Extracts from time spent in Essaouira; bursts of colour; the moments that added up to falling in love, falling out of it and finally, finding a middle ground.
She is spinning, spinning and with every twirl, as she comes to face me, I hear an explosion of laughter. The stars are high above, reflecting in her eyes- or is that just the joy shining out?
We are dancing before street performers. The reggae beat flows in and out like the waves grazing the shore just a few meters away.
She takes my hands now, this tiny Moroccan girl. Her hair is covered but her face is bright, she indicates it is my turn to twirl into the twilight. The beat quickens, we pick up the pace- clapping and skipping in time. A crowd gathers around the music now but they’re just vibrations to us, no physical limitations, their energy swells well beyond their flesh.
I am here. I am now. There is no past or future in this moment…
A tiny ball of ginger fur peaks out from a giant turquoise door. A kitten no bigger than my hand.
“Thalia!” A male voice floats behind me.
I’ve become so used to calls of ‘beautiful,’ ‘gazelle’ and ‘nice eyes’ that hearing my actual name called out surprises me, so I turn to face the voice.
He is amongst the wagons and bicycles and pedestrians all weaving their way through the chaos of blue shutters and cobble streets: my fruit man, and in his hand a bag of grapes.
He presents me the grapes, ‘For you. Want to try a fig?’ He asks in French. So I say I’ll buy some and he asks how many. I test out the dareeja (the language here) he tries to teach me every day, failing I resort back to French, but the smile on his face tells me he approves of my efforts none the less.
A few days later I buy a peach and he presents me with a book on learning Arabic. Thanks Omar.
“Good morning Miss! For you!” A long haired boy I pass everyday holds out a huge, ornate shell- A gift I don’t allow myself to accept, I don’t want to get into anything here.
The next morning the same.
Four mornings in a row before he accepts a simple “hello.”
Our bags are heavy, full of Moroccan crepes, jam, wine, fruit, water and candles. The walk down the beach feels long but none of us complain once our sights are set on our destination: Ruins in the sand dunes, back away from the shore, at the edge of the forest. Crumbling stone rising up out of the sand which has long covered its base.
“Let me just check if there are people living here and… You know, make sure it’s not a crack den.” my friend tells me as he pokes his head in holes and around corners. “All clear.”
It was a spontaneous plan: “It would be cool to sleep in those ruins.” “Let’s do it tonight.” And that was all that had to be said for us to find ourselves, two Aussie girls and a Peruvian guy, two sleeping bags between us, setting up camp in what felt like the absolute middle of nowhere.
Candles are lit and the sky promptly turns black, the stars are shy tonight, hiding behind clouds like coy eyes behind thick lashes. Laughter reaches up into the infinity beyond us as we eat and tell stories. The air is thick, drenching our clothes despite the lack of rain. Wind sets in, sweeping over the dunes: long, cold tentacles, caressing my neck. Mosquitoes swarm in abundance, leaving love bites over every inch of our exposed skin- hungry lovers. Wine flows, jam is spread. Soon, eye lids are weighted and we look to set up our sleeping bags.
Setting up we are first startled by an inconveniently placed ant nest, and second by a man sleeping soundly right behind us. We exchange glances without a word and climb out of that section of the ruins.
Taking a right we find a part of exposed ruin, covered in sand but raised off the ground: it will do. None of us slept, the cold and the itchiness and the sand everywhere made sure of that. In the morning, though, we woke to camels roaming and ate juicy peaches and knew it was worth the fatigue.
The worth of that gritty feeling of getting sand blasted all night however, was questionable.
I open my eyes wearily- late nights not mixing well with my early morning shift- and breathe in a new smell. This smell is not the usual fish from the port or of freshly baked bread… It’s smokey, wafts of charcoal dance their way through my window, I can feel the ash laying down to rest on my skin.
Stepping out side I realise what it is: sheep heads.
They are burning till they’re black as night in fires dotted throughout the medina (old city in Arabic). Freshly cut heads lay nearby, waiting in line. Blood trickles down alleys.
It’s a Muslim celebration, Eid al-Adha, the ‘sacrifice feast.’ My understanding after talking to locals is that sheep are sacrificed commemorating Abrahams’ (ibrahims’) devotion to Allah through his willingness to sacrifice his own son (which he didn’t end up doing, an angel gave him a sheep and told him to sacrifice it instead, he had already shown his faith in Allah.)
Every single bit of flesh is consumed and everyone is well aware, and respectful, of its origins. The sheep must be healthy- no bruises, no dirt. I personally choose not to eat meat, but I can at least respect this way of eating it, much more than, say, purchasing a patty at the supermarket that looks so far from the original animal you don’t have to think about where it comes from. The meat of the sheep hangs in the family home for days after the celebration until finished. The meat is shared amongst the community, the rich and the poor both enjoy a feast.
