Essaouira is the Berber name for the city the Portuguese called Mogador. It sits on the Atlantic, famous for its trade winds, named for the walls that surrounded it. Essaouira seems like onomatopoeia for the sound when the water meets the winds, fitting considering these two forces are what seem to bring most people here. It is a place where Europeans and Africans and travelers from disparate parts of the world come to surf or shop or sell their wares, or see where Jimi Hendrix supposedly wrote a song, or to hide out. It is especially good for the latter, feeling, as it does, like a place at the edge.
The Swiss owner of our riad came to Essaouira by way of the deep Sahara, where she was engaged to a Touareg nomad. She now dates the police chief. She gave us a map of the medina and highlighted the best places to eat, to shop for silver, to hang out on the beach. She circled one corner, known as the mellah, the former Jewish quarter, and warned us that it wasn’t safe. One afternoon we wandered from the shops selling camel leather backpacks and antique jewelry to a neighborhood with a guy cutting keys, a barber, a halal butcher. Further on there was nothing. Mellah means salt and one theory suggests that the Jewish ghetto was named such because it was salted earth, cursed, barren. If it wasn’t when Jews actually lived here, it certainly is now. A man began to follow us, told Ben he looks like Dylan, offered us weed, then smack. We ignored him and walked towards the medina gate, but he grabbed Ben by the shoulder. When Ben pulled his arm away and made as if to hit the guy, he ran away like a dog.
On a sunny morning the famous long beach had plenty of takers. Families with blankets and bathers in swimsuits, despite the October chill. We walked to the beach, and I slipped on the stone steps and cut my hand. A woman shrouded in black and offering henna nearby rushed over and threw a capful of water on my cut and another in my face.
We went instead to a terrace café, which overlooked the beach. A soccer game was just starting on the sand in front of us. The players in orange and green seemed to disregard the boundaries drawn in the sand. A green player kicked a dog that ran onto the field, and we began to root for the orange team. Later we saw the same green player running with two black dogs and realized he was their owner.
The game continued as we sipped our Casablanca beers when suddenly a cry coming from farther down the beach cut through the air. Strident but halting, intermittent, shrill, and accompanied by barking. The other patrons of the café were watching, too, some with horrified faces, others more bemused. The black dogs seemed to be attacking a little girl. The green player ran over to the scene with a speed he hadn’t exhibited on the field, and pulled his dogs away. He leashed them, but when he returned to the game he set them loose just as two mounted policemen rode up on their Arabians. The dogs began to bark at the horses as the policemen pursued their owner. The horses pawed at the ground and I was sure they would trample the dogs, who jumped and barked and lunged for the horses’ throats, teeth bared. One dog almost caught a jugular and the horse reared back so far that the rider fell off. The dogs chased the spooked horse until their owner ran in the opposite direction down the beach and they followed. The police seemed relieved and didn’t give chase.
On our last morning I walked from the riad to the pharmacy for band-aids. I saw a street cat gnawing on a skinned chicken head in its delicate and ferocious way. I followed behind a man pulling a handcart, a sheepskin pelt inside, which jostled so much and with such obvious weight that I realized it wasn’t a pelt but a dead sheep.
A young man sitting in front of a shop with two friends asked me as I passed, “Excuse me, are you marriage?” On my way back from the pharmacy the same man saw me and shouted, “You’re thinking about it?”
The wind, les alizées, legendary for their ability to drive people mad, is blowing hard. Robes of both men and women are flying. A basket of leather slippers for babies is upturned, the tiny shoes scattered, reminding me of that Hemingway short story. There is rock in my teeth and grit on my face. It’s hot and the wind doesn’t help because it’s hot too.
The serpentine route, as all routes are in a medina, leads through a slum. We follow the man with our luggage in his pushcart past more dead sheep in carts, as well as plenty of fat, live ones. Past a man sitting in the street with one leg up on the curb, the pant leg cut off above the knee, the shin little thicker than bone, and skinned, red and yellow-orange, the foot swollen almost to the size of his head, but his face not betraying any pain and his clothes, other than the pant leg, immaculate.
At the bus station fully shrouded women wait with their massive sheep. Other sheep are placed in cargo holds, tied to a pole, grazing among luggage. We have time to kill, so we sit at a makeshift café adjacent to the bus depot. A corrugated tin roof and tarpaulin walls protect from the sun but incubate its heat. Old men smoke and drink hot mint tea, and don’t seem to mind the heat or wind, which blows dust into their cups. The tea is served in ornate metal teapots, fresh mint leaves in hot water with a cup of sugar mixed in. One man, whose few remaining teeth are brown and worn, returns twice for extra sugar cubes.
The bus stopped at a rest stop somewhere between Essaouira and Marrakech. There were a few restaurants that ran together and a TV projected onto a wall with very loud speakers reporting on the Champions League. Wherever we were, there was free wi-fi.
“Whenever he was en route from one place to another, he was able to look at his life with a little more objectivity than usual. It was often on trips that he thought most clearly, and made the decisions that he could not reach when he was stationary.”
Paul Bowles, The Sheltering Sky