North Africa – most of them left after Israel achieved statehood, but their traditions, handicrafts, and buildings remain – though much changed. Sefrou is home to an annual Cherry Festival and Pageant each year as well as magical Arab and Berber Fantasias where riders charge one another and fire decorative rifles.
Slightly outside of the UNESCO classified Fes Medina, you will probably miss something extraordinary, unless you take the time to go and look for it. The Dar al Glaoui, the Glaoui Palace, a crumbling reminder that power is fleeting.
While a lot of people mention Paul Bowles novel, The Sheltering Sky as the ultimate in capturing the essence of Morocco, for me, it was a different book that succeeded in capturing not only the Moroccan mentality, but also the soul of the country itself. Gavin Maxwell’s Lords of the Atlas: The Rise and Fall of the House of Glaoua 1893-1956 is perhaps the ultimate in coming to understand Morocco.
Consider this review from The Library Journal
British author Maxwell accomplishes the twofold task of detailing the daily life, customs, and rituals in pre-independence Morocco and of recounting the rise and fall of El Hadj T’hani El Glaoui, the legendary tribal warlord through whom the French ruled one of their prize colonies in North Africa. Maxwell, who died in 1969, considered himself an explorer and wrote of faraway places; here he introduces readers to the harshness and beauty of Morocco. He shows how the blend of Berber, Arab, and black African races created an extraordinary cultural mosaic and explains how the French colonialists recruited the Atlas Mountain tribal warlords to subdue the other tribes.
As the chief beneficiary of this policy, El Glaoui was able to rule most of southern Morocco in an absolute fashion, until Morocco’s independence from France in 1956 brought an end to the rule of a very colorful warlord.
At times it is necessary to remind yourself that not only is this a true story, but that most of the events portrayed took place in the 1900’s! It is a fantastic account of the power behind the French Protectorate, and a reminder that politics has always been a filthy business. Anyone planning a visit, or who has been to Morocco, especially the Glaoui kasbahs of the High Atlas, should read this book, as should fans of bloody, political intrigue.
I should point out though that the book has more than a few critics who generally say something like this: “If you want a book singing the praises of a few thugs who made good during the French mandate (Primarily on prostitution) A book filled with unsupported (And frankly slanderous) comments, a book written by a man who clearly doesn’t know the first thing about Morocco, Islam or Arab culture and a book that’s basically a rip off from someone else’s then this really is the book for you. ”
After all that, hands down, this is my favorite touristic destination in Fes. It’s not as well kept as the Batha Museum, not as grand and glorious as the Karaouyine Mosque, not as stinky or touristic as the famous Fez tanneries, but there is something truly awe inspiring in this famous, decrepit but still beautiful house.
The palace is owned by 14 families who have fallen on hard times in Marrakech and France but is lived in and taken care of by Abdou, an artist. He was born there and lives there with his sister. He is the third generation born there and while not a Glaoui, he is happy to be there and try to keep it from falling in on itself.
The palace is generally closed to the public but usually open to the public via Abdou and his sister who are happy to show you around the 150-year-old palace comprised of 17 houses, stables, a mausoleum and cemetery, Quranic school, hammam, garages and two large gardens. While generally the tour is composed of seeing a few salons, the haram, the massive kitchen and a few of the courtyards, it is possible to see a bit more if you are careful and polite and the weather lines up for you.
Apparently, the palace complex is for sale for several million dollars. A steal for anyone who gets it since it would be like owning your own miniature al-Hambra (which it was actually designed after). The entire house is a masterpiece of painted wood, zellij (mosaic tile), carved wood, fountains, and also the first modern bathroom to ever be built in North Africa complete with original plumbing.
If you do buy it – try to get a few of Abdou’s paintings thrown in. Total hidden treasure. I would tell you how to get there, but it would be a waste of time, because you would get lost and have to ask someone anyway – so, just go to Batha and start asking people how to find Abdou and the Glaoui Palace – they’ll know exactly where you mean.
So far, I haven’t exceeded this record that I set back in 2011. To be honest, it was a little too much, too fast.
This was a new personal best. Skopje-Sofia-Istanbul-Casablanca-Fes-Sefrou and all in time to give flowers to my sweet wife on Valentines.
What’s your personal best? Comment below.
I was pretty proud of the hell bent for leather nature of this trip.
From Skopje I took a bus to Sofia where I said hi to Tim and Peppy and then caught an overnight train to Istanbul. That day I caught a flight from the Asian side of the Bosphorus to Casablanca, Morocco thus leaving Europe going to Asia and then to Africa.
From Casablanca, I caught the train to Fes where I then took a taxi to Sefrou. Once in Sefrou, I just caught my breath and spent a lovely ten days with my wife and her family (though, it can be exhausting to be around the family- but that’s normal with in-laws, right?)
So – Europe to Asia to Africa
Macedonia to Bulgaria to Turkey to Morocco
Skopje to Sofia to Istanbul to Casablanca to Fes to Sefrou
Not bad for a day’s travel.
