Dreams in the Desert- page 7 | Travel | Smithsonian
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Dreams in the Desert

The allure of Morocco, with its unpredictable mix of exuberance and artistry, has seduced adventurous travelers for decades


It was Orson Welles who put essaouira, my next destination, 500 miles to the west, on the cultural map. It was at this Atlantic port city, where caravans from Timbuktu once unloaded spices, dates, gold and ivory bound for Europe, that Welles directed and starred in his 1952 film version of Othello. Today the city is a center of Moroccan music and art. The four-day gnaoua (West African trance music) festival in June is one of the few cultural events in the highly stratified country that brings together audiences from all social classes. In the city where Jimi Hendrix once composed psychedelic hits, the festival sparks wildly creative jam sessions among local gnaoua masters, high-energy performers of North African rai music, and experimental jazz pioneers Randy Weston and Archie Shepp.


With its dramatic ramparts, airy, whitewashed medina, blue-shuttered houses and a beach that curves like a scimitar, Essaouira inspires tourists to stay awhile. Parisian Pascal Amel, a founder of the gnaoua festival and parttime resident of the city, and his artist wife, Najia Mehadji, invite me to lunch at the harbor to sample what they claim is the freshest food on the Atlantic coast. Surveying the row of carts groaning with red snapper, sea bream, crabs, sardines and rock lobsters, Amel tells me that small-boat fishermen bring their catch here 300 days a year, failing to appear only when it’s too windy to fish. (The city is also renowned as the windsurfing capital of North Africa.)


Najia vigorously bargains for our lunch with a fishmonger (the tab for the three of us is $13), and we join other diners at a long table. After lunch, I wander past a row of arched enclosures built into the fortress walls, old storage cellars where woodworkers now craft tables, boxes and chairs. High on the ramparts where Welles filmed Othello’s opening scenes, young Moroccans while away the afternoon astride 18thcentury cannon.


In contrast to the chaotic maze of the medinas in Marrakech and Fes, the wide pedestrian walkways of Essaouira’s old town are positively Cartesian. Laid out by French urban planner Theodore Cornut in the 18th century, the boulevards buzz with vendors selling chickens and rabbits.


Through a mutual friend, I make arrangements to meet Mahmoud Gania, one of the legendary masters of gnaoua music. Arriving in the evening at his cinder block house, I am greeted by his wife, Malika, and three irrepressible children. We sit on velvet couches, and Malika translates Mahmoud’s Arabic comments into French. Though Mahmoud’s group of five attracts thousands of fans to concerts in France, Germany, Japan and all over Morocco, traditional gnaoua ceremonies are private, all-night affairs that take place at home among family and friends. The purpose of these recitals is therapy, not entertainment. The idea is to put a person suffering from depression, insomnia or other psychological problems into a trance and exorcise the afflicting spirit; today the ritual is not used to cure serious medical ills.


About Richard Covington

Richard Covington is a Paris-based author who covers a wide range of cultural and historical subjects and has contributed to Smithsonian, The New York Times and the International Herald Tribune, among other publications.

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