For many Moroccans, the Medina is a vital lifeline. Suffering from broad wealth inequalities, the North African nation struggles with a corrupt elite that restricts a significant portion of the population to a few dirhams per day. Often enough, the businesses operating within the Medina are vital cornerstones of the community, shops handed down through generations. Here, goods are sourced from local farmers, fishermen, artisans, and traders, thus creating a communal safety net impervious to corporatization. And while getting lost in a Moroccan Medina might sound frightening to some, it offers fascinating insights into a country whose true identity can prove elusive.
Across all of North Africa, from Tripoli to Casablanca, Tunis to Fes, Medinas are an integral part urban life. The generic Arabic word for “city” or “town” also describes the old, walled-in quarter of the city. I recently got lost in Tangier’s Medina, one of Morocco’s finest urban creations, and made my way through a series of circuitous, sun-drenched alleys carved into the side of a steep hill overlooking the Mediterranean – all the way to the beaches of southern Spain. Here, the colorful passages dip and twist, tighten and widen into leafy plazas where spontaneous soccer matches or markets bustle with human activity. Tangier’s Medina, however, is only one of several across Morocco. In many cities, both large and small, the Medina drives the city’s heartbeat. It is the original urban blueprint; a structure built on the foundation of community, commerce, and religion; three linchpins of Moroccan society.
A stroll through a Medina usually evokes a sensation of traveling in time; an assumption not entirely unreasonable considering their ample age, but – remarkably enough – these structures also adapt to 21st century Morocco. After all, Medinas are an essential pillar of everyday life: Within their honeycomb of cobblestone alleys lie a myriad of shops selling all the staples of Moroccan life. Ancient mosques reach up from the medina’s skyline, calling people for daily prayers. In the evening, the main arteries accommodate a flurry of human traffic. People from all walks of life come together to scour the shops for the best sales, the latest pirated DVDs, or to stock up on the freshest produce, spices, and meats.
At the same time, Medinas are largely immune to modern economic trends that replace donkey carts with motor vehicles or human interaction with computers. In the city of Fes, for example, local farmers arrive at dawn, leaving their trucks beyond the Medina’s walls, and switch to pack animals to navigate the narrow alleys and supply the many vegetable stalls. Hidden within Fes’ tangled cityscape also await its famous tanneries, now the oldest on earth. Their workers rely on a mosaic of brightly colored pools to die the high-quality leather products; a sophisticated method that dates back to the city’s creation. The goat, camel, and cow skins on display are washed, treated, and smoothed by a lineage of tannery workers. The results are celebrated around the world and coveted by customers as far away as Asia or North America.
A little further north along the rugged Atlantic coast lies the small town of Asilah – a sort of canvas and blueprint for Moroccan artists thanks to the medina’s windswept alleys. Brilliantly colored murals adorn the walls and seem to change with each passing year. Meanwhile, in the rough, industrial town of Sale across the river from the capital Rabat, Medina traders scour the local port for the freshest fish to supply the rush hour crowd with mounds of sardines and octopus.
While it would take a lifetime of exploration to truly understand Moroccan society, a simple stroll through a medina gives us an invaluable glimpse. And the nation’s complex and fascinating social fabric continues to thrive in the packed alleys of its Medinas.
Text and all images: Max C. Strong
Header image: Asilah, Morocco. Street scene in the city’s ancient Medina.