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Islam and modern life merge in the intricate maze of Morocco's old city, but 'Balak!' -- beware the donkeys.Saida means "happy" in Arabic. When Saida Ezzahoui was a girl, she said her mother told her she was ugly, but it must have been one of those things mothers say in an attempt to prevent their daughters from being vain.
Because Saida is lovely, with dark curls around her shoulders and hazel eyes that are flecked with blue and green. Now 39, she has two children of her own.
She works as a guide taking visitors through Fez and into the Moroccan desert. A guide is your window into another culture, and when you have a guide like Saida, you are blessed, to use a word regularly invoked by believers of many faiths.
We began, of course, with polite hellos after breakfast at our guesthouse. In this country where older women mostly wear a loose gown called a djellabah and a modesty scarf called a hijab, Saida was stylish in a black turtleneck with a gold pendant, tiny gold earrings and a tweedy jacket. She said to pronounce her name "Sah-ee-da."
She began this late February morning, as all guides do, with the basics. Fez was founded in 808, and the walls that surround Fez el Bali, the oldest part, date to the 12th century. Fez reached its apogee in the 14th century, when it was the Moroccan capital and center of architecture, food and culture.
In 1777, Morocco was the first country to recognize the formation of the United States of America.
Our first laugh was not far inside the medina, the Arabic word for the old part of a city, when we saw a street sign with a drawing of a donkey inside a red circle. Only donkeys and mules are allowed in the medina, Saida explained. No scooters.
"Watch out if you hear someone shout 'Balak!' " she said. "It usually means a donkey is bearing down on you."
Sure enough, every few minutes I scooted aside to let one of these animals pass, each one loaded with items to be sold. Of the million people who live in greater Fez, about 350,000 live in the crowded medina, mostly above shops, like in the French Quarter. But Fez's old city is immense, with 187 neighborhoods -- each with its own mosque, bakery, hamman (a public bath), Koran school and fountain. The medina's 9,000 maze-like streets incline gradually so that by the end of the day, you have climbed a good bit, and must go outside one of its 14 gates to find a taxi back to where you began.
Seeing photos of old Fez is one thing. Being here is something else. Being here means smelling spices and cooking meat and baking bread and so many other scents a dog with its fine-tuned nose would go crazy. It means walking past a wall case of false teeth advertising a dentist's services and surveying offerings in a warehouse of rental wedding thrones that are grander than those at Carnival balls. Being here means hearing the noises of the medina, the warnings about donkeys, hawkers' attempts to lure buyers, calls to prayer that begin with what sounds like low moans and escalate to a piercing, rhythmic cry.
Several vendors were selling something that looked like custard with dark strips through it. Saida nodded and said it was dried meat that was salted and cooked with fat, garlic and coriander. In winter, rich people eat it for breakfast with mint tea. Some add eggs. Poor people eat soup from dried fava beans, olive oil and cumin.
Near a mosque, five or six vendors were selling nougat candy from carts. "Please, taste," they urged, waving away bees swarming around the candy. An hour later, the bees were gone.
The Medersa Bou Inania, once a school for the study of Islam's holy book, the Qur'an (Koran), is still a mosque, and one of the few that non-Muslims are allowed to enter. Most come here to see the carved cedar from the Atlas Mountains, the decorative tile that reflects the light and the delicate stained glass in marble walls carved in lacy patterns.
Women pray separately and behind the men in mosques. "If they bend over and pray in front of the men, it would be too distracting," said Saida. She smiled, but the guide in Marrakech had said the same thing.
--- Saida's story ---
While not as strict as most other Arabic countries -- it's rare for a woman here to wear a veil over her face -- Morocco's national religion is Islam. Saida is a Muslim. She does not eat pork or drink alcohol. As a tour guide, she often cannot stop during the five daily calls to prayer, but she said she prays regularly.
"I believe I am a good person, but as a Muslim, I should put a scarf on my head," Saida said when we talked about our lives. She said she has promised God she will cover her hair when she and her husband make their haj, the pilgrimage to Mecca that every faithful Muslim strives to do.
"God will forgive all sins when you go to Mecca," she said. But you cannot go until you are debt free. Your house must be paid off, everything.
After the haj, she will always wear a modesty scarf, but Saida said she can continue to be both religious and modern, which is how she has lived her life so far. Arranged marriages are still the norm in Morocco, but she met her husband, a teacher, at their university. Still, adults were brought in to make formal family introductions before their marriage.
"Some traditional women go and sit in a shrine rather than in a coffeehouse, because some people think if they go there, that puts them in a bad light." Younger women are becoming more independent, she said, adding, "I prefer not to have to be hidden in what I do."
