Abdul drove us as far as he could towards the centre but was finally obliged to stop at a gate which marked the beginning of the pedestrianised area of the Medina. The Fez souk is claimed to be one of the largest contiguous vehicle free areas in the world but it is not completely without traffic because this pedestrianised restriction relates only to motorised transport and there were plenty of push carts, bicycles and donkeys to keep an eye out for once inside the congested narrow streets.
The Souk was busy with street traders setting up and attending their stalls and this was quite unlike anything we had ever seen or visited before and it was everything we had expected but more with a riot of colour and frenetic activity that was exciting and vibrant. We followed Hussein through the streets and the food markets in a northerly direction and here was a whole new experience with street after street of shops all overflowing with things for sale that we didn’t need and we had no intention of buying but each with an owner who didn’t understand this and was determined if he possibly could to part us from the cash in our wallets.
Some of the shops were no bigger than a broom cupboard and many of them sold exactly the same things and as we walked through we were under constant pressure from the owners all trying to entice us with a ‘special price’. What didn’t help in establishing whether this was a special price or not was that nothing was priced in the first place which meant this form of shopping was very difficult process for people like us who are not used to haggling.
Our guide led us into the centre of the oldest part of the city and invited us to gaze into the central Mosque through its several open doors but we couldn’t go in of course because as infidels this is forbidden. It was approaching midday and there was a call to the most important prayers of the day and also, because this was Friday, the most important of the week. Hussein was getting edgy because he needed to get to prayers himself but he took the time to show us around an inner courtyard of the ancient university but time was running short for him so he anxiously hurried us through and then took us to a carpet shop next door where he left us with a replacement guide, who clearly wasn’t so concerned about getting to prayers, and disappeared quickly to the Mosque.
The new guide gave a brief introduction to carpet making in Morocco and then handed us over to a young assistant who led us through the maze of rooms to a staircase at the back of the building and invited us to join him on the roof. There was a good view and the young man poked a finger in the direction of the mountains to the south and told us that his village was over the top and in the next valley and that he walked to work every day and this took two hours – no wonder he looked fit. I asked him about going home at night and he said that this took three hours because it was uphill most of the way but if it was raining he might stay in Fez and kip down on one of the carpets.
The viewing session over we were then led back downstairs and provided with a cup of mint tea and then the sales pitch began. The first guide (who, surprise, surprise turned out to be a Berber) spoke excellent English, was intelligent and knowledgeable and a bit of an amateur philosopher who talked for awhile about the Berbers and life in Morocco in general whilst we sipped our tea and then the carpets started to come out as they were theatrically thrown down onto the floor accompanied by a bit of explanation about history, designs and methods of manufacture.
Soon there was a carpet barricade blocking our exit and I began to worry about how we might get away from here without buying a floor covering that we didn’t want and still the pile just kept getting higher and higher. Eventually it only seemed fair to be honest with him and tell him quite firmly that we didn’t need a new carpet, Kim told him that we had bought a new one from John Lewis only a couple of months previously but being unfamiliar with UK department stores this information was meaningless to him, we had no intention of buying one today here in Fez and we didn’t really want the sales demonstration in the first place.
His young accomplice gathered and rolled up all the carpets spread out before us and I think we all just wanted to leave but we couldn’t go straight away because our guide had not returned so we sat in uneasy silence in the demonstration room having all wasted each other’s time.
Eventually Hussein came back and I for one was pleased to leave and get back out into the streets to continue the tour.