Traces of West Africa in the streets of Fés

by

Sometimes history can be read in a design stamped in leather or found in the syncopated beat of a song.

In the medina of Fés, we stood inside the old walls of a fandouk, an inn dating to the 11th century. The first floor, with its high ceilings and open central courtyard, was a combination stable and warehouse. On the second floor were the rooms where the travelers stayed. Some of the guests may have come all the way across the Sahara, traveling in caravans from water source to water source with their camels. To the medina of Fes, they brought gold, slaves, and kola nuts from West Africa. In that very courtyard perhaps, they negotiated their sales, then loaded up their camels and set out south again across the desert carrying blocks of salt and the teachings of Islam.

Gold, salt, slaves, cowries, and kola nuts that split open like red hearts at the touch of a fingernail and promise to end thirst and hunger for those who chew them–these were the trade goods that were loaded up at one end of the trade route and unloaded at the other, haggled over, bartered and bargained for. But other commodities came along, too, invisible ones, traveling back and forth until it is sometimes difficult to sort out who brought and who received, who borrowed and who loaned.

The teachings of Islam traveled south with the traders, and when I hear the sing-song call to prayer rise above the medina of Fes, it recalls the little mosques in the villages of Mali and Burkina Faso and northern Ivory Coast, where men in long robes and leather sandals or slippers are hearing that same call and crossing the villages to pray. The stamped designs on the harnesses, saddles, and scabbards of the traders inspired the diffusion of leatherworking styles across West Africa in ways we are still trying to understand. When I meet up with these designs in the medina, on wallets that hang around a man’s neck or on slippers, they have the familiar look of acquaintances I have known before in some other place. Words, too, travel easily; there are many Arabic words in the Mandé languages of West Africa and words from African languages have surely found their way into Arabic.

It is hard to think of human beings being bartered and sold just like salt or gold or kola nuts. But of course they were. And people, even enslaved, carry with them their own words, their own stories and beliefs, their own knowledge of plants and food, and their own music and dance.

On our last night in Fés, as we sat at dinner in the medina, we were serenaded by two Gnawan musicians. They are descended from slaves brought to Morocco from West Africa, but I had no idea about their history when they began to play. Their black hats decorated with cowry shells reminded me of the hats some Malian praise singers wear. The three-stringed instrument one of them played was a larger version of the one-stringed lutes of the Fulani herders of West Africa. His percussive style was exactly like clawhammer banjo, a technique brought all the way to America by enslaved Africans. The iron castanets beat the time like the iron percussion instruments played all over West Africa. When the castanet player stood up to dance, I recognized the tune even though I had never heard it before. I felt they were singing to me, and this is the song I heard:

here we are, here we are,

still alive, still alive,

all these centuries later, here we are,

no longer slaves, still alive, still alive,

with the beat of West Africa still inside us,

so hear it, so hear it!

Silently I answered:

I hear you, I hear you, I hear West Africa singing inside your song.

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