City of Dead Ends: Medieval Nights in North Africa

La Médaille


34.01° N, 5.00° W


One does not choose to leave Fes el-Bali, Tariq told me last night. His words were swiftly whispered as we exited the old city to enter into the sleazily-comfy confines of Ville Nouvelle. Our journey through Fes el-Bali had taken its toll: I reeked of the pigeon piss-bucket I stepped in at a tannery and my linen jacket had been blood-splattered from a trip to the camel butcher. I suspect the old city of Fes el-Bali was built by evil Djinn, the “unspoken ones”, to corkscrew the minds of mortal men. The streets are out of a fever-dream: walls form at your heels, the magnetic north of a compass is irrelevant, sun glares at you from all angles as it darts behind arches & spires, children laugh mockingly before offering to guide you deeper into the unknown. This old city is a labyrinth; without following Tariq’s lead, I’d be wandering in circles for the next 1,001 nights. Once free of Fes el-Bali’s grip, Tariq could only laugh at my unnerved trembling hands as I attempted to retie guano-soaked shoelaces. One does not choose to leave, Tariq said, Fes el-Bali chooses when to spit you out. Inshallah, he added with a grin. 

Tariq the Marrakeshi and Vic the Neverman

Tariq, born & raised Marrakeshi, despises the vainglorious local blowhards who claim to be the most cleverest men of the world. The only way to end a conversation with a Fassi, Tariq often says, is present to him a donkey he might confuse for his wife. While Tariq dislikes his rivals of Fez, he respects the history and the cartography of the city. There are 14 gates and 14 miles of fortress walls, he says. The Athens of Africa, Fez has the longest standing university… anywhere, ever. And within its medieval walls is the largest metropolitan area in the world without cars. There are 10,000 streets in Fes el-Bali, Tariq says, and 12,000 dead ends. Really, I asked him. That’s more than one dead end per street. Victor, my friend, Tariq clasped me by the shoulder. There are many paths which end long before you turn around. 

That’s some good goddamn Berber wise-assery right there. And if there’s anyone faithful to a path which has already dead-ended, look no further than Vic Neverman. My last twenty years could be summed-up as one, long, unfinished, pizza delivery. 

It’s a fool’s errand for rube like me to attempt to explain Fez. What does Geppetto or Jonah know of the whale which swallowed him whole only to spit him out? What could I say of the stomach lining of this ancient city? What could I possibly know of Fez beyond the pigeon piss-pots used to tan leather? Fez is a lived-in archaeology site of a spiritual depth beyond the reach of my shovel. 

These are the thoughts I retread as I sit, here in a Ville Nouveau cafe, sipping an Americano at twilight, watching a swarming flock of sparrows dart through the dusk air; the birds are legion and their choreographed sky dance is maddeningly hypnotic. Even in the Euro-fied nouveau city, outside those old fortress walls, it is easy to slip into the mystic. Realizing I am far too caffeinated, I ask the garçon for beer.

In a daydreamy haze, I return to my budget hotel, quietly belching as I wait at the front desk for the clerk to return with my laundered linen suit. Entering from stage left: Emilie. B’jour Vic, she says, her voice as silken and cold as a drowned lily floating in the Seine. Startled out of my daze, I half-turn towards her and sputter, howdy-g’damn! She winces, likely wondering what strange gibberish is this.

I first saw Emilie on the hills outside of the city, standing on a boulder, eyes closed, arms wide, embracing all that is, all that was, this incredible valley. She presents herself as a Parisienne, a backpacker dressed in simple cottons dyed earthy tones, her only flair being an impossibly long scarf: a woolen python constricting itself around her when warmth is required. She has brown eyes; desert-bronzed skin; lips Sahara dry, yet sensual & pronounced; hair of dark roots, as knotted as the ancient Medina streets grown into dreadlocks, bleached by whichever suns she’s traveled beneath. Emilie is thin, she could use a few camel burgers. Her flesh is tense to the touch, pulsating, like the potential energy simmering in the reflex of a paranoid bunny. She smells of cabbage and patchouli. Emilie leaves an impression. 

And here she is en route to the hotel’s elevator lobby, smiling more with her eyes than the slight tilt of her lips. It is quite the contrast to her default resting face of Gallic indifference; I take notice. We’re going out tonight, Vic, Emilie says to me. We leave in an hour. Will you be joining us, she asks. I coolly ponder this change in plan. My plan had been to drink gin and write my howdy-g’damned diatribes in my hotel room under the mildew-spitting, death-rattling, air-conditioning unit on full blast. Emilie isn’t going to wait for my response. She says rather presumptively, wouldn’t miss it for the world, would you, Vic? I nod. I will see you in an hour, I say.

It is time to freshen-up. I’m without certain toiletries and the front desk is of no help; I bathe in shampoo and trim my beard by shaving with toothpaste. I leave my pigeon-piss boots in a bucket of water and opt for cross-trainers. With my linen suit clean… ish… I’m ready for a night out in Morocco. 

I return to the lobby to find Emilie’s entourage gathered; it’s an assortment of women travelers from Canada, Switzerland, Australia, France and England. And then there’s Bruce Bogan of Brisbane, the father of one of the lady travelers, Mattie, who is a snow-white brunette studying zoology at uni. Bruce is built for rugby, his girth strengthened with Vegemite, kangaroo steaks and Victoria’s Bitter. Oi, Vic, me auld mate!, Bruce says, crushing me in a bear hug. The man is old enough to be my father, but damn is he strong. Where we off to then, mate? The eyes of the room turn towards me, including those of Emilie…

I know just the place.

Vic smoking sheesha at La Medaille

There are more than a million souls living in Fez and the most populous region is Ville Nouvelle, the new city outside the archaic walls of the medieval maze. There is no alcohol within the walls of the old Medina, at least not for us “Nazarenes” (what the locals call westerners who tend to be followers of Jesus). Ville Nouvelle, however, is as contemporary as Morocco gets, with nightclubs, beer gardens and dirty little dives like La Médaille. A few nights ago, I was here with friends, Tariq and Des Riley, smoking shisha, drinking wine, engaged in mild revelry. Tonight, the doors open and I am greeted as if I were Abe Froman, though the Sausage King of Chicago is unlikely to be very popular amongst a populous who doesn’t eat pork. Let’s say the doors open and I am greeted like the 27th most important Qatari Prince or as the sultan of some deserted oasis backwater. Coming out of the nightclub is Rafiq, in his Italian suit, French perfume and Turkish mustache, arms raised as he stands at the threshold shouting, Ali Baba has returned! Rafiq grabs my shoulders, kisses either cheek and turns around. He asks of a waiter within the doors, how much beer do we have on ice? As the waiter responds in Arabic, Rafiq says loud enough for all to hear, triple it!, Ali Baba has returned! And… Rafiq turns to smile at me and my companions. And he has thirsty friends! Bruce hollers from my side, fair dinkum, digger!

As we enter La Médaille, Bruce tosses a tree branch arm over my shoulder and says, fuck me dead, Vic, you gone troppo, eh? Bruce’s fetching daughter, Mattie, is equally impressed. Good on ya, Vic, Mattie says. A bit dodgy, but it’ll do. Emilie, the quixotic Parisienne whose impression I am most concerned with, says to Mattie, n’est-ce pas. Mattie rolls her eyes and shakes her head, saying, whatevs, Em. 

As with most clubs within Ville Nouveau, the inner chambers of La Médaille resemble western nightclubs and lounges, with few subtle differences. Rafiq, the grand host of the club, keeps the central tables unoccupied, reserved for VIPs which rarely materialize, filling the peripheral tables with local youths, wayward tourists and general pedestrians. Tonight, the central tables are given to Ali Baba (your bearded narrator) and his assortment of international ladies. We sit along couches around a table which shall hold our champagne, vodka and beer bottles. I explain to my group: at the end of the night, Rafiq will charge us not on what we order but by the bottles we accumulate. It is a tradition I admire: allowing the empty drinks drank to gather as evidence to the drinker of how much has been consumed and the server for how much to charge. Your table becomes a beer bottle abacus. When you’ve run out of table space, chances are you’ve had enough. 

Rafiq is a Fassi clever bastard with the savoir-faire of a Marseille pimp. He asks me of my friends Tariq and Des. Oh, Tariq is on a date with a German mädchen. You know how he likes his buxom blondes. And Des, well, she needs a night away from it all. Rafiq nods his head, knowingly, before lifting his chin towards Emilie. And she is…? 

Emilie and the lady travelers in the old city of Fez

Dirty-footed, dreadlocked and a smoker of hand-rolled cigarettes, the Parisienne, Emilie has done everything to hide her beauty but drown herself in a potato sack. Earlier today, I had accidentally walked into a construction site where workers were taking a break, smoking cigarettes and playing cards. They were playing with a strange deck of cards, from Spain, which were decorative to the point of appearing occultist. Emilie had been passing when she spotted me. B’jour, Vic, do you have a light, she said to me. Light?, I responded, idiotically. Fire, she clarified. Fire, I nod. Hang-tight, I said. I went to the construction workers and made enough stupid American hand gesticulations for them to hand over a lighter and a spare deck of cards. I lit Emilie’s cigarette and said, get a load of these. Qu’est-ce que c’est, she asked. Moroccan tarot cards, I said, fabricating a story, drawing the card of lovers. She was mildly impressed.

And tonight, out of everyone I brought to La Médaille, Rafiq’s eyes are drawn to Emilie. She is from Paris, Rafiq, I say to him. Merveilleuse, Rafiq says, his dark eyes concentrated, calculus churning deep within his head. Ali Baba, he says to me, you are my second-most honored guest tonight! For my first, I shall find our finest champagne.

Hours pass and our table becomes heavy with empty bottles. Bruce is the first to leave. I’m no two-pot screamer, Vic, Bruce says to me, but if I don’t walk along soon, my knees are not happy, Jan! She’ll be apples in the morning. Bruce kisses his daughter, Mattie, goodnight, then I am surprised when he does likewise with “Em”. Bruce stabs me in the chest with an index finger, you keep good watch on ‘em, eh, Vic? Anything happens to ‘em unsavory, I’ll make your face like smashed crab, eh? Fair dinkum, Bruce!, I say and give him a thumb’s up. 

our table at Le Medaille

I return to my seat beside Mattie, the zoologist from Brisbane. We had been laughing about drop-bears, the mythical rabid koalas who descend on tourists from above, but now she is introducing me to the concept of wheel-snakes. Mattie’s well into her cups and perhaps forgotten her fiancé back home as she says with a hand on my knee, we tell tourists camping on Fraser Island to keep the opening to their tents downhill or the wheel-snakes will roll in. Mattie laughs hard-enough to sneeze Moroccan beer. My eyes, distracted, find Emilie returning from the loo. I call to her, bonjour mademoiselle! Mattie, at my side, appears peeved by my attention elsewhere. You realize she’s taking the piss?, Mattie asks. Oh? Mattie shakes her head with irritation before saying, her name is Emily and she’s my fucking sister.

But she’s from Paris? 

You fucking dick-knuckle, Mattie says and leaves the couch for restrooms beyond. 

My face is numb. Now is the time of the reckoning. What was it Tariq said last night? He said one doesn’t leave Fez, Fez spits one out. But there was something else… There are many paths which end long before you turn around. Yeah, that’s it. Our table holds countless beer, wine and champagne bottles. This path has long ago ended. Bruce is gone. These seven women are counting on me to get them back to the hotel. My mental faculties are providing diminishing returns at this point. Tariq would say it is time to turn around. 