Total distance: 4090 Kilometers
I’ve gone further in a day, but not covering as many countries, cities, and continents.
From 2009 to 2013, Morocco was home for me. While I didn’t live in Fez for all of my time in Morocco (only about six months) it was the closest city to the town of Sefrou, where I lived the rest of the time I was there. Fez was where I found expat friends, a job, nightlife, and much more. It’s where my daughter was born. I love Fez. I wrote this back in 2013, when I was still going there on a regular basis – even substituting once in a while as a cultural tour guide in the heart of the medina.
I first came to Fez, Morocco on a 3 a.m. train from Tangier. I’d been in Morocco (and Africa for that matter) for less than 12 hours and the adventures that followed are far too numerous to tell here but they involve a girl, a Berber Nomad marriage in the Sahara, a baby, and the fact that four years later, I still find myself living just 28 km South of Fez with my Moroccan wife and our baby daughter.
The point of all of this, is that Fez is one of the most remarkable places on the planet and if you take a trip into the Arab world- Fez is an astounding starting place that will enchant you, fill your camera’s memory card, and affect you for the rest of your life. Perhaps not in as profound a way as it has me, but the truth is that I’ve never met anyone who has visited Fez with nothing remarkable to share when they went home.
The ancient medina of Fes-el-Bali is the largest car free urban area in the world in addition to being the oldest inhabited medieval Islamic city left in anything like it’s original state. With more than 9,500 narrow streets, alleys, and twisty turny paths, it’s no wonder that people who have lived their whole lives in the medina still sometimes become lost.
As a visitor, you will most likely first come into the medina through the massive maw of Bab Boujaloud where you will be called to dine on meat heavy tajine dishes or huge golden piles of couscous. The touts can be overwhelming at first, but you don’t need to worry because the days of the truly aggressive touts and false guides are now a thing of the past – the tourist police have reined them in.
Before you venture into the medina, you should understand that donkeys and mules have the right of way – they carry crates of coke, baskets of grain, and everything else that needs heavy transport in the medina and they will, run you over. So, pay attention and don’t get distracted by the magnificent architecture, the women scrubbing orange blossoms from the tile doorways, or the heady smell of mint flavored tea. Welcome back to the 7th Century.
While you are in Fez, there are a few things that I recommend you must do. First of all, a tour of the medina with a licensed guide is essential in order to get yourself oriented. A guided tour will bring you to the Karouyine University and the mosque of Moulay Idriss as well as take you down many of the streets and alleyways where some of the most beautiful architecture hides.
Personally, while the fully restored palaces and riads are magnificent, my favorite destination to show visitors is the crumbling Glaoui palace. While not preserved or restored like the Batha Museum or the Karouyine Mosque, or perhaps becuase of it, the Glaoui Palace is overwhelming.Not as stinky or touristic as the famous Fez tanneries and yet there is something truly awe inspiring in this famous, decrepit but still beautiful house.If you read Gavin Maxwell’s Lords of the Atlas, it is even more so.
While you’re in Fez, I think it is essential to stay in a Riad in the Medina. New ones open every day, so there is always a deal happening somewhere. It’s best to check. You can spend anywhere from $20 to $1000 per night – I recommend somewhere in the $50-$100 range for the best value. Make sure that breakfast is included – especially if you pay $1000.
The Nejjarine and Bou Inania Mederasas are beautiful examples of classical Quranic schools. Inside you will be bowled over by the intricate tile (zellij) and woodwork. The artisans of the Fez medina are an astounding living museuem of tha ancient arts and crafts of Morocco. Rather than taking the standard tannery tour most hotels or riads offer – my suggestion is to book an artisanal tour with Artisanal Affairs.
Another destination that isn’t on most itineraries is a trip down Taala K’bira to the donkey parking area next to Palais Jamai. For a more conventional tourist stop, visit Dar Batha (pronounced bat-HA), the home of the Batha Museum. An absolutely gorgeous restored 11th century house of sculpted wood, wrought iron, sculpted plaster and tile work. The gardens offer a respite from the of the medina and inside a treasury of embroidery, carpets, jewelry, pottery, and coins compete with one another to astound you.
A visit to the Fez Medina can be overwhelming and that’s why a rest at Cafe Clock is well worth your time. Grab a date milkshake and a camel burger or sit on the roof with a cafe latte and look out over the 366 minarets of the old medina and listen as the call to prayer warbles at you from every direction. There’s also free wifi and a full cultural program of everything from henna, oud classes, calligraphy courses, Gnawa music on Sundays, and Moroccan cooking courses.
For me, the best times to visit Fez are late Spring and early Summer when the temperatures have climbed above freezing but not yet to the scorching range. Early June also offers the World Festival of Sacred Music in Fez which draws incredible musicians and interesting speakers each year.
Fez is known as the spiritual and cultural capital of Morocco. A visit at any time of the year will show you why. I recommend three to five days, though, like many others, you may find yourself still here three to five years later.