City of Stray Cats

Meknes, Morocco
September 2014

Meknes is a city of little stray cats. On the rooftop of the Medersa Bou Inouia, a skittish one squeezes through a little hole when I go near him to photograph the Grand Mosque next door. When I turn around, another tiny gray-and-white cat jumps on the step and meows shrilly.

There are cats down every alley, crying out from little corners, darting in and out of safety, strolling into museums. A white cat at the Musee Janai swats at me when I try to pet her because I mistook her as tame. At least I don’t get scratched.

It’s already been a long day’s wandering. I awoke at five this morning in Casablanca and set out in darkness looking for a petit taxi in a working class neighborhood. The first taxi took me to Casa Port, the wrong train station; the second delivered me to Casa Voyageurs just minutes before the 7:10 to Meknes.

Arriving in Meknes, a taxi met me with two passengers in the back and me up front with my heavy pack in my lap. He turned out to be quite reasonable for an unmetered train station taxi.

I should be dead tired, especially after the long series of flights the day before. I’m usually in a state of out-of-time as I readjust my internal clock, especially after a red-eye flight. But actually, I’m coming into sync — if only I can find where I’m going.

The men in the market stalls sang out, “No, no, no” in unison like a Greek chorus.Amina’s map has been no help. I’ve been wandering around the medina like a crazy person, past the covered market, the food market, the carpenter’s market, and even the industrial section where men on the street hammer metal into shapes using iron presses that shoot out hot sparks.

Eventually, I found my way back to the main part of the medina, but I still couldn’t locate the medersa. It was supposed to be near the Grand Mosque. I could see its minaret when I was in the open air, but in the tighter parts of the souk, I couldn’t see it, so I didn’t know where it was — not until I walked through the portal onto the carpets of the Grand Mosque and the men in the market stalls sang out “No, no, no” in unison like a Greek chorus.

The location of the medersa is actually quite obvious to anyone but me. There is a sign overhead that’s comprehensible for an English speaker. A medersa is like a seminary, housing religious students. Medersa Bou Inouia has a quiet courtyard and fountain, and two floors of tiny cells where the students lived when they were studying the Koran. The school is still in use, but visitors can’t see the working part of it.

Up on the roof, there are French women having a long-winded conversation, and there is a great view of the Grand Mosque’s minaret, as well as a panorama of the rooftops of the whole medina and several mosques in every direction. And there are the aforementioned cats.

Musee janai

Ceremonial Room, Musee Janai

At the nearby Musee Janai, in a converted palace, I tour the exhibits of silver pottery and tapestries, as a helpful young guard follows me around. He looks like Angel di Maria, the $100 million soccer player. At the top of the stairs, he shows me the ceremonial room, which is the uber salon of salons, with a main divan for the minister and lesser divans for his visitors. The floor is awash in a kaleidoscope of red and blue carpets. One could live like a sultan just in this room. Outside the palace, the garden has a lemon tree and many palms. It’s a quiet retreat from the noisy spectacle that breaks loose every evening on the Place de Hedin, just beyond its walls.

In the afternoon, I go to the Mausoleum of Moulay Ismail, only to find it closed following the lunchtime siesta. It’s supposed to be open by now. There are small boys playing football in the plaza outside its walls. All great rulers should be befallen by kids playing football around their burial places. A tall, young Englishman walks by. “Have you worked out how to get inside yet?” he asks. “I’ve been by twice. I can’t figure it out.”

Soon, the tour buses arrive, followed instantly by the man with the keys. As he works to unlock the door, a stray soccer ball bounces toward a group of older French tourists and one of the men boots it left-footed into the tall, thick shrub in the center of the plaza. His fellow tourists compliment his ability, but he’s no Zidane. The boys are yelling at him because they can’t reach the ball, but he is oblivious. I walk over and retrieve it for them, and they shower me in “mercis.”

The Mausoleum of Moulay Ismail is one of the few religious buildings in Morocco that is open to non-Muslims. It is a grand complex of interlocking courtyards and arched doorways gradually leading to the tomb of the ruthless Moroccan sultan who ruled from Meknes and was responsible for the massive construction here in the eighteenth century. For five dirham, you can take your shoes off and approach the sanctum in which he is at rest. The room is regal beyond regal, as these places tend to be, with hanging silver and bronze lanterns, ornate wooden doors, and sumptuous carpets piled in all directions.

Back outside, the football kids have gone. There’s nothing left to do but make the two kilometer hike along the outer walls of the Dar el Makhzen, the royal palace complex that is closed to the public. At intervals along the long, straight road beside the rarely used palace I pass stations with bored-looking guards.

Around the corner, then around another, I come upon the Heri Es Souani, a vast warren of storehouses and granaries. The faux guides call it the royal stables, but it really isn’t — those are further down the road. Inside, the interconnecting chambers all have high, barreled ceilings lit by amber lights that give out a warm glow. Out in the garden, there are long rows of massive, aqueduct-like structures amidst very sparse vegetation. The tall, golden structures look impressive, with their high arches leading off in parallel lines.

Bab Mansour

Bab Mansour

Another hike takes me back to the medina via the industrial–residential district, complete with chickens feeding on the sidewalk and one red-puddled stretch where one met its fate. I return to Bab Mansour, the main entry gate for the medina. It is one of Morocco’s most impressive and historic gates, rivaled only by the one in Rabat. Legend has it that Moulay Ismail asked the architect whether he could have done better, and when the architect modestly responded that he could have, the ruler had him executed.

Beyond the gate, the Place de Hedin has erupted into a street carnival of snake charmers, drummers, and wails that aspires to rival Marrakech’s Jemaa el-Fna. After watching the show over coffee in a nearby cafe, I dive into the covered market, where they sell nearly everything under the sun. Soon, I’m in full-souk overload until the crush of bodies comes to a standstill. Escaping through the back alleys, I encounter stray cats going through the scraps somebody has put out. One of them is scarfing up a fat worm it’s pulled from the garbage.

Back in the peaceful sanctuary of the Riad El Ma, and newly relaxed and fed, I sit in the upstairs parlor beside Amina’s white cat, writing these notes. Both of us are satisfied sitting in the dim light, while downstairs a French family who are visiting for dinner converse. When the voices and laughter finally subside, and a trio of Americans have returned from their dinner odyssey in the Ville Nouveau, the riad falls into a quiet hush. Just then, I hear the door latch of the apartment at the top of the stairs, and the cat alights for its mistress.

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