Travels March 2006

Going Coastal

Away from the heat and bustle of Morocco’s historic cities lie some of the friendliest and most tranquil places in North Africa

After a hearty meal my thoughts turned to the Isle of Mogador. I had always wanted to visit this island, whose ruined fortress and prison rise above a boulder-strewn shore just across from Essaouira proper. A nature reserve, it is populated by rabbits, gulls, and, at times, Eleonora’s falcons, but no human beings except a caretaker. The Rough Guide told me that I would have to apply to the municipality for permission to land on the island, but this amounted to nothing more than asking the Royal Gendarmerie at the port if I could go.

At the quay I found a fisherman named Mohammed and bargained with him for a ride to the island. We boarded what he called his felucca—an outboard-powered scow that bore no resemblance to the slender vessels of the Nile—and pulled out of Essaouira’s small harbor, crossing bands of sea now deep blue, now luminous green.

Up close the island turned out to be covered in thorny scrub and seagulls’ nests. After disembarking on a tiny concrete pier, Mohammed and I hiked up into the birds’ domain. Gulls squawked at us from their nests in the brush, where they were incubating mottled green-brown eggs; they circled above us and dove down at our heads, often approaching from behind and screaming a few feet from us before veering away.

The gulls left us at the prison, a simple structure built in the nineteenth century by Sultan Moulay El Hassan. Only lichen-splotched gray stone walls now remained. Upon first entering, we could see where the offices and staff quarters had been. Farther into the ruins was a huge courtyard. This was where political prisoners were kept, Mohammed said—exposed to the elements, often chained to the walls. Beyond the walls stood a dilapidated minaret.

Near the shore again, we happened upon a stone hut where fishermen were mending nets. One of them told me that he wanted to show me something. I followed him back into the gulls’ domain to a clearing, where the earth was bone-colored and gravelly. He reached down and wrestled what looked like a pale stone the size of a grapefruit out of the earth. It was a human skull. Around us, I noticed with a shiver, lay femurs and tibiae, finger bones and ribs. The site was a graveyard, and the wind had blown away the earth to expose the dead.

“This was once a man, like us,” the fisherman said. He held the skull to the sun and peered into its empty eye sockets. “God grant him mercy.” He replaced the skull in the friable earth and covered it with sand.

For months at a time mists shroud Sidi Ifni, where little disrupts the quiet except the occasional chug of fishing boats. That Morocco and Spain fought a war in the 1950s over this sugary-white, now somnolent town is hard to imagine but true. Sidi Ifni belonged to Spain until 1969, when besieging Moroccan troops forced Madrid to return it. The Spanish left behind an Art Deco town center, including a church and quarters for their administrators that now house offices of the Moroccan government. Nearby, from the dozens of cafés along Avenues Hassan II and Mohammed V, ceaseless but friendly chatter emanates, and cars are few.

I followed the promenade from Place Hassan II in the town center down to the tomb of the marabout, or Sufi saint, who is said to have given Sidi Ifni its name. For centuries marabouts claiming descent from the Prophet Muhammad have attracted large followings in Morocco with their teachings and their ability to bestow baraka, blessings that supposedly have the power to heal. (There were no baraka on offer that day—I had missed Sidi Ifni’s moussem too.) A brass crescent moon tops the tomb’s white dome; pink-and-green columns support the roof over its courtyard; and blue-green tiles cover the lower half of its walls. All this seemed starkly geometric against the granite slopes of the Anti-Atlas Mountains, but roses growing in parterres in front of the tomb softened the impression.

Later that day I decided I needed a haircut. The Rough Guide recommended a barber named Hassan Anzag—but not for his talent with scissors. The book said he collected pictures of colonial-era Sidi Ifni. As Hassan’s scissors flicked above my ears, I thumbed through black-and-white snapshots of old Sidi Ifni, which, I was not surprised to see, looked a lot like new Sidi Ifni. One photo in particular caught my eye: it was of a young Elizabeth Taylor.

Hassan grew excited. “That’s Liz,” he said, “during the shooting of a movie. I’ve been trying to get her address, you know. I’d like to let her know I have this photo.” His scissors paused. “You wouldn’t happen to have her address, would you?”

In this timeless town it seemed almost plausible that I might. In the end, though, Hassan settled for exchanging addresses with me.

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Jeffrey Tayler is a correspondent for The Atlantic and the author of four books, including Angry Wind: Through Muslim Black Africa by Bus, Truck, Boat, and Camel.

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