"Balak!" cried a tiny man as he pulled an equally tiny mule down the narrow medieval street. Jolted out of my reverie of ornate Moorish castles, fragrant gardens, and delicate fountains, I spun around to find myself in the very path of the diminutive man. "Balak!" he cried again as his tiny mule with its wide load of soda bottles jingled by me. My thoughts immediately turned to the miraculous way that both two-way pedestrian traffic and quadrupeds could fit on a street that was barely wide enough for one average-sized person to squeeze through. I suppose that's part of the magic of Old Fez.
My eyes were now wide open, thirstily drinking in the enchantment of Morocco. The winding cobbled street spun this way and that, leading me past piles of beaten copper pots, rows of gauzy indigo scarves, and ancient Berber rugs, canteens serving hot flatbread and savoury tagine, and some of the most romantic Moroccan architecture I've ever seen. I followed one path and found myself staring at an unending boulevard of dazzling silk thread. I turned into a connecting alleyway, only to discover the biggest inventory of Gaz I had ever seen. I continued on, reluctantly making my way past the sweets, down the narrow lane to what I hoped would be my destination--the fabled tannery.
I wandered through the medieval labyrinth past noisy water sellers, roaring mule carts, and masses of people haggling over raw meat, jewelry, leather goods, and handmade jellabas. "How much?" cried one. "Too much!" cried another. "Very good!" cried a third. I could distinguish a handful of different languages intermingled with the clucking of chickens, braying of horses, and patter of feet. Then suddenly, amid these frenetic sounds, I heard the soft, faraway voices of children. They were singing hymns that were carried to a few select corners of the souk by a gentle summer breeze. I followed the voices, past eager vendors and eager buyers, past small groups of old men smoking apple-scented hookahs, past artisans carving difficult curves on lathes. The songs became increasingly audible and I continued on. I turned right and then left and right again. I looked up and found myself standing in front of a magnificent green and white mosque.
I was surprised to find that at the very heart of the restless old souk stood this glorious testament to tranquility. I peeped through the onion-domed archway decorated with elaborate geometrical patterns and praises to God and discovered a small group of mild-mannered people quietly washing their feet at a smooth white fountain. A small child was staring intently at his father as he recited a prayer. I smiled to myself and turned away slowly without disturbing the beautiful scene. Sitting directly across the place of worship was a doorless whitewashed structure bursting at the seams with the sound of lilting childish voices. A man dressed in a plain cotton jellaba ushered me in. In a flash, thirty pairs of smiling brown eyes were fixed on me while thirty pairs of small hands waved frantically in the air. The man nodded his head and then the thirty small voices continued singing. I looked around the undersized, under-furnished schoolroom, observing the children as they sat on a rough brown carpet and sang their prayers. Their teacher now and again pointed to a well-worn poster containing some pretty Arabic writing. The children would pause and then recite what he pointed to. I took a photograph, put a few coins into a box, blew a few kisses, and left. There was no door to close behind me and even if there was, it would never shut out the memories of those happy little children crowded inside that sparse schoolroom or silence their simple song of praise.