What To See in Fes

This post is just a quick overview of what not to miss during your stay in the beautiful city of Fes.  I have organized it to several categories, and even if you are on a busy schedule, make sure to tackle each one of the groups to get the taste of the city!

MEDRESAS

Fes is famous for its religious schools (or medresas/medersas), some of them dating back to the 14th century! They used to cater to male students and provided education in islamic sciences and Quran, some of them being active up to the 20th century as dormitories for the students of Qaraouine university. Today a number of these architectural jems are either shortly after their renovation or in the process of it. You should definitely not miss them! I would suggest the small, but beautiful Attarine medresa just off the Qaraouine mosque, the Cherratine medresa, and of course our dear neighbor – medresa Bou Inania.

QARAOUINE MOSQUE

You will not be able to enter this mosque unless you are Muslim, nevertheless it is worth spending some time peaking through its doors inside. You are looking at the OLDEST educational institution in the world! It was established in the 9th century (in the year 859) by a woman – noble Fatima al-Fihrí who felt it the best to invest her dowry into establishment of such an institution for the city of Fez. What we have in the medina today is only the mosque itself as the university has long moved away to modern buildings outside the medina walls. This place remains, however, the most sacred point of the medina.

FOUNTAINS

Let us see how many you are able to find during your visit of the Medina: five? ten? Do not miss the most beautiful one at the Nejjarine square!

PALACES

Our Medina is full of beautiful palaces, some of them, unfortunately not being in the best shape at the moment. You should still head for the Moqri palace and the Mnebhi palace for some good pictures.

TANNERIES

This is one of the highlights of the Medina – old techiques and proccesses still used today for tanning the animal skins. The biggest tannery is called Chouara, and you need to head towards the northeastern part of the Medina, but there are other, smaller tanneries as well. My favorite one is the tannery in Chorba district where you get to meet the tanneurs personally.

CITY GATES

Fes Medina has fourteen gates, with the fifteenth being our internal gate – Bab Boujaloud. It would take you the whole day to walk all around the Fez city walls as they have several miles in length, but do pay attention to the beautiful Bab Semmarine or the massive Bab Ftouh, just to name a few.

JEWISH HERITAGE

Fes has amazing Jewish heritage with a number of sites to explore, within walking distance from our Riad! Explore the Jewish cemetary, marvel at the beautiful architecture of the houses previously owned by Jewish merchants, and visit the two newly-renovated Fes synagogues.

PARKS AND GARDENS

Jnane Sbile is probably the best place to enjoy some serenity under the shadow of willows.  It has been carefully landscaped to please the eye and bring rest to weary legs of the Medina visitors.

SOUQS

Souq is an Arabic term for market, and whether you are looking for rugs, leather goods, jewelry or ceramics, the local market is ready to cater to you! Look for some traditional footwear (babouch) and beautiful caftans at the Kaisareia market, and head to the Henna souq for products such as argan oil, henna and ghassoul.

Keeping Your Mouth Out of Trouble In the Middle East

kocicka (51)Middle East* is the most wonderful part of the world! Well, at least for me.

I know that many people come to the Middle East with certain expectations, and quite a few of the leave with mixed feelings. It is NOT the lack of beauty, monuments, sun and fun, that creates the feeling, it is the people. The locals, Jews, Arabs, Druze, Muslims, converts – they all can make you feel at least uneasy, unsure and confused about their attitute towards yourself if you cross certain borders.

The Middle East is a delicate part of the world, it needs to be dealt with that way

Everyone has an opinion about something, let alone about the Middle-Eastern political situation, which is in one way or another presented in the media almost on daily basis. For some reason, it makes lots, lots of people very upset, and they feel they have the long- awaited and long-desired and the best answer to offer. Given the fact that hundreds of learned, studied and experienced professors, specialists, politicians and religious leaders have tried to solve the “problem” for the last sixty plus years and have not reached their goal, you, my fellow world traveler are NOT likely to significantly to help either.

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I have been working, studying and travelling across the Middle East for the last nine years, have dated a Muslim, a Druze, as well as a Jew, have eaten meals in the homes of people of various ME countries, have visited mosques, synagogues and churches and have come to the following conclusions:

1. Learn as much as possible before your trip

It is nice to show some knowledge on the ME countries when talking to the locals, and they will appreciate when you don’t eat in front of the during Ramadan or don’t ask them for a ride on Shabat. Knowing the basics of the religions does not hurt, and can open doors. Learn what Baruch hashem and Inshalla means, it will save you some awkward moments.

