Daydreaming in Essaouira

Text & Photos by Farah S. Kamal

I instantly fell in love with Essaouira when I first set foot in this indigo-and-white coastal town to attend a conference in Marrakech.

As a part of the cultural experience, I had to spend a day in this little charming town on Morocco’s Atlantic coast along with a group of friends and colleagues. The easy, slow day was by all means a refreshing change from the fast pace life of Marrakech. Being a frequent traveller of Morocco, I concluded that Essaouira’s gentle charm makes it one of the most laid-back places of the country.

A two-and-a-half hour bus ride from Marrakech took us to this multicultural town. Looking around the mystic-walled city, I found a unique intermingling cultural influence of Portuguese, Berbers, Jews, Dutch and French reminding the history of invasions, colonisation and trade routes that this place is a witness of. And one comes across French sophistication from the days of the protectorate, geometric Arab art and the romance of the nomadic Berber tribes.

A French architect designed the Medinah of Essaouira on a grid system, thus the name Es-Saouira – meaning the beautifully designed, also known by its earlier Portuguese name “Mogador”.

The long stretch of beach and a harbour with an open-terrace seating overlooking the sea, had an instant calming effect. It is here that we stopped for early lunch at a restaurant, while I inhaled and filled my lungs with the salty sea breeze and relaxed on my chair, exactly what the city is popular for.

The fun part

All those around me were engaged in surfing, kiteboarding and windsurfing, while others were riding camels, flying kites, as the musicians and singers roamed around entertaining the onlookers with their traditional performances.

It was perhaps the right setting to enjoy a hearty seafood meal which was a big platter of a variety of freshly caught fish and seafood fried to perfection. This combines almost all my favourite things in life – an amazing blend of vibrant and quiet at the same time. I thought how lucky I am to be able to chase my dreams of exploring and photographing people, places and cultures.

All refreshed after a satisfying meal, my photographer-friend and travel buddy geared up with our cameras and set off wandering around Essaouira’s walled medina (old town).

The remnants of Portuguese era

A UNESCO World Heritage Site dating back to the 18th century, the place is still surrounded by a huge stone fortress with several impressive gates overlooking the harbour built by the Portuguese in 1506 and sand coloured rampant to prevent invaders from entering the town. We walked in through one of the gates Bab Al Dahar and were delighted to see the fishermen returning back to shore on their brightly coloured fishing boats. We stopped by and watched them sorting out the days catch, as the big white Gulls swirled low in the air above them.

After a few shots of this beautiful sight we continued walking and found ourselves in the middle of a cheerful crowd.

A Kasbah forbidden for cars, buses

At this Kasbah, the life as it happens is all out there to capture, candid on the streets for us to explore, experience and preserve in our cameras. With cars and buses not allowed here, I enjoyed admiring the Arab-styled doors and windows on the houses around.

We strolled through various interconnecting narrow lanes with whitewashed walls with local craftsman busy in their crafts, proving to be excellent subjects for photography.

The Souk

The bustling and colourful life at the souk is well preserved – be it the fresh produce carts, fragrance of mint leaves, spices and quaking chickens.

I walked pass the colourful stalls that were selling carpets, jewelleries and handcrafts. However, I found these vendors less assertive than anywhere else in Morocco and more open to being photographed as we listened to their stories.

Reaching the little square Moulay Hassan, someone came riding a bicycle as an odd mule-driven cart passed by, while men wearing bright robes were seen sipping mint tea outside colourful carpet shops ready to strike a conversation.

Spotting Salman Khan

While strolling around the Bab Doukkala there was a sudden rush as a small crowd gathered. My gaze crossed a familiar face for a fraction of a second as I mumbled ‘he looks so familiar’. My travelling aide gasped and said he is “Salman Khan”. What!! I looked back and at the crowd; and yes, indeed it was Salman Khan, who was shooting with the crew for Tiger Zinda Hai.
For all the Game of Thrones fans, the exciting fact is that Essaouira is the setting from where Daenerys Targaryen purchased her army of soldiers.

Calling it a day

We relaxed at a cute little café decorated with brilliant carpets and wall hangings while enjoying cake and coffee.

Later on, looking at the days shoot, I noticed that despite European influence, Essaouira still holds its magical Arabian Nights charm.