Fes, which duelled with Marrakech for centuries for primacy in the Arabic Morocco state, is less comfortable than its rival, which is not to say that our stay there was bereft of modest luxury. We put up in a splendid riad called La Maison Bleue in rooms hardly changed since the owner’s grandmother lived in them.
Dinner was served in the covered courtyard to the accompaniment of live Moroccan music. A dozen dishes of delicious cooked vegetables were typically followed by pastilla (the fish one even better than the pigeon) or couscous and then the ubiquitous tajine.
The local Moroccan wines were part of the deal: a drinkable Semillon and a better Cabernet du President; which president I never discovered.
In hotter weather this riad’s sister establishment, Maison Bleue Le Riad, may be a better bet; it has a spa and swimming pool and a great view over the walls of the old city up to the Merenid Tombs.
It is worth scrambling up to this landmark, or taking a taxi, to get a clear idea of the lie of the land in Fes. The medieval “citadel of fanaticism” (as it was called) is in front of you in the pear-shaped bowl of the Sebou valley; off to the right is the new quarter built by the French and beyond that the road to Casablanca where the young Arab Amar in Bowles’s novel is finally abandoned by the Americans who had discovered him with all his quaint and savage cultural traits.
Much of The Spider’s House follows Amar through the labyrinthine Fes as he hunts and is, in his turn, hunted.
That the city has been preserved owes much to the French resident- general Louis-Hurbert Lyautey in the last days of colonial rule there and subsequently to Unesco. Fes was saved from the fate of so many cities in developing countries where, in a paradoxical gesture of national independence, so much local architecture is demolished to be replaced by pastiche Western.
Exploring the narrow streets of Fes leaves lingering memories – the stink of horse and donkey piss, the perfect pyramids of ground spices (yellow, red, orange and blue), the butchers’ shops with lines of sheep heads giving you an understandably doleful look, the tanneries and leather shops with piles of yellow babouches, the occasional visit to a medersa – the colleges of the ancient university – with their intricate wood carvings and blue tiles, and the evening roost of storks and alpine swifts on their rooftops.
Fes is not dangerous but it does seem alien, and in January the cultural difference is enhanced by the sheep being led into the city to have their throats cut by every family that can afford to buy one for the feast of Aid El Kabir, commemorating Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice Isaac.
Bowles captures all this in a novel set in the dying days of French colonialism. Gertrude Stein described him as “a manufactured savage”.
Dwelling himself on the frontier between sophistication and barbarism, Bowles is the perfect eye-witness to the Hobbesian world that he believes we all inhabit whatever our imagined civilised superiority. As Francine Prose observes in her excellent introduction to the edition of The Spider’s House published by Ecco, Bowles’s fiction is “the last place you would go for hope, or even for faint reassurance that the world is anything but a horror show, a barbaric Darwinian battlefield.”
Bowles is far more relevant to today’s discussions about clashing civilisations and the roots of terrorism than others regularly cited, such as Joseph Conrad. One activist in the novel notes the efficiency of violence in gaining American attention. Amar himself contemplates the difference between political Islam and jihadism – “they saw . . . factories and power plants rising from the fields . . . he saw skies of flame, the wings of avenging angels, and total destruction”.
He understands the terrorist’s grim compensations not of accomplishing a specific political aim but “of seeing others undergo the humiliation of suffering and dying . . . If you could not have freedom, you could still have vengeance, and that was all anyone really wanted now”.
Bowles clearly believed that we all – not just non-Moslems – live in the frail surroundings of a spider’s house and what others may take as his great insights into different cultures he clearly regards as so much nothingness. He presages the first part of his novel with the ‘Song of the Owl’ from The Thousand and One Nights: “I have understood that the world is a vast emptiness built upon emptiness . . . And so they call me the master of wisdom. Alas! Does anyone know what wisdom is?”