Saturday, 24 September 2011

Ports, Potters and the Portuguese

Morocco's Atlantic Coastline

Originally published in Khaleej Times WKND Magazine, 08/07/11

A salty wind is blowing from the west. The broad, white-capped sweep of the Atlantic stretches away along a fading coastline, and the blue sky is full of bone-white seagulls. I am standing on the corner bastion of the walled Portuguese quarter of the Moroccan port of El-Jadida. Below me the madcap jumble of the town stretches towards a distant line of palm trees, the honey-cultured sandstone glowing in the bright morning sunlight.
Morocco’s Atlantic coast is a world of wind, waves, fresh sardines and fiery sunsets. When the summer heat of the imperial cities of the interior gets too much, generations of travellers have headed west to catch the breeze, in towns steeped in maritime history.
For the past decade Essaouira, due west of Marrakesh, has been the Atlantic getaway of choice. But with ever larger hordes of sightseers clogging its white alleyways, those with a little more imagination are searching out quieter spots.
I have come to Morocco to explore a string of lesser known seaside towns, three alternative Essaourias that are nonetheless just a short hop from Marrakesh or Casablanca. My first stop is El-Jadida.
Below the ramparts I enter a tortuous network of tangled alleyway. The walled quarter is known today as the Cité Portugaise, though the Iberian incomers who built the place in 1506 knew it as Mazagan. They had chosen a spot where a kink in the long line of the Moroccan coast provided shelter for ships, come to load up with the produce of all North Africa.
The Portuguese held Mazagan for two and a half centuries, but in 1769 the Alawite sultan Mohammed ben Abdallah evicted them and built a sprawling medina outside the walls, dubbing it El-Jadida, “the New”. The old quarters were abandoned until the 19th Century when Jewish settlers from other coastal towns moved in.
Today it is a place where sunshine falls in molten pools, a cubist cityscape of pastel tones where weathered doorways open to elaborately tiled stairwells. Pink geraniums sprout from windowsills and black cats lounge in the heat. I wander between light and shade, dodging dead ends and ducking under crooked archways. Here and there I catch a tantalizing whiff of cooking from a shuttered window.
A handful of old townhouses have been turned into boutique guesthouses, and foreigners and middle class Moroccans scared off by the soaring prices for medina properties in Essaouira and Marrakesh have started hunting out El-Jadida bargains in recent years. But for now this is still a quiet place, and I am the only visitor when I explore the Citerne Portugaise, a church-like underground chamber of vaulted arches and shimmering water, originally built as a reservoir. It was for the surviving gems like this that UNESCO declared El-Jadida a World Heritage Site in 2004.
El-Jadida’s post-independence fortunes have been based in part on its dark-timbered fishing fleet. A short walk from the Portuguese gateway, and close to the entrance to the port, I find an enclosed courtyard where rival stalls serve up platters loaded with freshly-landed seafood for bargain prices. I opt for five salty sardines grilled over charcoal with a hunk of bread and a bowl of coriander-scented tomato sauce for the princely sum of Dh10.
The following day I make the short hop up the coast to the smaller town of Azzemour. Many Moroccan cities have their own color schemes; if Marrakesh’s is earthy red, and El-Jadida’s is honeyed yellow, then Azzemour’s is white and blue.
The medina here was also built by the Portuguese, but today it is a sleepy backwater. Casablanca lies just an hour to the north, however, and hidden behind heavyset medina doors there are a few stylish guesthouses here too. There are also dozens of artist’s studios, and the stark white color scheme of Azzemour is broken with bright splashes of color – murals daubed on blank walls by resident painters.
Elsewhere a crumbling Portuguese citadel looks out over the white roofs, a handful of cannons dotting the ramparts like beached whales, their carriages long since rotted out from under them. There is a strange kind of melancholy to these former Portuguese possessions which dot the world’s foreshores from Morocco to East Timor, the remnants of an empire of outposts.
The potter lifts another simple, uncast cup from the rack and with a few deft flicks of a wooden cutter he has sliced a tiny star-shaped hole in the creamy clay and paired it to a crescent moon puncture. Swiftly he begins to repeat the motif all over the smooth surface. He can turn out 150 of these pieces in a day he says casually, without looking up from his work.
From Azzemour and El-Jadida I have travelled 150 kilometers south down a stark coastline to another little-visited port, Safi, and now, just outside its bulky walls, I am exploring its most intriguing neighborhood – a hillside potters’ quarter. I am being shown through the process by a tall, lean potter named Mohammed – “Like the Sultan,” he says with a grin, meaning Mohammed VI, Morocco’s current king; “But not the Sultan of Morocco – the Sultan of the potteries!”
It is amongst the warren workshops and wood-fired kilns here – clustered around the white shrine of a local saint, Sidi Abdurrahman, patron of the potters – that the unmistakable Moroccan ceramics that show up in gift-shops and on restaurant tables all over the country are made. Clay is brought in from local quarries before being kneaded – by foot. Pots, plates, and all manner of other crockery are then crafted, decorated and double fired.
The potteries rose to prominence in the 18th Century after artisans arrived from the royal city of Fez. However, Safi’s modern ceramics owe their reputation to one man. In 1918 the Algerian-born, French-trained potter Boujemaa Lamali settled here, teaching local apprentices, reviving old patterns and color schemes, and pioneering motifs which have now become Moroccan standards.
The yellow and black plate I buy from one of the stalls after bidding goodbye to Mohammed features the classic olive kernel design, a Lamali invention.
Like the other towns I have visited, Safi was once a Portuguese outpost. But they were only here for 33 years, and they did little more than build a sturdy fortress, the Dar el Bahar, knock down all of the Almohad Grand Mosque except its minaret, and start work on a cathedral, which was never finished, and which the returning Moroccan forces subsequently turned into a hammam. The caretaker, who shares a name with the Saint of the Potters – Abdurrahman – points out to me the spot where the roof vaulting is still stained by the smoke from the charcoal used to heat the bathwater.
But despite the tit-for-tat mistreatment of houses of worship, Abdurrahman explains, Safi was long a place of tolerance. The Jewish communities of other Moroccan towns were confined to their own ghetto quarters, known as mellahs, but here they lived amongst their Muslim and Christian neighbors.
Today most of the Jews and Christians have gone, but there are still quiet corners, and in the evening the little paved square at the seaward edge of the medina fills with food stalls like a miniature version of Marrakesh’s iconic Djemaa el Fna. Unlike in Marrakesh, however, and unlike in Essaouira, just two hours down the coast, there is hardly another tourist to be seen.
I eat a tasty dinner of merguez – Moroccan beef sausages spiced with paprika and served up in a hunk of fluffy bread – from one of the stalls, and then make my way to the Corniche, a cliff-top walkway south of the old town. A pale moon is slipping up above the white rooftops, and an amber sun is sliding down in the opposite direction over the wind-chased Atlantic. Whirling flocks of black-winged swifts are dancing in the clear air.
This is the end of my Atlantic excursion, and tomorrow I’ll make the three-hour trip inland across the blistering plains to the hustling heat of Marrakesh. Maybe one day people will be proclaiming El-Jadida, Azzemour and Safi, “spoilt” and “too touristy”, but for now, I decide, they make a fine seaside sidestep off Morocco’s beaten tracks…
© Tim Hannigan 2011

No comments: