Thursday, April 29, 2010

A house fell down in Fez medina the other night.  People were killed and more were injured.  That a structure just tumbled like that is not all that surprising after the rains we had this winter.  The fact that a house can just suddenly fall sends shivers of fear through every resident in the medina.  It's not the first time and it won't be the last.

I have mentioned in the past, in posts I have since deleted, that a huge ruin sits behind my house.  It is only a couple of stories tall, but gets more decrepit with each passing winter.  About a week ago, during a mild quake, my not-too-brilliant cat fell off the terrace wall and into the ruin below.  It took her about three days to figure out how to get out and come home again.  Actually, I don't think she did it alone.  Her sister went and got her because she was looking very please with herself when I went upstairs to see them.  The point is, however, it was too dangerous to go down there and try to get her.

Unstable houses in this area of the city are a danger waiting to become a tragedy.  That Fez Medina is a World Heritage Site, an important historical landmark as well as the heart of Morocco, makes this doubly shameful.  There just doesn't seem to be any governing body in charge of protecting this area or supervising maintenance and restorations.  Everybody pretty much does as they please and all hope for the best.

Given that the city has stood for 1200 years now, one just has to hope it can hold out for a few more centuries.  Then, I suppose, it will be somebody else's problem?

Sunday, April 4, 2010

Why Stay in a Riad?

I live in Fez medina in a traditional house.  It is old, maybe 300 or so years old, give or take based on the history of the neighborhood.  My house is a single family house that belonged to a merchant. He may have been a grocer but I am not really sure and the house was in the same family for at least 100 years, but probably longer.  My house isn't a riad, it's probably not even a dar, it's most likely a dwira. It's a cool house and I feel very fortunate to live in it.

A riad has an interior garden and is quite large.  Some riads were constructed solely for social functions and others had multiple families living in them.  I have seen some with the garden area outside in an area surrounded by the house proper and others where the garden is in a central courtyard within the house, usually with a fountain in the center of all.  A dar is a courtyard house without a garden and again, multiple families shared it and the space is quite large and the roof is  open.  The multiple families might have been various wives of a single man, or brothers sharing a family house or other dependent family members living in a house owned by a single resident family.  A dwira is a small house, sometimes for servants, and sometimes for one family only. It is built on the same principle as the big houses with the salons and courtyards and open roof, but small. 

A lot of tourists comment on their experiences in the traditional houses because they are not at all like the Western or modern style houses most people live in today.  The first thing you need to know about a courtyard house is that all the rooms and most windows open into the center of the house.  There are some windows to the outside, but when you are thinking about medieval, fortified cities, big windows were not popular options.  Muslim culture is centrally focused, too, into the heart of the family and the home is private space.  In other words, you aren't showing off your goods in a picture window on the front of your house.  It can feel a bit strange at first walking into a house that may feel closed off. 

Another feature of a traditional house is lack of privacy.  Since most rooms and windows open onto the courtyard, you can hear and see most of everything happening in all areas of the house.  Even some of the very large houses have very little privacy.  Acoustics are strange too.  Sometimes rooms can be on opposite corners of the house, yet you can hear every word back and forth.  In a collective culture where the family spends a great deal of time together and guests may be coming and going or staying for long periods, it is the perfect house.  I often said I wish I had known about these houses when my children were small.  If you haven't experienced this, it's a good way to get a feel for what it's like to be in Moroccan family.  Other guests in the house might not be your friends or family, but you are living together and sharing a lot!

The old houses can be dark and there is no really effective way to heat them, although many places are installing AC units in the walls, and some times people complain they are damp.  I read somewhere that French colonialists thought the medina was unhealthy and that was one of the reasons they remained in the new cities outside.  The construction of a traditional house is usually limestone and sand bricks and wood beams. The house should breathe and adapt to the climate - cool in summer, warm in winter.  Some of the repairs and additions done in recent times involve cement and other modern building materials that don't work the same way or upset the natural balance.  Other things, like modern plumbing installations, also affect the house.  For the most part, a well-built and maintained house that is properly ventilated should be comfortable most of the time. 

Another interesting feature of medina houses is their interconnectedness.  Every house shares a wall with another or even several others.  Sometimes the floors of one house enter between floors of another house.  You can stand up on the roof and look down into the maze of rooftops and satellite dishes and be hard-pressed to figure out where the streets are.  There is a big house behind mine and I still don't know what street it is on or how to get there from my house.

So if you haven't experienced a traditional house yet, try it.  I love the open roof concept and can't imagine being without now.  Just wait until you see a full moon shining into the courtyard at night, sparkling on the fountain and bathing everything in a silver glow. That alone is worth it!
It's already April in Morocco (and everywhere else by now) and the god-awful rain has finally stopped.  Temperatures are steadily rising and afternoons are sunny.  For awhile, I thought for sure we'd all be washed away in the downpours and subsequent flooding.  One night, in fact, the rain was so intense and didn't stop for hours and I was sure my house would simply dissolve before morning.  A friend who lives in a chic new place in one of the newer subdivisions told me she laid awake worrying about the same thing!  But, we survived and all is well.

In my last posts I was writing about the many angles of sexual harrassment here in Morocco and the various ways it takes place.  No doubt many people have heard that once upon a time when a man saw an interesting woman in the street, he would try to find out who she was and where she lived in order to contact her parents, if his intentions were honorable.  I have a young daughter who lived with me for awhile, so we actually experienced this in a couple of different ways. 

One night we were out and met this kooky old man on the street.  Stuck at a red light, we were unable to get away from him until the light turned and we could cross to the other side.  He gave us a paper with his phone number and asked us to call him to hang out at his place.  Yeah, right, a total and crazy stranger.  Will do.  However, a couple of months later at work, I look up from my desk and there he is standing in front of me.  He started out by telling me he wanted to give me some paper he had written about the United Stages foreign policy or something, which he thought I should distribute for him since I am American, then he got down to business.  He wanted to marry my daughter.  I didn't know if I wanted to laugh or start calling for help.  He was politely escorted out of the building but I was freaked for the day.

A couple of times in the medina, men followed my daughter home from the store, too.  Right to the door of the house.  That is a bit scarier because they are too close for comfort, and yes, they know where you live.  Once one of them invited us to his house for lunch and to meet his mother.  Now, I would not find it normal if one of my sons showed up at lunch with a couple of foreign women he had picked up on the street.  I would wonder why they, too, were interested in lunch at my house.  Now, I know tourists want to meet Moroccans and see the homes here, experience the food and family life, and that's okay.  I get it.  But, I am not about to leave my house with my daughter in tow to meet total strangers, one of whom is stalking us.  I don't think a Moroccan woman would do that; in fact, I know she wouldn't and I am taking my cue from that.

In closing, I am sorry to say that a new acquaintance of mine recently fell for this romantic encounter on vacation approach that I discussed in another article.  She didn't have time to meet me because she was so wrapped up in this unexpected whirlwind of a rush with a younger man who just swept her right off her feet, so quickly and so unexpectedly, she didn't know what was happening to her.  His family welcomed her so warmly and it all just spiraled from there. And so it goes...