Italian Cuisine World Summit in Dubai this November

Wednesday, 21 May 2014

Haunted Travel! - Essaouira, The City of Opposites

Essaouira Coast photo by Georges Atallah

 They say that a city that is hundreds of years old has a spirit; one that holds the spirits of all those whose life came to a full cycle there! But what if those spirits' lives came to an abrupt end, too soon? Does that necessarily mean doomed to being HAUNTED?!!


 Essaouira, the city of opposites! The beautiful, the ugly; the light, the dark; the open and touristy, the closed and private; the alive, the haunted; the full, the empty; the happy and the grim... Essaouira strikes you with its beauty and vacation mode that it instantly puts you in, then stuns you with its grim, darker side that blows on you in the form of a chill down your spine as it turns into a complete freak show at night! Yes, I am absolutely aware of what am describing, and I am not one of those believers in other presences and the phenomenal, supernatural world within ours! However in Essaouira, you can't help but be made to think about these because the stories, the symbology and rituals... are all over the place. And all this happened in only 3 days! I loved it when I got there, and could not wait to leave it when I did. To me, 3 days were way more than enough! Here is a recount of that experience!

Once we reached Essaouira, I felt so happy. It has a very pleasant feel to it, more than any other city in Morocco, and at first glance you feel very familiar. Like a typical touristic city on the coast, you instantly experience a shift in your brain that screams: "Vacation!" A line of open restaurants - offering the best ever seafood, straight from the ocean, surrounded by green trees everywhere and overlooking the coast - greets you as soon as you get there. Then an old gated city to your right, where tourists are flocking in. Looks very promising and I can't wait to get inside that gate and explore every inch! We lunched at those amazing seafood restaurants and appreciated being out in that amazing sunny day after being stuck on the road for a few hours. As soon as lunch was over we head towards the old city, and typically it is beautifully aged, rusty, with all things looking antique and a few modernised and hip joints greet you as you stroll down its narrow alleys.  On either side of the walls, dangling fabrics of every which colour you can dream of, with the familiar Moroccan patterns stir back at you as you walk. I and my lens are loving this beauty, the colour, the shade and the sun. I could not stop snapping photos, everything was so easy on the eye, that I unwittingly wanted to capture for ever. Rugs, pillow cases, pashminas, and many a traditional Moroccan hooded coats and leather loafers are ever where your eye turns, covering the old, peeled and rusted original walls of the city. A contrast that in day light looks so pretty and alive.








The Cafes and bistros with shaded entrances and chalkboard menus are seducing your just-filled appetite to go in and sneak a bite... tourists crowding every shop, and every alley along with cats and sea gulls, the place is full of life, where everyone is either buying or selling, and in my case, capturing every moment. By the time we reached the Riyadh, my brain was already intoxicated with colours, patterns, and all the interesting exchanges and interactions taking place in those alleys. I had heard lots about Riyadhs in Morocco, and how they are a 'must experience', I was finally going to experience one firsthand. The Riyadh is very different to any place I ever stayed in during any of my travels, and I highly recommend you stay at one in Morocco instead of a hotel, because it really allows you to experience the authentic Morocco and introduces you to the culture, cuisine and lifestyle way better than an intercontinental experience. Riyadhs are very similar to boutique hotels, very homely, with very few rooms, a house kitchen, and a feel of exclusiveness and community rather than stranger accommodation. I loved the very feminine pink, Victorian floral room I was given. Victorian yet very specifically Moroccan with all the Talasem art hung on the white walls, along with a large wooden window that once opened makes the room feel like a terrace, bringing in sharply nippy wind contrasted by the warmth of the afternoon sun.
(here are some photos of the Riyadh)

Lobby
The rooms, 1-3 in every floor 
Room

Talasem Art
View from Room
 We head out for the rest of the day, going about our business, carrying on with the shoots and savouring the beauty of this curious city.

Before you know it, the day is over and the slightly shaded yet over exposed alleys start to turn darker, and by the time it is fully night, they are barely lit. Arched Alleys with yellowish overhead lights very scattered, each barely covering a square meter, the rest is pitch dark. It is not long until you are literally the only one roaming around, it seems that in a blink, everything is tucked away, doors are locked and people just suddenly disappear, except for the occasional hooded person swifting by so suddenly. In the absence of light and all the decorative merchandise being all tucked away, the walls start revealing their true age and a sense of weariness is all over, very melancholic and somewhat grim! A complete metamorphosis takes place in less than two hours, changing this vibrant, colourful, alive beauty of a city into its aged, lonely and sepiad beastly twin. Despite coming from the same origin the two have nothing to do with one another!

