The interior of the Nahon Synagogue, with lamps donated by local families
Both of my readers have probably been wondering where I’ve been the past few weeks. I just got back from one of my semi-regular writing retreats in Tangier, Morocco. Besides getting heaps of writing done, every time I go to Tangier I always discover something new in this historic and complex city. This time I found a beautiful synagogue hidden at the end of a tiny alley.
Nahon Synagogue was built in 1878 by a wealthy banker from the nearby city of Tetouan in honor of his father Mose Nahon. Or this might have happened in 1868. The plaque on the front of the building says 1868, the caretaker and the synagogue’s literature say 1878.
The history of Jews in Tangier stretches back way before the 19th century. Archaeologists have dug up potsherds decorated with menorahs dating from Carthaginian times. Nothing else is known about Tangier’s Jewish community for this early period.
My local produce seller, a farmer from one of the villages in the Rif
When the writing gets tough, the tough writers go to Tangier…
One of the advantages of living in Europe is that you have North Africa right at your doorstep. Sadly that region, with all its diverse cultures and beautiful landscape and ancient sites, has largely become a no-go area. Algeria and Libya are war zones and Tunisia and Egypt are highly unstable as well. That leaves Morocco, a safe and stable country that’s drawn me back several times to use as a writing retreat.
As I mentioned in a previous post about Living in a Moroccan Medina, I regularly go to the northern port of Tangier to get away from email and editors and take some time to do some serious writing. Not only does the city resonate with literary giants of the past like Paul Bowles, William S. Burroughs, and Mohamed Chukri, it also provides inspiration in the form of a large traditional medina, fine views over the Strait of Gibraltar, and a growing arts scene.
So what does a Canadian writer living in Madrid work on when he’s in Morocco? Read on. . .
For people who have never been there, Morocco conjures up images of decadent ports, imposing casbahs, mysterious medinas, and mountains filled with bandits. It’s a mystique the tour companies like to perpetuate for this modern and rapidly changing country.
I feel like a bit of a cheat tagging my series of Morocco posts as “adventure travel,” but I’m a blogger and that tag brings in the hits. While Morocco is safe and easy to travel in, it wasn’t so long ago that the mystique was the reality. A classic study of this freebooting era is Gavin Maxwell’s Lords of the Atlas.
Researched in the 1950s, it looks at the twilight era of the old Morocco. The book opens with a slave unlocking the gate to an aging, all-but-abandoned Casbah in the remote Atlas Mountains. This man was one of the last retainers of the Glaoui family, which for two generations grew an empire in Morocco’s rugged mountains, became pashas of important cities, and even played kingmaker.
Maxwell has an eye for lurid detail, especially beheadings. You can feel the writer’s enthusiasm when he speaks of how, just a little over a century ago, the city gates of Morocco would be festooned with the heads of criminals and traitors. The heads had been preserved in salt, a job reserved for the Jews. The Jewish quarter even earned the name mellah, Arabic for “salt.” Even well salted, the heads would eventually rot and fall down into the crowd below, once almost hitting a delegation from England.
Morocco is a country of many parts. While most visitors go down the the Atlas Mountains and the important cities in the interior like Fez and Marrakesh, or strike out into the southern desert, the Moroccan coast is well worth a visit. The Atlantic coast in particular has some interesting historic ports.
Larache is an hour and a half drive along the coast from the Strait of Gibraltar and makes for a good day trip from Tangier. Nearby is the Roman city of Lixus, the main reason we went. Lixus used to be a harbor until the Oued Loukos estuary silted up, marooning it inland and forcing the residents to build the newer city of Larache around the 15th century AD.
For many years it was an important fishing port and was the main shipbuilding center for the Barbary corsairs. Local artisans used wood from the nearby Forest of Mamora, which still stands today and makes a good place for a peaceful stroll.
Happy New Year! Or Sana Sayeeda as they say in Arabic! I’m back from another trip to Morocco, and this time besides staying at our usual place in the medina of Tangier, I and my wife also visited the ancient city of Lixus on Morocco’s Atlantic coast.
