I made this past weekend a long one and drove down to Essaouira for this year’s edition of its famous Festival de Gnaoua. It was my first visit to this famous town on the Atlantic, and I was excited about photographing the same scenes I’ve been seeing in everyone else’s pictures. But as luck would have it, in a particularly cruel realization of the rule that one always forgets at least one crucial item when packing for a trip, I came to the discovery that I had left my camera in Rabat. I became aware of this sad fact right as we pulled in to a lookout point on a hill above Essaouira, and I stood there gazing out at the city and its bay in agony – because I knew exactly where I’d left it. I could see it in my mind: the camera sat right there on my coffee table, on the left side, next to the body lotion and that blue bowl where I keep my keys and other miscellaneous items.
As my mother always taught me, you have to work with what you’ve got (“roeien met de riemen die je hebt”), and so in lieu of visual pictures, I will attempt here to construct a few written images. It’s not unlike the ‘setting’ chapter that precedes any good ethnography, perhaps.
First, picture Essaouira itself: a breezy town where, like in any other seaside village, the heart of the city lies at its outer edge. Imagine a broad ‘corniche’, a boulevard made for promenading, lined on one side by restaurants and hotels, each decorated with its own take on the white-and-blue theme that dominates Essaouira. Across the street, picture a sprawling beach that gives way to sparkling blue water, two different stages already constructed in the sand, 100 or so meters from one another – harbingers of the imminent festival.
Picture a bend in the road as the corniche curls to the left, heading for the town’s port, and picture the ochre walls of Essaouira’s medina rising up on the right – showing a glimpse of the white-and-blue theme that continues inside these old Portuguese walls.* The corniche finally ends on a large square flanked by ramparts, another large stage set up at its far end, across from the bank. On the other end – the seaside end – imagine a few evergreen trees and small kiosks, where merchants grill fish and offer simple meals of sardines and shrimp to hungry tourists. There is no more beach; the water reaches right up to a concrete wall along the sidewalk. Picture a mix of tourists and local families seated on that wall, enjoying the last light of the day, and imagine groups of boys boisterously diving into the water, one after another, their dark, wet skin glistening in the sun. Feel the wind in your hair as you head into the narrow medina streets, and smell the saltiness in the air as it mixes with the smell of grilled fish and other seafood emerging from the restaurants and ‘snacks’ that line the street. Hear the seagulls clucking to one another as they fly overhead.
Picture three tourists – an Arab, a Berber, and a Gawriya** – taking a stroll through Essaouira’s port at sundown. Dark blue wooden rowboats have already been anchored for the night, tied to another they are like a flock of ducks on the water, floating safely in a little walled basin close to the medina. Further down, larger fishing boats (likewise blue) have been moored along the single dock that comprises this port. Weathered men with browned faces and worn shirts haul the last fish from their vessels; though large and visibly heavy, they grab the silver, slippery bodies by the gills and carelessly toss them into carts waiting on shore. Along the Portuguese ramparts that protect the dock from the sea, other men – and the occasional woman – sell the day’s catch to passers-by. Sardines, crab, eels, stingrays with leopard-print skin.
The three tourists walk down the dock as it tapers to a narrow tip, braving strong winds and the pungent smell of seagull droppings. When there is no further to go, they climb the steep ramparts, a few meters in height, and stroll back toward the medina. Here and there they stop and look out over the oddly-shaped concrete breakers that prevent the waves from eating up these walls. The two men smoke a cigarette as the woman leans into the wind and watches the sunset.
Think back a day and picture a lookout point on a hill above Essaouira – your first glimpse of this sparkly city as you approach from the east. A small parking lot and protective concrete wall invite the traveler to stop for a moment and take in the view. A saddled camel or two stand off to the side – the first representative of Essaouira’s massive tourist industry ready to sell you a brief taste of southern Moroccan life. On the edge of the lookout point, close to the road, a group of touts likewise wait for tourists in search of accommodations. You will find more of them all along the road from here to the city, dangling keys in their outstretched hands and motioning the universal gesture for ‘sleeping’ – two hands joined together as though in prayer, tucked underneath a slanted cheek. But these touts at the lookout point are calm, and leave you alone. They talk amongst each other, as though they are here for a business meeting. Until another man drives up, emerges from his car, and disturbs the peace by angrily storming toward the group. After confrontationally slapping the youngest of them in the face a few times without reaction, he turns to the left and hisses something into another man’s face. This one responds: he demonstratively yanks off his baseball cap, takes off his red T-shirt, and takes on a menacing karate pose. This is the invitation the angry man has been seeking: he storms at the bare-chested man and an aggressive fight ensues. You dart to the side to avoid misdirected punches and kicks as the two men chase each other through the dirt – but you don’t get to the car entirely unscathed. As you drive off, you wonder what this might have been about – an economic competition that has crossed the line from healthy to dangerous, perhaps?