Rafiq and I argue over beer-bottle algebra. I collect dirham from the ladies, though I pay half the bill. Tab settled between Rafiq and me, I walk outside to find the ladies gathered, chattering, waiting for me to point the way home. This way!, I say, knowing the path. Here in the new city, we’re free of the maddening maze of the Djinn. 

Oi Vic!, look!, Emily (Emilie) hollers, drunk enough to have lost her French accent. The girls all gather around on the sidewalk, Mattie bends over to pick up the object. I arrive to recognize the Spanish playing cards from earlier today. The same style cards I had shown to Emily (Emilie) earlier. Emily, who’s eyes are heavy with drink and mischief, tells her sister dramatically, Mats!, it’s the card of death! What do I do, Mattie asks, desperately. Drop it!, I yell, unable to help myself from the joy of hysteria. All of the gathered girls scream as Mattie releases the card from her hands.

It’s all good fun. I’m sure. I project sobriety and set a course for home, shepherding the lot of ladies down the street, around the bend, onward, etcetera, and as we walk, Emily is at my side. I don’t ask why she’s feigned French when she’s just another barefoot backpacker out of Brisbane. I don’t really care; no!, I care, I understand, but it doesn’t really matter. Does it? Am I any less of a fraud? We all traverse our own path, some of which have ended long ago. And I might be drunk.

The chattering of the ladies has quickened and they’ve paused in their progress. What’s this? Mattie, the snow-white beauty from Brisbane, the zoologist jokester, has spotted one of the infinite stray cats of Fez and yells, Kitty! It is a handsome tomcat, Mister Giggles, minding his own damn business. Kitty!, Mattie says again, lurching after the cat. Mister Giggles, uncertain of this foreign woman’s intention, spooks, jetting into traffic, only to be met by the bumper of a taxi-cab, run over by its front wheel and bounced off undercarriage. The taxi-cab, realizing the impact, brakes to a stop. This is when Mister Giggles finds whichever cat lives are left to him and sprints away into an alleyway. 

It happened rather suddenly. Mister Giggles escaped, but the emotional damage to my voyage, however, is terminal. Mattie becomes hysterical, believing she has murdered Mister Giggles. She collapses onto the curb as her sister Emily rushes to her side. I approach the sisters, wondering how best to spur them on home. How do I console Mattie about her participation in vehicular manslaughter… er, catslaughter? I hover, saying, hey, it’s not your fault, that taxi had no right to be in the street, are you okay?

Mattie pulls the collar of her blouse up over her face to hide her inconsolable grief. It is Emily, nee Emilie, who responds, hissing at me, hatred in her eyes, this is your fault! Oh? You brought the cards of death to us, Emily says. Did I? Mattie is crying and Emily is cradling her head. There are five other women under my watch who wait nervously. We’re now here between nowhere and somewhere we’d rather not be; they’re anxious. Emily, I say, a warm shower back at the hotel would do her some good, eh? Why don’t we move it along? Em prods her sister Mattie. Eventually, we’re back on the trail.  

We arrive at the hotel as quiet as a funeral. Everyone has words to express, but no one speaks in the final part of the journey. Everyone is safe, yet, I am the villain, the villain who invited the mischief of the Djinn into our night. I am an accomplice in the unbecoming of Mister Giggles. I wish Tariq were here. He’d explain, in his Marrakeshi-Berber wisdom, how the streets of Fez are alive with death.  

Tariq explained to me this city of dead-ends. Victor, my friend, there are paths which end long before you turn around. And there are paths which leave long before they end. How do I know the difference?, I asked. Tariq put his right hand on his heart and his left hand on my shoulder. Victor, my friend, he said, you cannot know; you can only take the next step. 

Yeah, tell that to Mister Giggles. 

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