The shops are closed today, the bakery is shut. So arriving to work the cleaning lady, Naima (who has the day off) has brought over her home made bread and prepared tea… Sharing is important- my experience in Morocco has shown me that.
The sun is streaming into the Main Street of Essaouira, the wind blocked off by buildings, beads of sweat start forming on my forehead. I am in jeans and a long sleeved top. My hair is uncovered, but I feel comfortable like this amongst the mass of tourists in mini shorts and the few (but apparently increasing amount of) Moroccan women with their hair showing.
And then I am spat on.
A huge wad of spit lands on the side of my stomach, launched by an old man I didn’t react in time to see the face of. My face turns hot, I turn as soon as I can into a back alley. I remember reading about Morocco, ‘the men own the streets, the women own the homes…
She’s older than me, brunette, Italian.
“It’s good for the women. The men have to do so much more than the women. They respect the women can’t always go to the mosque. It’s okay for the women, but the men- much more is expected of them. The men are seen as higher as they have higher responsibilities than women, it’s not out of disrespect to women.”
She moved to Morocco and became Muslim three years ago.
I, looking at things with very little knowledge or understanding, found this strange. I wasn’t sure of the treatment of women in Islam and so I did some reading.
Without the time (okay, being honest, without the patience) to read the whole Qur’an, I filtered through to what I was looking for: Women. Women’s status, rights, dress.
I originally wanted to write my own thoughts about it all but decided I’m still too uneducated on the topic. These two articles though, gave me some really interesting information and clarified a lot.
Top 10 Anti-Women Qur’an Quotes, Explained
This shark is disguised with curly brown locks dangling into melty eyes, dark skin fitted in a wetsuit and a smile that’s releasing a laugh out across the water. He splashes me.
The water is ruffled like an unmade bed, the horizon is unclear as haze glides across it.
“Paddle!” He calls and so I put all the energy within me into catching this wave with him. We ride side by side, he a bit (a lot) further than I.
“Next one! Come on!” He’s laughing at me, towing me out the back by pulling on my leg rope. I dangle behind, my arms wobbly and my mind free. Wind gushes uncontrollable amounts of salt water in my mouth as I refuse to close it, my smile is too awake.
My nose ring (which I got pierced the day before) falls out in the wash of a wave. “Don’t worry you look beautiful with and without it” he reassures me.
And by the end of the day my official title (according to him) is his girlfriend.
I am so close to falling asleep on the beach and this man crouches next to me…
“You look like a mermaid.”
A kitten curls up in a big Moroccan bowl, white with grey splotches, his right eye a bit mangled.
Another cup of coffee is poured. It’s nearing 1am, aromas and spices are building and mingling and finding their way up my nostrils, my hunger levels soaring.
Patience, Tagine takes time. So we chat, listen to music, the night passes quickly once the salsa dancing begins.
And there’s about ten of us, all clambering up the stairs onto the roof terrace, a polyphony of voices; Spanish, German, English, Italian and Dareeja. We light candles, reveal the tagine from under its lid, steam drifts well above our heads into the open sky.
Bread is torn up and passed around before we, finally, dig in. Literally digging in. Bread is ripped and used to scoop up vegetables and the juices they created in lying so close to all those spices. All hands are flying to the centre of the table.
No one moves very far after we finish. One hand reaches to grab a guitar, another a drum, a tambourine. A concert of our very own tonight.
We had talked and played music while night passed, morphing into morning. It was time to go home, I lived a few blocks away.
One alley after another, winding into walls of blue and white. Two blocks away now.
“Hey can I ask you a question?”
“Can I have a kiss miss?”
The alley is already narrow and their calls are making it feel smaller still. The walls push in on me as I walk between the men lining the path.
I don’t meet their eyes. I don’t change my pace. Nearly home now.
“F*ck you, b*tch!”
It begins. The hurling of insults thrown to the back of my head… Block it out.
“Turn around b*tch!”
Keep walking. Get inside.
On a search for soup I was walking the streets with a few friends. It was nearing 10pm, Essaouira always picked up the pace at this time. It was a night city.
We were walking through crowds and from somewhere within the stream of people a hand grabbed on to my ass. I whipped my head around all to late to recognise who it was.
“Say something to him! You need to stand up for yourself and for women!” My friend told me.
And it’s true, yet I laughed it off.
“I don’t know who it was, come on don’t worry about it.”
So many times here men have hurled disrespectful slurs my way, asked for kisses and for sex as though I’m already their property. Made me feel uncomfortable as I walk around, covered from neck to feet.
And yet my defence is to ignore them. To keep my eyes confidently ahead, head tall and strides fast…
How is that helping anyone?
An Italian girl I know told me a story of when someone grabbed her like that, she ran after him and told him off. Everyone watching thought he must have stolen something the way she went after him.