Picture a scene at a random concert – a group of brightly colored gnaoua musicians*** up on stage, swaying their heads just so, the tassels on their skullcaps effortlessly circling their head like propellers, dancers bending forwards, backwards, on the rhythm of the music. People from all walks of life seem to have gathered here this evening. You see European women in bright, revealing sundresses, and old jellaba’d men in white skullcaps. You watch dreadlocked tourists making the acquaintance of Moroccan Rastafarians as you are shoved around by overly energetic local teens. There are homeless children who try to sell single packs of tissues for a dirham each, veiled Moroccan mothers who have brought their own plastic stools to the concert, and young Moroccan girls who feel a bit intimidated by these large crowds and the cover they give to boys that are up to no good. You stand there amongst them all and watch them dance, no trace of the distance that usually separates strangers. Temporary friendships are made as Moroccan girls dance hand in hand with Dutch women, and eager local boys copy the dreadlocked Europeans who dance with an air of complete liberation. Look up: the airborne traffic of seagulls is as busy at night as it is by day. Illuminated by the street- and stage lighting, their winged bodies create a beautiful contrast against the black of the night sky.
Picture another sunset – this one on the Scala, the ramparts that protect the medina’s northern flank from the sea. Picture the ochre of the walls, highlighted by the light of the receding sun, contrasting beautifully with the deep blue of the ocean ahead. Watch families promenading up and down the ramparts, taking photographs of their children astride old canons that still stand at the ready between the turrets, keeping a watchful eye over the ocean. You reach a walled circular lookout point and hear gnaoua music, so you climb up the walkway and enter this space. Groups of local boys have gathered here to watch the sunset. They sit high atop the walls, and stand in the openings between the turrets. You spot the source of the music: on the far end, along the wall, a group of young men sits on the ground. One of them has a sintir**** and plays to the rhythm of the qraqeb, the metal cymbals that really define the gnaoua sound, worked by a few others. On either side of these musicians sits a boy, singing gnaoua melodies. You sit down and let yourself be carried away by the hypnotic tunes, and you look at their clothing – their Nike sneakers and Ed Hardy T-shirts creating an interesting contrast with this ancient-sounding music. After a few moments, you get up to look out over the water. As you climb into one of the spaces between turrets, you regard the boys sitting on the wall to your right. It is a group of them, their legs stretched out over the thick walls, backpacks protectively placed between their knees. They pass around a glass, and a plastic bottle – originally containing water, now pouring an undefined liquor. Alongside the backpacks, you notice clear plastic bags containing a brownish-green herb, and small tubes of glue.
Picture a French-run coffee bar housed in an old stone building beside the medina walls, its large patio separated from the garden beyond by pillars spaced a few meters apart. It is about eleven o’clock at night, and as you walk by you are drawn by its inviting lantern light. You take a seat on one of the tan leather couches sprawled across this space and order hot chocolate. You lean back and listen to the tribal house, played by the DJ there in the corner. You wonder how this place can exude such calm, when the music’s beat reverberates through you at maximum volume. A few daring European tourists move toward the center of the patio and begin to dance – they twist, curl, grind, and shake in perfect harmony with the DJ’s rhythms, their limbs moving so freely, yet in such perfect coordination with one another. When you peel your eyes away from them, you notice that the music has attracted a crowd – a wall of onlookers now encloses the patio. Suddenly, the dance floor fills up, local boys taking over, once again enthusiastically mirroring the wild movements of dance around them. The crowd swells and swells – people on their way to see Cheb Khaled, drawn in by the tribal rhythms just like you were. The crowd swells and swells and swells – and right when it’s at its peak, the dance floor clears out, the DJ winds down his session, and out steps a simply clad man with a large drum. Behind him, four others jump out. They are dressed in simple pants and wife beaters – all in white – and you get excited, because you see “essaouira capoeira” emblazoned on their shirts. And indeed: two by two, the men crouch, do a brief shake of hands, and jump out in a dazzling show of capoeira moves. Limbs are everywhere as they twist and turn in feigned fighting, a back-and-forth in perfect harmony, never touching another, but always keeping that tension alive.
Picture Nass el Ghiwane in performance on the beach. It is close to one AM and all of Essaouira seems to have come out for this show. Nass El Ghiwane are the Moroccan Beatles, if you will. They sang politically sensitive songs in the 70s, to the great frustration of the late King Hassan II. Though the group is no longer complete (courtesy of a few deaths), their poignant lyrics and use of traditional North African instruments and rhythms has lent them everlasting fame. Their songs are played everywhere and known by everyone – tonight, all generations are present, and all sing along with equal enthusiasm. You dance with the friends you came with and the new ones you made, joining their singing with the few lines that you know. This is the largest crowd you have seen yet at this festival, but the atmosphere is communal, friendly. Once in a while, a wave of running boys stirs the crowd – a new fight has broken out, and excited onlookers chase the brawling pair to the waterside to fight in peace. You worry a bit as the violence seems to head your way, and you look away when you spot a boy with a bloodied cheek. You wish there were more police – there are so many of them out on the road directing traffic, couldn’t they mingle in the crowd and use their authoritative air to prevent this kind of chaos?
Still, in the end - the sparkling water, starry night, and perfect music fill you with a tranquil happiness you hope to hold on for a long time to come.
* Essaouira was founded by the Portuguese, who dominated Morocco’s atlantic coast in the 17th century. Back then, Essaouira was known as Mogador, a name it briefly took on again under French colonial rule.
**A gawri (female gawriya) refers to a western foreigner.
*** Gnaoua, by the way, is technically the music of a mystical sufi brotherhood that goes by the same name. It originates from Subsaharan Africa. These days it has become a genre on its own. It is popular not only among sufi orders, but musicians from all backgrounds, and has inspired quite a few attempts at 'fusion' with other styles. I recommend Gnaoua-inspired reggae, jazz, and electronica...
**** A sintir is a sort of lute with three strings. It has the rough shape of a western string instrument.