2. Dress and behave accordingly

This one does not deal with your talking, but if you wish to get closer to people and get to know them/make some personal connections, try to approach them in the way that will not make the feel awkward. Middle East is for the most part a traditional region, and this goes for clothes and behavior as well. Modesty in the way you dress and act in the public can make the locals love you and not pay any attention as well. And if they do pay attention while wearing shorts and tank tops, it is not the kind of attention you were probably looking for.

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3. Listen more than speak

They love to talk, and once you make a contact you desired, they will talk and talk and talk. The Middle Easterners are lovely, friendly and cordial people who will want to share their lives and homes with you. They will sure be vocal about number of things, and they do have a lot of interesting things to say, so listen and learn.

4. BE CAREFUL WHEN PRESENTING YOUR OPINION

The most important one, and the reason why I am writing out this piece. They sure WILL ask you about your opinion on the political situation in their country. Opinion is what you think, and while you can think anything, they are definitely looking for the RIGHT answer, in line with what they believe in. What I have learned is that no opinion is the best opinion, and I excuse myself from having to answer any sensitive question by saying that it is something I either have not had a chance to build an opinion on, or something I don’t quite understand. Not saying anything and looking stupid is better than saying something that will spark a fire of an argument.

5. Don’t teach and preach

The worst thing, I believe, that one can do, is to teach them and preach to them. They have their opinion based on their life experience and sometimes religious propaganda, and they will NOT consider new, fresh ideas that you might feel are so revolutionary. If your opinion is contrary to their beliefs, they will most probably think you don’t understand the situation anyway.

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6. Beware of seemingly harmless comments

Even outside of voicing an opinion, you may utter something that the listeners will find utterly offensive. Don’t be surprised if the Israelis give you an evil look if your call their country a Zionist entity just because that’s how Lebanese refer to it. Likewise, let it not surprise you when Syrians treat Golan Heights as THEIR land when referring to it. On and on, the best (again) is NOT to make comments which have political content.

7. They don’t need to know your itinerary …

While in one of the four Levantine countries (Israel, Lebanon, Syria and Jordan) it is OK to mention you have been to the other ones, in some of them it is recommended not to talk much in detail about your travels in the region – and you can definitely make out which is which. Even when you have two passports (or four if you are a citizen of Czech republic), you will be frown at if you praise the Tel Aviv beach too much in front of a Beiruti.

8. To sum it up – enjoy the trip!

Have fun in the Lebanese mountains, eat as much of waraq 3nab in Damascus as you can, ride the camels for hours in Jordanian desert and party like crazy in Eilat! Leave the political and religious issues aside as worthless stumbling blocks on your way to the best experience in the most amazing region in the world!

*When writing this out, I was most thinking of Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, Israel and the Palestinian Territories, Egypt. It applies less to Morocco or Algeria, though one can profit from following these guidelines in Maghreb as well. And Iran, of course, though it is a special case still.

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Four Countries and Eight Passport Stamps – All in One Day

orientoholic

The story about the shortest road one can take to go from Jerusalem to Beirut, is part of a bigger picture. It was a three months’ long trip of the Middle East  – I had some group leading, exploring and relaxation tucked in the program. I started out in Syria, did Jordan and Lebanon, then flew from Syria to Egypt, from Egypt via Turkey to Tell Aviv, did a tour of Israel and Jordan, and ended up having a couple of free days in Jerusalem. Then the message came – we need you to lead a group in Sri Lanka, and your flight is Beirut – Dubai – Colombo.

So far so good.

I was in Jerusalem, and I needed to get to Beirut. Obviously, this wasn’t a straight-forward thing of just crossing the northern Israeli border, since there is NO crossing point there. Or rather, there are, at least two that I know of, but the crossing is not allowed, due to non-existent diplomatic relationship of the two neighboring countries. To keep the story short, I had to cross two other countries to get from Israel to Lebanon. These two other countries were Jordan and Syria.

