Friday, July 09, 2004

Essaouira, Morocco

While I may not have done anything American for the Fourth of July, I did spend the next day wandering about Essaouira, the city of Moulay Sidi Muhammad bin Abdullah, the sultan who made Morocco the first nation to recognize American independence, even before our allies the French. The city was designed for him by a French architect so as to give Morocco a port along the Atlantic Ocean during a period when the European expansion into the Atlantic had caused a massive shift in global trade routes that affected Africa in particular.

The name of the city means "the well-designed" in Arabic, and after its completion was the main port linking Europe with Timbuktu and sub-Saharan Africa. Today its economy is based mainly off fishing, and when you walk around the port you see dozens of small fishing boats, as well as a shipyards where workmen add ribs to the skeletons of new ships as yet unpainted with the city's characteristic blue. The entire city actually smells like fish. Near the port is a large open square where around one corner you find a number of outdoor cafes and reasonably priced restaurants, while on the other you find a couple dozen or so fish stands selling the day's catch along with accompaniments for a complete meal.

Near here, too, is the fish market, where an auction is held every afternoon, though regrettably I slept through it. Essaouira proved a very restful community, where the population of only 45,000 meant few hassles and a cool sea breeze kept away the heat and actually made me wish I had brought my jacket. In fact, of the 21 hours I spent there, 12 were spent asleep in one of the medina's many cheap hotels within just a few minutes walk of the sea.

There was still plenty of time to get the feel of the place, though, with its houses all of white with blue trim, yielding only to white with reddish trim in some newer neighborhoods you see from the bus. Essaouira today is a very artsy, cosmopolitan community. The place is crowded with tourists on day trips from Marrakesh, and it is mostly to these that the restaurants mentioned above cater as the people take a break from the beaches or bird-watching. In addition, Essaouira is apparently a key destination for expats working on various intellectual or artistic projects - it actually occurs to me that one person I know who had been in Morocco earlier got to be a real live expat working on a project in Essaouira, and I freely admit that I probably would have been content to simply crash there for a couple of days and just sit in a cafe reading al-Baladhuri while staring out over the ocean.

One should not, however, give the impression that Essaouira is without Moroccan influence, however, for it is here that a large number of Moroccan artists have made their home, and I did my first souvenir shopping in the many high-quality art shops found in the streets. These included mainly paintings of scenes in Morocco which seemed influenced by impressionism, and thus easy to sell to tourists. One could also find woodcarvers, and well as the usual Moroccan arts and crafts such as leatherworking and sewing, all generally of high quality, though I didn't investigate all the prices.

Essaouira is also a major player on the Moroccan pop music scene. The current craze in Moroccan music is gnawa fusion. Gnawa is the traditional music of sub-Saharan Africans living in Morocco, most of whom came as slaves centuries ago. The "fusion" refers to blending this music with Western pop music forms to produce exciting new combinations of sound and rhythm. The same weekend I went to Caablanca, some of my friends went to Essaouira for a four-day gnawa festival which brought the top bands from all over, playing concerts which lasted well into the night. One group performing there stopped at ALIF for a workshop at which we got to try some traditional instruments such as one that was played both by plucking at the three strings and beating it like a drum, as well as metal clappers used mainly to keep rhythm. Rhythm is important to gnawa music, and the form mixed extremely well with rap.

Aside from all that, however, in some ways Essaouira can always fall back on its tradition and location if it needs to sell itself. From the main square, or even panoramically from the road leading into town, you can see the Ile de Mogador, where some birds from Madagascar come to mate. Most of the old fortifications are intact complete with cannons, and my Lonely Planet guidebook assures me they're a fascinating blend of European and Moroccan styles. The main thing I used them for was sitting and watching the ocean, one of a huge number of people sitting in the ramparts and waiting for the sun to set over the Atlantic. As an opening act, you can also watch the tide come in, with the wind blowing huge white sprays of water over high points on the ground, creating first little pools of water and then completely submerging them as it moved ever inward.

I wound up sharing a rampart with three little kids, two from Essaouira and one from Safi, who were refreshing largely because one of them spoke some Modern Standard Arabic. In Jordan and Syria, even when people didn't know MSA, they respected it as an important part of their culture. Moroccans often seem to want to disown it, and speak it only reluctantly. I think French here fills the public discourse gap MSA does elsewhere in the Arab world, and it is rather interesting how many people - most passionately an Essaouira taxi driver, have dismissed my study of Arabic while encouraging me to learn French, which they claim is the language of art and culture. Communication in Fez was initially frustrating just because so many people insist on using French with foreigners - I actually had a couple of waiters sneer at me when I forced a conversation into Arabic because I don't know French.

Since coming south, I'd also had deeper issues in terms of speaking Arabic. In Fez, I'd gotten to where I could have respectable conversations in Arabic with the people I regularly interacted with. Starting in Marrakesh, that disappeared. On the bus between Marrakesh and Essaouira, when I'd try to use a basic Arabic greeting, they'd either give me a blank look or tell me what time it was or something. Some of this may have been Berber, but I think, too, that there is a southern Moroccan accent much deeper than what I picked up in the north. In Beni Mellal, I tried to order an orange juice, and when I tried it in French he repeated back something I barely understood that was like "Jew-dor" instead of the standard French "Jus d'Orange."

It was here, however, that in a role reversal from the Aleppo suq I got my first focused lessons in Moroccan dialect, as the kids decided I needed some more dialect that just pronounciation changes and set about teaching me. Some of this came in handy - for some reason asking for a single room in a hotel just got me blank looks even with the contextual clues of a guy with a suitcase walking into a hotel - here I discovered that Moroccans use the MSA word for "house" to mean room, and at my next stop this worked like a charm. (One of those kids, incidentally, has a future in education if he wants it.)

But despite all this I admit Essaouira was for me mainly a place of rest, where I paused to relax and shop between the hectic Marrakesh and climbing around the High Atlas. It is a nice place, perhaps with a dozen like it in the world, but still free of the mess that is Fez al-Bali, the street-fight waiters of Casablanca, (see forthcoming Casablanca/Fez al-Bali write-up), the hustling of Tangier, and that sort of thing while retaining a clear sense of Moroccan culture and identity. And this city even more than Marrakesh convinced me that the south of the country is far more interesting than the north, and that the few days I'm devoting to it are not enough to do it justice.


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5:13 PM  

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