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France Culture flagship program “Ville-Monde” dedicated two dates to Essaouira on the 16th and 23rd of June last. The choice was made following three invitations to Essaouira and to some Souiris for its weekly program “Cultures d’Islam”. On this French Cultural model radio program came, for over an hour each, Françoise Atlan, the Director of the Essaouira Festival of Andalusias (3rd of May), Houssein Miloudi, the great Souiri painter (10th of May) and André Azoulay, the advisor to His Majesty King Mohammed VI (17th of May).
Let’s head to Morocco and to its Atlantic coast, Essaouira …The journey starts on the island of Mogador which faces the town from the top of the minaret of the mosque built at the beginning of the 19th century. From this height and distance, one perceives the city surrounded with earthen coloured ramparts and the outline of its white houses and the harbour. On the left, is the Ocean beating the rocks where the ramparts are anchored; on the right, the large cove welcomes and tames the waves; it stretches up to the sand dunes which extend to the green thuja forest then to the argan tree forest, with olive trees here and there… A town opening to the sea born new in the middle of the 18th century “among sand and wind and in the middle of it : nothing”; she was destined to drain the inland trade towards places overseas. This opening outward was reinforced by the welcome presence of foreign legations representing European powers but also America : Morocco being the first country to have recognized the United States of America as early as the Declaration of Independence. This calling gave the town the privilege to welcome various populations residing inland and on the coast : Essaouira, an open and cosmopolitan town. From the Meshouar area to the Jewish quarter through the Mellah to the harbour gates, all the artists we met be they from Essaouira or inspired by the town or living within its walls tell us about this diversity, of this town between East and West, of a town dedicated to “diversity”.
Strings of little mazes alternate with regular orthogonal built up areas : a duality that invites a poetical ramble in the company of the Mexican writer, Alberto Ruy Sanchez whose works of fiction are nourished by the very myth of Mogador. We make our way through the maze with him and other artists from the town and this walk is punctuated by alternating light and shade, by a dense humming coming from stalls and by what is escaping from the patios. A diversity expressed in music too thanks to the Gnaoua who, through their vocal performance in the Arabic tongue, illustrate all the diversity alive in the town and keeping it very much alive.
“The world” is in Essaouira, “ville-mondes”, where artists and foreigners from various horizons come to worship her and to be inspired by her, a town experienced like a “shared passion”, a town which sees some of its own come back to her after having had to leave her. A town which is reborn and lives anew after going through a time of devastation that hardly took anything away from its charm : the whole beat generation succumbed to it as well as the generation of May 1968. At the beginning of the seventies, when Georges Lassalle discovered the town and loved it , he felt so distressed by the state of decay eroding it that he affixed a notice at the entrance of the town that said : “Essaouira : town for sale”… Orson Welles used the decor of Essaouira to figure Cyprus in Othello and Paul Claudel in his play The Satin Slipper was inspired by this Mogador of Africa.
There are also constant regular visitors who try and maintain the myth of the creation of the town very alive in them : like the Mexican writer Alberto Ruy Sanchez who has made a quest of Mogador and like the artists we met who tell of a “shared passion”. This love for the town was alive in the literary works of Edmond Amran El-Maleh whose tomb stands in the marine Jewish cemetery in Essaouira : “Where the trade winds blow/tirelessly sweeping the sky/a transparency clearing the azure/the seagull accompanies the Gnaoua/a petition of Africa on the Jewish tomb/a body outline lit by a halo/ engraved as neatly as the Arabic print/the Berber sign the Latin letter/all watch over their Hebraic sisters/a rustle of wings dampened by foam/wreaths crashing down on the ductile rock”…