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Bhalil, city of caves

June 27, 2016

My first day in Fes I had intended to take a bus to Chefchaouen, a medina city painted entirely blue by the Jewish inhabitants of the 15th century and beyond. But the national CTM buses had sold out that trip and, unwilling to risk the vagaries and the added travel time of the local buses, I decided to just focus on Fes and the surroundings.

Luckily I found a prime day trip—Bhalil, with barely any information about it in my Rough Guides book, was, however, indicated as a top “Staff writers’ highlight” on a tucked away page of the book. The spare two paragraphs devoted to Bhalil mentioned a Mohammed Chraibi: “You’re unlikely to be in Bhalil for long before attracting the attention of this amicable ‘official guide’.” No joke. It took roughly a second after arriving in the town before ‘Ahmed’ flashed me a mouth full of crooked teeth and shouted, “Hello! Welcome to Bhalil!” with his arms raised in front of him.

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The charming Mr. Chraibi teaches me how to heat a hammam

Ahmed was like a Moroccan Roberto Benigni, squirrel-like in his explosive energy, volume, and animatedness. Bhalil, for context, boosts two ubiquitous points of interest. First, the djellaba-bead-weaving women of the town, who sit on the streets in flowing robes and caps on their heads carefully threading the fabricky beads, used for Moroccan ceremonial kaftans and jewelry.

Second, the cave dwellings, burrowed into the side of the hill Bhalil covers. While appearing from the outside to be regular dwellings with regular doors and exterior walls, well over half the homes in Bhalil are caves. These caves provide insulation for warmth during the winter and respite from the heat during the summer for the residents and, in separate dwellings, their animals.

Invariably, upon seeing either of these two sights—the women or the caves—Ahmed would grow as giddy as a child, stab his finger in the appropriate direction, and yell, “Look, look, du people live in du caves!” “Look, look, du women work on du djellaba beads!” “Look, look, du animals also live in du caves!” These exclamations consisted of about 75% of Ahmed’s commentary during the tour.

Partway through the trip, we visited one of the cave dwellings, owned by a family friendly with Ahmed. I was offered a circle of flat bread, some olive oil, and, of course, mint tea. The cave included a tiny kitchen separated by a small curtain, a wide area for couches under the main cave ceiling, a television set, and some cabinets. Three young boys and a girl were watching the TV when I came in.

I felt like a bit of a Western intruder. Here I was coming into a family’s home and sitting there awkwardly flipping my Rough Guide while these Moroccan kids looked at me with curiosity on the other side of the table. They, for their part, just found me curious. I randomly punctuated the silence with unnecessary questions to Ahmed and the mother hosting us in this cave-room (“Where does the electricity from the cave come from? How did you paint the cave?”), or ate more bread even though I wasn’t hungry for more bread (though the olive oil, local to the region, was particularly good and spicy).

Eventually, the kids grew used to me being there and started to jostle to get my attention. One boy was particularly excited by my pen, which he stared at like it was the one single thing that would make him happiest in the entire world. I had another one on me so I gave it to him, over the protests of Ahmed, and he proceeded to run around the room brandishing the pen in every conceivable pose. Amused, I asked him to give me a photo pose with the pen in return for my gift. He immediately lost his inspiration.

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“What, this old thing?”

And then, of course, djellaba beads (the mint tea doesn’t come out unless there’s a sale shortly behind, even in Bhalil). I was glad to buy a few from these guys—20 dirhams for a bunch ($2) is nothing considering the amount of work spent on each of these. Following the tour I got a small tutorial on how the djellaba thread is made (there are lines strung all along the city alleys where the women spin fresh batches of it) and how that thread is then used for the beads themselves.

Ahmed, who clearly relishes his role as the local tour guide, was insistent on showing me more spots—first in Bhalil, then in Sefrou, a nearby town—even as I told him I had 15 minutes before I had to leave for the airport, then 5, then none, then I-really-need-to-get-out-of-here-Ahmed. I let him take me through the mellah, which refers to the old Jewish quarters in virtually every Moroccan city, but had to stop him short when he tried to take me on a half an hour trek to see a fountain in the hills: “But it is a wonderful fountain!” I took leave of my garrulous guide and headed back to Fes, eager to get myself a last meal of camel burger before boarding a plane for Barcelona.

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