I set out early in the morning, taking the bus from the main bus station in Jerusalem heading to the Dead Sea. I had King Hussein/Allenby border crossing in mind for entering Jordan. I got off the bus near Almog, before the bus turns right on road 90, and took a taxi going the other direction. He took me to the Allenby border where I left Israel behind and got on the border shuttle to cross to Jordan. The policeman comes to check the passports and I’m getting in trouble …

I cannot enter Jordan. The reason for this is that they don’t issue visa at this border, or rather, they don’t take money for it. So, I could not pay for my visa, and therefore I couldn’t enter. I did have Jordanian visa nevertheless – the one issued to be about three weeks ago at the Jordan Valley/Sheikh Hussein border, but it was the group visa and now I was alone. I don’t want to go into details about visa requirements for Jordan, so let me just say that I had to leave the bus, and board another one on the way to Israel. Back in Israel, they were surprised at how quick my trip to Jordan was, but I didn’t encouter any problem getting in the country again.

I took another taxi. This time, the journey was longer, it took over an hour to get to the other Israel/Jordan border crossing, near Bet Shean. I didn’t have much problems getting out of Israel either, and my entrance to Jordan (finally) was a smooth one. I was just a bit delayed – not really in a hurry for anything as my flight to Sri Lanka was still two days away. I did, however, want to make this trip in the shortest time possible, and I was not doing the best at this point.

Once in Jordan, there was a taxi that offered me a ride straight to the Ramtha/Deraa border, and I started to think: How am I going to do it with my two passports? I got the Jordanian entrance stamp in the passport with Israeli stamps. Then I have a second passport, for the Syrian and Lebanese stamps. This is where I need to get the exist stamp from Jordan, otherwise I am in trouble.

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The ride to Ramtha takes about an hour, and some kilometers before the border I’m dropped off and pick up by a Syrian taxi. I have a fellow traveler now, a Palestinian girl, coming from Nablus and traveling to her university in Syria. She also has Israeli stamps in the passport (from Allenby crossing) but in her case it doesn’t matter, obviously, and I envy her.

I have to say that the Jordanian officers at Ramtha were really nice and understanding. I did get my exit stamp in the passport I was about to present to their Syrian counterparts. I just explained the situation, and they got the idea. There were not trying to make it hard for me, and it this wasn’t the only time that Jordanian border was merciful. Thank you Jordan.

The taxi takes me and my new Palestinian friend to the Syrian terminal. The officer, seated below the photograph of Bashar al Asad is reading my passport almost like a book, page after page. I smile, I am at ease, no Israeli stamp will be found in that passport. But he is looking for something else. When did I enter Jordan, and how??

Now, this is a tricky question because I did enter Jordan from Syria over a month ago, but then came back to Syria, flew to Egypt, and the last two times I entered Jordan, I came from Israel. The good thing is that there are way too many stamps in this passport, so he gets really confused, and frankly, I am confused as well. Too much travel.

He lets me go.

I board the same taxi again, and get off at the Deraa bus station to take a bus to Damascus. It’s well into afternoon now, and I have one more border to cross. Changing bus for a taxi again at Karajat in Damascus, I head over to Lebanon. This border crossing is the least dramatic one as far as my visa and passport are concernet, but! To make it just a bit more interesting, my driver from Syria is actually Jordanian, and there is some kind of a problem with his documents, so the Lebanese official keeps him waiting much longer than it would normally take. When the sun is long behind its horizon and the passengers of my taxi are starting to think of abandoning him and take a different taxi to drive us to Beirut, he is finally given consent to enter Lebanon.

The last hour of my today’s trip is quite uneventful, and I’m just resting on the back seat of the taxi. It’s been 13 hours since I left my hotel room in Jerusalem. Quite a journey, it can be done in a day even with some detours. Two passports are essential, and so is a bit of patience, lots of good mood and some snack. Saw four countries in the single day, got 8 stamps in my passport.

What a trip.

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How to enter Jordan from Israel

After my previous post about the Israeli border and the new regulations , I would like to dedicate one to the Jordanian entrance points and how to choose the right border to enter Jordan from Israel. As you will see, different rules apply to different border terminals, and some might be more convenient to choose than others.

There are three border terminals between Israel and Jordan: The southernmost is the Arava border (Yitzhak Rabin), then there is the Allenby bridge (King Hussein) and the northermost is the Jordan River one (Sheikh Hussein). There is no other way to cross to Jordan, so you will need to choose one of these three.

ARAVA/YITZAK RABIN

If I can have a favorite border between Jordan and Israel, then it’s this one. It’s a very convenient one if you are in the southern part of Israel (Dead Sea region, Negev), or if you are coming from Egypt. The border opens at 6,30 in the morning every day except for Friday and Saturday (when it opens at 8,00 a.m.) and it closes at 8,00 p.m every day of the week. Be careful though. Jordanian might not be on the daylight saving time, and you might end up not getting through if you come too late. And make sure it’s not Yom Kipur or the Muslim New Year day when the terminal is closed.

