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The Blind Plumber of Tetouan

ISSUE:  Winter 2010
A four-sided minaret rises several stories above the whitewashed walls of a mosque.

Mustafa al-Farkhani stops outside the closed gate of the Tijaniyya shrine in Tetouan, Morocco, and holds a finger to his lips. His eyes go dim as he places his ear against the whitewashed limestone wall of the house that abuts the shrine. At first, it is imperceptible, but as our ears adjust—filtering out the footsteps, bouncing balls, and carts from the nearby commercial street—the sound emerges: a high-pitched murmur, like wind hitting leaves. There is water in the walls, flowing quietly into the adjacent shrine. Mustafa’s eyes light up, and he says: “Do you hear?”

Mustafa is legally blind, but this condition has not prevented him from working as a kanawi, a traditional plumber responsible for the upkeep of the Skundo water system. This system brings Tetouan’s underground streams to the city’s historic nucleus (known as the medina) via a gravity-driven network of interlocking clay pipes. Fitting for a man who has dedicated his professional life to the preservation of a subterranean space, Mustafa works in a shadow world: he can see some light, but he increasingly relies on touch and his acute sense of hearing to fix the Skundo pipes. Despite his blindness, he walks the labyrinthine streets of Tetouan’s medina with wide, hungry strides. He is a tall, lumbering man who wears pajama pants and black leather clogs. As he prowls the ancient streets of Tetouan’s center, it is difficult to keep up with him: he darts from pipe to pipe, stopping at each corner to greet citizens who thank him for fixing the water in their homes.

Mustafa was born in Tetouan in 1967, but his family originates in Nador, to the east on Morocco’s Mediterranean coast. Today, Nador (like Tetouan) has become a popular point of departure for illegal emigration—both North African and sub-Saharan—to mainland Spain. Mustafa, however, has never considered emigrating; instead, his life has revolved around the historic center of Tetouan, where he was raised—and where he now works as a kanawi for the houses, shrines, baths, and mosques located in the compact core of the medina. Mustafa began studying to be a kanawi as a young boy—perhaps as early as eight, he recalls. His apprenticeship lasted ten years, during which time his masters—Tetouan’s two former kanawin—never allowed him to work on a pipe alone. By the time he was eighteen, Mustafa had memorized a map of the medina based solely on the flow of water.

Because the streets aren’t linear, most first-time visitors to the medina assume that the medieval urban nucleus expanded in a haphazard fashion. In fact, Tetouan’s urban planning is intimately linked with its underground streams. The fundamental building blocks of all Moroccan neighborhoods are a mosque for prayer, a public bath, and a public oven for baking bread. (The traditional Moroccan home doesn’t have an oven in the kitchen.) Both mosques and bathhouses require a constant influx of water. For this reason, the pattern of Tetouan’s medieval neighborhoods mimics the flow of water under the city. Each expansion of the medina meant, in turn, an extension of the gravity-based Skundo system. Water supply, therefore, both enabled and limited demographic developments.

No one is more aware of this relationship between plumbing and housing than a kanawi, whose training requires him to remember the source and course of each of the city’s streams. When Mustafa picks up a stone or grate to expose the plumbing beneath the streets, he can point to each pipe and tell you where it comes from and where it goes. Historically, the main deposits for the Skundo system were located in mosques or in the palaces of rich families. These mosques and families, in turn, helped to pay the salary of the kanawin and their apprentices. Today, this system of compensation has fallen apart. Most of Tetouan’s important families have relocated to Tangier or Casablanca, leaving the center of Tetouan with an abundance of decaying palaces, which have been taken over by squatters from the nearby Rif mountains. These squatters—often ten or twenty families in a one-family palace—are unable to pay the kanawin for the work done on the water tanks, which, if left dry, would stop the flow of water into the nearby residential neighborhoods. Without payment for the kanawin, the city could become waterless, but Musafa has lost a series of apprentices, because he has no money to pay them.

