Letter from Elsewhere

Very Moorish Essaouira
Morocco’s beguiling capital of counterculture

Robert Wilton

The elaborate eighteenth-century fortifications protecting the harbour at Essaouira, on Morocco’s Atlantic coast, were built by a renegade Englishman. Ahmed El Inglizi had converted to Islam and been a pirate, before becoming the trusted architect of Morocco’s ruler.

His ramparts still help to frame the city’s largest square, with its tides of European visitors, Moroccan Arab fishermen and trinket-traders from farther across the Sahara. As for renegades, if you stand looking over the sea wall for more than a couple of minutes, a wrinkled mumbling man in a battered suit will usually sidle up to you with the offer of weed.

Essaouira, like Morocco, has always been defined by its relationship with outsiders; by the interaction between what is coming out of the deeper heart of Africa, and what is wanted by those settling for a while on the coast.

A fine natural harbour, it was found more than two millennia ago to be a good source of the particular sea snail used to produce the bluey dye mandated for Roman official togas and Jewish ritual trimmings. When the Portuguese built a fort here in the sixteenth century, and when Moroccan dynasties were jostling for power, it proved a natural Atlantic outlet for the great trading caravans trekking out of the Sahara through Marrakesh.

By the beginning of the twentieth century, Morocco was trying to come to terms with increasing French and vestigial Spanish influence. British schoolchildren know the various incidents and crises as essay paragraphs in the build-up to the First World War.

For Moroccans, these events were the final, futile efforts to sustain a viable state while resisting total European control of their economy and security. The attempt to maintain domestic status while engaging and placating the foreigners led to a very distinctive decadence.

Sultan Hafid was obsessed with imported mechanical gadgets: innumerable clocks, music boxes, toys – even a clockwork brass parrot which had, by the time it was described for posterity, and despite its gleaming plumage, become an ex-clockwork parrot. Sultan Abdelaziz was obsessed with imported anything: livestock, pianos, corsets, wigs, fireworks, billiard tables, novelty cameras, all the curiosities and bric-a-brac of Europe, in an attempt to emulate and please them. 

The imported goods brought new renegades. An Italian watchmaker was permanently employed in maintaining the mechanical toys. Abdelaziz’s retinue of foreign specialists included “an architect, a conjurer, an American portrait-painter, two photographers, a German lion-tamer, a French soda-water manufacturer, a chauffeur, a firework expert, and a Scottish piper.”

They settled, they adapted. “One of the duties of the Scotch Court-piper was to feed the kangaroos, the professional photographer made scones, a high military authority supplied the Sultan’s ladies with underlinen, and the gardener from Kew was entrusted with the very difficult task of teaching macaw parrots to swear. And so it was not surprising that the dentist became a buyer of lions.”

The descriptions are by the remarkable – he certainly thought so, anyway – Walter Burton Harris, who lived most of his life in Morocco, as Times correspondent, diplomatic intriguer, unofficial aide to the sultans and occasional bandit hostage. Over the same decades, the royal army was instructed and eventually commanded by the Scottish General Sir Harry Maclean. Emily Keene came to Morocco as a governess and stayed as the wife of the Sharif of Ouazzane, renowned for promoting vaccination. Maclean wore traditional Moorish costume, even when playing his bagpipes. Harris’s disguise when adventuring included shaving his head, except for a long topknot.  

Despite its generally devout adherence to Islam, Morocco was gaining a reputation as a place of sanctuary or self-expression for westerners whose identity or habits were constrained or prohibited in their own colder, conservative societies.

Wikipedia notes delicately that Harris “lived an openly homosexual, tending towards paedophilic, lifestyle thereafter, though this was little hindrance in the social milieu of Tangier at the time.” Tangier became the epitome for expatriate liberty or loucheness. (It had actually been British for a couple of decades in the seventeenth century, part of Catherine of Braganza’s dowry to King Charles II – and what else to get the Merry Monarch who has everything, but an exotic port city with a reputation for excess? Samuel Pepys was there to manage the final evacuation; the notoriously corrupt Governor reckoned that nearly half his thousand-man garrison had caught gonorrhoea from a “mighty pretty” sixteen-year-old named Joyce.)

