A Pilgrimage to Essaouira, Morocco

Essaouria – March 17 – 22nd, 2012

1 Essaouira porthole
Essaouira seen through the portholes at the fort that defended the harbor for hundreds of years.

Thirteen years ago, with only a slight bow to the negative nuances of the number, Morocco’s scenic and ancient port city of Essaouira put forth a determined effort to reestablish itself as a center of artisan crafts, music, and Souri culture. So successful was this campaign that the population of this famed southern Moroccan city has grown more than four-fold, from 20,000 souls to 90, 000 in just over a decade. An ancient city, valued for a wide, deep, and protected harbor that still sees dozens of craft set sail every day, Essaouira has been variously known as Mogador for its Phoenician roots and Tassort, a name given in relation to its fortressed medina. The current name may be in tribute to the myriad of photos and paintings depicting the people and the scenes of the city, since Essaouira means “image”.

While teaching at one of the most lovely campuses in all of Africa, that of Al Akhawayn University, high in the mountains above Fez, I had the opportunity to return.  Previous travels in Morocco had landed me several times in Essaouira and, so, at spring break, a colleague and I packed for a week at the beach, determined to find rest, coffee, great people watching, and, in her case, fish. All of those goals were realized, though perhaps not at the level initially prayed for. Blustery winds and intermittent illness interrupted our anticipated carefree days in the south, but between gusts, we ate well, sipped appreciatively, observed judiciously, and came away, if not rested precisely, then at least grateful for the respite from the tiny town we call home.

Essaouira is not easily reached, despite being just 400 miles from Ifrane. In the US, the distance would be no problem at all. Here, well, it needs planning. First, a grand taxi to take us to the train in Meknes. We call El Hussaini, a courteous and considerate driver who manages to make time without making mistakes. Alas, he was busy so he sent Mohammed, less skilled, more risks. Then, a six hour train ride to Marrakesh, during which we could see first hand the dryness of the earth down much of the length of Morocco. Not much rain this year, and it shows.

The one hour wait in the Marrakesh SupraTours station gave us time for an omelet and frites. Finally, we took our seats for a three hour bus ride that left me cold and clammy with nausea such as I haven’t experienced since Dad and Mom used to drive us across town to the Congregational Church on Broadway in Seattle in a tightly sealed car replete with smoke from stereo cigarettes. Oy vey! I called my sister Paula from a rest stop along the way. In my case, it was a place to breathe deeply and reestablish a connection with my gastro-intestinal system. Our driver, often on his cell phone, with the other hand draped casually on the steering wheel, made swerving on the narrow highway into a distressing sort of art form. While the road is relatively straight between the Marrakesh and Essaouira cities, his route was anything but. When a bicycle appeared on the right shoulder, the driver sheered off to the left, setting up a rocking motion along the center of the bus that didn’t subside for several minutes. At roundabouts, he slowed minimally, as if he lost points by not riding on the rims. Three hours later, I crawled off the bus, wiped the pre-vomitous spittle from my lower lip, and vowed to walk back to Marrakesh on the way home.

Our lodging,  an intriguing twin bedded room found on airbnb.com and booked, was part of a larger apartment about 10 walking minutes from the center of town. The owner, Kirsty, a lovely young woman from England had lived in Essaouira for three years, and offered information galore on the city, the merchants, the best and worst restaurants, and how to avoid “the boys” as she called  the importunate hawkers of substandard goods and questionable tours throughout the medina. With a map spread out before us, one never seen in my days in the Peace Corps, she covered all possible nooks and crannies and filled us in on information even I didn’t know.

2 Camel on the Beach
Actual camel on the beach
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Essaouira, and many other Moroccan cities, are treasure troves of fascinating doorways.

The first morning of our stay, we schlepped our way down to the Ocean Vagabond cafe, not to be confused with the Ocean Vagabond Hotel which was a lot closer. The seaside in Essaouira extends a mile and a half or so beyond the tessellated fortress walls, down a smooth, sandy expanse that attracts wind surfers, swimmers, soccer and volleyball players, and camel riders from all over. Well, the camel riding salesmen could hawk their humps just as easily east of the Atlas, but merchants of every ilk end up in Essaouira and more than once we were asked if we’d like to ride. We declined. The next question was always, “You don’t like camels?” a seemingly rhetorical question but one tinged with accusation as well. So, I’d say, “I like camels, but we don’t want to ride.” Invariably, they would repeat, “she likes camels, but she doesn’t want to ride.” They were surprised I spoke derija (Moroccan Arabic).

After a breakfast of crepes, fresh squeezed orange juice, and caffe latte, we walked back to town. Passing through Bab Marrakesh (One of the main gates in the wall) we started our exploration of the city. There are no cars in the medina as the lanes are so narrow, but lots of cycles growl their way down the cobbles, carts deliver everything from strawberries to PCV pipes, and even the occasional donkey brings in fresh vegetables, though fewer of those than in past years. I still puzzle over how the construction equipment managed to get inside the wall and block most of the route from the outer medina to the inner squares.

3 The Slave Square
The slave square in the heart of the medina. Few realize that men, women, and children were sold here.

A favorite place that I returned to several times is one of those squares. Small stalls line the walls on two sides of a bisecting street. One side is the fish market. You can buy your choice and find a chef to cook it to your liking. On the opposite side, herbalists and spice salesmen line one of the walls. The other two house small cafes, places where a few tables are available on the inside, though most people want to occupy the outdoor tables and chairs. I returned to the Cafe Tata for kefta and chevre salad twice, reveling in the Vitamin D and the relative warmth of the inner courtyard, protected as it was, from the wind.

