“Any kif for you today?”
It was the second time I was being offered drugs since arriving in Essaouira, and it seemed that it wouldn’t be the last. The night before, the same two young men lingering outside the riad had given me a warm welcome. I thought they were porters at first, but when I walked out of the riad a few minutes later, they wanted to sell me some hashish.
The two men were up early for business, or perhaps they had been stationed there all night. Seeing how I would probably bump into them another few times during my stay in Essaouira, I mustered a polite smile of refusal.
“No problem gazelle, but if you change your mind, you will find us here all day.”
To be fair, they took their work seriously. It was nearing ten o’ clock, and most of the shops in the medina were still closed. I wandered through dim, winding alleys hemmed in by white-washed buildings, with only a few roaming cats in sight. Essaouira is known to be a laid back city, which is partly the reason why it attracted many famous rock musicians in the hippie era.
Walking through an arched street, I came across a couple of women in bright pink veils cleaning the grimy tiled doorway of a hammam. One of them yelled something at a boy who had just whizzed past on a rickety bicycle. A robed man sitting in a doorway looked up from his lap and cast an annoyed look at the boy.
As I approached the sky-blue door where the man had been sitting, I found him with his head bowed low again, his eyes fixed on the illustrated Quran spread open in his lap. He didn’t flinch when a man on the opposite side of the street dragged out a squeaky table from his shop. Nor did he get distracted by the two seagulls fighting over some pita bread.
Slowly, the medina was coming to life.
Rising to fame
In 1949, Orson Welles visited Essaouira to film scenes for his adaptation of Shakespeare’s Othello. Three years later, Welles submitted Othello to the Cannes Film Festival under the Moroccan flag, and the film went on to win the coveted Palme d’Or. A few landmarks around Essaouira remind visitors of the city’s appearance in Welles’ award-winning production, including a square outside the medina named after the director himself.
As I walked along the salt-crusted ramparts overlooking the rugged rocks jutting out of a low tide, it was easy to see why Essaouira has been a popular location for history films. The old port city gets its charm from its unique blend of Moorish and European-style buildings harboured within a honey-coloured fortified wall. The 18th century Medina of Essaouira (formerly known as Mogador) became a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2001, and to this day it remains largely well-preserved.
Facing the Atlantic Ocean, Essaouira is known for being the windiest coastal city in Africa. The year-round waves and strong winds battering a 10km stretch of beach make Essaouira a mecca for surfers. If I hadn’t come across this fact in a Lonely Planet guidebook, I would have never believed it. Gazing at the calm sea, the only people I could see venturing out into the ocean that day were the local fishermen. Hundreds of seagulls dotted the coastline, waiting patiently for their fresh lunch to reach the shore.
Back in the medina, I savoured the pleasure of strolling through the quiet souks without having to deal with the sort of street harassment I had experienced in Marrakech. Whenever I stopped to look at displays of rainbow striped scarves, bags, and cushion covers, I was met with polite invitations into the shops. In Marrakech, such invitations are followed by endless persuasion and tiresome haggling. The hospitality is equally present in both cities, but in Essaouira, you are given room to breathe and think. But not if you happen to be standing in front of jars of herbs and spices labelled ‘Female viagra.’
“It’s a natural aphrodisiac. It works, I promise.”
The young shopkeeper seemed genuine enough, but when he saw that I had no interest in buying aphrodisiacs, he let me know that he also had some hashish in store. Just then, a man in long dreadlocks and a Bob Marley t-shirt stopped by for a chat with the shop assistant, giving me the opportunity to bid the latter a hasty thanks and slip away.
Essaouira has always been a safe haven for people from all walks of life. The city has seen Christians, Muslims, Jews and other ethnic communities coexisting peacefully. Throughout the 19th century, many artists, writers, and musicians made Essaouira their home. During the hippie hype of the 60s and 70s, Essaouira was a famed retreat for music celebrities. Cat Stevens, Bob Marley and Frank Zappa are among those who found inspiration in Essaouira. But there’s one visitor in particular whom locals are quite fond of.
Jimi Hendrix visited Essaouira in July of 1969 for a couple of days, and that’s the end of the story. For the locals, however, the musician’s connection to the city goes beyond a brief stay. Jimi Hendrix made frequent visits to Essaouira, during which he bought a hotel and an old palace in the medina, sired many children, and composed Castles Made From Sand (which was actually released in 1967). Apparently, the rockstar even slept in every riad and hung out at every cafe in the city. As Essaouira continues to grow as a tourist destination, so do the Jimi Hendrix myths.
The Spice Seller
I chanced upon what looked like a farmers’ market in an arched courtyard. Broken carts, torn sacks and rotten vegetables had been dumped in the middle of the yard, perhaps to give the stray cats something to do. Middle-aged men in djellabas (hooded robes) greeted me with a nice ‘bonjour’ as I walked past mounds of nuts, dried fruit, and spices.
A young man sitting among jars of spices and dye powders invited me inside his shop. It was my last day in Morocco, and by then I had learnt the properties of the different spices, herbs, and soaps by heart. But the man had a gentle, polite voice, and after spending the entire morning on my feet, I seized the opportunity to sit down and have a conversation with a local.
Ahmed had been following the news on a small television set tucked under the counter. He turned the volume down and started asking me questions in Arabic, French and English. I told him that I had fallen in love with the city’s serene atmosphere and artistic presence. Having grown up by the sea, I’ve always developed an instant affinity with coastal towns abroad. My only disappointment was that, like Jimi Hendrix, I was only in Essaouira for a very short time.
Ahmed’s face fell when I told him I was heading back to Marrakech that same afternoon. He switched back to English.
“I would have asked you out for a coffee, but the cafeterias aren’t open in the morning.”
I hoped that buying some saffron would cheer him up, but he still looked rather subdued after that. Before walking out of there, I asked him for a little favour and watched his eyes lit up. Helping me get to the fish market made him happier than the 60 dirham I had just handed him.
I’ve never been able to remember directions, and it doesn’t get easier when most of the streets are nearly identical. The blue doors and shutters of shops and houses were now wide open. Leather bags, colourful scarves, kaftans and hand-woven carpets covered the sun-baked walls. One shop in particular had an intriguing display of hand-painted Islamic calligraphy on parchments and canvas. I walked almost in a trance, mesmerised by one shop after the other, until I stumbled upon a very familiar street… and voice.
“Still no kif?”
From my riad I managed to find my way to Place Moulay Hassan, the main square, and from there, all I had to do to find the fish market was follow the exodus of cats and seagulls.
Have you visited Essaouira?
Tell us what you think about the city.
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