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Morocco: An Interview with Sandy McCutcheon

The View from Fez is arguably the most popular English-language blog in Morocco, and one which is oft-quoted on Global Voices. Since its inception in 2005, the blog has had over 400,000 visitors from all over the world; they come to learn about Fez, be entertained, and live vicariously through the blog's authors, one of whom is Sandy McCutcheon.

McCutcheon is the author of 11 novels and has just completed “The Hill of Mice” – a novel set in the Fez Medina. He is the founder of The View from Fez and its primary author. McCutcheon is also a gracious host as I learned last year when he invited me to visit the riad for one of his many parties. I recently had the chance to interview him.

Riad Zany's central fountain
The central fountain of Riad Zany's courtyard

When did you first visit Morocco? What drew you to Fez?

I first came to Morocco seven years ago and fell in love with the country in general and Fez in particular.

Fez attracted me because of the vibrancy of the people and the extraordinary history that surrounds you on every corner. Yet my view was that here was an exceptional city in transition – the traditional lifestyle hand in hand with technological progress. The arrival of the internet in the Medina, the great mobile phone coverage and the uptake of new design and building techniques alongside the traditional all indicated a city that was very much on the move.

Tell us about the famous Riad Zany.

Discovering Riad Zany was a momentous occasion. A 3-4 hundred year old riad in (at the time) unfashionable part of the Medina, Riad Zany took over our lives. The restoration that Suzanna Clarke and I embarked on seemed an almost impossible task, but with the help of great traditional craftsmen and women as well as expert guidance from David Amster made it all possible. Our decision to go down the path of conservation restoration did mean that progress was painfully slow at times, but the end result well worth it. We opted for stripping the the house back to a simple form with little ornamentation, so that now the riad is a very livable, simple house of charm and quiet beauty. It has turned out to be a perfect venue for both traditional and contemporary music recitals which have attracted up to 70 people at a time. This year we also included two concerts from professional Australian musicians who jumped at the chance to pause from their European tour and perform in Fez. Last year my wife's book “A House in Fez” was published in Australia and New Zealand where it immediately sold out. In May the book was published in the Uk and will also come out in November in the USA. A Korean language edition is expected this year. As a result of the success of Suzanna's book, guest house owners in Fez have experienced an increased number of Australian and New Zealand visitors.

Author's Note: Riad Zany is named for Suzanna Clarke. Suzanna=Zany.

How do you keep abreast of everything going on in Fez?

Running The View from Fez is an almost full-time job. Thankfully I have a number of people in Fez who can both write well and take great photographs so that even when I am not in Fez, the blog bubbles along. We recently had our 400,000th visitor, but sadly didn't have time for a party to celebrate!

Tell us about some of the exciting changes happening on Fez

Fez is moving fast into a new era of design and sophistication with the opening of chic restaurants, tapas bars and hammams [traditional baths], while still preserving the traditional street food and local bath houses. In the area of design, new shops selling modern Moroccan designed products are a breath of fresh air and a clear indication of the talent waiting to explode over the next few years.

What concerns do you have about the future of Fez and Morocco in general?

I have no great concerns about the future for Fez or Morocco. The increased number of Moroccans who are buying properties in the Medina is a good sign and the relaxation of rules on guest houses is very welcome. However the recent increase level of tax on guest house owners is a very bad thing as is the increased landing charges at Fez airport which resulted in Ryanair stopping direct flights from Britain. Obviously this benefits Marrakech and Casablanca, but it has cost Fez millions.

Alternatively, what excites you?

What excites me about Morocco is the huge pool of young people who are grasping the opportunity to take the country forward. The efforts by the King in reforming the country are also to be applauded but more is to be done, especially in the area of free speech and press freedom.

You spend only a portion of your year in Morocco. What do you do the rest of the time? What do you do to relax?

I spend about half the year in Fez, mostly concentrating on my writing, but when not here I tend to divide my time between Bordeaux where we have an apartment and our house in Australia. When relaxing in Morocco I tend to stay in Fez although I do love the mountain villages and the area around the Rif. And in Fez, to relax… I sit in the courtyard of riad Zany and listen to the birds and the fountain!

What's your favorite Fassi restaurant? Handicraft?

My favourite restaurant in Fez is Thami's a little street cafe run by a man with a huge sense of humour and generosity. And my favourite handicraft is “the mat man” – an older guy who is the last traditional grass mat weaver making mats for the mosques but also selling place mats for table settings from a tiny dirt floored workshop in a narrow alley off the Talaa K'bira – a wonderful individual and a real craftsman.

Photo by Jillian C. York

4 comments

  • Liosliath

    What a great interview! :)

  • Thanks Liosliath! Whatever happened to your blogging?

  • this is a great interview. thank you Jillian.
    thanks Sandy for your honesty.
    “The efforts by the King in reforming the country are also to be applauded but more is to be done, especially in the area of free speech and press freedom”
    Excited to hear about your new book and can’t wait to read it.
    shookran Jillian, bezzaf.
    bouba

  • Donald Campbell

    Dear Sandy McCutchen and Suzanna Clarke,
    recently I read A House in Fez. I was delighted to read about your Moroccan renovation/restoration experiences from which I gained a greater insight into Moroccan thinking. For the last two years I have been working as the interior designer for a small hotel project in Tangier’s Kasbah. I live in Sydney and prepare quite a lot of my work from a far and make regular site visits. Currently I am planning to be in Morocco in July. From Thursday 9th – 12th of July I will be in Fez. Would you like to meet up?

    Best wishes Donald Campbell

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