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The men stood in the outer rings, women in the middle and children at this cobbled center.

It certainly did not look like a slave auction shop but that is what it was, back in the day…not too long ago. Where I sat for two pleasant lunches was in a space that, one hundred years past, saw men, women, and children of all colors sold to the highest bidder. Essaouira is, of course, the heart of the Barbary Coast, and Barbary pirates would ply the waters from Northern Europe to south of Mauritania and beyond. Along the way, they grabbed whatever unfortunate wretches they could and brought them back to Essaouira, for to sell their bodies and their wits. You can see the rings of river rocks, a small, target like center for the children, a band for women and the another, further out, for men.

5 Warming the drums
Warming the skins near a charcoal burner.
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Sarah and Kirsty

Our first night in town coincided with the weekly meeting of the Brotherhood of Hmadcha, a Sufi association related to traditional Sufiism but with a different dance. They, too, sing repetitive and melodic songs based on the Qur’an, but instead of dancing in circles, they move back and forth with occasional little joyous kicks to punctuate their rhythmic steps. Kirsty met us in the medina and led the way to the building and courtyard where the group met. It seemed like the first to arrive were the drums. In truth, one member of the brotherhood brought out long-tubed drums and placed them around a small charcoal burner, a mejmer. The heat from the burning charcoal would heat the skins stretched over the ceramic drum frames. Gradually, members of the association arrived. I was completely shocked when these men walked over to where Sarah and I were sitting and welcomed us, shaking our hands and saying, “Ahlan wa Sahlan”. Usually, Muslim men are reluctant to touch females, and can be somewhat standoffish generally. This group was completely different. They were happy we were there and while they paid us no attention during their ceremony, one joined us for picture-taking after. Another surprise. Every feature of the hour-long performance was cohesive and collaborative. Voices blended as they sang “There is no God but God” one hundred times, varying the tone and cadence slightly but always creating a sense of absolute unity. Other verses were not necessarily repeated that many times, but the tunes were melodious and, yes, hypnotizing. Often one member would lead the group in a statement/response mode, arguing without heat, conversing tunefully and with the passion of a true believer. A memorable experience.

As you can tell from the pictures I’ve attached, Essaouira is just as fascinating visually as it is historically and culturally. Many of the buildings go back four and five hundred years, hopefully not with the plumbing to prove it. As a UNESCO protected site, Essaouira is now engaged in a bit of plumbing renewal. Pipes that were last changed when Timbuktu was a regular caravan stop are now being dug up and replaced. Hence, elevated levels of dust, dirt, and surprising sprays of water that doesn’t come from the sea.

6 Cannon at the Fort
Imposing but benign.

Though, there is certainly enough of that, “flung spray and blown spume and seagulls crying.” Sarah and I went out to the tip of the fortress, where the wind found us even in the turrets. Focusing with difficulty, we snapped the Portuguese cannons and the slits cut for narrower weapons, most probably bows and arrows. On my way through a medieval portal, a huge thwack struck me on the back. I turned around and saw a group of seagulls squabbling. One took off in a hurry as I speculated on what had occurred. When I asked Sarah to check my back, she found evidence of fish scales and gut droppings which she was kind enough dab at until I was respectable again, from the rear anyway.

Literally blown off the point, we returned to the Place de Marrakesh, there to find a sunny cafe and a caffe latte just the way we liked it. Lots of tourists, even in March. French, Scandanavian (for whom the weather was a treat.), Germans, and a few Americans, all basking in the Atlantic sun and enjoying the cafe treats. Actually, lots is probably an exaggeration. The lanes and shops weren’t crowded and one rarely had to wait to be served. Clothing, too, seemed to be appropriate to the season and the location. I’ve been in Essaouira when western women dressed as though they were on a beach in Cannes rather than a Muslim country. This time, not much skin was in evidence, even on the beach. Perhaps the water, which we did not test, was still chilly.

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Stop me before I buy more rugs!! Love Moroccan weaving.
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Door to Dar Baba

Over the next couple of days, we moved from neighborhood to neighborhood, from the Kasbah with its narrow lanes, to the Mellah or old Jewish quarter, taking in the differences, the old, the new, and the “please buy”. We also enjoyed a variety of delicious meals. Two of them were at Dar Baba, an Italian restaurant I knew from years ago. Veal scallopini and penne with panna and proscuitto might not sound very Moroccan, but remember, I live here, so Moroccan is always available, Italian isn’t. Dar Baba was a delightful, though hearing that the owner of 20 years didn’t speak any Arabic gave me pause. It rather reminded me of the Americans living in Kuwait years ago who could barely manage a greeting in Arabic after a decade in-country. Nevertheless, he was a restauranteur extraordinaire.

Concurrently, Sarah and I tag teamed in the illness department – sore throats, sneezing, tummy aches, and take your pick. Because we hadn’t purchased much from the shops, we had the money for the pharmacy. Four medications and three days, later, we were in a fragile recovery and packing to return home, after taking our fond and thankful leave of Kirsty. One pill I took at 5am was a dramamine, and, happily, it made the return to Marrakesh a calm and soothing experience.

Back home, I piled all my travel clothes on the closet shelf for my weekly lady, Fatima, to deal with. What bliss that is. I still have two days to prepare

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One thought on “A Pilgrimage to Essaouira, Morocco

  1. Thanks so much for this, Barbara. I enjoyed every word and picture. (I’m still picturing the seagull experience. Reminds me of the only time I have been “swoop attacked” by an angry blue jay near my apartment complex.)

    I wish I had your life sometimes. I envy your travel experiences and your writing ability. You make these places come alive. Why are you not writing for a travel mag at this point?

    Marie 🙂

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