The candles were the only light in our world. The singer blowing one out one out had left us in shadows filled with the wraiths of the shisha smoke playing through our hair and ringing the room in their supernatural presence. Mahmoud leaned in dangerously close to my face and said”, This is Arab custom. Don’t worry.”
Last night, was a night unlike any in my life.
I have an American smile, so I’ve been told. My American smile isn’t winning me a great deal of points with old Muslim women. The dour woman next to me on the bus to Essaouira was no exception. Unphased, I put in my headphones to listen to my music and plastered my face against the window to watch the Moroccan countryside roll by.
Small ruined walls, to what once may have been villa or livestock areas for all I know, littered the landscape. They may have been hundreds of years old for all I know. Yet, a hundred meters or so away, another intact, newer, nearly identical structure was fully functional.
The foreign landscape flew by and I jammed out in my headphones occasionally turning to throw my biggest American smile at the mustached woman next to me to see if she was any more receptive. The answer was always: No.
The directions to my riad in Essaouira were the opposite of my directions to the riad in Marrakesh which simply stated, “very Near Djema elfna.” Here in Essaouira, the directions were so intricate and overwhelming I had no idea where to start. Luckily, a local guy spoke English and was happy to walk me through the Medina to my riad for a small donation.
Immediately upon arriving, I was struck by the style and decoration of the place. It was, and is, marvelous. Not overly grandiose, but just cool. Riad El Pacha used to be the home for visiting officials of state when they came to Essaouira on business, roughly 40 years ago. It also has the greatest bunk beds ever.
Today, rather than Arab politicians, Riad El Pacha is filled with adventurous people from all parts of the globe telling stories and filling the spaces left by missing loved ones.
A couple from Scotland have paid to buy dinner for the whole Riad tonight in the form of traditional Tajin. Akhmed, the cook, is in the kitchen working away, while we all chat. It had been about 7 hours since I had eaten and I ducked out for a quick something at a local vegetarian place to take the edge off.
This is where I ate “Burger Women.” I have no idea what this means, but it was rather tasty and very filling.
After I got back to the riad, shisha pipes were making the rounds; filled with flavored tobacco that smelled like apple and licorice. Everyone was swapping stories and I jumped right in. Soon, the mother of all tajin was about to make an appearance.
The scale of this thing is simply not well represented with this picture. I swear to you in person it looked about ten times that size. Pretty soon, every had full plates, hands, and mouths. Akhmed, the cook, came out and sat down with us and made sure everyone ate far more than their fill. It was like some odd family gathering for a Holiday that everyone else in the world had long ago forgotten about.
Hours later after the remainder of the food had been packaged up for Akhmed to take to someone who might need it, noone had moved from their seats. Somehow the shisha pipes had appeared again, reloaded by Akhmed, and Lucas, the kiwi, had a guitar and was requesting candles.
All the lights were turned off, aside from the candelabra on the table between us and Lucas began to sing. Smoke and the flickering candlelight played all manner of tricks with my eyes. Arabic apparitions clawed and climbed their way around the edges of the room, never threatening, just coming to hear and see and be in that moment with us.
Lucas on occasion would lean forward and blow out another candle to add weight to a particular song, never relighting them, so as the night progressed we drew deeper and deeper into our own shadows. Everyone was leaned against the person next to them smiling and feeling truly in the moment. Some time after midnight, I was almost asleep in the lap of the lovely Irish girl, Mary, and decided it was time to put me to bed.
As felt totally natural, I made sure to round the room and clasp hands or kiss the cheek of each person I had spent the evening with. With Mahmoud, we clasped hands and then he leaned in and for a moment I was unsure what that meant.
“This is Arab custom. Don’t worry.” he said as he planted a kiss on each of my cheeks.
Coming from an North American background as I have, this sort of thing really doesn’t happen. Guys don’t hold hands, or kiss, or anything like that unless they are into other guys. I’m not, so it was something of a learning curve for me to see this and become accustomed to it.
There is so much for me to see and learn about in this world. I marvel at how others live their lives constantly. The differences in appearance and custom, and the similarity in values and importance. The fact that we strangers could find ourselves tossed into this room, not even a common language between us all, and relate to one another on a level that engenders that feeling of closeness is nothing short of a revelation in a world where people fight over office politics and parking spaces. This is real life; as real as any on the planet; and this night, I am so happy it is mine.
Getting to Essaouira may be faster on a bus than a train, check with your hotel or guide book.
There are a great many riad in the city, and you don’t necessarily need to book ahead, but you may want to so you can stay al El Pacha!
Part of the culture here is giving to the poor and as such, many people on the street are willing to give directions or even take you to where you need to go. Keep a few coins ready and don’t be afraid to ask.
There are two markets in Essaouira; one for the tourists, and one for the locals. To really have a blast, get an Arabic speaking friend to take you to the local market and go for it.
Lastly, if you have the opportunity to fall asleep in a pretty girls lap… take it.