Have YOU always thought about studying Arabic in the Middle East but never known where to go or how to start? Well, worry no more because Pink Jinn is going to break it down for you, city by city.
We’ve created this clear, honest guide based on our own experiences to show you the good, the bad, the wonderful and the downright weird of studying abroad. Whether you’re a university student, a young professional with an interest in the region or you’re simply looking for a new adventure, this guide will help you find the perfect place for YOU to learn Arabic. This week…
Fes is a giant, harmonious clash. A clash of colours, cultures, languages, histories, identities. A clash of French, Spanish, Moroccan, Berber, Amazigh, East and West, Africa and Arabia… Exhausted already? Then maybe Fes isn’t for you…
It’s loud, diverse, colourful, brash, in your face and ever so slightly rough around the edges… And that’s what makes it so intoxicatingly magical.
Studying Arabic in Fes gives you a very raw and real experience of North Africa, of different ethnic groups and religions crammed into one bustling city, loosely divided between the medina (the old town) and the Ville Nouvelle. It’s a city of endless discovery, every wanderluster’s dream…
Perfect for: Backpackers, students and those who aren’t afraid to get their hands dirty
If you already study Arabic you’ll be aware that dialects tend to differ from country to country, and sometimes from town to town. Most students learn Modern Standard Arabic (MSA or fusha), which you’ll read in the media, official documents and the Qu’ran, however this is not as commonly spoken on the street.
The Moroccan dialect, known locally as darija, is one of the most unique Arabic dialects spoken across the Middle East – so unique, in fact, that Arabs from elsewhere in the region often struggle to understand it. Most Moroccans understand and speak MSA and will make an effort to speak it with you if they know you are trying to learn. However, MSA is very rarely heard on the street and you will probably find most Moroccans would rather try and converse in French or Spanish – and they might laugh at you for addressing them in MSA! It’s a good idea to be prepared for this as it can knock your confidence a little.
In all honesty, if you’re planning on spending more than a few weeks in Morocco you really need to try and learn the basics of darija. But don’t let that put you off! It’s relatively easy to pick up and the locals are more than happy to help. It’s also a really fun, colloquial sounding language and knowing just a little will really help you integrate!
Every tourist guide you read will tell you that, to experience Fes, you HAVE to get hopelessly lost in the old medina (or Fes al Bali) – and they’re right! With 70,000 inhabitants, this labyrinth of tiny intertwined streets is a UNESCO World Heritage Centre and the world’s largest car-free urban area. You could spend days exploring all of the different quarters and only become more lost – but that’s all part of the experience!
With such intense sights, sounds and smells, the medina is a total attack on your senses. You can easily while away the hours browsing the souqs filled with the goods and produce of local merchants and artisans. Particularly special (and cheap!) is the array of leather goods, dyed in the local tanneries.
Where do we even start? Moroccan food is simply AMAZING, particularly the street food, and it’s crazily cheap. You could quite easily eat out every single day without breaking the bank. Don’t be fooled by the touristy restaurants with waiters lurking outside trying to lure you in. The best by far is the food sold by vendors on the street. Don’t leave without trying meloui, a thick, doughy pancake served with goat’s cheese and honey. The bread is also to die for and a cup of sugary mint tea is a must after every meal. Sorry folks – you’re gonna put on a few pounds. Embrace it and love every second, it’s TOTALLY worth it and you’ll regret it if you don’t!
Every May, the Fes Festival of World Sacred Music brings the city together to celebrate music, art and spirituality. The festival attracts a diverse collection of musicians from all over the world – and most of it is free! Past line-ups have included the likes of mystical Sufi musicians, Indian sitar sensation Ravi Shankar, Patti Smith and Bjork.
A whirling dervish performs to traditional Sufi music at the Fes Festival of World Sacred Music (image: macrocink.com)
If you’re spending a few months in Fes, you’ll probably want to get out of the city and explore some more of the country. Popular with the locals during the summer months is the coastal town of Asilah. Here you will find tucked away (and we mean tucked away) a stretch of coastline nicknamed Paradise Beach. It’s one of Morocco’s most beautiful and undiscovered gems – and well worth the trek to get there!