Like many cities of Roman Morocco, it’s been inhabited since prehistory, and became a Phoenician colony starting around the 8th century BC. The Phoenicians called Lixus Makom Shemesh (“City of the Sun”). It is believed to be their southernmost colony, but considering the many good bays and coves that stud the Atlantic coast to the south, I’m wondering if an archaeological survey might uncover more.
The ruins stand on a hill overlooking Oued Loukos estuary and the city was an important fishing port as well as a fish processing and salt panning center, the products then being shipped to the Mediterranean. Salt is still being panned in this region today.
The Pointer at Mzoura. Photo courtesy Almudena Alonso-Herrero
Morocco is best known for its medieval medinas and Roman cities, but the region has some interesting prehistoric remains as well. Petroglyphs dating back tens of thousands of years can be found all over the country, and archaeologists are excavating early hunting sites and Neolithic villages to piece together Morocco’s prehistory.
One curious site stands out above all others — Mzoura, Morocco’s only stone circle. It looks strikingly like those of Western Europe, as if it had been transposed from Wiltshire or Brittany.
We visited on the same day we went to visit Asilah. The site makes a good side trip from that old pirate port. A private car is needed because the stone circle stands next to the little village of Sidi-el-Yamani, which is reached only infrequently by public transport over narrow and rough roads.
I’ve blogged previously here on Black Gate about spending some time living in Tangier, Morocco. The city is a good jumping off point to see northern Morocco, a region many visitors skip as they head down to Fez, the Atlas Mountains, and the southern casbahs. If they do that, they miss one of North Africa’s best preserved medinas, the 15th century marketplace of Tetouan, now a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Tetouan is located in the saddle of two clusters of hills. Home to about half a million people, it doesn’t attract many foreign tourists and offers a look at an traditional medina and its market that have not felt the hand of international shoppers.
Last week I wrote about how I spent a month living in Tangier working on my next novel. Luckily my family came down with me for part of the time, and since it was my son’s first trip out of Western Europe I wanted him to enjoy himself and open his eyes a little. So what do you show a ten-year-old in Morocco? Well, besides the Casbah and the medina market, what better than an old pirate port?
Asilah stands on Morocco’s Atlantic coast and like many of the country’s ports started out as a Phoenician trading center about 3500 years ago. It’s most famous as the last base of the famed Barbary pirates, who started being a menace in the early Middle Ages. Their heyday was from the 15th to 19th century, when they terrorized shipping in the Western Mediterranean and the Strait of Gibraltar. Several European interventions, including the United States’ first overseas adventure, failed to stop them. The rampant piracy was one the excuses the French and Spanish used to establish colonies throughout North Africa.
Hello again, Black Gate readers! You may have noticed that I dropped off the blog, and indeed the rest of the Internet, for all of October. You did notice, didn’t you? You didn’t? Well, I was gone. I spent the entire month on a writing retreat in Tangier, Morocco. I’ve written about visiting Tangier before on this blog, but this time I decided to dedicate a longer time in the city to some writing. My current project, The Last Hotel Room, is a novel set in contemporary Tangier, and I thought it a perfect opportunity to try out my own version of a writing retreat.
Through local contacts I was able to rent a house in the medina, the old historic quarter. My house was a traditional building of northern Morocco — two stories and a rooftop terrace surrounding an airshaft topped with glass. Sunlight and ventilation came courtesy of the airshaft, the only other windows being small ones in the downstairs kitchen and upstairs kitchenette. The interior was cleverly designed so that each room felt open to the sunlight from the airshaft while remaining out of view of the other rooms, providing openness and privacy at the same time.
This sort of architecture has an unusual acoustic effect. Noises next door and on the street just outside sound like they’re coming from inside the house. Your neighbor’s door opening sounds like your door opening. It’s a bit weird at first, but it never makes you nervous because your house is a fort. Doors are made of metal and secured with heavy bolts. The airshaft has a cage-like barrier to keep people from dropping in unannounced. My two windows were both well above street level and protected with iron bars.