Walking Solo in Fes: An Exercise in Trust

You’re bound to get lost walking in the old medinas of Marrakech and Fes. Google Maps seems to have bypassed this section of the world, perhaps paid off by enterprising locals who make a living off of directing lost girls to their riads.

Fes is not a place you can stubbornly refuse help. The medina was not meant for tourists. It was meant for locals to live in them, breathe them, know them in and out.

Walking in Fes is more of a mental than physical exercise. You would consider dropping breadcrumbs all over this country if you weren’t so sure a swarm of cats would undo all your work. Once you learn that GPS will not save you, your eyes search frantically for landmarks. A road’s inclination, certain tilework, a sign for another riad all become imbued with significance.

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What at first seems extraordinary quickly turns into a blur in the medina
One of many old doors in the Medina

But these things crowd and compete. One ornate door you saw earlier looks much like the next. You can’t remember if you’re supposed to turn left or right at the graffiti that says, in English, “bullshit.” And so, inevitably, you get lost. In any other country, in a non-female body, this wouldn’t feel so catastrophic. But Fes has its feelers out. When you don’t know what you’re doing – everyone knows.

So you ask someone for directions. That inevitably turns into them either walking with you or getting someone to walk with you, because a simple “turn left” won’t do in this country. This is not because of a language gap. It happens even if you speak French, and even though most city-dwelling Moroccans are fluent in at least three languages, one of which is likely English. It’s just the way it is in these parts. These streets are known by muscle memory. Names, lefts, and rights have no place here.


Walking home with a stranger, you must give in to trust. Your city gut and your city brain and all your stranger danger alarm bells will be shrieking. You must listen to them, but not be cowed by them, and walk anyway. Usually, there is silence. If you’re as dramatic as I am, you’ll find yourself staring into the faces you pass, as if telling them “remember me. Remember me if something happens.”

But nothing does. You arrive safely at your destination and press some money into your stranger’s hand with a firm thank you. You feel relief that the world is, mostly, good. You vow that tomorrow, you will pay more attention to your surroundings. You will read the city better and note its curves and imperfections more thoroughly. But in all likelihood, tomorrow will bring more of the same, and another unfamiliar face will lead you on your way.

This is Fes.

A semi-aerial view of Fes and its hellish-smelling tanneries

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