I first met Mustafa on a gray, unseasonably cool day in June 2008. We were introduced by our mutual friend Khalid al-Rami, a historian who recently published a book on the history of Tetouan’s plumbing infrastructure. Khalid had arranged for us all to meet at a café on Muhammad V Avenue, Tetouan’s main pedestrian drag. When Mustafa arrived, Khalid and I were already at a table, looking at samples of clay Skundo pipes that Khalid had picked up during his research. He was explaining to me the difference between the clay pipes used in Fez, and those used in Tetouan. When he saw Mustafa approaching our table, Khalid stood to greet him, introduced me, and then left us alone at the table to talk. I had already ordered a coffee and asked Mustafa if he’d like to join me, but he said, “Ad sharabt” (“I just drank one”). I had spent enough time in Morocco to know that this was just a polite way of saying “No thanks.” I tried to ask Mustafa about himself, but our conversation was awkward and slow. He seemed embarrassed to talk about himself, and when he did, he mumbled and looked at his feet. Even though I had spent a lot of time in Morocco, I had trouble understanding his thick Tetouani dialect of Arabic.

Our conversation started to open up when I asked him what sort of jobs he had been working on lately. Two days before, he had received a call from City Hall. They asked him to fix the plumbing in the Basha Mosque, adjacent to the royal palace complex, in preparation for the impending arrival of the king, Muhammad VI. Unlike his father, Hassan II, who went to Tetouan only once during his entire thirty-eight year reign, Muhammad VI now spends his summers there, perhaps to redress his father’s legendary neglect of the North. Mustafa agreed to do the job at the Basha Mosque, but later in the day, they called back to tell him that he had to perform the work at night so that people wouldn’t see him coming in and out of the palace. Since Mustafa’s failing eyesight prevents him from working at night, he had to turn down the project. City Hall ended up calling the local utilities company, Amendis, whose plumbers are notorious for sabotaging the clay Skundo pipes in order to force people to use their infrastructure. “I don’t know what they’ll do when the king comes,” Mustafa mused.

An eight-sided tower can be seen amidst the clutter of rooftop antennae, chimneys, and walls.

Tetouan lies ten kilometers from Morocco’s Mediterranean coast, southeast of Tangier. Due to this strategic position, near the mouth of the Mediterranean and at the maritime crossroads of Europe and Africa, the city has been at the center of a clash between Christian Europe and Muslim North Africa for centuries. Around the time Columbus sailed west toward the New World, a band of exiles from the Muslim kingdom of Granada (which had just fallen to the Catholic monarchs of Spain) founded Tetouan. As Spain and Portugal fought to control Morocco’s coast throughout the sixteenth century, piracy provided Tetouan with steady streams of Christian captives, who joined black Africans in the city’s bustling slave market. Later, in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, Tetouan was the theatre of a series of wars between Spain and Morocco, which eventually led to the creation of the Spanish Protectorate of Morocco (1913–1956). Tetouan was the administrative and commercial capital of the Protectorate and the visible symbol of Spain’s last attempt to establish an African empire.

Tetouan lies in the foothills of the Rif mountains, and nearby Mount Dersa, which towers over the historical center of the city, provides not only majestic views of the surrounding Martil valley, but also a strategic lookout to prevent maritime attack. The streams that descend from Mount Dersa cut into the permeable calciferous rock formations on which the city stands. Over many millennia, this process of attrition slowly eroded Tetouan’s foundation, leaving a dense network of subterranean caves that spreads out across the city.

Awnings largely cover a small, neat alley. The buildings are a mint green, the closed doors and awnings a darker green.

These caves have, like the streams that created them, played an important role in Tetouan’s history. Starting in the early sixteenth century, they were used as prisons for the Christian captives of Tetouani pirates. Contemporary European accounts of these caves depict them as hellish dungeons. Leo Africanus, a famous sixteenth-century North African convert to Christianity, wrote Description of Africa, a European best-seller, in which he documents his visit to Tetouan’s caves. There, he saw “three thousand Christian slaves wearing wool sacks and sleeping in dug-out holes, all of them chained down below the earth.” At the beginning of the seventeenth century, Cervantes illustrated the fame of Tetouan’s subterranean prisons when the henpecked protagonist of his entr’acte The Divorce Judge compares his marriage to “captivity in Tetouan’s caves.” Spanish Franciscan monks made frequent diplomatic visits to Tetouan in order to negotiate the Christian captives’ freedom. They also built a small subterranean church, Nuestra Señora de los Dolores (Our Lady of Sorrows), where they would celebrate mass for the prisoners. This humble sanctuary lies five meters under the medina’s main commercial thoroughfare, al-Mutamir, which takes its name from the underground tunnels that run beneath it.

