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Working like "little pistons," donkeys keep the medina humming. An estimated 100,000 people in the Fez area depend on the animals for their livelihood. (Eric Sander)

Morocco's Extraordinary Donkeys

The author returns to Fez to explore the stubborn animal's central role in the life of this desert kingdom

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The donkey I couldn't forget was coming around a corner in the walled city of Fez, Morocco, with six color televisions strapped to his back. If I could tell you the exact intersection where I saw him, I would do so, but pinpointing a location in Fez is a formidable challenge, a little like noting GPS coordinates in a spider web. I might be able to be more precise about where I saw the donkey if I knew how to extrapolate location using the position of the sun, but I don't. Moreover, there wasn't any sun to be seen and barely a sliver of sky, because leaning in all around me were the sheer walls of the medina—the old walled portion of Fez—where the buildings are so packed and stacked together that they seem to have been carved out of a single huge stone rather than constructed individually, clustered so tightly that they blot out the shrieking blue and silver of the Moroccan sky.

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The best I can do is to say that the donkey and I met at the intersection of one path that was about as wide as a bathmat and another that was slightly larger—call it a bath sheet. The Prophet Muhammad once counseled that the minimum width of a road should be seven cubits, or the width of three mules, but I would wager that some of Fez's paths fall below that standard. They were laid out in the late eighth century by Idriss I, founder of the dynasty that spread Islam in Morocco, and they are so narrow that bumping into another person or a pushcart is no accident; it is simply the way you move forward, your progress more like a pinball than a pedestrian, bouncing from one fixed object to the next, brushing by a man chiseling names into grave markers only to slam into a drum maker stretching goat skin on a drying rack, then to carom off a southbound porter hauling luggage in a wire cart.

In the case of my meeting the donkey, the collision was low-impact. The donkey was small. His shoulders were about waist-high, no higher; his chest was narrow; his legs straight; his hooves quite delicate, about the size of a teacup. He—or she, perhaps—was donkey-colored, that is, a soft mouse gray, with a light-colored muzzle and dark brown fur bristling out of its ears. The televisions, however, were big—boxy tabletop sets, not portables. Four were loaded on the donkey's back, secured in a crazy jumble by a tangle of plastic twine and bungee cords. The remaining two were attached to the donkey's flanks, one on each side, like panniers on a bicycle. The donkey stood squarely under this staggering load. He walked along steadily, making the turn crisply and then continuing up the smaller path, which was so steep that it had little stone stairs every yard or two where the gain was especially abrupt. I caught only a glimpse of his face as he passed, but it was utterly endearing, all at once serene and weary and determined. There may have been a man walking beside him, but I was too transfixed by the sight of the donkey to remember.

This encounter was a decade ago, on my first trip to Fez, and even amid the dazzle of images and sounds you are struck with in Morocco—the green hills splattered with red poppies, the gorgeous tiled patterning on every surface, the keening call from the mosques, the swirl of Arabic lettering everywhere—the donkey was what stayed with me. It was that stoic expression, of course. But even more, it was seeing, in that moment, the astonishing commingling of past and present—the timeless little animal, the medieval city and the pile of electronics—that made me believe that it was possible for time to simultaneously move forward and stand still. In Fez, at least, that seems to be true.

Just a mile outside Casablanca's Mohammed V Airport, on the side of a four-lane high-speed roadway, underneath a billboard for a cellular service provider, a dark-brown donkey ambled along, four huge sacks filled to bursting strapped to a makeshift harness on its back. I had been back in Morocco for less than an hour. My recollection already felt concrete—that there were donkeys everywhere in the country, that they operated like little pistons, moving people and things to and fro, defying the wave of modernity that was washing gently over the country—and that the television donkey of Fez had not been just an odd and singular anecdote.

