Essaouira - Every summer, the hippies and bohemians of Morocco flock to the small coastal town of Essaouira for the Gnaoua and World Music Festival, drawn by the promise of a life free of social constraints.
Essaouira – Every summer, the hippies and bohemians of Morocco flock to the small coastal town of Essaouira for the Gnaoua and World Music Festival, drawn by the promise of a life free of social constraints.
Behind Marrakech’s heat and dust, there lies the city of Essaouira. Its whitewashed walls tell of a history left behind in the late 1960s and early 1970s but which still lives today: the history of hippies, peace, and love.
Its fortress, faded from centuries of standing in the sun protecting the city from invasions, could easily deceive Essaouira’s visitors into thinking that the city is colorless. But that misconception, like the waves of the Atlantic, breaks up with the endless arrays of colors within the city.
The medina’s small streets, white and blue buildings, painting and crafts shops, riads and music blasting all over gavevisitors to the coastal town a haven for inspiration in the 1960s and 70s, and now visitors come to experience a reminiscence of that nostalgic past.
Sense of Belonging
Journeyed to throughout allf our seasons, but particularly during the summer’s Gnaoua and World Music Festival, Essaouira answers the call of lost youth in search of a collective identity and belonging.
The city’s reputation as the “hippie happy land” which has solidified over the past decades with big-name artists like Jimi Hendrix, the Rolling Stones, Frank Zappa, Cat Stevens and Maria Callas finding the Souiri beat rich and original. Since then, ever more artists and music lovers have been drawn to the city to rejoice in its rhythm and immerse themselves in its quiet and calm.
The flower children of today, like their peers from the past, have decided to turn away from the age of conspicuous consumerism and rigorous traditions towards a more organic mode of living, embracing handmade crafts, natural hair, altered states of consciousness mainly induced by hashish and LSD, and bohemianism.
Their decision to reject “mainstream” society has resulted in judgment, criticism and rejection. Dispersed all over the country, they live as minorities, often gazed at by the public as a group of reckless juveniles, mistrustful, turned inward by drugs and a lack ofskills to live in the “real world.”
Mohammed, a 70-year-old Essaouira local who lived during the hippie blossom in late 60s and its reincarnation today, told Morocco World News that the city’s reputation has been damaged by the influx of young bohemians.
“In the 70s, I thought it was a trend that would soon meet its demise. For the sake of Morocco and national pride, I prayed it would end as soon as their trail[the ‘Hippie Trail’] found its way to Essaouira, that it would be washed up by the sea, and never be found again. It is true that Hendrix’s legacy has made of Essaouira a touristic destination, but at what cost? We always have to pay. We paid our traditions and values. And now Essaouira merely became a place where kids come, smoke hashish, and drink liquor.”
But not all natives of Essaouira feel disdain for the hippies and backpackers that flock to the port town. Abdulah, a 69 local said that “It delights me to see people from different walks of life come to Essaouira and find happiness. In their endless quest for meaning, the city has a way of reminding its lost visitors that they’re not alone; they come here and they find people who look and think like them and it makes me happy.”
The same person elaborated that the city plays a positive role in serving as an enclave for outsiders. “I have lived in this country for 69 years and I know that our society is unforgiving and demanding. We expect our children to mirror the ways of their parents, unaware that no two people are alike […] We’re hard on ourselves and we don’t leave room for diversity. Essaouira allows for that space to grow and I hope that it would continue to do so after I die.”
Adam, a 24 street musician from Casablanca, said that city’s “hippie” reputation was inaccurate. “I think you’re wrong. Essaouira doesn’t necessarily attract hippies. These labels are what have made of our societies so judgmental. The term hippie comes with a glossary of misconceptions. In our understanding, ‘hippie’, or the local term for it ‘chaakouk’, goes hand in hand with someone who doesn’t take showers, while most of us take showers, [or someone] uneducated or jobless. While I can’t speak for the rest of the community, I have a BA and my own project. I travel and play my music in the cities I visit, and believe me, I do make money from it.”
The street musician, who said he makes up to MAD 300 a day, said he appreciates the port town’s open-mindedness. “Essaouira attracts the people who are eager for understanding. No one judges me here, because everyone is like me.”
Found in a narrow street of the old medina is a Maalem Ahmed, holding his Guimbri and singing to a dancing audience. After finishing his performance, the Maalem explained to Morocco World News his understanding of the importance of the festival.
“My ancestors were bought and sold by these foreigners who come to the festival and enjoy the music we created as a form of resistance and rejection to what they have done. But this is music, you can’t shut someone’s ears and tell them not to listen. Instead, we invite them to listen to meet our spirits, our heritage hoping they will understand the impact of history on Black civilizations.”
When asked about the Moroccans who visit the Gnawa festival, the Maalem answered, “It’s good that the youth of this country haven’t forgotten about its history. I think their appearance might shock conservative minds, but to me it is just a reflection of individuality. They’re like wild horses, you can’t tame them, but you can watch them from distance, and you’ll see things you wouldn’t have seen if they were locked in barns.”
“Queer and Moroccan”
On the third and last day of the festival, two girls – one with dreadlocks painted in various colors and the other with short hair and boyish clothing –walked through the narrow streets of the medina holding hands. When asked about the reason behind their visit to Essaouira, they first answered that it was Gnawa music that drew them in, but deeper into the conversation, they revealed a subtler reason.
“My girlfriend and I are queer and Moroccan,” explained the first girl, Laila, “and you can imagine the stigmas attached to the two labels when they’re used to describe one person. We are from Agadir, and its completely unacceptable to show affection there or even speak of individual identity. The society molds us into hetero-normative copies of each other, and there is no space for negotiation. Coming here is an act of rejection and at the same time a quest for acceptance.”
The second, Ikram, added: “we have visited the festival for three consecutive years and it is safe to say that the atmosphere of the city during the Gnawa festival is anything but normative, girls with short hair, boys with long hair […] all forms of counter-cultures. All forms of acceptance and understanding. We love it here and we’re sad that it’s over.”