In 1922, a team of Spanish archaeologists, led by Cesar Luis de Montalban, uncovered the remains of this sixteenth-century church. Aware of the archaeological and historical significance of this discovery, the Protectorate government commissioned Carlos Ovilo, a Spanish-trained architect born in Tangier, to visit the site and study the viability of more extensive excavations. Ovilo concluded that excavation could not continue without seriously compromising the structural stability of the commercial thoroughfare above it. After Ovilo’s official visit to the underground prison and church, neither the Spanish Protectorate nor the Moroccan authorities made any attempt to excavate the site, despite the potential interest to tourists of a sixteenth-century church buried underneath the streets of a medieval Islamic city. Today, its only remnant is a small metal hatch, covering barely a square meter of ground between a popular juice stand and a coffee shop. Hundreds of people step on the metal hatch each day, without knowing what lies below. The only souvenir of Ovilo’s descent into Tetouan’s netherworld is a detailed sketch of the site that he produced for Montalban’s archaeological report.

In 1917, just a few years before Ovilo’s expedition to Tetouan’s underground, the Protectorate government had hired him to design a colonial annex to Tetouan’s historic nucleus. This annex, which became known as the Ensanche (“expansion”), originates at the walls of the ancient medina and spreads out in neat, rectangular blocks of near uniform size. Ovilo’s Ensanche harkens back to the homogeneous and Neo-Classical aesthetic of late-nineteenth-century Spanish architecture. Both its name and its design evoke the eponymous Eixample (Catalan for “expansion”) of Barcelona, designed by Ildefons Cerdà in 1859. Cerdà’s design for the nineteenth-century expansion of Barcelona was based on a grid system, which was intended to facilitate traffic flow and symbolize a rational and democratic city. Cerdà later formally articulated his belief in the connection between democracy, modernity, and rational urban design in his General Theory of Urbanization (1867), a seminal text for urban designers, who consider it the origin of the word “urbanism.” Like Cerdà’s Eixample, Ovilo’s Ensanche attempted to bring rational design to Tetouan’s urban chaos. Ovilo envisioned the Ensanche’s rectangular blocks and clean lines as an urban symbol of the new colonial order and also as a rebuke to the streets of the medina, which follow the aleatory flow of underground water. Whatever Ovilo’s intentions were, the construction of the Ensanche had the effect of creating a two-tier city: a ghettoized medina for the Muslim “natives” and a modern annex for the Protectorate officials and the local aristocracy (both Muslim and Jewish) that worked with them.

Carlos Ovilo continued to design buildings in Tetouan until his death in 1952, and the evolution of his style reads like a textbook narrative of early twentieth-century Spanish architecture: the homogeneous neo-classicism of his early period (1917–1931) gives way to the movement and modernist rationalism of his Republican period (1931–936), which is followed by the eclectic blend of Arabesque and vernacular Spanish elements during the Francoist period (starting in 1936). During his Republican period, he built the Casino Israelita (the Jewish Casino) on Muhammad V Avenue for Tetouan’s Spanish-speaking Jewish elite. Today, Tetouan’s Jews number fewer than fifty, but its Jewish population was once one of the largest and most vibrant in North Africa—earning the city the sobriquet “Little Jerusalem” among Sephardic Jews. This fame lasted until the Sephardic exodus, which began with the foundation of Israel (1948) and escalated after Moroccan independence (1956). After the Tetouani Jewish population dwindled, the derelict Jewish Casino was converted into the Public Library, which continues to hold the largest collection of documents, photographs, and memorabilia about the Spanish Protectorate in Morocco. Likewise, Ovilo’s oeuvre—which spreads to the medina’s netherworld, the Protectorate’s colonial annex, and the Jewish elite’s watering hole—can be read as a “public library” of the Protectorate itself, an archive of the city’s unsuccessful attempts to manage the interaction between three religious and cultural communities.