On my first trip to Morocco, I had seen the television donkey and then countless more, trudging through Fez with loads of groceries, propane tanks, sacks of spices, bolts of fabrics, construction material. When my trip was over and I returned home, I realized I had fallen in love with donkeys in general, with the plain tenderness of their faces and their attitude of patient resignation and even their occasionally baffling, intractable moods. In the United States, most donkeys are kept as pets and their pessimism seems almost comical. In Morocco, I knew that the look of resignation was often coupled with a bleaker look of fatigue and sometimes despair, because they are work animals, worked hard and sometimes thanklessly. But seeing them as something so purposeful—not a novelty in a tourist setting but an integral part of Moroccan daily life—made me love them even more, as flea-bitten and saddle-sore and scrawny as some of them were.

The medina in Fez may well be the largest urbanized area in the world impassable to cars and trucks, where anything that a human being can't carry or push in a handcart is conveyed by a donkey, a horse or a mule. If you need lumber and rebar to add a new room to your house in the medina, a donkey will carry it in for you. If you have a heart attack while building the new room on your house, a donkey might well serve as your ambulance and carry you out. If you realize your new room didn't solve the overcrowding in your house and you decide to move to a bigger house, donkeys will carry your belongings and furniture from your old house to your new one. Your garbage is picked up by donkeys; your food supplies are delivered to the medina's stores and restaurants by mule; when you decide to decamp from the tangle of the medina, donkeys might carry your luggage out or carry it back in when you decide to return. In Fez, it has always been thus, and so it will always be. No car is small enough or nimble enough to squeeze through the medina's byways; most motorbikes cannot make it up the steep, slippery alleys. The medina is now a World Heritage site. Its roads can never be widened, and they will never be changed; the donkeys might carry in computers and flat-screen televisions and satellite dishes and video equipment, but they will never be replaced.

I am not the first American woman to be fascinated by the working animals of the medina. In 1927, Amy Bend Bishop, wife of eccentric, wealthy gallery owner Cortlandt Field Bishop, passed through Fez on a grand tour of Europe and the Mediterranean, and was intrigued by the 40,000 donkeys and mules working at the time. She was also disturbed by their poor condition, and she donated $8,000—the equivalent of at least $100,000 today—to establish a free veterinary service in Fez. The service was named the American Fondouk—"fondouk" is Arabic for inn—and after a stint in temporary quarters the clinic opened up in a whitewashed compound built around a shaded courtyard on the Route de Taza, a busy highway just outside the medina, where it has operated ever since. The Fondouk has become well known in Fez, even among the animals. Dozens of times creatures have shown up at the Fondouk's massive front gate, unaccompanied, needing help; just days before I arrived, for instance, a donkey having some sort of neurological crisis stumbled in on its own. It is possible that these wanderers were left at the door by their owners before the Fondouk opened in the early morning, but Fez and Morocco and the American Fondouk all seem to be magical places, and after spending even a few hours in Fez, the idea that animals find their own way to the Fondouk's shady courtyard doesn't seem unlikely at all.

The highway from Casablanca to Fez rushes past fields and farms, along the edge of the busy cities of Rabat, the capital, and Meknes, rolling up and down golden hills and grassy valleys, lush with swaths of yellow broom and chamomile in bloom, and, dotted among them, hot red poppies. The highway looks new; it could be a freshly built road anywhere in the world, but several mules trotted across the overpasses as we zoomed underneath, claiming the image as Morocco.

King Mohammed VI makes frequent visits from Rabat to Fez; some speculate that he might relocate the capital there. The king's presence is palpable. The Fez that I encountered ten years ago was dusty, crumbling, clamorous, jammed. Since then there's been restoration at the massive royal palace; at least a dozen fountains and plazas now line a long, elegant boulevard where there used to be a buckling road. New development followed the royal family's interest in the city; as we headed to the Fondouk, we drove past a gaping excavation soon to be the Atlas Fez Hotel and Spa and a score of billboards touting shiny condominiums such as "Happy New World" and "Fez New Home."

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