by David Crow
I woke to the voice of God speaking in the language of birds and bubbling fountains; a short time latter two small earthquakes shook the pillared riad where we were staying. Welcome to Fez, the place the Sufis call “the city of saints.”
I lay listening to my heartbeat, a practice I do often; as always, the flow of the outer world dawned as its pulsating reflection.
We were in the heart of the medina, three hundred and fifty blocks of twisting narrow passages, stairways and tunnels where artisans and merchants and their families have lived and died since the city’s founding in 809. Built to human scale, no car has ever passed this way or ever could. It would have been impossible to find our way to the guesthouse from the entrance of the old city, and equally so to find our way out.
Kamal greeted us kindly in the courtyard, available to take us where we wished for the morning, as Hamid enjoyed breakfast at his family home.
Our morning was a blur of Moroccan colors and scents and sounds. Donkeys loaded with saddlebags moved through the crush of people on the ancient cobblestones; old men bent with age in traditional garb of the desert made their way to unknown destinations. Master artisans worked with leather, bronze, silk and wood, art and beauty of the centuries waiting wherever the eye moved. Shops selling attars and agarwood and musk and orange blossom water and exotic incenses perfumed the alleys. Carpets hung on walls as tailors sewed wedding finery and silversmiths wove filigreed wonders. Dark passageways filled with the primordial scent of raw meat gave way to patches of sunlight infused with fragrances of piled vegetables and fruits and spices of every kind. We were not looking for anything and had no particular desires other than enjoying this sensory feast of medieval abundance.
Our brief tour ended with lunch at a traditional eatery, where we were served heaping bowls of stews to be eaten with bread and fingers, followed by coffee so black and concentrated the old white bearded proprietor did a handstand between the tables to demonstrate how good it was.
Kamal had been a wealth of information about everything on our walk, but that was his vocation; his true love, now revealed by the espresso, was something else.
“Why is Morocco more culturally tolerant and politically stable than the other countries of North Africa?” I asked.
“It is because of the influence of the Sufis,” he replied. “Sufism is the climax of Islam. It teaches us that the essence of all people is the same. It also teaches us that we are here in this life for only a very short time, and once we know that everything changes.”
I asked if he had a spiritual teacher.
“Yes,” he replied. “He came to me in dream, and told me it was high time that we met.”
“The teacher shows us that what we see with the eyes is not real,” he said enigmatically.
“Do you have a meditation practice?” I inquired.
“Yes, I meditate four hours every day.”
I found that impressive, since he was also a father and had a very busy enterprise as a tour guide.
“The teacher reveals everything,” he continued, increasingly passionate. “From the blessings of the teacher we can see the whole universe, and all the angels and spiritual beings.”
In my opinion it was too loud in the café to pursue such a conversation; between the coffee and the noise we were starting to shout in public about profound secret mysteries. Nonetheless, Kamal had more to reveal.
It was a long story, of powerful dynasties murdered, narrow escapes into the wilderness, love between kings in exile and mountain maidens, poisoning and death by sword, the birth of heirs in hiding, twelve sons establishing twelve new dynasties in the new land of Morocco, all culminating in this young man sitting at our table sharing lunch.
“Do you know how many generations have passed since that time?” I wondered, more to keep his story going than to get any specific details.
“It is since the founding of this city,” Kamal replied. “Since 809.”
The café was now packed with locals, all yelling in animated conversations while gesticulating with hands full of bread and tagines. It was time to depart.
We followed Kamal closely through the crowds, fearful of losing sight of him. For one stretch he insisted that we lead as he followed closely behind, bodyguard style; he had spotted pickpockets, heinformed us. I felt compassion for the bewildered tourists we encountered along the way, who looked as if they had wandered into this maze thinking they could find their way out, but now lost in a purgatory of shopping.
Eventually the nondescript unmarked passage leading to the riad appeared, then its huge carved wooden doors, then the cool dark passageway that brought us to the fountain surrounded by blossoming orange trees and bird songs and sunlight where the morning had started.