Morocco’s Extraordinary Donkeys

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

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)
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But the medina looked exactly as I remembered it, the dun-colored buildings tight together, hive-like; the twisting paths disappearing into shadow; the crowds of people, slim and columnar in their hooded jalabas, hurrying along, dodging and sidestepping to make their way. It is rackety, bustling. I chased after my porter, who was wheeling a handcart with my luggage from the car. We had parked it outside the medina, near the gorgeous swoop of Bab Bou Jeloud, the Blue Gate, one of the handful of entryways into the walled city. In a moment, I heard someone shout, "Balak, balak!"—Make way, make way!—and a donkey carrying boxes marked AGRICO came up behind us, his owner continuing to holler and gesture to part the crowd. And in a few moments came another donkey, carrying rusty orange propane tanks. And in a few moments, another one, wearing a harness but carrying nothing at all, picking his way down one of the steepest little roads. As far as I could tell, the donkey was alone; there was no one in front of him or beside him, no one behind. I wondered if he was lost, or had broken away from his handler, so I asked the porter, who looked at me with surprise. The donkey wasn't lost, the man said. He was probably done with work and on his way home.

Where do the donkeys of the medina live? Some live on farms outside the walls and are brought in for work each day, but many live inside. Before we got to my hotel, the porter stopped and knocked on a door. From the outside, it looked like any of the thousands of doorways of any of the thousands of medina houses, but the young man who answered the door led us through a foyer, where it appeared he had been practicing electric guitar, to a low-ceiling room, a bit damp but not unpleasant, the floor strewn with fava beans and salad greens and a handful of hay. A brown goat with a puppy-size newborn kid sat in a corner, observing us with a look of cross-eyed intensity. The young man said that ten donkeys lived in the house; they were stabled in the room each night, but they were all out working during the day.

So a good donkey is respected and valued—it is estimated that 100,000 people in the Fez area depend in one way or another on a donkey for their livelihood—but the animals are not sentimentalized. Out of habit, every time I spoke to someone with a donkey, I asked the donkey's name. The first man I asked hesitated and then answered, "H'mar." The second man I asked also hesitated and then answered, "H'mar," and I assumed that I had just stumbled upon the most popular name in Morocco for donkeys, the way you might by chance meet several dogs in the United States named Riley or Tucker or Max. When the third told me his donkey's name was H'mar, I realized it couldn't be a coincidence, and then I learned that H'mar is not a name—it's just the Arabic word for donkey. In Morocco, donkeys serve, and they are cared for, but they are not pets. One afternoon, I was talking to a man with a donkey in the medina and asked him why he didn't give his donkey a name. He laughed and said, "He doesn't need a name. He's a taxi."

I woke up early to try to beat the crowd to the Fondouk. The doors open at 7:30 each morning, and usually there is a crowd of animals already outside the gate by then, waiting to be examined. I have seen old photographs of the Fondouk from the 1930s, and it is uncannily unchanged; the Route de Taza is probably busier and louder now, but the handsome white wall of the Fondouk with its enormous arched wooden door is unmistakable, as is the throng of donkeys and mules at the front door, their owners, dressed in the same somber long robes that they still wear today, close by their side. In those old pictures, as is still the case, an American flag is flying from the Fondouk's walls; it is the only place in Morocco I know of besides the U.S. Embassy to display an American flag.

These days, the Fondouk's chief veterinarian is Denys Frappier, a silver-haired Canadian who had come to the Fondouk planning to stay just two years, but 15 years have now gone by and he has yet to manage to leave. He lives in a pleasant house within the Fondouk property—the old stables, converted to the staff residence 60 years ago—along with ten cats, nine dogs, four turtles and a donkey, all of them animals who were either left here for care by their owners, who never came to get them, or were walk-ins who never walked out. In the case of the donkey, a tiny knock-kneed creature whose Arabic name means "Trouble," he was born here but his mother died during birth, and the owner wasn't interested in taking care of a baby donkey, so he left it behind. Trouble is the Fondouk pet; he likes to visit the exam room and sometimes snuffle through the papers in the Fondouk office. An awkward, ill-built animal with a huge head and a tiny body, he was adopted by the veterinary students who were doing internships at the Fondouk; one of them used to let the newborn donkey sleep in her bed in the small student dormitory. When I arrived that morning, Trouble was following Dr. Frappier around the courtyard, watching him on his rounds. "He is nothing but trouble," Dr. Frappier said, looking at the donkey with affectionate exasperation, "but what can I do?"