Another place you might not have thought to visit is the town of Ifrane, nestled in the Atlas Mountains just a 90-minute drive from Fes. Ifrane is snowy and white in the winter and is a wonderful place to go horse riding – and if you get enough snow, skiing! This is a particularly surreal experience, worlds away from the camel ride in the sizzling Sahara that most people picture when they think of Morocco.
Then there are the classics: Chefchaouen – the “Blue Pearl” – and Meknes – the wine region!
There is no hiding from the fact that Fes (and Morocco in general) can be an uncomfortable place to be for Western women, particularly if you’re travelling alone or in an all-female group. If you’re pale-skinned, fair-haired or less conservatively dressed, you will probably receive unwanted attention and/or cat calling at some point during your time there (“Hello, Spice Girl” is a bizarre favourite). This behaviour is usually baseless; calling out the perpetrators with a stern word will nearly always embarrass them into silence and the locals will often intervene if they think you’re being hassled. However, this is inevitably an uncomfortable experience and can be scary if you’re not used to it.
Another frustration is that Fes is not particularly clean – particularly the tiny, cramped streets of the old medina. There are few bins on the streets and people often throw litter on the ground. Domestic rubbish is also left in the street, attracting cats and dogs and leaving behind unpleasant smells. This is particularly grim during the summer months, when temperatures frequently pass 40 degrees Celsius. Because Fes is an inland city, it gets really hot and dry in the summer and the only places to cool off are the swimming pools at the Western hotels in the Ville Nouvelle.
On a final note, it’s not the best place to go out at night. If you’re looking for somewhere fancy you can get dressed up and go for cocktails or a swanky club with a posh dance floor and a guest list, sorry to disappoint you but you probably won’t find it in Fes. While Marrakesh’s bar scene is famously trendy and sophisticated, nightlife in Fez is rather rougher around the edges. Then again, something a little simpler and more raw could be exactly what you’re looking for…
ALIF is the best-known Arabic school in the city, and rightly so. Following the familiar Al Kitaab curriculum, its friendly and dedicated teachers work hard to deliver a seamless MSA programme. They also run a darija course but, as mentioned before, this is best picked up on the street. In true Moroccan style, ALIF is a totally friendly and welcoming environment and a great place to meet other students – both international and local.
So, what sets Fes apart from other cities in the region?
Unlike other cities the Middle East and North Africa, Fes does feel relatively safe and the locals really have got your back. Tourism is huge for the economy in Morocco; the locals really recognise that and don’t want foreigners to be put off. They’re also very proud of their country and their culture, which is famous around the world for making strangers feel welcome!
The safety aspect is especially the case if you get to know the locals well, something that is considerably easier in Fes than in other Middle Eastern cities. Morocco is slightly less conservative and more westernised than other parts of the region, which makes it easier to forge meaningful friendships with the locals. The younger generation is especially open-minded and keen to make friends with people of different backgrounds.
This also means you don’t have to worry quite so much about dressing conservatively (girls!) as you might elsewhere in the Middle East. Moroccans are very used to seeing tourists and it is normal for local women not to wear the hijab (headscarf). Obviously, it’s still good idea to dress respectfully; Morocco is a predominantly Muslim country and you’ll receive unwanted attention if you go out and about in tiny shorts or a mini dress. Having said that, it’s really just common sense!
Fes in 3 words: Gritty, colourful, raw
Delia Maria Asser – half Spanish, half Essex-girl – is truly a force of nature. She is passionate beyond belief about cultures and languages (of which she speaks 6!) and explored every inch of Fez while studying Arabic in the city on her year abroad from Durham University. After graduating, Delia worked as a translator and interpreter for her local council and the NHS. She has since been using her Arabic skills working for BBC Arabic Radio and the Civil Service.
If you enjoyed this, you might also like:
SUBSCRIBE TO THE HUMP DAY NEWSLETTER TO GET THE LATEST BLOG POSTS FROM PINK JINN, INSIGHTS INTO WHAT’S GOING ON IN THE MIDDLE EAST AND NORTH AFRICA, PLUS INFO ON EVENTS HAPPENING IN YOUR AREA – DELIVERED STRAIGHT TO YOUR INBOX ON THE FIRST WEDNESDAY OF EVERY MONTH!
Please leave a comment or send an email to email@example.com if you have any questions, suggestions, or other information you would like us to include in this series about studying Arabic in the Middle East. We’d love to hear from you!