Tennessee Williams wrote Cat On A Hot Tin Roof in Tangier, George Orwell wrote Coming Up For Air there, and William S. Burroughs his Naked Lunch. Tangier, he said, “is one of the few places left in the world where, so long as you don’t proceed to robbery, violence, or some form of crude, antisocial behaviour, you can do exactly what you want.” Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac visited; Mick Jagger still does. Morocco inspired and almost destroyed the Stones.

Too often, our understanding and image of Morocco reflect a foreigner’s filter: archetypal Tangier expatriate writer Paul Bowles was labelled “the worst” of the Orientalists by Edward Said, and Walter Harris’s tales of court ridiculousness are unlikely to be the least of his exaggerations.

But over two millennia of cultural trading along this coast, such perceptions have exerted their influence. More than anywhere else in Morocco, Essaouira sustained the renegade spirit. Desert-warmed and sea-freshened, less intense and overwhelming than the bigger trading cities, it became one of the ultimate hippy destinations.

Jimi Hendrix only visited for a few days in the Summer of ’69 before heading back for Woodstock, but the trip crystallised Essaouira’s reputation as the ultimate hang-out. His image, reproduced in every conceivable form of local craftwork, welcomes you more than 50 years later to every souvenir shop in the city.

These days it’s a more synthetic kind of counterculture: gap-year hippies trying to acquire cool rather than defining it, while fitting in some kitesurfing and a camel ride on the beach. The backstreets are half “real” enterprises – minuscule general stores, workshops, seedy barbers, hole-in-the-wall sardine grills – and half souvenir shops. But the scents are all real: fish, newly carved wood, spices, the ubiquitous cats.

And young visitors are watched with weary tolerance by older eyes, sitting in the shadowed backs of cafes and never glancing at the novelty metalwork stall. Two generations of Europeans have found refuge here more permanently: people who came seeking something different and seem to have found it, the dreads and wraps hanging more naturally than they do on the kids. At a time when shriller voices back in Europe are trying to insist on narrower, singular identities, Essaouira feels more than ever a place of sanctuary for those inclined to be different or ambiguous.

Typical of Essaouira’s blend of influences and moods is its annual World Festival of Gnaoua music. The original musical style, with its traditional stringed instruments and mystic chanting, is something else that has emerged from West Africa through Morocco.

With its twang and its wail and its camel-skin rhythm, amped up in a warm evening in the square, it seems both soothing and haunting. The festival showcases the fusion of Gnaoua with jazz and other traditions and typically attracts hundreds of thousands of people.

This year counter-virus measures meant one had to watch through railings at the entrance of the royal courtyard, as Moroccans a century ago saw the Sultan’s fireworks rising from behind the palace walls.

The pandemic has battered the tourist economy: the little streets are quieter; the sellers of leather souvenirs and raffia-work are more desperate; cafes have been closing. “We’ve been hanging on for two years,” says one owner, “now this new wave may finish us.”

With the prospect of a new virus variant in early December, the Moroccan government simply closed its borders; some European residents managed to escape on expensive repatriation flights.

But the fishermen still have a population to feed, and every afternoon the tide fills the stalls and pavement mats of the main market street with glistening fish and shrimp and eel. And most of the renegades have stayed: for the Saharan heat still warms, and the Atlantic wind still freshens, and Essaouira’s ramparts still inspire, and where else could you go?

Novelist, translator, screenwriter, coach and occasional renegade Robert Wilton divides his time between Kosovo, Cornwall and, at least until the borders re-open, Morocco. The next of his “Gentleman Adventurer” Edwardian entertainments will be published later this year, and his Morocco-set novel of colonialism, and the tales we tell, in 2023. robertwilton.com & theideaspartnership.org


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