It is not until I leave the interior of the Fez medina and drive the perimeter road circling the ancient fortress walls that I observe the large, pterodactyl-like bird skimming by the car and over the olive groves marching up the hillside. A verdant riverbed below him to my left bristles with waterfowl who eye the impressive bird with as much awe as I do.
“Qu’est-ce que c’est?” I ask my guide, pointing up at the sky.
He does not notice the bird. He’s avoiding slamming into on overburdened donkey that is oblivious to all the cars whizzing past as he shuffles across the four lanes of traffic.
The bird swoops close to us, at eye-level. He is huge and dirty-white with coal-black wings that spread out two meters. As he flaps by in slow motion, a hefty catfish wriggles in his gigantic beak.
“A stork!” I yell, flailing my hands. The driver is still not paying attention to me as yet another tipsy, tired donkey steps into the traffic. I recognize the bird as a stork because it looks just like the ones depicted on greeting cards carrying a baby dangling in a cloth diaper from their beaks.
Another stork lifts off from lush cattail reeds crowding the murky stream that runs down the wadi (riverbed) next to the road. The sky is filling with storks, and clouds of swallows converge, mingling with the giant, wheeling birds. A hawk hovers—a still point in the dance of the birds—and then, to punctuate the grays of the stork, the tans of the hawk, and silver-blues of swallows’ wings glinting in the harsh sunlight, a troupe of pure-white ibis lift off from the reeds and join the circling celebration of birds overhead.
I crane my neck in wonder, amazed that these birds are abundant in Fez, in a modern era when pesticides and herbicides have eliminated many species. I feel the timeless being of birds. Clouds and carpets of birds. The trill and twitter of birdsong alive and well.
“Alhamdulillah!” I exclaim. As I say this beautiful Arabic word that means “praise be to God,” my driver looks up at the circling birds and, smiling, says, “Allah ho Akbar”—God is great.
I wrote this story during my recent trip to Fez, Morocco, with Deep Travel Workshops, where I had the good fortune to study travel writing with the legendary Tim Cahill. He is the reason I pursued adventure-travel writing more than 40 years ago, when I read a story he wrote for Geo magazine about an expedition to Angel Falls in Venezuela and knew I wanted to write like him. First-person, highly detailed, and intimate—yet chock-full of botanical, tribal, historical, political information. He wove an enthralling tale.
Four decades later, in March 2017, I got to sit next to him and thank him. He was our master teacher for the Deep Travel workshop, leading a daily three-hour class brimming with insightful writing prompts and critiques. This story was born from one of his prompts.
The photo is taken from a lovely rooftop restaurant in Fez that provided not only exceptional wine and food, but at sunset was the perfect place to watch the dance of the birds overhead as they flew home to roost. Latifa, whose family has lived in Fez for many generations, enjoyed their choreography as much as I did and joined me nightly for the show.
If you enjoyed this story that takes place in Morocco, consider reading my story Two Muhammads about how I almost married my son off to a Berber baby that turned out to be a boy.
Another lovely Moroccan treasure in Marrakech is Yves Saint Laurent’s Majorelle Gardens. Read my story about this blue heaven here.
When to Trust and When to Run: A Woman Traveling Solo was also written during a class with Tim Cahill in Fez. The prompt: write about a time you were afraid.