As a tour guide, she knows many people in the medina and was warmly greeted by several, mainly men who run businesses.
One store stood out with fine antiques displayed in its window, so I asked to go inside Au Petit Bazaar de Bon Accueil. It's been in the family of owner Mohammad Benabdejlil for four generations. Saida knew it well.
We were invited into the upstairs of the shop that's filled with rugs and paintings and odd pieces of furniture, and were served hot tea. Almost immediately, we found ourselves in a whirlwind of charm and sales pitches. "(Arthur) Schulzberger of The New York Times has been here," Mohammad said, thumbing through a book of customers. "Many famous Americans."
The exuberant Mohammad pulled off his hooded djellabah and put it over my husband's head, adding a fez. It didn't take long for him to bring out necklaces and lay them on his desk. I had no intention of buying one.
That is until he laid out one with strands of tiny red and white beads interrupted by knuckle-size, irregular stones of antique Berber amber, which was opaque rather than clear. He quoted a price.
"We can't possibly afford that," I said, which was true.
Finally: "For you, I give it to you for half, because I like your husband!"
It still cost too much, but I like to wear my new necklace with black clothes.
Not far away, a young man was selling key chains with miniatures of Moroccan shoes. They were 5 dirhams each, about 70 cents.
"That's fair," said Saida. "I've seen them making these things. They work very hard. I don't bargain when prices are low like this."
Later, we went on to the medina's tannery, where fresh hides are soaked in lime, then washed and dyed in vats, where workers push the hides down with their feet. The hides are then laid out to dry and tanned -- rubbed with stone and olive oil. It's all done outside and is visible from a viewing porch several stories high.
There are a dozen or more leather shops on the way downstairs. At La Belle Vue de la Tannerie on the first floor, I found a large orange purse. The salesman said it was 1,400 dirham, about $190. Saida intervened. I got it for 800, about $108.
--- Lunch with locals ---
At lunch time, I asked Saida to take us to a neighborhood place instead of an upscale restaurant. I don't know how many corners we turned when we arrived at what she joked is "the Fez McDonald's area; it's all fast food, but local food that's ready to eat." (The menu at the real McDonald's -- afraid so; it's in the new part of town -- includes a McArabia sandwich, with chopped meat and cheese.)
Her favorite place is a simple cafe with aqua walls. We climbed steep stairs and a young, skinny waiter brought us small dishes of spicy mashed fava beans, caramelized onions, lentils in tomato sauce, chicken shish kebob cooked with red peppers and cumin, and chicken with onions. We ate the delicious food Moroccan style, with bread rather than forks.
Back downstairs after our meal, we were welcomed heartily by Hamid Berrada, the owner, a bearded man with laugh lines. "What's the name of this place?" I asked Saida, who looked puzzled. Nobody calls it by a name.
Hamid suggested calling it Chez Berrada. Soon a dozen or so people surrounded us, all talking and looking with great interest at their pictures in my digital camera.
One was a Berber woman, with a well-wrinkled face. She was all in white. When I asked how old she was, she beamed, and told Saida proudly that she was 80.
As we were ready to leave, Hamid, who never quit smiling, stopped us. He looked at Keith, and then at me, and through Saida, asked us to repeat after him: "Alaikum assalam." We did, and he hugged us both, kissing us on each cheek.
"It's an international greeting," said Saida. "It means 'And on you be peace.' "
IF YOU GO TO FEZ, MOROCCO
Getting there: We flew EasyJet from Madrid, Spain, to Marrakech (fabulous!), and took the seven-hour train ride to Fez (spelled Fes in Morocco). We flew back to Madrid, via Casablanca, on Royal Air-Moroc. Find intra-European discounters at www.flylc.com. Or travel by ferry from Spain to Tangier, and take a train or bus.
Basics: Many people speak French. The dollar continues to drop; there are 7.35 Moroccan dirhans in $1; in February, the rate was 7.6; not so long ago, it was 12.5. ATMs are prevalent. When it's noon in New Orleans, it's 6 p.m. in Morocco. Best time to go is spring and fall; in late February, weather was fine.
Where to stay: We stayed in Riad Myra (www.riadmyra.com), an exquisite guest house with rooms around an elaborate courtyard. Rates begin at about $230; however, we paid much less at auction on www.luxurylink.com. Find other hotels at www.tripadvisor.com.
Guide service: We saved time and money and saw more by hiring Saida Ezzahoui, who worked with "Today" show producers on the Moroccan segment of "Where in the World is Matt Lauer." Contact her at email@example.com.
Advice: While it's technically illegal for locals to harass tourists, it's wise to be careful in the medina, especially if you're a young woman traveling alone or in pairs.