It was dusk and we came to one of those little Fellini crossroads in Old Fes, where five passageways meet and no one knows which ones are dead ends and which ones lead to the souks or the New City or to Mohammed’s house. My sister and I stopped; Mohammed flapped his hands in the pockets of his leather jacket and strode forward, selecting the narrowest of the passages with a proprietary glance over his shoulder — ah good, the Americans are keeping up still. I knew which way was east and could orient myself, in a very loose sense, based on my knowledge of the Babs, or great gates, of the Old City, but we were now in a narrowing gyre of silent residential alleys that sheltered sporadic beggars, touts, and cats but no apothecaries or rug shops or carpenters or fruit-peddlers or even UNESCO scaffolding, and for lack of such milestones each alley looked the same, excepting certain minor idiosyncrasies: the jaunty tilt of an ill-maintained medieval doorway, a tiny boy standing sentry on a roof, the white folds of laundry rippling behind him. Well over 200,000 people lived within the walls, the medina itself comprising around 1,000 walkways of varying integrity. I had learned how you could tell the dead alleys by attending to the wind, even on a fairly still day. If there were no scents in motion, if the alley refused to “draw” (like a chimney), then you knew.
“You will come to feel the medina,” Mohammed assured us.
“Not like this I won’t.” Mohammed argued with me, and I argued back, both gestures of politeness. “That is, I can picture our coordinates but how can I know the streets?”
“It is not to know,” Mohammed said, “but to feel. To move lightly. When I move through Fes I do not think; I merely find a way. It is,” he smiled, “to move like the wind.”
Mohammed had learned English from a bilingual Qur’an and a handful of paperbacks lent by western friends (these actually included The Spider’s House by Paul Bowles) and he spoke magnificent pronouncements whether in English or French or (his wife confided one night at dinner) in Polish or Japanese, all the products of self-schooling. “To move like the wind” was in keeping with his recourse to elemental imagery, a Qur’anic cadence embroidering small-talk with threads of prophecy.
“Water is life, but water is also death,” he would offer as we discussed human appetites and the dangers of seafaring with his friend Abduhl. “And fire is life, but fire is also death.”
Another time, sauntering with me down more commercial alleyways, he went all Flaubert about the importance of the five senses in a city like Fes. “You smell this?” he asked, stopping me mid-gait. I paused. “Sawdust.” “Wood, yes. And you hear?” “Motors. Some kind of saw.” Mohammed beamed. “And what do you see?” On cue, a man emerged from an unseen passage leading a donkey with a freshly hewn door on its back. “That is the beauty. Fes has secrets that it wants you to know. If there is a door needed in this part of the city, you will always know.”
This kind of magical thinking was not an uncommon mode of expression in Morocco, even if Mohammed was uncommonly good at dashing it off. We had met him through a family friend, an Arabist on the faculty at Colgate University who had bunked with Mohammed during a research fellowship at the city’s great university. At 15, Mohammed had left his birthplace in the mountains of the Rif and entered Fes to make his future, which thirty years later was looking pretty good. On our first day in the city Mohammed met us and took a certain shine and had us for dinner at his house in the medina, everything sparkling and modern on the inside, where we came to know his wife and two children, a nine-year-old boy, Oussama, and a six-year-old girl, Oumaima. Oumaima trotted out a recurring impression of Bugs Bunny with a carrot and one day she had me help with her French homework. When Mohammed went to play salesman at one of his two rug shops, or to superintend renovations at a riyadh that he and Abduhl had purchased and were turning into a lovely little courtyard B&B, he would furnish us a substitute — some underling or good friend who would take us into the gamey smoke of the tanneries without expecting us to buy anything or lead us in the evenings up the mountains that cradle the city. And at sunset, seen from the west, the city itself is a nexus of faith and intellectual history, a labyrinth 1,200 years old, and so silent after dark, when the faces, as Bowles says, become like masks — “they all look a thousand years old” — and the moon’s light casts itself in cold clarity through the incoherence of the avenues where one night two boys no older than eight sought greedily for my wallet (misjudging the bulge of my notebook and therefore approaching my blazer from the wrong side) and I winked at the first kid and gave him a shove that seemed to embarrass him in front of the other but Mohammed, who was with me, spoke to the child in quick Maghrebi Arabic then delivered a short slap, a single flick of the wrist with no follow-through. The boy merely pouted and continued east with his friend.
“That was Bilal,” Mohammed said. “I told him I knew his father. In the medina, no family raises a child unless everyone raises the child.”
Toward the end of our stay, Mohammed dressed my sister in a sky-blue hijab made all of silk, which he called “the art of the worm.” He knew that westerners associated worms with corpses and mortality and consoled themselves with salvific notions about the gentle Nazarene. As mystics go, Mohammed was awfully grounded. I thought of T.E. Lawrence leading Hashemite riders up the Hijaz in 1916, how the men of these tribes had conditioned themselves to survive 100 desert miles with a single pint of water, and water is life but also death. Mohammed taught me that. He said we clothe ourselves in the art of the worm and finally become food for the artist, posthumous patrons of white silks that ripple behind families on a roof in the medina — we who wove a path through the earth of this city with our eyes closed, moving like the wind, speaking casually of water and of fire.