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Playing the Flute in Fez

I’d been told that the city of Fez was about as medieval a place as you could hope to find anywhere. The old parts of the city are still comprised of winding side streets and alleys known only to those who live there. It’s like they have a map of the city imprinted in their DNA. Tourists who go wandering in generally get quickly lost and have to pay some grinning 8-year old to show them the way back to their guest house.

I’d been told that the city of Fez was about as medieval a place as you could hope to find anywhere. The old parts of the city are still comprised of winding side streets and alleys known only to those who live there. It’s like they have a map of the city imprinted in their DNA. Tourists who go wandering in generally get quickly lost and have to pay some grinning 8-year old to show them the way back to their guest house.

Walking through this labyrinth city and the teeming fruit markets, you could be in any recent century you care to name. Men squatted around in their flowing jelabas drinking sweet mint tea, men haggled viciously over small pieces of fish in the market and the air is thick with shouts, laughter and gossip. Guys hung around the street talking and smoking joints, kids entertained themselves performing handstands against walls and a safer place to grow up you could not imagine.

Not that the average traveller in Morocco works any of this out; Moroccans are forbidden by law to talk to tourists in any historic district unless they have a licence entitling them to work in tourism. The government initiated this move to clean up the tour guide business but in doing so they effectively created an apartheid in their own country. Not that the locals give a shit about the law – but if they’re caught then the police will hassle them until they pay some baksheesh.

In any case the official guides were the worst bunch of relentless sharks you could hope not to meet. Once they saw you it became a matter or personal pride to hound you until you might negotiate how much they wanted to leave you alone. One tall guide in a suit became my personal nemesis; Why didn’t I want to take a tour of the old city? What kind of tourist was I? Hadn’t I promised him yesterday that I would speak to him today – was I not a man of my word?

I tried to answer him with a few words of Moroccan that I had picked up and his face went rigid and it looked as though he was about to throw a chair at me. Apparently I had mispronounced something and delivered an unforgivable insult, though he wouldn’t tell me what.

“So how about I meet you tomorrow?” He suggested, calming down.

Enshallah.” I grinned. Only if God wants.

You can win a good name for yourself fairly quickly in the Arabic world by throwing in ‘enshallah‘ in just about every sentence you say. I am studying to be a teacher, enshallah. The bus will arrive soon, enshallah. This food is clean and will not, enshallah, kill you. It got to be a little tiresome to get into conversation with the old men who offered you tea as you cold never finish a sentence before they threw the old catchphrase in. I wondered if there was some kind of badge you could wear and just point at whilst talking.

My official motive for coming to Morocco was to buy a ney, the fragile bamboo flute with the crying sound. I found a music shop in the suq but at first the shopkeeper would only show me the thin strips of bamboo with holes in reserved for the tourists. Only after about twenty minutes of puffing and pouting did he finally reach for the top shelf where he kept the real flutes.

‘This is always the way of merchants. They show you the inferior goods first.’ (Turkish saying)

The ney is an instrument designed to discourage the new-comer into giving up within minutes. It takes days, weeks, even months for some until you can make any sound with it and even then it’s hardly a party piece. In fact the moment you try to show your friends the knack inevitably deserts you. As you dribble down the bamboo they exchange knowing looks and nod at your frantic explanations that you could do it just last night…

The ney is a delicate flute with 7 holes and you have to blow down it with your mouth contorted to one side as though you have chronic toothache. Each ney is supposed to have its own spirit and so no one else but you is allowed to blow down it. A belief that almost got me into a fight later in the day.

I was in a café, drinking mint tea with a couple of old Moroccan hustlers I’d met. As I was buying the tea they decided that I was okay but they hated with a passion the tour groups passing by with their cameras. They represented an untouchable wealth, an invasion of the rich come to gape at their neighbourhood and take photos. Because it was an organised tour there wasn’t even a chance for your average hard-working hustler to rip them off.

“Those motherfuckers. They come here with their big money but we can’t go to their countries. You.. you’re okay but these bastards..”

Looking to change the subject I showed them my new flute and everyone thoughy it hilarious that the infidel had come to Morocco to learn the ney. It was passed around the café for inspection until it reached the hands of a young, oafish guy who found it funny to slaver down the mouthpiece. I leant over and gently took it from him with an apologetic smile. His face turned blank with fury. A moment later he was out in the street yelling at me:

“Come here you fuck! I break your nose! You fucker shit, you. You son of bitch – I fuck you up!”

And so on for a full ten minutes. My acquaintances in the café couldn’t take my side against that of a local and so they looked discreetly away. Honour satisfied he eventually left and I was told not to worry.

Later in the day I was walking along the street still trying to get a sound and an old pipemaker selling kif (hashish) pipes beckoned me over. He asked if he could look at my ney and by now I was afraid to refuse anyone. He took the flute in his hands, looked down the end and proceeded to whip out his knife and cut and inch off the end. I looked on in horror as he mutilated my flute, powerless to stop this madman with a knife.

A Morccan student called Iqbal came to the rescue. He spoke fluent English and explained that the pipe maker was also an expert flute craftsman – the ney hadn’t been made correctly. He handed me back the ney and it seemed to sound a little better than before. He didn’t ask me anything for the service and so I commissioned him to make me two more himself.