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Amber Paulen

(Word) Photos from Fez, Morocco

I don’t travel with a camera. (I usually travel with a man who travels with a camera that’s as much a part of him as his clothes are.) Instead, I try to take pictures with my mind. Images are essential to writing (see also Italo Calvino’s Six Memos for a New Millennium). They can be instigators to stories: mental pictures get a story going before words take over. During the last six days in Fez, Morocco, I took no photographs, but tried to brand images from the trip onto my mind. Here are some (and their extra words):

Lots of cats, lamb carcasses hanging from meat hooks, live chickens hang upside down ready for slaughter, a camel head, its tongue out, a rivulet of blood, the tang of raw meat mixes with meat frying in heavy spices, glassy eyed fish silver in the late-winter light: all these animals hulk at the beginning of the medieval medina. On the hill of the Merenid Tombs, the hides of sheep and cows dry in the North African sun. The red ones look like poppies from a distance, and the white ones, like live sheep.

The animals hulking on the other end of Tala ‘A Kbira are also a mix between alive and dead. At the tanneries the men first soak the sheep and cow hides in pigeon poop that is the periwinkle of the dome of St. Peter’s. Beyond, the pits like mini craters are filled with chestnut brown. Men lower themselves halfway in, pull out hides now dyed chestnut brown. Their work the entertainment of the tourists gaping from the balconies above, including me. The donkeys carry the hides out to the hill to dry. Then the donkeys graze with the sheep, and it won’t be long—the live sheep will be dead soon and the donkeys burdened under their weight. Outside the tanneries, there’s a severed sheep leg.

There is a nearness to the cycles of animals and land. Old men and women sitting on the ground of the dusty medina selling coriander and mint. The freshness of the herbs wafts through the medina’s narrow streets. Lost quickly in the constant shuffle of people. Men in long Berber robes and pointed hats, women in long, more elaborate and colorful kaftans with their pajamas on underneath and their house slippers. The roads of the medina fade to shadow, are struck with light, are covered with latticed woodwork. The smells change as quickly: coriander, honeyed sweets, onion bread, cumin, paprika, donkey poop, boiling snails. The tightly packed medina gives way to the inner sanctum of the mosques—tiled brilliant greens, reds, blues—barely seen.

Escaping onto the terrace and into the sun, I think I see Fez across its skyline of minarets and satellite dishes. While down in the streets, there is only the dropping into its currents.


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