Fabulous Fez!


Hamid Asghar Khan

One of the essential elements of diplomacy in the info-technology enabled era of instant and constant communication, is the rise in importance of Soft Power Projection. The image and perception of a country now form an important part of its national power matrix.

The enchanting city of Fez, just over 2 hours north of Rabat via excellent motorway, is the second largest city in Morocco with a population of 1.2 million. It is globally known for its magnificent architectural heritage, its culture, for the arts and as an ancient seat of learning. Fez receives over a million foreign tourists a year.

It was in the 8th&9th centuries that Arab immigrants from Tunisia and Al-Andalus (Spain/Portugal) brought with them the tradition of scholarship and commerce, turning Fez into the first imperial political capital of Morocco. It in fact remained the capital till 1925.

Numerous schools of learning, including those specializing in theology and many mosques were constructed in the early era by the settlers. Most of these are still operational, being counted among the jewels of Moorish -Moroccan architecture. The impressive royal palace is one of the largest in the Kingdom and a portion of the  extensive gardens were later graciously converted into an excellent public park on royal command.

A significant Jewish population used to live in the city, but has entirely migrated, retaining but renting out their properties in the Jewish quarter to Muslims. Moroccans of the Jewish faith settled abroad and the owners of the properties are among the many tourists that Morocco receives from Israel annually.

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Remarkably, two Synagogues, dating back to the 17th century have been renovated by the German Foreign Office and UNESCO as per the vision of tolerance and moderation and respect for all religions of His Majesty the King. They contain unique ancient copies of the Torah inscribed on Gazelle skin. I was able to benefit from a specially arranged visit to the two restored synagogues-that otherwise remain locked due to absence of practitioners- courtesy the Honorable Deputy Mayor Mme. Dahmani Idrissi who graciously escorted me on my tour of the city.

The fascinating medina of Fez is the oldest and longest surviving such market, it is virtually a living, evolving organism and a World Heritage Site that is also the world’s largest urban pedestrian zone. A remarkable ongoing royal restoration project remains underway, acquiring and restoring ancient heritage buildings to their past splendor. The Medina also houses the famous Chouara Tannery from the 11th century, one of the oldest tanneries in the world.

The University of Al Quaraoiyyine in Fez was founded way back in 859 as a splendid Mosque that can accommodate 20,000 people. Remarkably it was founded by Fatima Al-Fihri-a lady of means of Tunisian provenance-and is considered to be the oldest functioning institute of higher education in the world, being the first to award degrees in medicine and veterinary science.

The historic Al Quarraoiyyine Library is home to ancient manuscripts including 9th century copies of the Holy Quran written on camel skin in Kufic script- the oldest form of Arab calligraphy. These are kept in special temperature and humidity controlled rooms. It was a fascinating privilege to be shown these treasures.

The Fez Medina has over 10,000 streets and alleys, spread over 300 hectares bisected by a river. In the alleyways, all type of traditional crafts including manual textile dyeing and brocade production on hand operated looms producing rich colorful fabrics can be seen. Place Seffarine is an enchanting triangular square where traditional brass and copper beaters and smelters remain at work under the shadow of a towering old leafy tree, producing handmade high quality cooking utensils since centuries.

The famous Fez Sacred music festival had its first edition in 1994 and maintains a strong link with Pakistan due to our strong Sufi music tradition. The Late Maestro Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan participated in the vibrant festival a number of times and is well known here. This year’s on-line festival also happily has participants from Lahore which has a sister city agreement with Fez.

My father’s cousin Brigadier ® Zamir Ahmed Khan served as Pakistan’s Envoy to Morocco from1986-1990.Heremained Commandant of Pakistan Military Academy from 1974-1976 and later Chief of Protocol at the Foreign Office under President Zia from 1980-1986. It was Ambassador Zamir who took the commendable initiative of twinning Fez with Lahore way back in 1988 with then Mayor of Fez the Hon’able. Filali Baba.

Now, 32 years later, we are poised to build on this solid foundation thanks to the vision and support of our worthy Foreign Secretary Sohail Mehmood and the Honorable Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi who have specifically desired enhanced projection of our history and culture around the globe.

During my delightful visit to Fez, I was received and hosted with remarkable cordiality and courtesy by the Honorable Mayor M. Driss El Idrissi. We had excellent discussions and it will be my privilege to contribute towards developing the existing warmth between our two fraternal countries, bound by history, mutual respect and cultural ties.

Hamid Asghar Khan is Pakistan’s Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary to the Kingdom of Morocco