This is the latest installment of Public Streets, a biweekly urban observations series curated by Ellis Avery.
“There are seven main families of Fez. I am an Idris,” claimed the salesman at Ali’s Art Gallery, also known as Dar (house) Benhayoune. Located in Fez’s medina—one of the best preserved medieval cities in the Islamic world—and reachable only by foot, this antique shop beguiles customers with old carved wooden doors, ornate silverware, and richly framed mirrors and textiles. The Idris family to which the salesman referred was, of course, that of the founding monarch of Morocco, Moulay Idris, and his son Moulay Idris II, who united Morocco under Islam and is considered the patron saint of the city of Fez. Was the salesman really an Idris or was this a part of his sales pitch?
“What are you looking for?” he asked, leading his customers up a staircase that opened into another large room with more objets d’art: incised brass door knockers, openwork lamps, and Berber carpets, a wealth of finds bespeaking the multiethnic and religious currents that have run throughout Moroccan history and culture.
The kingdom of Morocco historically sat at one end of the ancient Silk Route along which nomadic Berbers, Christians, Arab Muslims, Jews, and sub-Saharan Africans conquered, enslaved, and intermarried, as well as trading goods, culture, and religion over centuries. Much of that history can still be heard in its music. Modern Morocco has become host to a handful of international music festivals featuring Arabic, Gnawan, Flamenco, and Sufi music along with Americanized Arab pop and Muslim hip-hop. Morocco remains a crossroads, not of East and West, but of the globalized North and South.
Beginning in the eighth century, Islamic caliphs ruled North Africa and the Iberian Peninsula for close to eight hundred years. Jews and to a lesser extent Christians were alternately persecuted and protected, sometimes even prospering under Islamic rule. At the turn of the 20th century, over 300,000 Jews lived in Fez alone. After the establishment of Israel, Jews of the Maghreb migrated en masse back to their homeland, leaving behind traces of family names and estate heirlooms, including, at Dar Benhayoune, a silver serving dish inlaid with colored stones in the shape of a fish with the star of David embossed on its lid.
Much like walking into a casino in Vegas, walking into a shop in Fez, I’ve been told, you must know that the house always wins. The quoted price is never the price you pay, but does bargaining start at 20, 30, 50, or 80 percent below asking price? “Okay, what price do you want to pay?” the salesman demanded, gesturing to a particular item.
The old dars of Fez used to be family homes, inhabited by several generations at once and decorated with family heirlooms. The architecture of the Moorish dar or mosque can be described as inward-turning. The outer walls of the dar are nondescript clay facades, which conceal a family and their valuables. Inside, the dar opens into a roofless inner courtyard surrounded by multiple floors with rooms decorated in zellij tiles and plasterwork. The main window of the home, so to speak, faces the sky. Entering a dar, therefore, is almost a gesture of prayer: you face inward and then look upward.
Today the younger generations have moved into the New City with its modern conveniences, selling off inheritances for needed money and leaving their old homes to be sold and converted into hotels and antique shops, such as Dar Benhayoune.
We did buy something that day, but not before spending almost an hour walking through the maze of rooms, up and down staircases, inspecting one artifact after the next. Our salesman finally capitulated, agreeing to what we were willing to pay. But what was the true cost of that serving dish? It was, we were told, from a family’s estate, a unique object containing an untold story of sentimental value. And as with the dar in which we found it, it had passed out of its family and into new hands.