As part of its effort to modernize Tetouan’s infrastructure, the Protectorate authorized public works projects in the medina. One of these projects laid down the modern pipes that today belong to the public utilities company Amendis. These pipes were meant to supplant the clay pipes that had traditionally delivered the mountain water to the medina through a gravity-powered system of distribution. From then on, the Spanish referred to the clay pipes as a segundo (secondary) source of water. Implicit in this name was the suggestion that the clay pipes carried water of inferior quality. The name stuck—albeit in a deformed pronunciation (Skundo)—but the Spanish were not successful in eradicating the city’s autochthonous plumbing structure. Instead, they merely created a two-class system of water distribution, in which some households and institutions used the “primary” (modern and “clean”) water, while some continued to use the “secondary” water. Alongside this two-tier system of water distribution, there emerged a two-class system of plumbers: some worked on the modern pipes (today, operated by Amendis), while some (the kanawin) worked on the clay pipes.

This two-class system of plumbing continues in Tetouan, and Mustafa al-Farkhani is the last living member of a guild of plumbers that stretches back to the city’s late fifteenth-century origins. For the past decade, however, Amendis has lobbied the municipal government for total control of water distribution in Tetouan’s medina. In order to counterbalance Amendis’s clout, the local government of the Spanish region of Andalucia granted a large sum of money—rumored to be two million euros—to Tetouan’s city government in order to fix up the Skundo system and help preserve the city’s unique Andalusian heritage. Some small part of this money was supposed to help Mustafa find and train an apprentice. Nevertheless, more than a decade has passed, and he has never seen any of the money. Local leaders suggested to me in private that the money was embezzled. In a city rife with corruption, largely driven by the Rif drug lords, the disappearance (or embezzlement) of a government grant for plumbing is hardly front-page news. As city leaders stressed to me time and time again, the problem with Tetouan’s rehabilitation is not funding, which has been abundant since the city was named a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1997, but rather good governance. A few times, City Hall has hired Mustafa to work on Skundo pipes and encouraged him to bring along an apprentice. After a few months of work without pay, though, the apprentices inevitably look for a job elsewhere.

As part of its struggle for a monopoly on Tetouan’s water supply, Amendis has established a well-documented habit of sending its plumbers on “reconnaissance” missions in the medina, where the plumbers intentionally break the clay pipes that connect residential and religious water supplies. Mosques, which require water for ritual ablutions, are facing pressure from Amendis to abandon the Skundo system and adopt the modern pipes. One way the company has of forcing the religious leaders into compliance is by asking its plumbers to destroy the old pipes. Historically, the endowment of religious institutions has been an important source of funding for the upkeep of the Skundo system and the salary of the kanawin. Amendis’s systematic sabotage of the pipes, however, has made the mosques an unreliable patron.

A stroll through the medina at Friday prayer time will illustrate to any visitor the continued vitality of the city’s mosques, but they are in a bind about how and from whom to get their water. The desperation of this situation sunk into me one day as Mustafa and I walked by the Erzini mosque, which has been without water since early 2008. That winter, the Amendis plumbers broke the Skundo pipes to the mosque, and ever since then, the mosque has been in the middle of a stand-off between civic organizations lobbying for the preservation of the Skundo system and the corporate interests of Amendis. In the meantime, the neighborhood residents are forced to choose between entering the mosque in a state of cultic impurity or seeking out another congregation in a different part of the city.

The scholar and civic leader Muhammad Benaboud has been instrumental in drawing attention to Amendis’s sabotage of the Skundo system. He is the head of the history department at the local university, where his research focuses on al-Andalus, the Arabic name given to those parts of the Iberian Peninsula governed by Muslims from 711 to 1492. As the vice-president of the Tetouan-Asmir Association, he played a key role in garnering UNESCO World Heritage status for Tetouan’s historic medina. After this important public relations coup, which put Tetouan “on the map” for tourists and specialists alike, Benaboud has assumed the mantle of civic crusader and public intellectual. As such, he has served on what he describes, with a sigh, as “countless committees and commissions.” His most visible contribution to Tetouan’s civic life, however, is his presence in newspaper, radio, and television, and he is most famous for his virulent newspaper articles attacking the corruption of Tetouan’s municipal government. Few things make him more outraged than the sabotage of the Skundo system at the hands of Amendis, and he has published a series of columns in both local and national newspapers decrying Amendis’s practice.

