“Fez’s streets are narrower than a slot canyon,” says Tim Cahill.
They aren’t quite streets, yet they lead to people’s homes. Many people. Behind these carved, crooked wooden doors are a multitude of families dug deep in the warren of plastered rooms behind thick walls that weep moisture. Fez sits on an aquifer and is not as bone-dry as the shades of dusty adobe suggest.
Tim is right—the streets are a mysterious maze of twisting dark passageways no wider than a donkey’s back. I get lost every time I wander out from my riad (traditional Moroccan guesthouse). Really lost. For hours. This is the magic of exploring the oldest and largest medina in the world—an intriguing, disorienting experience, especially for a Western woman wandering alone.
I’m in Fez for a storytelling workshop and Tim, an intrepid explorer and renowned travel writer, is the instructor. I arrived five days ago to decompress and get a feel for Fez on my own.
“I’m afraid of the dark alleyways,” the other female travelers in the writing workshop say when they hear about my solo explorations of Fez. “How do you walk down these shadowy, twisting backstreets without the safety of numbers or the protection of a male companion?”
When to trust and when to run?
As I ponder this pivotal question that arises at some point in most women’s journeys, I answer, “Trust your gut. If your gut is sending you warning signals, run like hell unless you’re a ninja black belt. There are times when you can’t be a polite, nice girl. You have to get out of there, and pronto! At that point who cares if your instincts are wrong—it’s not worth sticking around to find out. And don’t hesitate. Just do it.”
I still chuckle when I remember one instance when I ran like a whipped racehorse—not caring what my handsome, sensitive musician escort thought of my hasty flight from the unlit Malecón of Puerto Vallarta, Mexico. I had met him in a hotel restaurant where he was playing flamenco guitar and he invited me for a walk after his performance. He seemed gentle and interesting, so I wrapped a shawl around my shoulders and we strolled out into the starry night. The waves were crashing on the beach and our conversation was easy. It was late and no other people were on the boardwalk. As we continued it seemed more and more deserted—until I saw a man up ahead peering at us from behind a wall. Stories of tourist muggings intruded into my thoughts as I looked over at my new friend. He was very delicate in a pretty way. The shape of the man ahead of us ducked back into the shadows again.
Red alerts were now flashing in my gut. Without a thought—or a comment to my oblivious companion—I turned heel and ran. All the way back to my lodgings. That poor guitarist was abandoned with no idea as to why I disappeared, but after so many years of traveling alone, when I get afraid and I’m in a situation that feels unsafe, I respond. Instantly. Perhaps the shadow man was not interested in us at all. Maybe he was out smoking a cigarette or going for a stroll himself. But what if he was a mugger, or worse? Puerto Vallarta is not the safest place to wander in the dark.
I remember another time where there was absolutely no question.
Three years ago in Istanbul, I was in a taxi heading to the airport for my return flight to San Francisco. The driver grinned crookedly at me through broken, stained teeth. The smile torqued into a leer. His direct, rheumy stare was distressing and I squirmed, not wanting to look at him. We were on the boulevard, skirting the ramparts. His hand was in his lap and when the subtle rubbing motion started and then amplified, so did my discomfort. Was he fingering his prayer beads or something less sacred? It quickly became apparent that it was not prayer beads he was stroking but the sausage-shape rising under his shiny, tight rayon pants.
Get out of the car now! my brain screamed. Could I sit here, captive to this perversion one more minute?
Was I willing to miss my flight?
Get out now! shouted every cell in my contracting body. I looked out the window; if I could just make it to the sidewalk, I could easily hail another taxi on this busy thoroughfare. Slamming my fist into the seat I yelled, “Stop the car!”
His hand lifted from his thin, stained pants, and his beady, mean eyes drilled into me from the rearview mirror. In a raspy, angry voice, he yelled back in Turkish. I didn’t need a translator; he was not a nice man.
I leaned forward and screamed in his ear, “Stop!”
