food / travel

Saving Fez, Morocco's Imperial Treasure That Risks Fading Away

The tanneries of Fez
The tanneries of Fez
Martine Picouët

FEZ – Everyone should go to the Moroccan city of Fez at least once, if only to get lost in the medina, around the mosque of al-Karaouine, the oldest university in the world.

You could choose to spend the hot hours of the day in the Bou Inania Madrasa, the religious school built in the 14th century; or in the Al-Attarine Madrasa -- the most beautiful one, according to Moroccans, with its walls covered with sutras sculpted in wood and plaster.

You also should not miss the chance to contemplate the mausoleum of Moulay Idriss, the city’s founder, located between Nejjarine square and the Attarine souk, and then to walk through some of the thousands of narrow streets, before the city once known as "the Athens of Africa" disappears or becomes just a neighborhood lost in a bigger metropolis.

Twelve centuries after the former capital of Morocco was created in 789, the imperial city "is in a state of advanced deterioration, when it comes to both its infrastructure -including the state of sanitation, roads, street lighting- and its housing. Half of what was built is now degraded," economist Naima Lahbil Tagemouati wrote in the journal Patrimoines en situation (Living Heritage) in 2001.

More than 30 years have passed since Amadou M’Bow’s speech in April 1980, in which UNESCO’s director-general vowed to safeguard "one of the most prestigious cities of the Islamic world." Today the situation remains critical, threatening more than a thousand years of history and endangering what is left of the Spanish-Arabic culture and civilization.

"Fez must be saved for its people, for Morocco, the Islamic world and the entire international community, because it belongs to the common heritage of mankind", M'Bow said at the time.

Tremendous efforts were made, partly funded by the Moroccan authorities with the help of UNESCO - the site was declared World Heritage in 1981 – and partly by foreign investors.

Renovating, rethinking, rehabilitating

The most polluting activities (tanners, coppersmiths working with copper or tin) were removed from the medina and installed in a new artisan district, in the Ain Noqbi neighborhood, outside the walls of the medina.

The most prestigious monuments and sites are currently being renovated. Road traffic inside the medina is going to be rerouted to facilitate the comings and goings of the 900 or so donkeys and mules that carry timber and other goods around the city every day. The entire water supply and wastewater infrastructure is far from sufficient. A new wastewater treatment plant has been built downstream from the city in order to improve the situation and should be up and running by the end of the year.

The urban renewal, which is expected to significantly alter the medina, is not what tourists notice when they come to Fez for the first time. They fall in love with the souks and their narrow stalls piled with tons of objects, fabrics, and all kinds of colorful products. They shoulder their way through funduqs, former caravanserais (roadside inns) turned into museums. They fall under the charm of palaces and of dwellings built almost on top of each other like a house of cards. Tourists wander, gazing all around, in this colorful labyrinth, this huge teeming open-air market, home to more than 100,000 people. Nearly 40,000 artisans still work there.

There are only three traditional tanneries left in the medina. The most famous one, the Chouara, located behind the medina, is open to the public every day except Friday. From its upper terraces, you can see barelegged men standing in huge vats, dyeing, cleaning, and rinsing sheep, goat, cow and camel skins.

You must leave the medina now to find the potters' district, which was moved a few miles down the road to Taza because of the black smoke of its furnaces and fires. Blacksmiths and tinsmiths, too, have been relocated outside the old city because of pollution.

"Coppersmiths who still use handheld hammers were allowed to stay, but those who use polishing machines, for example, were kicked out," says Chakib Kabbaj, President of the Fez Guides Association. "The same thing will happen soon with the old oil-presses."

The clock is ticking, as some traditional crafts are on the verge of extinction. "There are only two horn-comb-makers left in the medina," laments Kabbaj. "And only one who knows how to make wooden juniper buckets, like the ones we use in hammams.”

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Iran-Saudi Arabia Rivalry May Be Set To Ease, Or Get Much Worse

The Saudis may be awaiting the outcome of Iran's nuclear talks with the West, to see whether Tehran will moderate its regional policies, or lash out like never before.

