But there is another kind of seeing that involves a letting go. When I see this way I sway transfixed and emptied. The difference between the two ways of seeing is the difference between walking with and without a camera. When I walk with a camera I walk from shot to shot, reading the light on a calibrated meter. When I walk without a camera, my own shutter opens, and the moment’s light prints on my own silver gut. When I see this second way I am above all an unscrupulous observer.
Annie Dillard, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek
Our orientation in the Fez medina was visceral. If I were to describe it in terms of how our group felt, I would rely on clichés: overwhelmed, over stimulated, in radical disbelief. We started our first full day in Morocco with a morning full of intensive Moroccan Arabic lessons that left us empowered and ready for immersion. But our first taste of that immersion was more disorienting than we anticipated. I can’t speak for the whole group – in fact, at least a few of us felt thrilled and comfortable in the medina, while others had our first real doubts about signing up for a homestay here. Falling somewhere between these two extremes myself, I tried to let the reality of the medina filter through me like flour in a sieve, lingering only long enough to make contact and leaving behind only the most irregular and obdurate bits. This quote from Annie Dillard, whose essay Seeing we read for Mark’s Travel Writing course, captures the mindset I tried to inhabit this afternoon. These are the images, the impressions that are still churning in my stomach.
The street is narrow and cobbled, and there is food. Food on the ground, scraps tucked between the buildings and the street. Food overflowing from carts and behind storefronts. The smell that invades my nostrils is sharp, sweet, and rancid. There are hunks of hanging meat, the largest of which is the size of my torso. There are sweets, little éclairs and pieces of cake nibbled lightly by flies arranged in open plastic cases. There are just enough flies to be noticeable, not enough flies for a swarm. Just flies, pure and simple, black and winged, flies. Next to the cakes, milk is being sold in plastic bags whose undulations precisely lag the measured strides of their carriers. Bags of milk bouncing and stretching.
We are walking single file but cannot stay together. “Watch out!” someone cries behind me, and a donkey, laden with glass bottles, passes on my right. Then, a wave of laughter and a rising tide of chatter as children, stuffed backpacks in tow, swarm the street. Their cries bounce up the medina’s reaching walls and fall back on my ears like a spring shower, cool and refreshing. My eyes look resolutely forward and downward, determined to keep my feet on level ground and navigate around the clamorously arranged wares pouring out of storefronts. The children’s eyes are playful, glancing backwards and upwards. Now one boy looks furtively at a young girl; now a young girl glances back at a shopkeeper; now another boy locks mischievous eyes with his friend as they pass in front of the burdened donkey. Their wavering focus has no deleterious impact on their forward progress, which is faster than mine: it is part of a chaotically choreographed routine, a dance through the streets that cannot be repeated and moves unerringly onward, resolute and wandering as a roaring river. And then, another shout, on my left, “Watch out!”
Am I standing outside a mosque, or a museum, or a shrine? The tour guide is talking but I cannot hear him. His voice is lost in the rustle and clatter of other tour groups, one Spanish, one French, one Italian, milling around me in the packed alley and intermingling with the Moroccan women buying small green candles and passing through the façade I am staring at. The outside is tiled, a beautiful variegated mosaic, and the inside generously carpeted. I realize that my tour group is moving on and I look over just in time to follow Alex’s pink shirt around a corner and down another street. The sound rises to a cacophony as I scramble to catch up, and then, as I turn another corner, vanishes. The noise of voices dissipates so rapidly that a sound I had previously neglected becomes clear: the lucid clang of cymbals. I pass a man, dressed in red, striking the instruments, which tinkle like Christmas bells. It is so quiet I can hear the song of a canary floating down from upstreet, so placid that even the softly ringing instruments seem out of place.
Up a flight of stairs, and the stench is suffocating; up another, and it is merely annoying. Regardless of what direction I turn my field of vision contains enough leather to clothe our entire group and probably even our families. Red leather, yellow leather, blue leather, green leather, sheep leather, camel leather, goat leather. Smelly leather. We look down at the tannery, “the largest tannery in all of Africa,” brimming vats of brown, white, and indigo dye. Where are the reds, where are the yellows? I am handed a sprig of mint that I crush mightily beneath my nose. I take a deep breath in: the smell of cool summer nights, refreshing icy drinks, and damp soil. The allure of fine craftsmanship dissolves in direct proportion to sheer quantity until it has all but vacated this terrace leather shop, flooded as it is with goods. Walking back, there is leather on both sides of the street, animal skin sold in reams like poster paper. I breathe through my mouth, and realize that the dulled stench has an intoxicating dimension that I have missed. Like the smell of a new car, or the smell of home after a long time away. Leather.
I am keeping these observations in their purest form. For four weeks I will live here, though it is glaringly obvious that it would take me more than four weeks to understand the medina. These are the things that stuck with me, the memories I will return to as I continue to wander these streets.
Ssalam u Aalikum. Welcome home.