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On our second day in Essaouira, the ICTM Mediterranean Music working group’s conference began, and I attended for maybe about half the day. This was the real impetus for us coming to Morocco to begin with. It seems a good group, a very cool conference, to bring together some 70 people or whatever the number is who are all specialists in Mediterranean music (Andalusian, North African, Sephardic, Greek, Arab, or Ottoman), to such a special location, to discuss such topics. Makes me eager to try to attend their East Asia working group’s conference sometime. Though it’s recently been in Seoul, Taipei, Nara, Hong Kong, and Shanghai, I wonder if they might ever hold it in Naha, Nagasaki, Tsushima, Fuzhou, Hoi An, or somewhere else that might provide me an opportunity to go somewhere really special I haven’t gotten to go to otherwise.

The harbor at Essaouira. Many of the fishing boats are painted blue, in keeping with the color scheme of the city.

In any case, while the conference was going on, I ducked out a few times, once to retrieve my camera from the Supratours bus company office as I had accidentally left it on the bus the day before, and once to just make sure I explored the key historical sites of the city. It’s a small city, and though it has many gates and city walls, and who knows maybe spots of historical note otherwise that I’m not quite aware of (apparently Jimi Hendrix spent quite some time in a hippie colony / Berber village just down the road, called Diabat), it seems the only thing of really major note is the Scala – a set of fortifications right at the port. Built by the Portuguese, the Scala played a key role in defending the tiny Portuguese settlement here from Moroccan raiders and the like, and with Essaouira (then called Mogador) as a base of operations for Portuguese exploration, raiding and so forth, and trade. As we’ll remember from our survey of world history classes, the Portuguese Empire, at least in its early centuries, was never one of conquering large swaths of land, but rather was all about establishing small trading posts: Mogador and the nearby Madeira Islands in Morocco (the latter still controlled by Portugal today), Goa in India, Macao in China, and various other spots along the African coasts. From their base in Mogador, the Portuguese traded with Madeira and elsewhere, and raided nearby (and not so nearby) African villages and towns.

The ruins of a fortress on a tiny island just offshore from Essaouira.

The city of Essaouira, we are told, really came about only after the Moroccans took back the area from the Portuguese, and a sultan named Sidi Mohammed ben Abhallah oversaw the establishment and expansion of the city. But the fortifications survive. In terms of how long it takes to walk around and see them as a historical/tourist site, they’re small – it took me literally 15 minutes to see them, including the time it took to walk from and then back to the conference venue – but they’re pretty cool. From the Scala, you can get some just gorgeous views of the city and the sea, of the ruins of a small fortress on a tiny island just barely offshore, and of the fishing boats, many of them painted a brilliant blue. The squarish towers seem iconic of a particular style and period – perhaps they’re typical for 15th-16th century Portuguese architecture? – and the cannon still lined up all along the walkway evoke that for us. I wonder, if we went to sites in Ghana and elsewhere in West Africa, perhaps we’d see very much the same sort of thing – evoking a particular aesthetic, a particular imagined idea, of Portuguese empire in Africa. A space that is decidedly European, but also distinctive of that particular period, those particular developments, that particular set of phenomena, of 15th-16th (or 17th, 18th…) coastal fortifications and (slave) trading posts in West Africa.



Above: a section of the Portuguese fortifications at Mogador (Essaouira). Photo my own. // Below: a scene from HBO’s “Game of Thrones” TV show, in which the site is used as the scene for “Slaver’s Bay” or Astapor.



Of course, I was also excited about the Scala as it was a shooting location for Game of Thrones. Seems a bit weird that I should get to see this tiny piece of Astapor of all places – and not King’s Landing or some other more central or major site from the show – but it is what it is. And once you see the screenshots, it’s so recognizable.

Above: the “Walk of Punishment” in Game of Thrones. // Right: a section of the city walls of Essaouira. Photo my own.

I do wish they had more (or any) plaques explaining the history of the site. Thankfully, Wikipedia and various travel blogs and the like filled me in, and one of the last conference presentations of the first day gave a very nice overview of the history of the city for us as well.

The next day, I made my way to the other end of the fortress complex – while the Scala is prominently visible at one end of the beach, and on tourist guides, and charges 10 dirhams entrance fee, this other site has none of that. But it’s otherwise fairly similar – and it was this site, I believe, that was actually the one where they filmed the Walk of Punishment. So that was a very nice find. Great views of the city once again.

Looking down into Essaouira’s chief synagogue.

In the afternoon, everyone from the conference got taken on a tour of Essaouira’s small Mellah by André Azoulay. He first pointed out that a gate we’ve passed by numerous times in fact features a circle of a Koran verse at the keystone (center, just above the arch), flanked by two Stars of David. Though the six-pointed star is a natural design to emerge out of pure geometric experimentation, and does in fact feature frequently in Islamic tiling designs, here he says it is definitely a symbol of Essaouira’s Jewish history.

He then took us to the community’s very small synagogue, which was a pleasure to see. Sadly, the explanation was given largely in French, so I didn’t catch very much of it at all. But, attached to the synagogue, they are just now completing construction of a “House of Memory” – essentially a museum of the Jewish community in the city, though they don’t call it a museum because apparently Azoulay, and I suppose others, feel that museums represent a culture that’s in the past, whereas they wish to focus on the future. In addition to exhibits, the Memory House will provide some sort of spaces and resources for research. Dar Souiri, home of the Essaouira-Mogador Association, where the conference was held, also has a nice library of books on local history, and on Judeo-Muslim-Christian relations. I imagine that for someone doing research on just the right topic, these two institutions could be just perfect homes for them during research trips.

The House of Memory being constructed as a museum of the Jewish history and ongoing community of Essaouira.

Azoulay also told us that one of the writers of the very first US Constitution was a Jew from Essaouira, though I didn’t catch his name. He was the first Jew elected to office in the US. He donated his land to what is now the University of Florida. His father wrote a very early anti-slavery treatise. If anyone can tell me the name of this figure, I’d appreciate it. We learned that a notable UK Minister of Defense & of Transport of the earlier 20th century was also an Essaouira Jew named Belisha.

After a simple dinner, we finished out the night with a conversation with this incredible eccentric woman who it seems practically lives here quite frequently, though only for a few weeks or months at a time. She wouldn’t let me take a photo of her, which is a shame because she just seems such an incredible woman and I wanted to document in that way having met her and who she was. But, words shall have to suffice. A thin woman with wild white hair, an elegant blue and white scarf, and long black jacket or robe which made her seem larger than she was. Thin, a bit up in years, but so full of life and energy, and someone who just truly radiated presence. She said others have often described her as the woman of the house (madame d’ l’ mansion? I forget the French), and it certainly sounds like she has a special relationship with the proprietors or staff everywhere she goes.

But, it’s funny. My first impression was simply of a cosmopolitan world-traveler who truly enjoys her retirement, in relaxing fashion. Then we learned of her multiple PhDs, her various forms of volunteer work in Kenya and elsewhere, even leaving her home in a major US city, for a time at one point, unlocked and open at any hour for the police to direct abused women to go there and have somewhere to be. Degrees in agriculture, storage technologies, etc., and experience advising governments and similar institutions around the world in agriculture, storage, education, medicine, all sorts of things. I forget if she said she was ever officially affiliated with the UN or only with other organizations, but definitely with organizations of that sort, at least at times. Makes her seem like someone truly of note, like she should appear in Google searches. It’s truly amazing the kind of people you meet sometimes when you travel.

With the exception of screenshots from Game of Thrones, all photos are my own.

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Essaouira, Day One

Now (writing some weeks ago), we are in Essaouira, a small beach town on the Atlantic coast, a few hours more or less straight west from Marrakech. There are similarities, for sure – the food is much the same, albeit with the addition of much fish and seafood; and the basic notion of staying in a medina, filled with small stalls and shops of people hawking their wares. And the wares themselves are largely the same. But the aesthetic and the feeling is quite different. Instead of earthtones, everything here is white and blue. Well, not everything, of course, but it’s a defining color scheme theme of the place. And overall it just feels more relaxed and more friendly and genuine. I don’t think we have to worry quite so much here about being scammed, or taken in by false guides, though haggling is still a thing. Several shop keepers were really quite kind and nice, with no hint of trying to keep us talking, keep us shopping. They genuinely took our interest, sold us things or didn’t, and let us leave. Definitely much more my speed.

And, the hotel/riad that my gf booked, Les Terrasses de Essaouira, wow, it’s a really nice place, and it very much gives me a feeling, unlike the places we stayed in Fes or Marrakech, of … a particular brand of vacationing, like in that film The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel. I can’t actually remember if I’ve even seen the film, but Les Terrasses, and perhaps Essaouira more generally, feels to me very much like the kind of place retirees might come, maybe even come back to every summer, as their regular annual vacation destination, their exotic second (or third, or fourth) home away from home, to just relax and enjoy and experience… I don’t know, it’s not necessarily exactly something I can put into words, but the style of the hotel definitely gives that feel. Beautiful spacious private suites with canopy beds, each suite furnished uniquely with its own slightly distinctive arrangement; on each floor, large chairs facing in to an open atrium space, where one can just sit and read, smoke, drink something, take your time and do nothing. Not like a hotel for the kind of vacationer who just needs somewhere to rest in between rushing around to see the city – it really feels like the kind of place people might come to make themselves at home for several weeks at a time. I wish I could find the words to describe the particular aesthetic I’m seeing… but the best I can say is that it reminds me of (my potentially misplaced memory of the basic concept of) the Best Exotic Marigold Hotel. Very open and airy and relaxing, with white walls and light curtains and palms & other plants around. And in the lobby, a fountain in the center and numerous little side alcoves with couches, so you can have some variety as you spend your days reading and relaxing and whatever. Hints of Moroccan aesthetic here and there, of course, in the hanging bronze lamps and the tilework and window frames here and there, making the whole place feel exotic but not over the top – definitely a certain very standard brand of Orientalist/exotic vacationing trope, but at the same time wholly distinct from the more primary, mainstream “first thing that comes to mind” type of Orientalist exotic décor.

Indeed, and maybe this is what got me thinking about it, I overheard one older woman telling someone else about how she is only a guest, only here for a few weeks (I don’t live here), but that she’s been here many many times, so much so that other people often tend to think she must be “the lady of the house” or something, that she must be associated with the place, even though she’s not; but I can see why people would say that – it’s certainly the very first impression I had of her as well. She definitely seems to know the place and the staff quite well, I even saw her in the staff areas several times…. So, that’s the sort of place we’re staying in, and perhaps the sort of place Essaouira as a town is, for many people.

A real photo I took myself, on the bus ride to Essaoiura.

The bus ride from Marrakech went fine; it was a normal coach bus, just like one of the slightly nicer ones you might find on slightly upscale bus tour packages. No wifi or outlets or anything, but comfy enough seats, movable footrests. Anyway, it was only for less than three hours. The main highlight of the trip: seeing goats in trees! Something I’d seen online as a meme or Buzzfeed list sort of thing, but not something I ever thought I’d see in person. (and in fact I had no idea what country, what part of the world to find such a thing, so, I couldn’t have expected to see it anyway)

After arriving in Essaouira, we spent pretty much the whole rest of the day just walking around. There are a few notable historical sights, I think, and I’m hoping to see them by the end of our time here. But for today, we just walked the market streets and hung out. She bought some CDs, and we got some food, and that was about it. Saw the Sidi Mohammed ben Abdallah Museum, which though small is the first museum we’ve seen in Morocco that actually tells the history and culture in any detail. Housed in an old elite’s mansion, as so many of these museums are, it contains quite a few rooms of artifacts from prehistoric and Roman times up through more modern times, ranging from Roman pottery to various sorts of 19th century firearms, Muslim and Jewish traditional costumes (e.g. a rabbi’s robes, and women’s marriage robes), various silver objects such as carafes and jewelry, and so forth. It was neat to see one whole case (vitrine) devoted to objects of Essaouira’s historical Jewish community, even though the contents were really nothing special – a Torah scroll, some kipot (skullcaps), some Hannukiot (menorahs).

It’s wonderful how much more relaxed this town is. It’s touristy, to be sure, but in a beach town kind of way, not in a disneyfied, selling-you-exoticism sort of way, and not so overtly in a “tourist trap” scamming sort of way. A number of shopkeepers and so forth we’ve met seem on the surface more like the kinds of people you expect to meet in beach towns – people from elsewhere in Morocco, or elsewhere in the world, who have come here to surf and hang out and just enjoy the laid back environment; we found one café where they have an open mic most nights, and just various different artistic sort of engagements; and a CD store where the young man manning the counter was just happy to talk about all different kinds of music…

I feel amazingly privileged to have gotten to see Fes and Marrakech in my lifetime – every time I think of myself as really not that much of a world traveler, well, after this trip especially I’m not sure I can think that anymore. I’ve been to six countries (plus Hawaii, yes I’m counting Hawaii) on four continents (five, if we’re counting Oceania b/c of Hawaii) between this summer and the last alone, and to say that I’ve been to Fes and Marrakech is just incredible. Still, that said, it’s Essaouira that I would come back to. I wish we had just one or two more days in Marrakech, to see some museums and other things that had been closed because of Eid. But, overall, for all that Orientalist movies, posters, and popular consciousness otherwise hypes up these places, I don’t know, I just didn’t find Fes or Marrakech to be all that magical or exciting – and I have found Tokyo, Kyoto, Okinawa, Hawaii, London, Wales, Norwich, and a whole lot of other places to each have their appeal. I suppose the fact that non-Muslims aren’t allowed inside the mosques contributes to this in a big way. In all these other places, I’ve seen incredible castles, churches, temples, shrines, historical sites of one variety or another, and great art museums, history museums… But if you’re not allowed inside the most major historical sites in the city, then can you really say you’ve visited them? I don’t feel like I’ve seen the Karaouine Mosque, the Andalusian Mosque, or the Koutoubia Mosque the way I’ve seen Hagia Sophia and the Blue Mosque, St. Paul’s Cathedral and Westminster Abbey, the Wailing Wall, Tô-ji and Tôdai-ji. But, so it goes.

In many of these other places, I’ve also seen just beautiful street scenes, what the Japanese call machinami, and Essaouira has beautiful machinami, largely in white and blue. It feels sunny and open, light and airy, in a way that Marrakech, and especially all the more so Fes, didn’t. I have to wonder, though, if it had not been Ramadan and then Eid, how different the two cities might have felt. I was told later, here in Essaouira, that Fes is “schizophrenic” when it comes to Ramadan, getting very serious and heavy and religious for one month, and not being like that the rest of the year.

Anyway, Essaouira is a small town, and as much as I’ve enjoyed being here, and as much as I am sad to be leaving, I do think I’ve pretty much seen the whole thing, and with a whole wide world out there I don’t expect I’ll be coming back. Still, I did thoroughly enjoy it.

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