He is a pugnacious, passionate man, whose broad shoulders, square face, and close-cropped hair give him the appearance of an aged pugilist. Although his customary wardrobe of a plaid shirt and corduroy pants offset this image, make no mistake about it: Benaboud is a man accustomed to conflict. When talking in public, he begins most of his phrases with a contentious “I would just like to say” and answers most questions by exclaiming, “That’s what I’ve been trying to say.” Indeed, trying to say seems to be an overarching theme in his one-man mission to publicize Tetouan—first to itself and then to the world. He is often out of breath, as if exhausted by the Sisyphean task of getting what he knows out before his audience loses interest. His rhetorical strategy is to convince people by the sheer force of facts, which he reels off in a gravelly monotone. What he lacks in oratory eloquence, he makes up for in enthusiasm and boundless energy. As a child, he suffered from a bad stutter, which he overcame in his thirties. I’ve often heard him tell a joke about his former stutter as a way of justifying his public speech style: “I had a bad stutter until I was thirty. Then, I got a treatment and began to speak well. Now, I’m making up for lost time!”

The ideal setting for listening to Benaboud is not a lecture hall but rather the city streets of Tetouan’s medina. His combination of encyclopedic knowledge and unbridled energy lends itself well to the peripatetic form.

When I met him in his office this April, after I had been away from Tetouan for a year, he had just returned from Paris, where he had attended a meeting at UNESCO headquarters for the launch of the new World Digital Library project. The mission of this UN-funded project is to make available on the Internet, free of charge and in multi-lingual format, significant primary materials from important libraries around the world. It is a testament to Benaboud’s public relations acumen that he was able to incorporate his relatively small Tetouan-Asmir association into an international project whose thirty-one members include the Library of Congress, the National Library of Paris, and the National Library of China, but do not include, for example, the National Library of Morocco (in Rabat). Tetouan-Asmir’s interesting but modest series of CD-ROMs about Tetouani history and culture seems incongruous in this context. Were it not for Benaboud’s persistence, his organization certainly wouldn’t have had the opportunity to participate in this large international project.

The ideal setting for listening to Benaboud is not a lecture hall but rather the city streets of Tetouan’s medina. His combination of encyclopedic knowledge and unbridled energy lends itself well to the peripatetic form. For that reason, the most vivid introduction to Tetouan’s underappreciated past is the marathon walking tour of the city which Benaboud offers for free to almost anyone who is interested. Over the two years I’ve known him, I’ve joined him for walking tours with high-ranking officials of the Spanish government and leading urban studies scholars from Morocco and abroad, but also with study-abroad groups and even with random tourists. Benaboud’s willingness and desire to show off Tetouan to the world seems to have no limit; there is no crowd too big or too small for him.

Early one spring morning in 2008, I met Benaboud in front of the Bab al-Oqla city gate for an individual walking tour of the medina. Bab al-Oqla’s octagonal defensive tower and sloping talus resemble the ramparts in the fortified towns that the Portuguese built on Morocco’s Atlantic coast: Assilah, Essaouira, and El-Jadida. In fact, this resemblance is not a coincidence: Bab al-Oqla, like many of Tetouan’s ramparts, was built by Portuguese captives who lived in the underground prisons by day and worked as slave laborers by night. Among old Tetouanis, Bab al-Oqla is popularly known as “the Queen’s Gate” because the troops of Queen Isabel II stood guard there during the Spanish army’s occupation of Tetouan in 1860. Despite its violent past, Bab al-Oqla today opens onto a cheerfully riotous market scene, where country farmers come to sell their produce, and candy and popcorn vendors try to entice the children who accompany their mothers to the market.

Narrow archways span a twisting alley every thirty feet or so. The walls are whitewashed, and the two-story walls admit little direct sunlight. A lone man walks down the alley, clad in black.