Regardless, we walked on until we got to the Riyadh. There, we had a banquet of tagines and other local appetisers. An amazing feast of local foods, that no one remembered the dark reality outside the doors of the Riyadh. We ate, laughed felt merry in the presence of some local people, the owners and staff of the Riyadh, along with a few other Moroccans who were part of the production team... After dinner we were all talking about the difference between night and day in Essaouira, and there started all the inside stories about the common belief that Essaouira has a dark spirit! Essaouira as it turned out, was once upon a history overtaken by pirates. These pirates wreaked havoc all over the city for years and years. Many people were killed, abused, hurt and so on, and it is believed that the spirits of those people haunt the city!! Essaouira, as we were told, was also the place in Morocco that is known for black magic! In fact, not only do people believe and practice that magic, but as described, practitioners from all over the place come to Essaouira to learn the practice on the hands of the Masters!!! There are rituals, and closed events, where an animal is sacrificed to summon the four spirits in practice of this Voodoo, black or Sihir as the references are to this type of exercise!

The darker side of Morocco

I could not believe what I was hearing! It felt like one of those scary camp nights, when everyone gathers around the fire, with the torch lights against their faces and telling scary stories as a form of thrill! I could not believe that while we all know those scary stories are entertainment on a bored night, I was experiencing the real deal with people who actually believe in this ever so fully! Some, even practicing too! Essaouira is windy, and extremely cold. There is no heating system in the Riyadh except a fire place at the corner. I don't know whether it was the cold, the drifts of wind passing through the cracks or the stories, but I could feel a chill that made me uneasy! (I am not suggesting a presence here, merely saying cold and slight anxiety in reaction to what's been said are the reason I felt that way!)

The stories went on, and got more incredible as we went, from a mad woman, or spirit of a woman roaming the forrest nearby. To production teams being forcefully expelled out of shoot locations for disturbing the spirits haunting the caves... And the spirit of a young girl, haunting the Riyadh and crying in the corner for the loss of her father or someone she loved (can't really remember the details)... have heard so much about magic and Morocco, and know that many people believe this stuff...  I was wondering when was it all going to come out, and almost reached a point where I thought so the whole Magic, Spirits, Djin, Sihir and so on where just rumors about Morocco... But not in Essaouira, in Essaouira, I met the stories of this phenomenality. Yet I must admit, that while it made me slightly uneasy, and anxious at times, I do not believe in presences. I think that when we hear such stories we are bound to stop and at least consider them, but I cannot believe phenomenon until I actually encounter one, which of course never happened! However, it did affect my sleep, I was weary all the time (the whole mood is just too dark for me). Despite being exhausted, I mean we were working the schedules like no tomorrow, however the freezing cold unheated room, the stories and the weariness had kept me up and when I blinked gave me terrible dreams!!!

Essaouira at night
Creepy!!

Typical Essaouira, being a the city of Opposites as I refer to it, the ladies at the Riyadh wanted to counterpart all the horror movie mood that was going on, they arranged a Sufi night for us. Sufi nights are nights spent, reciting prayers (like when you pray for someone, or ask that good happens to you or someone else), reciting Islamic themed songs, and at times even reciting verses from the Quran. However all done in more like a singing, coupled with the occasional Sufi twirling and dancing. Sufi orders differ in their rituals from one place to another, but in essence they all believe in a love relationship with God and devotion in all that is said and done to God. In Morocco, Sufi evenings are done to bring in the good and expel the bad; to generate positive energy and to protect one's self, loved ones and home from any harm. That night was also quite an experience. I have attended sessions for many a Sufi orders, during my travels, and am generally fascinated by the discipline in all its variations, however, I have never been to a Moroccan Sufi session. It was unique, however more similar to the Egyptian style Sufi practice than that of the Levant and Turkey. Our moods were elevated, everyone was feeling very positive. We danced, sang, sent out prayers and rays of light for ourselves and the ones we love. Some even got served with ritualistic prayers to bear children, get married, succeed... and so on!

Moroccan Sufi Session

Moroccan Sufi Session in Essaouira





























In the end, Essaouira was highly interesting. Beautiful then metamorphosed, when I first stepped there, I had no idea it was going to turn out the way it did! It introduced me to Morocco's dark side as well as Morocco's brighter side! A true contradiction in every sense. It was massively charged with so many emotions, and very much like a roller coaster ride! Believer or not in any of the Essaouira maddness, the city will charm you and won't allow you to feel like it was just another ordinary city. Perhaps it's spirit is so unique that we could only explain it as being haunted!!!

Loved it, hated it, appreciated the "new" in that experience, but was very happy to leave it when I did! 3 days, were more than enough for me to say: "Been there, done that, and that is that!"


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