Wednesday, April 1, 2009



- Xaouen – Chaouen -

To the outsider, to myself, everyday life within the walls of the medina[1] of Chefchaouen is a performance in a dream. The stage against which life is set, a twisting labyrinth of blue and white washed streets below the sleeping grey Rif Mountains. Here, in Chaouen[2], a part of me slips, with no conscious thought, into this performance, and I exist outside of myself. Here, in the Kingdom of Morocco, I am an observer of place, of self, surrendering a part of myself to Chaouen, into hidden places behind walls.

Allah Akbar[3]

You sit on the train, watching life unfold through the window, as you begin your journey back to Chaouen, the small city under the Rif Mountains in the northwest of Morocco. It has been three years since you fell in love with the place.

Through the window you see two boys standing, half naked, on the highest point of an arced bridge baring itself to the sky. They wave as the train passes; brown bodies silhouetted against the sun. At the base of the bridge, women, bent under the weight of small children, lay freshly washed wool to dry on the banks of the river, and sheep graze nearby.

    In a field of wheat, men and boys work bare-chested in the heat of the day. A camel moves lazily amongst them. The train passes, the farmers barely registering its’ existence – a distant movement on the periphery of a life that doesn’t belong to you.

    The train pulls into Fes late that night. You exit the station. The push of people. The sea of voices – Arabic, French, Spanish, English, even Japanese. Djellaba-wearing touts wave dubiously authentic identity tags, proclaiming themselves as official guides. They do not understand the word ‘no’. Taxi drivers fight for passengers, and passengers won, horns blaring, they fight to exit the car park.

Ash-hadu al-lā ilāha illallāh[4]

Mid-morning, the bus leaves for Chaouen. You sleep as it exits the city, and awaken to a landscape so vast it reveals its scale only when a house occasionally rises from it – once whitewashed earthen walls collapsing under the weighty burden of time, flat roofs sprouting grass, flowers and even small trees. These houses don’t sit on the landscape, but within it.

A riot of colour explodes in your thoughts. Orange trees, thousands of them, growing from a carpet of yellow flowers. A vivid azure lake flat beneath grey mountains, met at its shore by red earth and green grass. It disappears as suddenly as it appeared, leaving you wondering if it were all a vision.

A middle-aged Moroccan man named Omar, a fellow passenger, welcomes you to Morocco. Before he leaves the bus in Tetouan he asks for your Australian address in so he can write to you, get to know you better. Full of sleep you scribble it on a scrap of paper.

Ash-hadu anna Muhammadan rasūl allāh[5]

    The mountains overlooking Chaouen fold in on themselves seductively, creating hidden crevices that long to be explored. Chefchaouen literally translates as look at the horns (mountains).

    The Kasbah, Al Kasaba, rises against the inky night sky in Plaza Outa el Hammam, the walls impressive in their imposing simplicity. A row of identical restaurants lies opposite the Kasbah. They serve tajines, couscous, grills and mint tea – Morocco to her will always be mint tea, sweet as love. In summer thousands of Spanish tourists descend on Chauen. But now, in January, they are quiet. You walk behind Plaza Outa el Hammam to a small room set into a wall – they serve only harira – broad-bean soup flavoured with oil and chili – bread and olives. As you eat, the voice of the Muezzin reciting the Adhan[6] is carried by a gentle breeze, as it is five times daily. You likes the structure it gives each day.

    That evening you sit on the roof terrace of the Pension la Castellana surrounded by the empty black silhouettes of the Rif Mountains. Below dogs bark and on a nearby rooftop a confused rooster crows. You can hear the sounds of the cafes where men gather to smoke, drink mint tea and watch football on television. The Africa Cup is on, and the cafes are full. The absence of alcohol here creates a sober calm that is rare at home.

Hayya ‘alas-salāt[7]

The African sun gently beats down upon you. The sun seems so much closer to the earth in Africa. You are idle within the bustle of others occupied with idleness. Elderly men wearing djellaba walk arm in arm against the red backdrop of Al Kasaba. Two groups of children carry faded mattresses through the square. A young Spanish family of dreadlocked hippies juggles beside the fountain. Cats hiss at each other beneath her table – they fill every Moroccan city – unnoticed, yet cared for, a part of the city. “Sweetie. Mermaid. My sweet mermaid,” the waiter, Hassan, addresses you when you order.

You lose yourself in the twisting maze of the medina. Five-hundred years of history are built into the medina. You try to place yourself in the fifteenth century when Jewish and Muslim refugees from Spain founded Chaouen after the fall of Al-Andalus[8], but you know only now. Whitewashed walls tinted with countless shades of blue recall those medieval times. As you wander, children playing in doorways and alleys call out to you in Spanish Hola. ¿habla español? The whitewashed walls melt into the cobbled labyrinth; meeting the shadowed alleyways with the intense blue pigment that is for sale, displayed in hessian bags in many of the hundreds of stalls that line the crowded, narrow lanes.

You see a tub crawling with tiny turtles. “What are they for?” you ask.

“For your good breathing, you keep in your house. You buy?” The thought of smuggling a living turtle into Australia makes you smile.

