On the powerful allure of Essaouira

Nicholas Woodsworth (from Financial Times)

- "In Essaouira many things are a mystery.
- Along with the light cast down come the faint sounds of the ocean pounding against the rocks.
- This is a secretive place, full of endless, half lit, covered passageways, blank walls, constricted alleys, stone-carved doorways, emblazoned with unintelligible signs and symbols.
- Surrounding it all are thick, high defensive walls and towers, beyond which the Atlantic surges and crashes against saw-toothed rocks.It is damp everywhere, heavy with an ocean air that flakes whitewash, crumbles plaster, erodes stone. Essaouira built as a trading port only 200 years old, looks 1000.

- More secretive than its streets are Essaouira's inhabitants. Monk -like , their faces obscured beneath high, pointed hoods, men clad themselves in dark, flowing burnouses . More mysterious still, their women are concealed from head to toe in ghostly white robes and black veils, leaving nothing but a narrow slit for eyes heavy with kohl.

- They glide through humid streets and passages like mute and disembodied wraiths, appearing suddenly in a shaft of light, disappearing again. Is it simple imagination? Over the dank town, faint but perceptible, hang disquieting suggestions, airs of sinister portent. What unnamable things happen, Iwonder, in the blind corners of Essaouira's alleys and behind its doors ?...

- "Madame Jeanne has been coming to Essaouira for almost 20 years. This eerie lost windblown place is her second home, a retreat from the arid and formal lecture halls and classrooms of her native Paris. Does the cold logic of political economy suit madame Jeanne? Perhaps. She has been teaching it for a lifetime . But Essaouira , exercising its own odd, peculiar power, draws something other than logic from her and everyone else who spends time here".

- "I first meet madame Jeanne at the little book shop on the Place Moulay EL Hassan, the square lively tree shaded, presents Essaouira's most comforting and familiar face. Here at the cafe of the hotel BEAU RIVAGE, at Chez Driss, the pastry shop, at tea restaurant Essalam, among sun -splashed, white-washed walls and blue painted doors, the atmosphere is holiday-island Greek. This is the sunny and insouciant Essaouira of the windsurfers, the backpackers, the tourists who come for the vast sweep of beach and the cool, incessant summer winds. It is a thin veil which, like the back goes covering the faces of Essaouira's women, hides a deeper life beneath".

- "What is it, I ask. The luminosity of the sea air? The isolation ? The enigmatic inhabitants? The strange beauty of a place crumbling, maze-like encircled by walls and battered by winds? I do not know. Even the usually down -to-earth Guide Michelin does not know. It calls Essaouira "insaisissable" -ungraspable- a place-where everything contributes to open the sense of poetic perception and reverie".

- "This has always been a place of mystics, of secret brotherhoods, arcane rituals and spiritual mysteries. As invisible and omnipresent as the wind, their influence swirls and eddies through every corner of Essaouira".

- "With sky dark above us now and the stars out, madame Jeanne talks into the evening of the Essaouira Regregras, an arabian sect which commemorates the coming of the seven saints of the prophet Mohammed to Morocco; visiting forty holy sites nearby it assists in the fecundation, through magic and ecstatic trance of earth and sea".

- "Moslem mysticism is not the only kind in Essaouira"(....) , there are also Gnaoua, descendants of black slaves driven of the Sahara, who brought with them the rite of African animism. They take their music and faith-healing to the community at large; in the privacy of their sanctuary near the sea walls they celebrate darker rites- possession by supernatural beings who animate their souls and bodies".

- "The Aissaoua brotherhood- mystic poets, drummers, and totemic animal mines; the Hamadcha confrerie-ecstatic dancers who through acts of self-mutilation make supplication to the devil-goddes Aicha Kandisha; the Talmudic cabals of the Moroccan Jews who long lived here- there are more secrets , more mysteries here than I would care to penetrate".