Military parade in Tehran, Iran, on Oct. 3


LONDON — The Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Saeed Khatibzadeh said earlier this month that Iranian and Saudi negotiators had so far had four rounds of "continuous" talks, though both sides had agreed to keep them private. The talks are to ease fraught relations between Iran's radical Shia regime and the Saudi kingdom, a key Western ally in the Middle East.

Iran's Foreign Minister Hossein Amirabdollahian has said that the talks were going in the right direction, while an Iranian trade official was recently hopeful these might even allow trade opportunities for Iranian businessmen in Saudi Arabia. As the broadcaster France 24 observed separately, it will take more than positive signals to heal a five-year-rift and decades of mutual suspicions.

Agence France-Presse news agency, meanwhile, has cited an unnamed French diplomat as saying that Saudi Arabia wants to end its costly discord with Tehran. The sides may already have agreed to reopen consular offices. For Saudi Arabia, the costs include its war on Iran-backed Houthis rebels fighting an UN-recognized government in next-door Yemen.

The role of the nuclear pact

Bilateral relations were severed in January 2016, after regime militiamen stormed the Saudi embassy in Tehran. Amirabdollahian was then the deputy foreign minister for Arab affairs. In 2019, he told the website Iranian Diplomacy that Saudi Arabia had taken measures vis-a-vis Iran's nuclear pact with the world powers.

It's unlikely Ali Khamenei will tolerate the Saudi kingdom's rising power in the region.

He said "the Saudis' insane conduct toward [the pact] led them to conclude that they must prevent [its implementation] in a peaceful environment ... I think the Saudis are quite deluded, and their delusion consists in thinking that Trump is an opportunity for them to place themselves on the path of conflict with the Islamic Republic while relying on Trump." He meant the administration led by the U.S. President Donald J.Trump, which was hostile to Iran's regime. This, he said, "is not how we view Saudi Arabia. I think Yemen should have been a big lesson for the Saudis."

The minister was effectively admitting the Houthis were the Islamic Republic's tool for getting back at Saudi Arabia.

Yet in the past two years, both sides have taken steps to improve relations, without firm results as yet. Nor is the situation likely to change this time.

Photo of Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei in 2020

Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei in 2020

Riyadh's warming relations with Israel

Iran's former ambassador in Lebanon, Ahmad Dastmalchian, told the ILNA news agency in Tehran that Saudi Arabia is doing Israel's bidding in the region, and has "entrusted its national security, and life and death to Tel Aviv." Riyadh, he said, had been financing a good many "security and political projects in the region," or acting as a "logistical supplier."

The United States, said Dastmalchian, has "in turn tried to provide intelligence and security backing, while Israel has simply followed its own interests in all this."

Furthermore, it seems unlikely Iran's Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei will tolerate, even in this weak period of his leadership, the kingdom's rising power in the region and beyond, and especially its financial clout. He is usually disparaging when he speaks of Riyadh's princely rulers. In 2017, he compared them to "dairy cows," saying, "the idiots think that by giving money and aid, they can attract the goodwill of Islam's enemies."

Iranian regime officials are hopeful of moving toward better diplomatic ties and a reopening of embassies. Yet the balance of power between the sides began to change in Riyadh's favor years ago. For the kingdom's power has shifted from relying mostly on arms, to economic and political clout. The countries might have had peaceful relations before in considerably quieter, and more equitable, conditions than today's acute clash of interests.

If nuclear talks break down, Iran's regime may become more aggressive.

Beyond this, the Abraham Accord or reconciliation of Arab states and Israel has been possible thanks to the green light that the Saudis gave their regional partners, and it is a considerable political and ideological defeat for the Islamic Republic.

Assuming all Houthis follow Tehran's instructions — and they may not — improved ties may curb attacks on Saudi interests and aid its economy. Tehran will also benefit from no longer having to support them. Unlike Iran's regime, the Saudis are not pressed for cash or resources and could even offer the Houthis a better deal. Presently, they may consider it more convenient to keep the softer approach toward Tehran.

For if nuclear talks with the West break down, Iran's regime may become more aggressive, and as experience has shown, tensions often prompt a renewal of missile or drone attacks on the Saudis, on tankers and on foreign shipping. Riyadh must have a way of keeping the Tehran regime quiet, in a distinctly unquiet time.

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