Fragrant Moments in Fez by Gary Nabhan


Down the alleyways of the medina, past the souks, we wander, either beckoned by the hints or bludgeoned by the assaults of aromas far too potent to let pass without honorable mention:

The dank, musty rotten air of sheep, goat, cow and camel hides being dunked in enormous tubs full of natural dyes— indigo, henna, blood meal, saffron, sage—and as the meaty tissues absorb these colors, minor wonders are revealed.

The smoky, char-grilled fragrance of lamb kabobs which have been dusted with spices—cumin, cinnamon, onion, oregano, garlic and thyme—then put on skewers over a grill that sits on a meager wood fire; as the meat heats up, its juices drip into the red-hot coals, which sizzle and steam and exude more of their olfactory magic.

The barbershops wedged in between the other shops, with hardly enough room for a chair and man with clippers in his hand, but oh how they blast their presence to the world through the oud-like strumming of rosewater, the delicate kanun-dulcimer chiming of orange blossom water, the violin-like bowing of musk-infused aftershaves, and the clanging castanet’s of rubbing alcohol dowsing the razor cuts.

The butcher shops that feature on sturdy hooks the recently-severed legs, ribs, loins and heads of camel, bull, ram and kid, while blood still dries on the knives and cutting boards, and the already-warm meat gets even hotter in the eighty-degree sun, offering perilous clues to the fact that deadly microbes have already begun their perverse alchemy…

The incense burning in the charcoal braziers in front of the herboristes and pharmacies Berberes—frankincense, myrrh, candlewood—as well as the apple chips, cherry wood, bergamot and mint bubbling up through the hookahs sucked on by old men in the sidewalk cafes playing backgammon and shooting the breeze.

The slow baking of tajines in their pyramidal clay pots, where toasted almonds and sesame seeds, stewed prunes and boiled mutton combine with ginger, pepper, coriander and salt to waft us a little closer to heaven.

We don’t know how our noses can hold for much longer the promise of paradise rising from these myriad scents that are surging up our flared nostrils.


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