‘Historic palace in the Medina at Essaouira anyone?’
AT the long security baggage check in departures, I found myself surrounded by a stag party from Kettering, embarking upon three days of alcoholic oblivion. Lively young lads all, they were colleagues working in fraud prevention. The banks, you understand, having bullied us into using their wretched online colanders, must now employ entire squads, at our expense, to mop up the leaks of their own creation. We were at Luton, which is like an airport, only more rubbish.
‘Join us, why don’t you?’ asked my neighbour in the queue, who happened to be a dwarf. He held national bravery awards, he told me, after enduring a series of horrible spinal operations. ‘We’re gonna be dressing up, all of us, as Pamela Anderson and annihilating Magaluf.’
André Gide decreed: ‘Don’t write down your life as you’ve lived it. Live your life as you would like it to be written down.’ As much as I’d adore to record that I spent this week dressed as Pamela Anderson, hog-whimpering on the Majorcan strip with a group from Kettering, my own flight was Morocco-bound.
Historic palace in the Medina at Essaouira, anyone? A bargain at £200,000. I’ve been trying to flog it, on behalf of a friend, for four years. Only now has it finally shifted—perhaps because of atrocities against tourists in other North African countries or, perhaps, because I haven’t been trying very hard.
However, the lofty rooms of the Caid Yussif Dijjy have finally been emptied of furniture. Bougainvillea petals rustle protectively around the fountain as I turn it off. Sunlight scalds the white terraces far above, yet, down here, it’s dappled by the harem screens carved from local thuya wood. Fluttering doves are the only occupants now and, without the trickling fountain, the wail of a distant muezzin calling Ramadan is the only sound.
Outside the riad, in the souk, the streets of Essaouira are prospering. Direct flights from the UK have enabled a striking restoration of the ramparts, built by Théodore Cornut, a French military architect, in the 1760s, which rear up against the Atlantic. They’re extending the harbour, too—insha’allah, for yachts, although I fear the arrival of cruise ships. Still, no stag parties, mercifully, as alcohol is prohibitively expensive in southwest Morocco. The alley cats look sleeker, now, after a couple of vets from Brighton set up a charity in the town to inoculate them. Meanwhile, Tesco 4G reaches deep into the surrounding wilderness.
The Corniche has been rebuilt. This boulevard sweeps around the bay and leads to the endless miles of dazzling sand along which the kite-surfers are racing us as Hakram and I gallop furiously on fast Arabian horses towards the Sahara.
Come sunset, he sips his first drink of the long day and lights his first cigarette. Like the Christian Lent, the Ramadan fast will remind him of what the truly destitute endure, that he may be more generous in his almsgiving. Soon will come the festival of Eid al-fitr to celebrate the end of Ramadan. This ‘Sugar Feast’ should not be confused with the Eid (al-adha) or ‘Festival of Sacrifice’ later in the year, which commemorates the legend of Abraham and Isaac. These conscientious young male Muslims revere the Jewish patriarchs in the same way that they revere Jesus of Nazareth. We have so colossally much in common.
‘Could a Tunis happen here?’ I wonder. Hakram, slurping his sheep’s milk (he never touches alcohol) grins and replies: ‘No way. We Moroccans are far too nosey. Everybody knows everybody else’s business. We police ourselves.’ He pokes the brushwood fire for our mint tea and, murmuring, adds the politely conventional ‘with peace be it spoken’.
Ah, ‘with peace be it spoken’. It’s a phrase I first encountered when reading Travels in
Arabia Deserta by the adventurer Charles Doughty. He lived in an East Anglian rectory and was Cambridge-educated (a lot in common, then). In 1876, as a Nazreny travelling in the desert in areas of extreme personal danger, he earnt the respect and trust of his hosts simply by respecting and trusting them.
There’s no peace, even under these teeming, silent stars. My phone pings. It’s a text message from my bank—some plonker has phished my account. Not to worry, it says, the bank’s fraudprevention squad is onto it. They’ve blocked my credit card and I’m marooned, without funds, in the Western Sahara. Any emailed appeal home outlining my plight will doubtless be firewalled as a Nigerian scam. (Apparently, one can these days attend Fraud School in Nigeria.) I’ve no means of returning to Western civilisation. Could be worse. Next week: Jason Goodwin