Benaboud is more rigorously punctual than the average Moroccan, and he beat me to the meeting spot that morning. As I approached, I saw him talking with a man in a suit, who turned out to be Anas Sordo, the director of Tetouan’s School of Traditional Arts, located just across the street from Bab al-Oqla. The Spanish Protectorate inaugurated this school and museum in July 1928 as a space for the instruction and preservation of traditional Tetouani crafts, including woodworking, embroidery, tapestries, and especially zellij, the famous Moroccan ceramic tiles. In 1956, an official Francoist account of Spain’s “cultural action” in Morocco describes the mission of the School of Traditional Arts in the following terms: “All of the workshops have purism as a motto in their work. A refined style, traditional, without new influences, without a tourist’s taste, without personal whims, without initiatives. The Arab-Andalusian art in its clear and transparent manifestation.” In this formulation, the Moroccan artisan is an anonymous chain in a link attaching Moroccan art to Hispano-Arab artistry. Any personal initiative, on the part of the artist, only serves to obfuscate the “clear and transparent manifestation” of this historical bridge between Spain’s colonial presence in Africa and Spain’s historical connection with Islam.

At Sordo’s invitation, Benaboud and I went to visit his office, which boasts a stunningly carved cedar ceiling, inlaid with precious woods and painted with lively geometric designs. Then Benaboud and I peeked into some of the studios, where the master-workers and their apprentices were setting up for the day. The School was not yet officially open and some of the studio doors were still closed, but we found an open zellij studio and struck up a conversation with the master tileworker, whose apprentices still hadn’t arrived. The tileworker looked on with pride as Benaboud wandered around the studio, glancing at the pieces on display. He stopped to examine a zellij fountain, with two plaster infixes and geometrical tile designs. Each of the fountain’s pieces of tile was unique, having been hand-carved by the masterworker. The tiles came in several colors: blue, cream, dark brown, and pink. Benaboud took a step back from the fountain, turned to the tileworker, and asked him why he had decided to use pink tiles (instead of yellow) and to mix plaster and tile together. Neither element, he complained, was present in traditional Tetouani homes. After a brief protest in defense of his work, the master tileworker nodded his head and agreed that Benaboud was right. When we left the studio, Benaboud turned to me and said: “Things change, and people get confused. First, you see a war on TV, and then you see a violent movie about war. Eventually, you get confused and you forget which one is which.”

It’s hard to assess the personal and political motives behind Benaboud’s fervent defense of the Skundo system. Certainly, Amendis’s practice of destroying Skundo pipes has helped to consolidate its public image as corporate villain. There is also an issue of price: Amendis’s water is far more expensive than the traditional water, whose distribution is subsidized by the mosques and palaces that house its tanks. Finally, water adopts a sacred and liturgical status in the Islamic world, since it is used for the ablutions that precede all Muslim prayer. This is particularly true in the case of Tetouan, which, like many other Moroccan cities, is an urban celebration of water, an oasis in a desert culture. Indeed, the city’s name itself is a Berber word meaning “the springs.” As early as the eleventh century, Arab geographers, such as the Andalusian al-Bakri, referred to this area of northern Morocco as Tetawin and celebrated its rich supply of natural water. Built into the very name and cultural genome of the city is a reverence for the abundance of free, clean water. In this light, Amendis’s destruction of the Skundo system borders on heresy.

Benaboud has emphasized these issues in his public attacks on Amendis. None of them, however, seems to get at the heart of his defense of the Skundo system, or, more broadly, at the heart of his passionate engagement with his city’s preservation. This engagement is rooted, in part, in a firm, ideological belief in the historical Truth (with a capital T). In 1997, he published an annotated bibliography of his scholarship, where, in the English preface, he describes his research as “my tireless search for an extremely limited portion of the historical Truth which every historian knows beforehand that he will never achieve, but always strives to discover more about.” He is nervous about the possibility of Tetouan losing touch with its roots, its “historical Truth”—like the tileworker who forgets the traditional color scheme of Tetouani tiles. What’s difficult to say is whether Benaboud’s conservatism protects the city’s heritage or instead hinders artistic and urban innovation.

