It’s 4:30am when my bus arrives in Fez. A taxi brings me to the hotel I stayed in two weeks ago, but a scribbled note taped to the locked door says they’re full. I’m not surprised— it’s Christmas Eve and I’ve already noticed an influx of tourists. I shoo a couple cats off the stoop and nestle into a corner that smells like piss. I’m desperate for some sleep.
I wake up to a man hovering over me, speaking French. I ask him what he wants and he says, “Oh, English? You need a room, English man?” I say I do and he tells me there are none available in the square. Don’t I know it’s a holiday? He says his name is Mohamed and I say, “of course it is.” “Staying in the square is dangerous,” he says, but he knows a guy with a room and I should follow him.
He leads me through a narrow maze of mud-brick buildings. I worry that I’m being lured into some sort of trap and shake my head to trigger my radar. I take note of our countless turns until everything looks the same. I curl my hands into fists and pretend that I am ready for whatever. We arrive at a tiny door covered in rusty iron fixtures. As Mohamed’s knocking echoes up the walls, I notice an adjacent sign that says, Dar Annour – Des Chambres a Louer. A small hatch slides open and a startled eye peers out.
Abdul has one room left in the reception hallway; the sheets are a bit disheveled and there’s trash in the can. Mohamed translates my price negotiation and tells me to pay Abdul later. I say no to breakfast, I only want to sleep. I thank them both and close my the door then clearly hear their conversation get heated. I know better than to assume their tone is anything more than normal Arabic, still foreign to my ears, so I kick off my shoes and fall asleep. I dream I am watering a garden when a man walks by wearing earbuds. I bid him a good morning and he says, “Shut up, man! I don’t even care about you.”
It’s the afternoon when I finally wake up to someone in the reception area watching TV—I assume it’s Abdul so I crack the door and he motions for me to join him on the couch for tea. It’s obvious he wants to tell me something, but we haven’t a common language and hand signals don’t cut it. He gets someone one his cell who speaks Spanish, and I learn that last night Mohamed told Abdul I promised him a $20 tip, and that I said Abdul would cover it. I assure him this isn’t true, so he calls Mohamed who then promptly returns to the hotel, aggressively asking for his money.
I first try to reason with him but his resistance makes me angry. I flat-out call him a liar and he defends himself. But when he steps closer, I press my finger against his chest and say a real man wouldn’t try to take advantage of people like he did. I dig into my pocket of change and give him the equivalent of $2 then turn my back on him. He’s still barking as Abdul shows him out. A few minutes later, Abdul knocks on my door and asks me to come with him, “for just two minutes.”
Abdul leads me through Bab Boujloud into the Fez medina. We pass the food vendors, souvenir stores, then enter the tannery quarter. I have a sense that he is taking me to a rug shop or someplace like that. At this point, dealing with hustlers has lost its novelty and hearing the all-too-common, “just two minutes” puts me on high alert. I’m ready to bolt. But Abdul’s route takes us off the main drag into an area filled with kids kicking around a soccer ball. Abdul beelines to a large riad door, opens it, and invites me in. The dozen or so people in the room go silent as we enter, only the Arabic shopping network blares on the television.
Abdul says something while pointing at me and children scatter while an old woman shuffles into the kitchen. Someone tells me to sit, then children set plates of food on the table near my knees. All eyes are on me as I take my first bite of bread dipped in olive oil. While I am still chewing, a woman addresses me in Spanish, introducing herself as Aziza. She says this is Abdul’s home, and he brought me here because he feels bad about the exchange with Mohamed. At some point Abdul leaves and for more than an hour longer I speak with Aziza. She is one of the daughters, 28 years old, a Spanish tutor, and unmarried. My mention of my girlfriend back home changes the look on Aziza’s face, but not the gleam in her eye.
I tell Aziza I should go, and she asks her 8-year old niece, Fatima, to guide me back to the square. Fatima proudly holds my hand as we pass her neighborhood friends, she even pushes some of the boys out of her way as they try to ask me for a handout. Locals say “salam aleikum” to me in an altogether different tone and greet Fatima in a way that makes her beam. Back on the main drag, she braids a route through the heavy pedestrian traffic and squeezes my hand tightly in the busiest areas. Upon arrival, she says something in French and I respond, “Merci, mademoiselle.” She reaches to grab my face, I lean down and she kisses me on both cheeks. Then she spins around and bounds away, her hands clasped behind her back as she disappears into the crowd.