Book Review Travel

Exploring Fes, Grappling With John Ashbery’s Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror

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I’ve tried recreation,
Reading until late at night, train rides
And romance.
from ‘Worsening Situation’ by John Ashbery
As I arrived into Fes, late, tired, hungry, still with the Austrians and Canadian from Chefchaouen, I lost my copy of Infinite Jest. My battered, ink-stained, crumpled, torn and (most importantly) THREE QUARTERS READ copy of Infinite Jest. This did not make me happy. It was, however, the only bad thing that happened the whole time I was in Fes, and only a man even less grounded than myself would try to lay the blame for that on the city.
I loved Fes. I was slightly intimidated by its huge medieval medina, the largest in the world, and although I and 90% or so of the people at my hostel refused to leave the building after dark, the exploring and getting lost I did do during the day filled me with an excited feeling of being somewhere utterly alien.
The streets
Offered a variety of directions to the foot
And bookstores where pornography is sold
from ‘Grand Galop’ by John Ashbery
I found two international bookstores shortly after leaving the riad (higher end hostel – eleven rather than seven euro a night) the first morning, but neither held a copy of the David Foster Wallace I was already acutely missing. I turned instead to the first of the several books of poetry in my bag, John Ashbery’s Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror, a collection I have very much enjoyed over the last few days.
In Fes, that first day, I wandered (in a group), slowly, aimlessly, as one must, watching carpenters, weavers, metalworkers and, most interestingly and the sight Fes is most famous for (other than the hat), its traditional outdoor tanneries.
One is grabbed, pulled, paraded, hounded into one of the many tourist-centric leather shops that surround the tanneries, carried up to the terrace each have and forced to buy or give an involuntary donation for the privilege of seeing the mess beneath.
About a hundred, metre-deep holes, walled with modern ceramic tiles but baked out of medieval, unmoving clay, each pit containing dyes and a huge amount of uncut but treated animal skins (camel, goat or cow here), which are dunked and squashed underfoot by workers (many of them children – and by children I do mean under ten), stood up to their knees, thighs, in varied chemicals, amongst the stench of piss and excrement that is used in the leather-making process, throwing dyed skins onto high piles of floppy animal remains. Excellent.
The streets weave, the hustlers, right at the end of Ramadan, are tired, less forceful. Fruit, fresh vegetables, fresh meat (including camel heads) are prevalent and shining. The Fes medina, with its horses, donkeys, mules, scooters and motorbikes is a charming, busy space. Stalls selling knock-off Beats headphones are next to ones selling tat for tourists next to ones selling spices and fruit and bread in a way that has had no need of change for hundreds of years. It is a place of contrast, a place of people, and not a place drowning in tourists.
The book I read there, the Ashbery, was a beautiful distraction. Sexy, musical, lyrical, the often philosophical, frequently art/literarily critical pieces were a warm and thought-provoking accompaniment to the further sober evenings of my trip. Not quite desperate enough for inebriation to try the two euro heroin I was offered, though.
Highlights of Fes: the animals, working and feral, a fascinating conversation I had about international sexual mores with a large group of strangers over my only beer in a week at a hotel terrace bar offering stunning views of the city.
Downers: Staying at a hostel just outside the medina meant that nighttime wandering was far too stressful and confusing to try to attempt. I’d recommend staying amongst braver tourists, or right in the heart of the old town.
I’m enjoying myself. I’m enjoying my trip. Positive reinforcement. Positive reinforcement.
No, it’s too heavy
To be said. Besides, you aren’t paying attention any more.
from ‘Märchenbilder’ by John Ashbery
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