Concerning the visa, this is the ONLY border where you don’t pay either when you are less than five people traveling, or you plan to stay for less than two days in Jordan. Provided you return by the same border. If you, however, enter by Arava border and leave Jordan by King Hussein the day after, you are entitled to purchasing your visa (at King Hussein border) even if you’re leaving the country at this point.

The border is !) minutes ride from Eilat and about the same time from Aqaba, so it’s very convenient. There are taxis on both sides of the border, ready to take you to the center of either of the cities.

ALLENBY/KING HUSSEIN

My least favorite border. Long lines on the way to Israel, and long waiting for the public shuttle if you are not with a travel agent. Plus, it’s been only recently that they have started issuing the visas, so before one could not use this terminal when entering Jordan without having visa already in the passport. Now this has changed and you can use the terminal.

Allenby is open from 8.00 in the morning every day until the midnight, with the exception of Friday and Saturday when it closes at 3 p.m. Again, it’s closed on Yom Kippur and the Palestinian part is closed on the Eid al Adha.

If you’re entering Jordan via this terminal, you need to be more than five persons and stay for more than 2 days in Jordan. In this case you do not pay for the visa as the travel agency you are traveling with takes care of that. However, if you are traveling for less than 2 days and/or you are a group of less than five persons, you won’t be able to use this terminal unless you already visa in your passport.

There is a shuttle between the Israeli and Jordanian side of the terminal (the ride costs 5 JOD). Once you are finished with the procedure, there are taxis which will be willing to drive you to Amman or any other place in Jordan.

JORDAN RIVER/SHEIKH HUSSEIN

This border is about 10 minutes drive from Bet Shean where you can take a taxi to get you there. The border is open every day between 6,30 and 9 p.m. except for Friday and Saturday when the border opens at 8,00 a.m. and closes at 7 p.m.

If you’re entering Jordan via this terminal, you need to purchase visa provided you are coming in a group of less then five persons. If you are more than five persons but you intend to stay for less than five days in Jordan, you will pay for visa as well. The price of the visa is 20 JOD.

There is taxi service on the Jordanian side with taxi drivers offering a ride to Amman, Irbid or Jerash.

Just as with Arava border, it is closed on Yom Kippur and Muslim New Year.

MY RECOMMENDATION

TIMEWISE

I personally prefer to use the Arava border on the way to and from Jordan as well. I try to avoid the King Hussein/Allenby one, especially on the way from Jordan to Israel. As it is the only Palestinian border crossing, there can be high queues of busses in front of the Israeli gate, with no possibility of using the washroom once you’re stuck there. Also, the luggage need to be handed in for a check. The northern border (Jordan River/Sheikh Hussein) tends to be quieter and without hassle, the only delay may be caused by the delay of the Jordanian bus,operating between the two terminals as there is no other way (walking prohibited). In this way, the Arava border is the fastest because the two terminals are one about 200 meters from each other and are reached on foot.

Do check ahead of time when the Muslim New Year or Yom Kippur are. If you come the day after, it will be very, very busy (especially Allenby).

MONEYWISE

Money issue is another thing. At Allenby the Israeli border tax is the most expensive one (173 shekels as opposed to 105 shekels at the other two terminals). The Arava border is the closest to cities, so you only need a taxi service for about 10 minutes before before being able to use a different kind of transportation (busses, microbuses).

Coming from Amman to Israel, both King Hussein and Sheikh Hussein are withing about an hour of reach. Coming from Jerusalem, however, the Allenby/King Hussein is the closest one.

Let me know what you think and how you mastered these borders!

HOW TO MASTER THE ISRAELI BORDER

Border crossing in the Middle East belongs to my favorite activities. Why not? I mean, we in the West have no idea what borders mean anymore. My parents used to have to wait for 12 hours when they wanted to cross from Slovakia to the neighboring countries in the time of communism. The car was taken apart and they were (almost) stripped naked. Where are the times when border crossing stories was the most horid and the most entertaining kind of storytelling? Well, not in Europe, at least. But Middle East is right there and right now!

Out of all borders, the Israeli one in my opinion, is the most interesting one. First of all, its a culture shock (especially coming from Egypt) – in all the good sense of the word. Clean. Toilets that you dare to sit on. Bistro with fresh sandwiches (or at least a vending machine on the Arava border). Very well stocked duty free shop (the Bet Shean Crossing) and place to sit down, put down the bags, rest a bit (all of them).