Hayya ‘alal-falāh[9]

You sit on the sill of an arched opening in the top room of the Kasbah. The room is empty but for parabolic shadows cast by the late afternoon sun – the thick red earthen walls keeping the interior cool. The Kasbah is an oasis of lush gardens, and fountains. Moss grows thick and bright on the walls, and pink flowers hang from overflowing trees.

Through the arched openings in the walls the fairytale landscape sits before you, and behind the rolling green, the grey majesty of the Rif Mountains. To your right is the red roofscape of Chaouen, crumbling white and blue walls over which carpets are aired, and terraces criss-crossed with lines of drying clothes. From a distance the beat of a drum echoes through the medina.

As the heat of the day disappears you walk to the ruined stone mosque that sits lonely on the peak of a hill before the mountains. It was built by the Spanish then left to fall to ruin by the Moroccans. You walk through Bab al-Ansar, the eastern gate, and past the cascades of the Ras el-Maa, the flowing stream where women wash clothes and children play. You walk up the hill overlooking Chaouen on a trail lined with cacti. The walls of the mosque have crumbled, windows are falling, and the sun sets behind the mountains, washing the whole of Chaouen in the flat blue light of dusk. Small children play around the mosque, goats are herded past, and a group of Moroccan youths smoke a delicately carved kif[10] pipe. The potent smoke drifts through the night air, and you feel you are taking part in a carefully constructed performance.

Allah u akbar[11]

Soon, local people begin to recognize and talk with you – you feel most visits to Chaouen are brief, and in the tiny medina a face soon becomes familiar. You meet twenty-three year old Kamal. He works in a carpet shop run by Abdelhak Garanti – his business card reads Exposition Artisanal Local et / Marocatne Tapis Ancien et Moderne / Expédition Pour Tous Payes.[12] Kamal, like most Moroccans, speaks Arabic, Spanish and English. He sometimes accompanies tourists into the Sahara, and has picked up Japanese too. His words tumble from language to language, and his conversation is scattered with phrases heard in American films – easy peasy lemon squeezy, in a while crocodile, see you later alligator. He tells you often “we all brother from another mother, you sister from another mother.”

You watch Bollywood bright Egyptian films with Kamal and seven other men, crowded into a windowless concrete room. Posters of Spanish football teams cover the walls. A poster of a lush rainforest covers the back wall – a window into another world. The tiny room is filled with a single bed, television, motorcycle and large sewing machine – The young man with heavy eyes who lives here is a tailor. He draws continuously on a long kif pipe. The men are quiet and respectful around you, and you feel safe.

You spend time also with a Berber man from the Sahara, Yusuf, in his shop full of silver trinkets. You drink mint tea from ornate glasses with him in his shop, and later you visit his tiny concrete room. You drink more mint tea and listen as he tells stories from his life. All evening, as he talks, he fills, and smokes, and refills a kif pipe. Yusuf is in his forties, but looks older. He has a fourteen-year-old son he has never met. Yusuf shows you photos of his son who lives in Spain with his American mother. He tells you that he sometimes speaks to his son on the phone. When his son is eighteen he wants to meet his father. It is difficult to imagine a meeting between a Spanish schoolboy and his toothless father who rides camels into the Sahara, where the women in his family weave the blankets and make the silver trinkets he sells in Chaouen.

Whilst you talk Yusef’s mobile phone rings constantly, and every time it goes unanswered. “My mother,” is his explanation. He tells you of the pressure of having to provide for his family – every time his mother calls she needs money, and it is money that he does not have and so cannot give. There is sadness in his words, and you say “It’s hard, I know.” but you don’t.

Lā ilāha illallāh[13]

Of course, beyond the walls of the medina, another Chaouen exists—the Ville Nouvelle[14]—a world of cars, new suits and nine to five jobs in office towers. But to an outsider, to myself, in the Kingdom of Morocco it is the exotic chaos of the medinas that will gently seduce you into their hidden places behind walls.

[1] Found in North African cities, a medina is a distinct city section – typically walled, it is the old part of the city and consists of many narrow, labyrinthine streets. In Arabic, the word medina can be translated simply as city or town.

[2] Chefchaouen is often referred to affectionately as Chaouen, or the Spanish Xaouen

[3] God is The Greatest

[4] I bear witness that there is no lord except God

[5] I bear witness that Muhammad is the Messenger of God

[6] Muslim call to prayer, recited five times daily by the Muezzin.

[7] Make haste towards prayer

[8] Under Muslim rule Andalusia was known as Al-Andalus, and the name applied to a much larger area than the current Spanish province. Muslim rule of Andalusia was completely conquered in 1492 by the Catholic driven Spanish Reconquista.

[9] Make haste towards welfare [success]

[10] Much of the marijuana in Morocco is grown in the Chefchaouen region, and the locals openly smoke. The local people will often tell you that it is the best kif in the Rif.

[11] God is greatest

[12] This roughly translates to Exposing local artisans / Ancient and modern Moroccan carpets / Forwarding to all countries

[13] There is no lord except God

[14] The New Town

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