Fés Stories

Minaret in Moonlight, Fez 26.06.10

Ali tells us of the jinns, the spirits. He does not like the dark because it is infused with them (and we arrive again at light and dark). Alice says he tells her not to go into dark alleyways.

Then she tells us a strange tale of going to see a purging of jinn-infested women. (We are on the rooftop, eating Moroccan style out of a tagine, sipping red wine, the empty bottles of which must be carefully brought out and disposed of one by one, so as not to offend the neighbours in this dry-but-not-dry part of the city). They wore black, Alice tells us. They brought offerings to the river - bread, milk, chickens, a hedgehog.

(A hedgehog? )

Yes, a hedgehog, she says. But the hedgehog was simply flung to the riverbank, while the chickens were beheaded. A man gave the bread to the river and scattered the milk. The women, or some of them, began to convulse and make strange guttural sounds, an indication that they could see the devil.



Islam is everywhere and nowhere here. You breathe it in at night; it seeps into your ears with each adhan, and yet it feels such an organic substance, as if were part of the molecules of the air, that it is sometimes easy to forget the foreignness of things.

One of Alice's friends, a teacher at the school where Alice is studying Arabic, sips mint tea with us one afternoon. She is 25, a student of Tajwīd, recitation of the Qur'an. It is a specific and shockingly intricate art; it takes years to master the correct emphasis and pronunciation. Her love for her religion - not as a religion in the way that we conventionally understand it, but as a topic of study, a thing which lives and breathes itself, a story - is infectious.Really, we decide, our thoughts hazy from the heat (perhaps this is the ideal atmosphere in which to learn - your mind malleable, melting like wax, reforming around each new idea) everything is the same (philosophies, religions); everything is about how we live our lives.

She speaks to us in perfect, almost un-accented English about her own students, some of whom are ambivalent still about having a female tutor.

Strange this balance, I think. How sometimes you find yourself thinking, here: 'there's so much!'. And at other times, 'there's so little!' It's so cramped, so open. So hostile and yet so friendly.



Later, at the local hammam, topless, filthy, I sit on the hot tiled floor while another woman, topless too, her hair wrapped in a white scarf to keep it from her face, scrubs me vigorously. We do not speak the same language, but when she wrenches me round so she can scrub my front, and holds my arm up with a smile and a tsk to indicate how much dirt she has brought to the surface, how much dead skin will be washed away with the next bucket of water, we are in the same moment, inhabiting the same world. Maybe later I pass her on the street, and do not know it - she shrouded by a hijab, me pale-skinned and wide-eyed like every other Western tourist, each of us indistinguishable in spite of that moment of intimacy.

But in that moment: how unselfconscious I feel! Usually so aware of things - unsightly folds of skin, the size of my breasts. But the folds are like everyone else's folds, and my breasts are certainly no larger than most of the other women's, and the water, the steam, the scrubbing all act as a drug, and an hour and a half slips by unnoticed.