Claire Harris shares a moment of Morocco as two locals show her, past the parties, past the music, life as they wait for it to take them elsewhere.
I moved through a tangle of dark alleys criss-crossing under painted-blue buildings down to the crowded main square of Essaouira, Morocco.
The small fishing town on the coast of Morocco was an explosion of blue. Blue skies hovered over blue boats moored in the blue water lapping at the crumbling walls of the old city, where half a million tourists – and I – were gathered at the annual Gnawa music festival.
This was where I met Karim and Rafik for the first time, at a blue table in the Cafe de France, surrounded by fire-twirlers, dancers, musicians and the occasional monkey.
“Do you know the poet T S Eliot?” Rafik asked me.
Tall and gaunt, every bit of Rafik moved at odds with the rest of him, from the jutting cheekbones of his thin face to the tips of his fingers, which, as he spoke, flung out in wide expressive gestures then curled into themselves like a cartoon villain.
“I grow old, I grow old…” he began to recite, then stopped and said, “In Morocco, we just grow old.”
The smell of hashish wafted our way as the muezzin prayer call reverberated faintly around the old city walls and men wrapped in hooded djellabas pushed through festival-goers hurrying to the mosque. A Berber in the blue robe of the desert nomads walked by, his arm draped around the shoulders of a much older European woman.
Beside Rafik, sat Karim, his eyes fixed on the joint he was rolling between his fingers in one hand and the coffee spoon he fiddled with in the other, a black cowboy hat pulled down deep over his brow. Finished rolling, he reached for his guitar and began plucking its strings lovingly, playing Blowing in the Wind in English then in Arabic, his eyes closed and his slow voice stumbling over the words in the same easy way he stumbled most nights to the bar.
“Music is your only friend,” he said, “until the end.”
Often his spoken words were lyrics, as if he failed to notice when the music stopped. Karim said that Bob Dylan was the only one who understood him.
A man in a red turban approached the table, holding out a stack of Jamaican Rastafarian hats for sale – red, yellow and green with fake dreadlocks attached. In the corner, some young Essaouris with real dreadlocks and Che Guevara t-shirts were singing Bob Marley, accompanied by the clackety-clack of Moroccan cymbals. Beside them, a group of English women squabbled loudly in their floral dresses and leapt out of the path of a troop of Casablancan skateboarders sporting mohawks and face piercings. A Moroccan lady, her face covered by a grey hijab, danced and clapped her hands as the musicians moved through the square, banging on tablas and tambourines, red fezzes twirling, black cloaks with “Coca-Cola” inscribed on them in pseudo-Arabic letters, swirling as they played.
I spent most of my life, doing nothing. Just waiting to leave. We’re all doing nothing except for waiting, and what’s our excuse?
Karim and Rafik were from Casablanca, but came to Essaouira every summer to laze away their afternoons in the cafes and nights on the beach. When the weather was warm and tourists were plentiful, they could eke out a living playing music – enough to afford a small room, coffee, whiskey and hash. Karim, who usually carried around his most-prized books – the Koran and Jack Kerouac’s On The Road – also worked at the Sofitel hotel, singing 1960s American folk music for wealthy tourists.
Not coincidentally, it was in the ’60s and ’70s that Essaouira experienced its first boom of tourism. The hippies led the way, fuelled by beat novels and folk songs. Jimmy Hendrix famously bought a house in a neighbouring village to Essaouira and created an instant tourist destination, still advertised loudly by camel-drivers along Essaouira beach offering “authentic Hendrix tours.”
French colonialism had a lasting impact in Morocco long after it ended half a century ago, but the gap left by the French began to be filled with the creation of a new identity: the hippy.
“We are free,” the Moroccan hippies told me time and again, in the carpet shops, on the beach, in the cafes. “Like the birds and the fishes, we are free.”
Tourists strolled the painted streets, stopping to wonder at windows filled with jewellery, handiworks made from silver, leather and thuya wood while the shop-owners sat on stools outside their shops calling out to passers-by, “Special price, just for you my friend!”
Forty years of colonialism means many in Morocco speak French, but now in Essaouira they also speak English – as well as a smattering of other languages; German, Spanish, Japanese, Korean. Essaouira’s second tourism boom in the ’90s saw many young workers move from the traditional industries of fishing and carpentry to seek out work as guides, hotel receptionists, bartenders and souvenir-sellers.
Seated at the table across from us in the Cafe de France, a young British woman introduced us to her Moroccan fiancé who she’d met in a bar two weeks earlier.
“I’m bringing back the ultimate souvenir,” she giggled, clutching her fiancé’s hand as he drew on his joint and looked at the other tourist women passing by. “Tall, dark and handsome – what more could you want?”
Karim and Rafik watched their friends disappear one by one from Essaouira – married to Europeans, Americans, Australians. They, too, were dreaming of leaving, but were both nearing thirty, and in a decade of drinking coffee in Essaouira, it hadn’t happened yet.
When the festival finished, Karim and Rafik went on measuring their afternoons in coffee spoons. The music was over, the crowds had disappeared from the square, the tables were empty, the camels vanished from the beach and their owners spurred them on to wherever the tourists were headed next. Only a few stragglers or newcomers still perused the unfurled wares while the shop-owners continued to sit on stools sipping sweet mint tea.
Rafik and Karim told me they were thinking about going back to Casablanca. We were drinking coffee again, watching the sea as it crashed gently before a group of muscular Essaouiris practising capoeira on the beach. Karim was scribbling “I gotta get outta here mama” on some papers of scrawled poetry and sheet music.
He turned to me slowly, “I spent most of my life, doing nothing. Just waiting to leave.”
He must have been thinking heavily because he was still flicking the butt of his joint and hadn’t yet reached for his papers to roll another one.
“We’re all doing nothing except for waiting, and what’s our excuse?”
Finally, he stubbed out the butt in the overflowing ashtray.
Rafik then stretched out his arm and waved it gently back and forth in exactly the same way I would see him do it countless times.
“I grow old, I grow old…”