Palais Amani Classic Room
Palais Amani Grande Suite
Palais Amani Roof
Palais Amani Garden
Learning the language - Fes, Morocco
Whoever seeks a way to acquire knowledge Allah will make easy his way into paradise.
Sahih Muslim Hadith
Learning and knowledge are deeply engraved into the history of the Moroccan Imperial City of Fes. Its famous Al-Qarawiyyin mosque is home to one of the world’s oldest universities (established in 859 by Tunisian Merchant’s Daughter Fatima al-Fihra). The paths of Fes Medina seem to cobweb out from Al-Qarawiyyin meaning that even the most hapless visitor can easily find themselves outside its walls. I peeped inside one of the sweeping arched doorways as midday prayers resounded across the tiled floor and a flustered late arrival swept her children into the women’s area. An impishly entrepreneurial twelve year old decided that my view would be better from the roof terrace of one of the passage’s carpet emporiums and, in exchange for twenty dirhams, marched me up three flights of stairs so that I could see across the entire building. As I gazed, I thought about Al-Qarawiyyin’s library where some of the most important books of the Islamic World are kept safe including extracts – written on gazelle sheets – from Al-Muwatta and a 17th century edition of the Holy Quran. These texts and the university’s reputation as a leading centre of learning – particularly for grammar, theology and Islamic Law, attracted many great scholars and also cemented the city’s educational reputation.
I asked Calligrapher, Mohamed Charkaoui, about this renown and he told me that Fes was known as a capital of knowledge and, as the scientific centre of the Kingdom, people would arrive to learn religious science, maths and astro-physics. This meant that the city became one of the calligraphy capitals of the world (alongside Istanbul, Cairo and Damascus) and calligraphy was one of the main reasons that I had come to Fes. Mohamed and I were in the Misriah Suite of the Palais Amani and I was going to have a Calligraphy Lesson. Mohamed was captivating as he took me through the history of the Arabic language from pre-Islamic, nomadic spoken poetry to the birth of the different scripts. He explained the concept of learning as a religious duty and how the profession of teaching was seen as honourable with the pen as a respectful tool.
Similar to an eager young karate pup presenting herself to Jackie Chan only to be told to focus on her breathing for six months, Mohamed told me that the absolute essence of calligraphy was the dot.
Well placed dots are the key to properly formed and proportioned letters, particularly the sweeping Alif (the I shaped letter that makes the A sound). So I dipped my sharpened bamboo (Mohamed: “all calligraphers make their own tools” – this had been carved with a knife in a curving movement and left in vegetable oil all night to make it impermeable) into the ink (that had been made from burned, smashed almonds, Arabic Gum and honey) resting in a bottle filled with silk fibres to ensure that just enough is taken and I dotted. By the end of the four hour lesson, I had moved on to free form calligraphy (jazz letters if you like) and was writing my name. The lesson culminated with Mohamed writing my name in square kufic calligraphy.
Mohamed’s calligraphy is displayed throughout the Palais Amani – there’s a square kufic wood engraving in the library, the Misriah Suite has script written on leather and my mezzanine suite had a large calligraphy print – but this isn’t the only reason to stay at this stunning, carefully renovated Moroccan palace. It was originally built over four hundred years ago and reconstruction following a landslide in 1928-1930 has given art-deco touches including high ceilings and huge amounts of light pouring in. Current co-owners, Jemima and Abdel have made Amani special by keeping historic details in place and marrying them with five star luxury. There’s a central, garden courtyard with lemon and orange trees – where birds swoop and chatter at dawn – and a beautiful Islamic shallow pool. The rooftop terrace has sun loungers, an outdoor shower and, perched at the highest point, a bar with soaring views over the Medina to the hills. Abdel told me that at sunset, you sometimes see storks returning from seeking daytime coolness in the hills. Palais Amani has nine suites and four bedrooms and all are individually designed: the Family Suite has a deep, red tiled shower; my suite had a spiral staircase leading to bed; and there are mosaic floors and large arches throughout. Photographs of Medina life, taken by Jemima’s Mother, are hung alongside design pieces made from local materials purchased in the Medina. There’s also a spa complete with hammam and I whiled away a blissful candlelit afternoon being steamed, scrubbed, massaged and coated with honey and orange flower water.
Back out in the Medina, wander and watch the action take place. There are specific sections for each trade from wedding throne making to the tanneries to the very noisy bit where metal is hammered out. The vegetable markets have huge, brightly coloured offerings that make our supermarkets look dull, sardines were the order of the day at the fish stalls and the meat can be very, very fresh (I saw a gentleman carrying a chicken in a manner that suggested that it only had a few more minutes to live). You can get your bearings, by the many named gates or doors (bab) at the Medina walls. If you make your way through the blue gate (bab boujloud) and out of the Medina a little way, you come to the Place Boujloud – a big square where you sometimes see storytellers preserving the oral tradition that Mohamed was telling me about as well as ice cream sellers, one man football teams and an extraordinary amount of people selling shoes.
Fes is more than just its Medina though. There are the wide boulevards of the Ville Nouvelle, built by the French during the years that Morocco was a French Protectorate. Here in the Ville Nouvelle, the Arabic Language Institute (locally known as the American Centre) is the place to head to if the calligraphy has given you a taste for learning more of the language. The institute offers Modern Standard and Colloquial Moroccan Arabic for visitors as well as providing English lessons for locals. I visited on a Saturday morning and the classrooms were bursting with words. I spent hours browsing the bookshop for Arabic Readers, translations of Arabic books and Travel Books about the region. The man at the till told me that the Institute was having one of its busiest years as it seemed that people were unwilling to travel to the traditional language exchange centres of Alexandria and Cairo. There’s a shaded outdoor cafe at the Institute where I indulged in some sugary mint tea and started to read my purchases.
Back at Palais Amani, dinner is spectacular. Jemima and Abdel have catering backgrounds and have given Moroccan home cooking flavours a creative twist. They told me that they found one of the chefs when she knocked on the door and, when asked about her experience of cooking for up to thirty people, made it clear that this was a regular occurrence in Moroccan family cooking. For me the food was a delicious whirl of tomato stuffed with aubergine, lamb pastilla, meatballs, tender chicken, wine from Meknes and the most incredible pastries that I’ve eaten. My breakfast table heaved with yoghurt and dried fruit, fresh fruit, olives, Moroccan soup and more pastries. For more home cooking, be escorted to Restaurant Dar Hatim (named after the owner’s son Hatim) where, amongst carpet laden walls, you can gorge on a massive selection of appetisers including fried aubergine, diced chilli, flat bread and dips, and lentil soup. Afterwards, I can highly recommend Hatim’s Mum’s speciality dish of chicken pastilla.
There can’t be a better way to round off a night at Palais Amani than high above the Medina, in the rooftop bar where – as part of an impromptu birthday party for an Italian guest – the pastry chef is giving belly dancing lessons to a troupe of Hawaiian ladies in exchange for being taught to hula. It’s all about learning in Fes!
- www.palaisamani.com Palais Amani can arrange calligraphy lessons and hammam/spa treatments as well as many other Fes experiences.
- Ryanair fly London Stansted to Fes but for an incredible experience consult seat61.com and plan a journey from London to Fes by train and boat. Alternatively, you can fly from Paris to Fes or from London to another Morrocan city and catch the train.
- Palais Amani can arrange for you to be met and walked to Restaurant Dar Hatim (so you don't get lost). The address is 19 Derb Ezaouia Fandak Lihoudi.
- Arabic Language Institute courses can be found at www.alif-fes.com
Fran Harris with pictures courtesy of Palais Amani