Previously, Dr. Frappier had been the chief veterinarian of the Canadian Olympic Equestrian Team, tending to pampered performance horses worth $100,000 or more. His patients at the Fondouk are quite different. That morning's lineup included a bony white mule who was lame; a donkey with deep harness sores and one blind eye; another donkey with knobby hips and intestinal problems; a hamster with a corneal injury; a flock of three sheep; several dogs with various aches and pains; and a newborn kitten with a crushed leg. A wrinkled old man came in just behind me, carrying a mewling lamb in a shopping bag. By 8 a.m., another six mules and donkeys had gathered in the Fondouk's courtyard, their owners clutching little wooden numbers and waiting to be called.

The Fondouk's original mission was to serve the working animals of Morocco, but long ago it began to dispense free care to all manner of living things, with the exception of cattle—a luxury in Morocco, and therefore free care seemed unnecessary—and pit bulls. "I was tired of patching them up so the owners could take them out and fight with them again," Dr. Frappier said, as he was checking the hooves of the lame mule. The mule was poorly shod, as are many of the donkeys and mules in the medina, with rubber pads cut out of old automobile tires; the corners of its mouth were rubbed raw by a harsh bit; he would have looked better if he weighed another 30 or 40 pounds. It took Frappier several years to adjust to the condition of the animals here; at first he was utterly discouraged and put in a request to resign his post and return to Montreal, but he settled in, and he has learned to sort out "dire" from "acceptable." The Fondouk has quietly pushed an agenda of better care, and in large part it has been successful: it managed to spread the word to the mule and donkey owners that sticking cactus thorns in harness sores didn't encourage the animals to work harder, and that rubbing salt in their eyes, a folk remedy to get them to walk faster, was not only ineffective but left the animals blind. There are animals everywhere you look in Fez, and in Morocco. Cats tiptoe around every corner; dogs lounge in the North African sun; even on the roaring roads of Casablanca, horse-and-buggies clatter alongside SUVs and sedans. Twelve full-time veterinarians work in Fez, but even so, on two separate occasions the royal family of Morocco, which could certainly afford any veterinarian in the world, has brought its animals to the Fondouk.

On my first trip to Morocco, I had heard of Souk el Khemis-des Zemamra, one of the country's largest donkey markets, held every Thursday, about two hours southwest of Casablanca, and ever since hearing of it I had wanted to go. I wanted to see the epicenter of the donkey universe in Morocco, where thousands of creatures are bought and sold and traded. A few years ago, the government began visiting Khemis-des Zemamra and the other large souks to take stock of the transactions and levy sales tax on them, and since then more of the trade has migrated away from the souks toward word-of-mouth impromptu markets, out of reach of the tax man. The number of donkeys sold in Khemis-des Zemamra these days is perhaps a third less than what it was five years ago. Still, the souks thrive—besides donkeys, of course, they sell every single food product and toiletry and household item and farm implement you could ever imagine, serving as a combination Agway, Wal-Mart, Mall of America and Stop & Shop for the entire population for miles around. If you want chickpeas or hair dye or a fishing net or a saddle or a soup pot, you can find it at the souk. If you want a donkey, you will certainly find the one you want any Thursday morning in Khemis-des Zemamra.

I set out on the five-hour drive from Fez to Khemis-des Zemamra on a Wednesday night. The market starts at the crack of dawn; by noon, when the sun is searing, the fairground where it takes place would be empty, the grass trampled down, the mud marked with wagon wheel tracks and hoof prints. I was traveling there with a young Moroccan man named Omar Ansor, whose father had worked at the American Fondouk for 25 years until his recent retirement; Omar's brother, Mohammed, has been working there with Dr. Frappier since 1994. Omar told me he loves animals, but he found my fascination with donkeys puzzling. Like many Moroccans, he considered them tools—good, useful tools, but nothing more. Maybe to him, my enthusiasm about donkeys was like being enthusiastic about wheelbarrows. "A donkey is just a donkey," he said. "I like horses."

The drive took us back past Casa­blanca, with its smoking chimneys and thicket of apartment buildings, and then to El Jadida, a whitewashed resort town on a flat spread of pinkish beach, where we stayed the night. Thursday morning was warm and clear, the light pouring over wide fields of corn and wheat. In several fields, donkeys and mules were already at work, pulling irrigation machines and plows, leaning into their harnesses. Carts hurtled alongside us on the shoulder of the road, loaded with entire families and nearly toppling loads of  bulging burlap bags, boxes and miscellany, heading in the direction of the souk, the donkey or mule or horse moving snappily, as if the sound of the car traffic was egging them on. By the time we arrived, just after 7 a.m., the fairground was already mobbed. We had no trouble parking, because there were only a handful of cars and another handful of trucks, but the rest of the parking area was cluttered with wagons and carts and scores of donkeys and mules—a few hundred of them at least, dozing, nibbling on the scraps of grass, swaying in place, hobbled by a bit of plastic twine tied around their ankles. These weren't for sale—they were transportation, and they were parked while their owners were shopping.


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