I don’t like scenes or conflict. But do I dislike scenes so much that I’m willing to allow for this type of disrespect to women. It’s not just me this is affecting. Think about it Thalz.
I am talking to ibrahim, a surf instructor with long hair, a big smile and an Australian girlfriend. He is wild but kind and she is funny and sweet. We exchange a few words before I am picked up, turned upside down- hanging from his arms by my knees. He tickles me and I’m squirming trying to get free. Upright he puts me in a headlock, I try to bite his arm, he messes with my hair.
“Ibrahim!” His girlfriend reprimands,
“She needed to wake up.” He explains.
After a long surf we sit, drying off in the carpark. Eating olives, sipping tea as the sun sets. Two people playing one drum, their legs straddling it’s it rests on their feet. They are in sync but have unique rhythms, working off each other. I’m yet to meet a Moroccan without an incredible talent for tapping on things to create a perfect beat.
Just as I was beginning to fall into routine, as I was working, doing yoga, surfing, meeting with friends, watching the buskers… I ran into an old friend (isn’t it wonderful how travel turns a girl you met three times, two weeks ago into an ‘old friend.’) who gave me a very new experience.
“Claudia!” My voice rose into the dark alley. I was on my way to my bed, it was past midnight. Never mind, quick change of plans as her friend makes jewellery id probably like, he’s nice, do I want to meet him?
Yes, I’d love to.
An hour of rummaging through a whole group of artisans creations, I have met all new, beautiful people. Artists, drifters. One guy is from Mexico. He is skinny, his hair up in a bun and he’s covered in stunning tattoos- on his foot is the most incredible tattoo I’ve ever seen, all flowing curves and perfect shading and I find out later that it’s a cactus. He turns to me holding out a singing bowl, the first words we exchange:
“want to try?”
I find myself lying on the floor in the middle of the common room, I have a singing bowl on my chest, one on my stomach and one being moved about my head. My eyes are closed, ‘relax’ he tells me. As the singing starts I am taken out of that room. Self consciousness floats out of me, stresses long gone. He shows me later what water does in a singing bowl: it dances.
Laying down to sleep I know that experience was exactly what I needed. I’d been in a ditch all week, who knew it would only take a few singing bowls and a kind Mexican to pull me out of it.
I’m on my way to work. The streets are calm at 9am, just a few shops open, very few people meandering about.
‘Morning miss.’ It’s the boy who offered me the shell three weeks ago.
“Morning.” I chirp back. It’s a glorious morning.
Minutes later I turn to find he is riding his bike next to me. “Miss! It’s for you.” And he thrusts the shell into my hands. Okay, I’ll give in. The shell is so beautiful, shaped nearly like a rose.
“What is you name?”
“Thalia, and you?”
“Minet. My name is Minet.” And you wouldn’t believe the smile on his face as he stopped riding, watching me as I walked on by myself.
The sky is a mess of orange, pinks on an ever darkening backdrop of blue. People are milling, children running about
We are at the port, one of the towns main attractions.
“Can we sit there?”
“yea, these are everyone’s boats. Come on.”
So we sit in a tiny boat with only the stars above us, I continue to practice my dareeja. We walk amongst the mess of fish guts and in between the stalls selling all types of seafood. It smells.
“The seagulls clean this up every day.”
And it’s genuinely relaxing, time spent together where I’m not constantly questioni what he wants from me. He leaves only asking if we can meet tomorrow, to which I reply “insha’allah”
A mumma kitten lays down, four minature kittens curl up by her stomach, plonking down on top of one another.
The drive from sidi kawki to Essaouira as the sun sets is magical. The goats are climbing Argan trees as the sun sets over the ocean, well beyond the fields between the road and the beach. The shore line is visible, lit up by the low hanging sun. It’s the silver lining, peace is found within that ocean amongst the chaos that sometimes weaves itself into the narrative of a life made in Essaouira.
I have a weird feeling. Sometimes I walk down these alleys with absolute adoration. I am completely at the hands of this town, it could swallow me up and I couldn’t be happier to live in its very core. Other times, I am uneasy or frustrated beyond belief. Many of my Moroccan friends here ask my why I’m always walking around with a scowl on my face. The city walls seem to push in on me, there is no chance of anonymity in this town.
The times I’m able to over look the towns flaws are glorious. Good things happen and I can’t stop a smile spreading.
To which men call “nice smile beautiful!” And I immediately find the will to suppress it.
A middle space; A space of indifference. Where I can walk around, say hello to new friends and keep walking. Where I can dance to buskers without a care. Where I can accept gifts of language books and shells without guilt. Where I can do yoga alone and eat breakfast in a group. Where I can let relationships form and watch them crumble so dramatically, and not be scathed.
That is the space to reside in, to keep from falling out of love with Essaouira. “Just friends.”