Essaouira is a Morocco unlike any Morocco I’ve yet seen.
The cozy beach town differs in almost every way from the sprawling alleyways of Sale and Rabat, the impossibly high rock faces of the High Atlas, and the endless sand, sand, sand of rural Skoura that I’ve come to know and love. This is a town dubbed the “Moroccan Woodstock” for its annual Gnaoua Music Festical, and frequented by free-spirits and tourists who seek adventure and laid-back vibes. Everything that is familiar to me of Morocco – Essaouria is not.
Essaouria is, instead, where the spirit and triumph of art lives, and finds home in cobbled alleyways in artisans who devote their life to craft. The busy streets of Essaouria are lined with intricate wood cravings, dazzling jeweled items, shiny goods for days – and the masters of these trades seated patiently atop wooden stools nearby, offering passerby’s a “Moroccan price” with a toothy grin.
I’ve spent the better part of my days observing these masters at work. A master wood-carver by the name of Hajjoub kindly opened his workshop for us, and allowed us to apprentice with his tools and precious thuya wood. When not clinking bits of wood with metal tools, the rest of my time is a smattering of beach-lying and lazy wanderings down cobbled roads, sampling sights, smells and of course, the occasional (or very frequent) crepe. There is a strange and soothing mist that seems to settle above the minds and souls of the peoples that live and work here.
All said, my experience in Essaouira and its beach town cousin, Sidi Kaoki has been a delight, but decidedly different from the rest of my Moroccan experience. At first, it was almost disorienting to find myself standing on Sidi Kaoki’s shores after a week in desert-like Skoura. I felt as if I had left Morocco and found myself trapped between wind-surfers and ocean breeze. Everything is so different here, I thought.
And yet, some things persisted. The ubiquitous smell of tajines and halwa chebakia – a Ramadan food – greets the senses even in Essaouira. The traditional Arabic as-SalÄmu `Alaykum greeting piques the ears in between hello’s and bonjour’s uttered by European tongues. So much is the same. The warm hospitality so distinctive of Morroco and so persistently Moroccan lives here, too. It’s found on buses, tucked behind crooked alleyways, and in the eyes and wide-toothed smiles of a local passerby. Essaouira is a reminder that the diversity that so defines Morocco, a nation that sits at the crossroads between so many cultures, ideas, and foreign influences, is real and alive. In that way, Essaouira is simply another distinctly Moroccan town with its own unique heritage and space. The town is simply other face of Morroco that I’ve come to know and grown to love.