Tahir Shah’s “The Caliph’s House”

Shah’s book helped me understand some of the culture that was surrounding me. It demonstrated the religious and often superstitious nature of the Moroccan people, and it highlighted the importance that all of the artistic disciplines played in their society. Shah explained much about ridding a house of Jinns and bringing in baraka. Jinns are the spirits mentioned in the Qur’an and created by God from fire. They inhabit houses that have been abandoned and cause considerable trouble for their new human dwellers.

A couple pearls of wisdom that I enjoyed while reading through this novel were the following. First, when it comes to bargaining, Shah provided the following insight:

“In the East, the tradition of bargaining is an honorable one, and Moroccan society has one of the most developed bartering economies I have come across. I am usually satisfied with chipping in a few cents more if it saves time and secures the purchase. But to a native Moroccan, shirking on the bargaining front is seen as falling short of responsibility. There is honor at stake. Forget the bargaining and you are bringing shame on the shop.

“The guidebooks always say it’s best to take a local person with you when you go shopping in Morocco. But they don’t tell you that the local is likely to veto all purchases, and even liable to get you into a fistfight with the shopkeeper as he strives to protect your honor.”

In addition, near the end of the book, Tahir nicely describes his experience settling into a new country and new culture and specially with his family.

“Live in a new country and you find yourself making compromises. Make them, and you are rewarded many times over. Morocco has an antique culture, one that’s still intact, with the family at the core. For me, the greatest thing about living here has been that Ariane and Timur [Tahir’s two children] can play against an inspiring backdrop, teeming with a full spectrum of life…. I encourage Ariane and Timur to be loud, to shout, to dance in the streets, to be themselves.”

Horse in Fez


At half ten in the evening, I set off to a hammam in Fez’ Old Medina. I follow one of my riad’s staff in order to not get lost ten times before either finding my destination or eventually giving up and returning back. The narrow alley ways all over the medina are hard to traverse competently in daylight yet alone under the stars. Before arriving at the hammam, we stop at a small counter to purchase a “hammam kit”, which is a small bag of supplies that will soon prove useful. There is a brush of semi-dull plastic needles, a rough rag shaped like a small bag, and some Berber soap, which is a black soap with a gelatinous consistency.

Upon arriving at the hammam, we enter through a small door into a steamy changing room. The whole bath house consists of three rooms, with each room hotter and more humid than the last as they get farther from the front door. I am happy to notice that there are only locals using this hammam because it means I will receive an authentic experience as well as I will pay closer to local prices. Since I only plan to go once, I decide to also get a “massage.” The word is in quotes because that is what it was advertised as, but I am not sure that I can actually call it as such. Before the massage, I venture to the third and hottest room and am instructed to lie on the very hot floor, occasionally getting up to refill my buckets with hot water to pour on top of myself. I can no longer differentiate between the hot water poured on me and my self-produced sweat. After staying in that third room for what seems like much longer than it is, I move to the second/middle room for my massage. The masseuse uses the supplies I had just purchased to eliminate any possible dead skin that I may be carrying around. The sensation is of sandpaper being rubbed over my body in an anything but gentle manner.

I finish the massage, rinsing the soap and dead skin from my body, and move back to the first and coolest room to wait for the same nice Riad staff member to come and guide me back through the maze. I do not stop sweating for around 30 minutes following the conclusion of my Riad experience. I feel clean yet also like I had just been vigorously exercising. I feel tired yet my body tingles with energy. And I feel relaxed yet still slightly tensed from the sand paper massage. I am happy I saw and experienced a hammam, but I will probably wait some time before jumping back into one.

Riad Verus, Fez

This traditional and authentic-feeling Riad set near the edge of the Fez Old Medina was as welcoming as any hostel I’ve stayed at yet. When I arrive to the front door after a bit of wandering, I am immediately greeted by name from an individual standing outside. This first impression sets the mood and I am ready for a great (even if short) time at the Riad Verus. The other travelers are very nice and all had unique and entertaining stories to share, but the staff’s friendliness and openness is what set this Riad apart.

Sunset at Riad Verus

On the first evening here, I listen to the beating of drums coming from the roof terrace and am drawn to them. I venture my way up to the roof and find a staff member and several travelers playing while watching the sun set over the Medina. Eventually a drum rotates around the circle to me and I start cautiously joining the group’s beat. Noor, one of the Riad’s staff members, is leading the session and I try to match some of his beats. After starting to feel more comfortable and gaining a little confidence, I step up to many of Noor’s challenges as he plays harder beats, and I eventually am able to find most of them if given enough time. The session then moves from a copy-follow format to trying to play complementary rhythms. With my hands unused to the drums wrath, they begin to glow red, but not red enough to make me stop as I am starting to really enjoy my lesson. We continue to groove for about two hours before eventually disbanding.

Sitting on the terrace with the sky casting new colors across its few clouds, playing these Moroccan drums made me feel right at home in Morocco.

Window in Riad Verus

Inside Riad Verus

Fez and Its Artisans

Although Fez’ Old Medina shares many similarities with that of Marrakech, there were still differences of note. The initial and most obvious was that Fez had a much larger Medina with its over 1000 winding alleys and streets. If I didn’t get lost at least once or twice on very journey out of my Riad, I wasn’t exploring far enough. In addition, the alleys were a bit smaller and the stalls a bit more diverse.

Fez tannery

One morning, I woke up early to make it to the tannery while they were still working and while the stench hovering around it still hadn’t a chance to reach full force from the day’s heat. Even still, I had to walk around with a handful of mint leaves in my hand for me to bury my nose in when the smell reached uncomfortable levels. Pigeon poo is one of the chemical agents used and it makes make many a nose cringe, especially those that aren’t used to it. The processes at the tannery are elaborate eventually ending up in dyes such as henna, saffron, and mint that add a natural coloring to the leather.

Fez weaving

After the tannery, I took a quick tour of a weaving factory. I learned of some of the techniques used to make the famous rugs as well as how to differentiate between rugs made by women and by men, as well as rugs made by hand and by machine. Men use a horizontal loom while women use a vertical loom. This, in turn, affects how the carpets start and end. The tightness of the stitch reflects whether it is done by hand or by machine with the tighter stitches usually being performed by hand.

Fez mosaic construction

Finally, to round off my artisan tour of Fez, I visited a ceramics studio, where along with watching the formation of bowls, cups, etc, I also watched the formation of the famous mosaics that I’ve seen in and around Fez. With only a simple seemingly imprecise hammer, these artisans were able to chisel away at tiles to create shapes that perfectly fit into one another.

Learning of the craft being created around Fez with its ancient techniques that have survived for centuries was an eye-opening and educational experience.

Pottery from Fez