Now comes the “bad” part.

Israeli border can be a hassle because:

1. There might be many, many and many people

This is true especially after the day of Yom Kippur (when border crossings to Israel are closed), during major Christian holidays when the neighboring countries receive higher number of visitors and when you meet with Nigerian (April) and Russian (winter) groups in the border :-).

2. There can be a troublemaker

I have waited for hours at various Israeli borders because there was a suspicious bag or person that needed more attention. As you will very soon find out (after you arrive at the border), the Israelis take their borders very seriously.

3. The border officers might not be the most friendly ones

They are officers. They protect their border. They are not there to cater to your needs and feelings, so many people become aggravated by their behavior. Well – tough. One has to deal with that.

4. There might be a sharp item or just a bag of nuts

You might be delayed at the border and taken for a more-detailed control if your bag has something suspicious inside. It can be a plastic bag with the nuts you bought in Aqaba.

5. They want you to pay for all this!

Yes, there is a fee. Upon your departure from Israel, you are paying a border tax. All major currencies accepted. The price of the border tax varies according to the border, and it can change. Since 2007 when I started crossing the Israeli border, it has grown from 66 to 103 shekels.

SO, HOW TO MASTER THE ISRAELI BORDER?

Stay cool – take joy in the experience, think of your Mom and how you will share this story with her and with your friends. It is part of the whole traveling experience, and it might be the strongest moment of your trip in Israel.

Have plenty of time – you can be delayed for hours at some borders which you might get through in 40 minutes at others. Make sure you are not trying to catch the flight taking off  in a couple of hours. NOT a good idea.

Bring some food and drink along – the Israeli border does sell food and drinks, but it might be long before you are allowed into the border building. Be prepared.

SMILE! You might meet the most amazing people who are crossing at the same time, you might find friends for life, and you might have the most amazing conversation amongst your painful hours of waiting.

THE BORDER CROSSING PROCESS

TO ISRAEL

When you are crossing into Israel, this is what you can expect:

  • Initial welcome at the gate – prepare your passport,  tell them how many you are in the group, what is your purpose of the travel. They might ask your name – just to check that you are handing them YOUR passport and not a stolen one. 
  • Entrance to the building – you are going to be questioned in detail about the purpose of your journey in Israel. Have your hotel reservations ready to show them if they ask you. They might ask (very likely) about your departure and again it is good to show them your flight ticket. Do you know anyone in Israel? Are you planning to go to the West Bank? Who did you meet with in Jordan/Egypt? These might be some of the questions. Do not get startled if they call another person who will post the same questions. It is part of the procedure. Do not lose the colorful paper you obtain at this point.
  • X-ray control. ALL, and I mean all things will go through X-ray. You will be asked to take off your jacket if you have one. At the other side of the X-ray machine, they might ask you to open one (or all) of your bags. If they do, they are probably looking for something specific that looked suspicious – this is where the nuts thing comes in! For some reason, nuts always end up being suspicious.
  • Passport control – this may be another time when you are questioned about your trip to Israel. They might ask you for your parents’ first names or your mother’s maiden name.  AND!  Since January 2013 the Israeli authorities have not been stamping the passports of the foreigners!!!  They are given the entrance visa on another piece of paper where the photo and personal information of the person are mentioned. It also says when the visa expires and what type is it. This is in practice at all border crossings expcept for Yitzhak Rabin one, which is to introduce the system soon.  So, you will not get the Israeli stamp anymore, and as American (or other nationality from the countries when you can be holder of just one passport at a time) – you are going to be very sorry Syria is in such mess at the moment.
  • All that said and done, you can head over to the sandwich stand, have your drink, use the bathroom. Only one more thing is required – as you are leaving the Israeli border gate, you will hand in a piece of paper you got in your passport when going through the X-ray. That’s it! Baruch haba – welcome.

FROM ISRAEL

  • When arriving at the border, you will first head for the exchange office – this is where you purchase your border fees. You will get a piece of paper in your passport, do not lose it.
  • Passport control – very easy process, no questions involved this time (you are going out, so who cares for your mother’s name?)
  • In some borders you will HAVE to go through the duty free store, so spend some last shekels there. Buy something to drink. stop at the sandwich place – you might get hungry on the other border.
  • You will be asked for the little stamped border fee (if they did not take it from you at the passport control)
  • You’re done!