Regardless of these philosophical concerns, Benaboud’s fight for the Skundo system certainly has a commercial facet. He sees the system as an example of Tetouan’s hidden tourist-attracting potential. He and the other members of his association point to the models of Fez and Marrakesh, where hordes of tourists visit the bathhouses and tanneries, marveling at the centuries-old plumbing and engineering that keep these institutions working. Tetouan’s network of springs, fountains, and baths is even more extensive than Fez’s, even though Fez is known, in Arabic, as “the city of fountains.” The promotion of the Skundo system as a tourist attraction, however, makes one wonder whether its preservation hinges on its potential interest to foreign tourists or rather on its social utility to the citizens of Tetouan’s medina.

The blind kanawi Mustafa al-Farkhani has, more by circumstance than by will, lumbered his way into the center of the civic debate over sustainable development, cultural heritage, and the future of Tetouan’s past. Just as city officials, goaded by Benaboud and his colleagues, have begun to realize the treasure-trove that exists below their feet, they have also had to confront the precariousness of this treasure. Fez’s water-works have become, by and large, a cultural museum: very few of the city’s mosques, baths, or residents use the decaying network of clay pipes which runs throughout its medina. Tetouan’s Skundo pipes are ruins but also runes, in which you can read the local history of a community whose lifestyle and faith depend on access to clean, cheap water. Mustafa is the man who keeps the pipes running, but, as his vision and health fail, he doesn’t know who will carry on his traditional craft.

Like the pipes and the subterranean church under al-Mutamir, many of Tetouan’s potential tourist sites are buried—literally and figuratively—underground. The half-excavated ruins of the Roman garrison town Tamuda, a kilometer outside of town, aren’t visited by tourists, but by herders with flocks of sheep and goats. The historic Muslim cemetery, outside of Bab al-Maqabar, contains the mausoleum of the city’s founder, al-Mandari, and the graves of other Tetouani notables, such as that of the twentieth-century nationalist leader Abd al-Khalaq Torres. But the municipal authorities have abandoned the place, allowing it to become the fiefdom of gangs, vagrants, drug addicts, and stray dogs.

Indeed, Tetouan itself is an underground city, obscure in the Western imagination and dramatically alienated from its own buried past. The scant pages dedicated to it in the most recent edition of Lonely Planet Morocco dismiss the city as a dingy stopping point between windswept Assilah, whose white-washed houses are owned primarily by foreigners, and laid-back Chefchaouen, the marijuana and backpacker capital of the Rif. Tetouan hardly registers in the international press, except for the occasional mention of the devastating Madrid train bombings in March 2004, whose authors all came from the Jama’a Mezuak neighborhood of Tetouan. Both Madrid and Barcelona have major roads, subway stations, and squares named after Tetouan, and yet the direct flights from Spain to Morocco go to Casablanca, Tangier, and Marrakesh, instead of to the former capital of the Spanish Protectorate. Most Spaniards couldn’t place Tetouan on a map, despite their country’s long presence there.

Amidst Tetouan’s slow descent toward oblivion, Mustafa al-Farkhani toils on in the double darkness of the underground and his blindness. The awkwardness of our initial encounter had dissolved as soon as Mustafa and I began exploring the city streets together. In conversation, he is reserved, almost absent; when he begins to work on pipes, though, he comes alive like a concert pianist before his instrument.

The last place I visited with Mustafa was a Tijaniyya shrine, one of Morocco’s most important Sufi orders. There is a certain irony in the fact that Mustafa, whose water allows Tetouan’s Muslims to achieve a state of purity, didn’t have any qualms about letting me, a non-Muslim (and, therefore, unpure), enter some of the medina’s most sacred spaces. Side by side, we gazed at the large wall fountain in the atrium, adorned with ceramic tiles and carved limestone. With a mischievous grin, Mustafa placed his hand inside the fountain at different angles, showing me how gravity and pressure control the flow of the water. After a brief visit to the ablutions latrines, we entered the sanctuary. We were there between prayer times, and the place was empty, except for an old man who sat quietly in the corner. In another corner, the roof had caved in, and someone had blocked off this area with a sheet. Mustafa looked off at nothing in particular, having adopted the near-absent, off-kilter gaze of a blind person. Tetouan is a city of violent and constant noises: donkeys and handcarts compete for public space with street peddlers, soccer games, and matronly housewives en route to the market. Here, however, in the shrine, all was quiet: all I could hear was the slow rocking of the old man behind me and, from the walls and below me, the steady flow of water.


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