Fez: On Being Had

Despite our best planning we almost missed the 1:50 train to Fez last weekend.  We snaked through the long ticket line then ran across the platform just in time to board, stow our bag, and take a seat before the train lurched forward.  I do not advise such a start to any trip - it sets you a bit on edge as you can imagine.

The first hour we spent calming down, reading our books, and talking about the weekend to come.  Last weekend marked the beginning of the annual Fez Sacred Music Festival for which we were very excited.  After our first stop we picked up more passengers and our empty cabin filled up: one business man, two teenage girls wearing all black and picking their way through a big mac, and a friendly older gentlemen who wedged in next to Max.

People are friendly in Morocco.  A few weeks ago we met a local student at a state department event who invited us back to her family home for cous cous.  The meal was wonderful and the company was even better.  We felt so welcomed and taken care of.  As we got into our car to drive away that night I could see the mother leaning out of one window to wave goodbye to us and the father in another window on the floor below leaned out to do the same.

But I also know that Morocco has a big tourist industry and "friendly" people are out there to try and get your money.  When the man next to Max struck up a conversation we weren't quite sure which kind of "friendly" he was.  He chatted with Max about all sorts of things and seemed harmless enough but then came

"Are you going to Fez?  I have a friend there who can show you around the city.  He is very old and has lived there forever.  He can take you around tomorrow.  Here he is"

And then he shoved his cell phone up to Max's ear.


So, I tried frantically to make eye signals to Max from across the cabin not to commit to anything (how one does that I'm not sure - but I was trying) but he was way ahead of me and thanked the guy for his kindness and now that we had his number we could call him if we were interested and thank you very much goodbye.

I had actually read about people who ride the trains on popular tourist routes in the hopes of luring tourist to different hotels or setting people up with their "friends" as "guides" out of the goodness of their hearts.    Police in Morocco have really tried to crack down on this "unofficial tour guide" business to the extent that, I read in the guide book, they will question Moroccans they see accompanying tourists in the medina (old city) of Fez and especially Marrakech in case they have forced their services as unwanted tour guide upon them.

So we successfully eschewed our friendly neighbor without shaming him-very important-and were left alone once we reached Fez.

After walking around the perimeter of the medina for some time we found Bab Boujloud  - our point of entry.  I wanted to walk through this main gate even though our Riad was at the other end of the city to "not waste another minute not seeing the sites just because it might be easier to find our riad by walking around the outside of the city"  - sometimes I'm full of it.  Friday was just such a time.  The Fez Medina has 900 plus streets.  You heard me right.  It is the largest car free city in the world and probably the most confusing.  The streets are mostly unmarked and when I asked locals (several of them) to point out where we were on a map they looked at it like it was from another planet, pardon the cliche.  They could lead us around with their eyes closed, but a map?  What's that?

A few paces into the Medina we were swarmed by a group of Shebab (young boys with nothing to do but hang around and pester) who insisted on helping us find our Riad (a riad is a restored Moroccan mansion where people rent rooms - very common here).  We successfully shook the first batch, but a second swarm wasn't far behind.  To try and ditch one persistent boy in particular we ducked into a carpet shop, hoping we wouldn't be forced into purchasing a rug in exchange for sanctuary.

The rug owner was actually very nice and after inquiring about the loom in the corner I was sat right down on the bench and taught how they make a certain type of Moroccan rug.  I am a maker of things myself and even though I was thrilled to be learning this new thing in the back of my mind I was thinking

Awe man.  What are they going to charge me for this?  Will I be forced into an ugly scene...brought on by trying to avoid another ugly scene? 

There is a bit of pay for play action that happens in Morocco, but probably everywhere to some extent.  In tourist areas everyone is very accustomed to "helping" or "showing" or "allowing their picture to be taken" and then demanding money.  It's a very stressful thing and everyone has to work out how they will handle it - we are still figuring it out.  Because I am cheap and a little bit chicken my tactic has been to just avoid those kinds of situations all together.  I almost never take pictures of people (that's for a few reasons though) and I almost never engage in the type of activities that are likely to put me in a position of having to exchange money for tourist type services.

Sure enough, when I was finished weaving a few knots - which was awesome - the innocent faced weaver looked up at me and made a motion for money.  Expecting this I pulled out 4 dirhams (not quite 50 cents) and gave it to her.  She was satisfied, I was satisfied and all was well.
I'm always on the look out to not be "had" and while I think that has kept us safe and maybe saved us some money, perhaps it's not always an affront to personal pride to pay a few pennies for experiences beyond looking through the window at something.  I think it's something we will have to negotiate over the years.  I want to maximize our experiences while never risking our safety or too much of our sense of control - illusion though it may be.  50 cents let me weave a row of knots in an actual Moroccan rug.  That seems reasonable.  But then there's the issue of running around town throwing money at people who can provide us with "authentic" experiences.  What's the best, most honest way to approach that as a traveler?  

Unfortunately, the shebab was not deterred by our detour and we did, finally, succumb to letting him take us to our Riad.  We paid him a small fee when we got to our destination and he looked at Max and said

"You insult me.  This is not enough."

Which, of course, it was.  It's a really terrible feeling not to be able to find your way somewhere and be beholden to someone for help who may or may not shake you down.  I think that has been one of the most stressful things about living in the Middle East: if you're not physically lost somewhere and have to depend on a punk kid to help you find your way, you are culturally and socially lost - depending on other people to help you navigate your way through day to day living.  Trying not to get had, while trying to have it all.

More on our wonderful trip to come!          


  1. Great post. We struggled with that very thing for our full two years in Jordan. I'm afraid I became a bit of a jerk, but it kept me from getting taken advantage of. In retrospect though, I think I should've held onto my dinars a little less tightly, been a little more willing to appear the naive tourist, and hopefully fostered a bit more good will. That's how I feel with two years of distance from the experience anyhow. It feels different when you're in the thick of it. Who knows what's the right thing to do in those situations.

  2. wow, sounds just like my experience arriving in marrakech, from the tout sitting next to me on the bus ride to the persistent sheb leading me to "cheap riad"and then being so disappointed in my tip. it was far less stressful when i made a choice beforehand whether to engage someone, letting them know right away what i wanted (or didn't want) and what i was willing to pay (sometimes a few dirhams is a very good deal for an insider guide or a photo). also, great photos!

  3. That was kind of the conclusion I came to Joey - I just have to get my bossy American woman on a bit more.