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A House in Fez

Building a Life in the Ancient Heart of Morocco
By Suzanna Clarke

Reading Group Guide

    Introduction
    When Suzanna Clarke and her husband Sandy McCutcheon bought a dilapidated house in the Fez Medina, their friends in Australia thought they were mad. Located in a maze of donkey-trod alleyways, the house -- an Arab-style riad -- was beautiful but in desperate need of repair.
    Walls were in danger of collapse, the plumbing non-existent. While neither Suzanna nor Sandy spoke Arabic and had only a smattering of French, they were determined to restore the house to its original splendor, using traditional artisans and handmade materials. So began a remarkable experience that veered between frustration, hilarity, and moments of pure exhilaration.
    But restoring the house was only part of their immersion in the rich and colorful life of an ancient city. A House in Fez is a journey into Moroccan culture -- into its day-to-day rhythms, its customs and festivals. Into its history, Islam, and Sufi rituals. Into the lore of djinns and spirits. And above all, into the lives of the people -- warm, friendly, hospitable to a fault.
    Discussion Questions
    1. How does the Suzanna Clarke's experience purchasing a home in Fez serve as a metaphor of sorts for the kind of obstacles she will face in the process of restoring it? To what extent do the complexities of her purchase seem to relate to her approaching the process as a foreigner who does not speak Darija? What role does the antiquity of the riad play in the drawn-out nature of the real estate transaction?
    2. The author relies on many people to help shape the vision for Riad Zany, among them, David Amster, Director of the American Language Center in Fez, and a passionate advocate for traditional architecture. How does her friendship with an English-speaking "guide" through the intricacies of Moroccan renovation speed along the process for Clarke and her husband? How do you think they would have fared without Amster's assistance?
    3. "For the rest of the day I carried an uncomfortable sense of guilt. I was so much wealthier than my neighbors." How does the author deal with the problem of having so much more money than the locals in Fez? How do some of them take advantage of her relative financial security? To what extent does this constant tension play a role in the renovation process and the dynamic between Clarke and the architects, builders, and contractors she has retained?
    4. How does the expression inshallah, or "God willing," in Arabic, come to define the author's experience in Morocco? How does the concept that things will happen in their own time, if God wills it, allow for delay and suggest an existential mindset of patience? To what extent does this attitude pervade bureaucracy in the United States? Is there an expression in English that captures this attitude?
    5. "A lot of the fly-in, fly-out expats limit their interaction with Moroccans to servants and shopkeepers -- a replication of the colonial experience, and hardly the way to maintain a vibrant and cohesive community." How do Clarke and her husband, Sandy McCutcheon, avoid falling into the trap of "re-colonizing" Fez? How would you characterize the nature of their involvement with their adopted city and its citizens?
    6. "Usually the shape of the parcel of land determines the architecture, but in the Medina they built houses from the inside, for symmetry, and what happened outside the building didn't matter at all." How does architecture in Fez compare to the Western model? How does the lack of external decoration relate to the ideals of Islamic culture? How does the notion of symmetry define Fassi houses?
    7. How do the book's many images of Fez and the restoration of Riad Zany help give you a clearer sense of the history and culture of Morocco? To what extent do the images convey to you the extraordinary accomplishment of the workers who restored Riad Zany to its current state of beauty? How is the workers' pride evident in the finished product? Of all the photographs in the book, which are most memorable to you, and why?
    8. "It was a simple but miraculous thing. This was the first time the riad had had a telephone in its 300-year-plus history." How does the renovation of Riad Zany introduce a level of modernization that many of the author's neighbors in Fez continue to do without? To what extent does her longing for some of the conveniences of modern life generate a lack of sympathy or comprehension from the city bureaucrats she must wrangle with to accomplish her restoration goals?
    9. Of the author's accounts of the many difficulties she and her husband faced in the course of restoring Riad Zany, which seemed most absurd to you, and why? As you consider the different obstacles they faced, you may want to recall the lengthy process for obtaining permits; the seemingly endless search for qualified architects, plumbers, carpenters; the occasionally deceptive and frequently manipulative efforts of vendors; the antiquated infrastructure of Fez; the Maqadim; the donkeys held hostage, etc.
    10. "Here we have a chance, unique in the world, to live as they did in the fourteenth century. We can make it more comfortable, of course, but...[i]t should not become a theme park." How might the restoration of many residential buildings in Fez to their medieval standards produce an unintended effect of turning it into a kind of museum? How does the purchase of so many riads and dars by foreigners threaten to change the character of this ancient city?
    Enhance Your Book Club
    1. Did you find yourself drawn to reading more about life in Fez after reading Suzanna Clarke's A House in Fez? If so, you may want to visit the excellent blog, The View from Fez, maintained by Clarke's husband, Sandy McCutcheon. This diverse and stimulating blog explores cultural, political, religious, and arts happenings in Fez and Morocco at large, with a focus on matters of interest to readers who want to learn more about this part of the world. Here you can find a recipe for Moroccan mint tea, learn about the latest trick used by scam-artists to fleece unwitting tourists, or just soak up more of the amazing city. Visit http://riadzany.blogspot.com/ to read more.
    2.How would the daily presence of upward of a dozen workers in your home affect your ability to concentrate or reflect? Try to keep a journal for a week in which you examine the everyday goings-on in your life. Each day of the week, try to write in your journal in a different room or area your home. Note the relative clutter or tidiness of the space you're trying to write in, and the presence of others in your midst, ambient noise, etc. How does the nature of the physical space you occupy affect your ability to create? Compare your notes with those of your fellow book club members.
    3. Prior to your book club's gathering, plan a menu in which each member of the club brings a different Moroccan dish to share. Traditional Moroccan cuisine includes couscous, tagine, kaliya, pastilla, harira, and bissara. (You can find out more about these dishes by visiting http://wikitravel.org/en/Morocco.) As Morocco is a predominantly dry country, your group may decide to eschew alcohol and serve mint tea.

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