Reluctantly, he pulled to the side of the road on a narrow shoulder. I pushed the door open as the rush hour cars sped by. He glared at me in the rearview mirror, bellowing and rubbing his fingers and thumb together in the universal sign for money.
I didn’t give a fuck.
But my suitcase was in the trunk. Spittle flew over his chin and onto the windshield. Turkish is an ugly language when spewed by a grizzled pervert.
Suitcase suitcase suitcase. Should I sacrifice my suitcase and jump to the curb, praying he’d drive off?
Fear morphed into fury. I’m not giving him anything! One foot stayed in the taxi and I shouted and pointed to the trunk.
Then, a distant form of a man appeared, walking toward us along the sidewalk on the other side of the road.
“Monsieur, monsieur,” I yelled, trying to keep my foot anchored in the taxi while waving and calling to the man.
He started to run. He was young, tall, good-looking, and as he got closer smooth, hip music emanated from the ear buds under his cap of curly black hair. His handsome face was concerned. In English he asked, “Miss, what is wrong?”
“The driver is touching his penis. I’m going to the airport to fly home. I do not want to be in this horrid man’s car, but my suitcase is in the trunk.”
The young man sprinted toward the driver and let him have it in furious Turkish. The driver shoved the rusted door open, shouted back at him, and pointed at me as if I were the devil’s consort. The vile man then opened the trunk, threw my bag on the ground, and screeched away, tires spinning.
The kindly man stood protectively close to me and hailed another cab, sternly telling the driver to get me to the airport without any shenanigans. He turned his lovely, chiseled face toward me and said, “I’m so sorry. Please know he is the old Turkey. But remember me—the younger generation—who respects women. You are beautiful and I hope you have a safe voyage home.” He opened the taxi door, took my hand, and kissed it in a tender, respectful manner.
I made my flight. My hand bore the sweet imprint of his kiss, yet my body reeked of the adrenaline activated to get me out of that hellish taxi.
When to trust and when to run?
My story stirs up a lot of discussion among the other writers in the workshop, most of whom are women emphatically nodding their heads in agreement. I point out that men usually don’t believe these stories of harassment—they think I have a chip on my shoulder or I’m imagining the seriousness of danger present—and the women nod some more. But one woman sits forward and says, “You are stereotyping Turkish men! Why did you even get in that taxi?” One of the younger men adds, “I think you’re exaggerating.”
We all turn and look in disbelief at the man.
Tim is enjoying the heated dialogue and says, “This is what a good story does—it stirs up the pot. It makes you think.” Then he points out, “The taxi driver was obviously a dick.”
Tension is defused as we laugh at his reference, and he asks me, “So, what about here in Fez?”
I explain that here in Fez I have had no issues. The medina is not riddled with dark, foreboding alleyways, but threaded with thoroughfares that lead to neighborhoods and homes. If I did feel endangered by a man coming from behind, then I would lift one of the weighty brass knockers nailed to every door and I would bang it loudly. When the door was heaved open and a headscarved woman stared from it at me in alarm, I would explain in jittery, childlike French that I was scared and that I’d rather be safe than sorry. In Fez, it’s more than likely that when I look over my shoulder again at the man coming closer, I’ll see that he is carrying a plastic sack of blossoming cilantro, scarlet tomatoes, rotund onions, and a plucked chicken. In all probability, he is not a threat—just a neighbor bringing home the ingredients his wife requested for dinner.
That afternoon, I push open the riad’s large, heavy door and enter the winding route that leads me deep into the medina. A curving alley thick with dancing dust motes beckons, and my feet turn down the narrow cobblestone lane.
A man’s raspy laugh disrupts the stillness. A frisson of alarm ripples across my skin. Then a child’s laughter responds, intertwining with the man’s voice and relaxing the grip of fear. Savory roast lamb and tantalizing, smoky eggplant waft from a nearby window, twisting around my nostrils—an invitation to continue down this well-lived passageway.
Fez street photos by Lisa Alpine