We have a lion. A real
one? I'll return to him presently.
As I write, we've been in Fes for exactly four weeks, acclimatising to some exceptional heat. After a particularly long, cold, dark Scottish winter, coupled with seemingly endless Covid restrictions, we'd longed for some warmth, well out of range of nippy Arctic winds and spectacle-fogging face masks.
But heat can be a mixed blessing. Normally April and May are pleasant spring months in Morocco. Flowers bloom, mingling their scents – jasmine and orange blossom at our front gate, for instance. But this year has been unseasonably hot, with the temperature climbing to over 40 degrees here over several days. I like to be warm, but, unlike my husband, I'm no sun-worshipper. I just droop in the heat, so when it gets too hot, I head for the deepest shade I can find and stay there. This means I usually return home the same shade of icy pink I had when I left, whereas my husband has acquired an enviable bronze patina.
I find it difficult to acclimatise to extremes. I appreciate the benefits of Vitamin D and the fact that I can do a washing and have it dry and ready to wear in a couple of hours. But I'm more conscious of its deleterious effects, how it enervates and dries and burns. In the heat, I could have 24-hour long siestas daily and that seems such a waste of time. I've seen dried up river beds in summer, noticed how easily wood rots, metal rusts and sand accumulates. Periodic droughts have taken their toll over years and increasing desertification is an ongoing climate issue in this part of Africa.
However, we have managed to fit in some trips out of town. The other week we spent a few days with some family friends in Tangier, French-Moroccan migrants who have purchased a small holiday flat there. The refreshing winds blowing off the confluence of the Mediterranean and the Atlantic was delightful while Fes baked like a pie. Another trip took us south into the foothills of the Middle Atlas. When the French colonised the country during the first half of the 20th century, the Europeans fled the heat of Fes into places like Immouzer, Ifrane and Azrou, where there are deep forests of pine, cypress and cedar, snow falls in winter and people go skiing. The buildings still reflect the European taste for sloping roofs and the climate is altogether more temperate.
The road winds up into a high amphitheatre with spectacular views back down into the hazy plain around Fes. As it flattens out, it runs through a rocky moonscape. Huge rocks emerge from the earth in varied shapes, others lie scattered around as if thrown by a giant hand. Small flocks of sheep graze among the rocks and it's difficult to spot the difference between animal and rock until an animal moves. Their minders were gaunt and grizzled old men, who greeted us cheerfully, inured to the exposure of their tough lives.
We'd reached a major crossroads at a police checkpoint, one of several in this unforgiving landscape, when we came across a lion. Proudly composed, crouched at ease, facing the road with a rather melancholy expression, it had been carved out of a block of the local rock. It wasn't Michelangelo, but it was strikingly lifelike. Other people had stopped to examine it and photograph themselves beside it. Children scrambled on its back. The sculptor, a lean, vigorous young Berber, sat on a pile of rocks beside it, willing to chat and take photographs as asked. Here one of my sisters-in-law spotted a business opportunity.
We were out at her place yesterday. For years her husband and his brother ran a thriving business in artistic metalwork and bought some land outside the city on which they have each built a large house doubling as family home and event venue. It has been the work of years. I remember family barbecues sitting between bare concrete pillars in cavernous semi-darkness as the houses gradually took shape. Now the projects are complete. The interiors are beautifully decorated and finished, drawing on their craft skills and contacts. The rough farmland that used to surround the properties has been tamed into beautiful gardens with flower-beds, grassy plots and fruit trees.
It's there, gazing benignly out through branches of apricot, apple and pomegranate trees, waiting for children to clamber and scramble all over him, that my sister-in-law's new lion sits. She cut a deal with the young sculptor, brought him to their house, looked after him for five days and provided him with the materials he needed to complete the lion, including a daily fix of cigarettes. It's even better than the original, we think.
While we were there, we had a lazy afternoon chatting in the sun. I fell asleep about five and when I awoke shortly after seven it was to the sounds of an incredible storm. One half of the sky was lemon yellow, the clouds parting as in apocalyptic Renaissance religious paintings. The other half was dark as night. Thunder rumbled. Lightning flashed. Trees waved wildly in the wind, almost bent double, and ripe apricots fell on the grass like hailstones. It lasted a couple of hours, then all was quiet again. I'd worried about the lion, but he was fine. Built to last. Only a perimeter fence had got a bit knocked about. That would soon be fixed.
Gillean Somerville-Arjat is a writer and critic based in Edinburgh