Text by Louisa Elderton

26.02.2018

The Only Star-Studded Sky: A Journey Through Morocco

Our sense of vision is usually king as we wander through the image-overloaded reality of daily life, but Morocco is a country of sound. Having visited three times, I’ve travelled from Marrakech to Casablanca and beyond, seeing the deserts in the east and the windy city of Essaouira in the west. Each time it has been the ambient noise that seemed to resonate so deeply: entering eardrums and sinking to the depths of the body, from epidermis to bone.

Recently going to its northernmost part, I found myself in the city of Tangiers resting on the rooftop of my riad, La Tangerina. Nestled in the medina of the old town, its panoramic view overlooked the sea on one side, with a view into the new town on the other. In between, endless balconies were strewn with clotheslines, television aerials and electric cables, rhythmically jumbled and stretching into the distance. The sun was taking rest from the day’s labour, slowly sinking to kiss the horizon, and bringing with it a melting pot of colours: apricot, violet and luminous pink, all shining bright before darkness fell. The sounds then began, the squawks of circling seagulls being overpowered by the resounding call to prayer. An unknown voice echoed across the city, notes with a discordant resonance lingering before being layered with another utterance—guttural, strong and hypnotic. This sound punctuates time in Morocco, either reminding us of Allah’s greatness, or forming a backdrop that marks the passing of endless hours. Whatever your belief, the sound is simultaneously stark and sensual.

Before I’d even been to the country, I had experienced this sound via the British artist Douglas Gordon’s installation Sharpening Fantasy (2012). Shot in Tangiers, the piece—which comprises three vast screens standing sequentially in space, to sculptural effect—evocatively captures the idiosyncrasies of this place, its unique sounds being accompanied by moving images of the cityscape, alongside a knife sharpener grinding his blade against a spinning stone of granite. In another video work, Twin Blades (2012), a tiled wall within the medina is captured, and projected at large scale. So lifelike, it feels as if you could walk into the wall and be transported through a time-space portal into the warm climes of Africa.

Courtesy of Douglas Gordon and BlainISouthern

Tangiers has been depicted as a place of mystery, of timeless appeal and night-time wonder. Jim Jarmusch’s film Only Lovers Left Alive (2013) sees Tilda Swinton as an ageless vampire who has become acquainted with the labyrinthine streets of Tangiers over centuries. She casually glides through them at night, gentle light falling upon her luminous skin, cobbled roads offsetting colourful tiled walls, while drifting plumes of smoke rise from shisha pipes or hash joints. She has been here forever, and it’s hard to imagine the place having changed at all: it is ancient and timeless at once.

Morocco’s sensorial feast also encompasses taste and smell. Gazing across the same seascape that I had seen the night before, which now sparkled with sunshine reflecting off the water like little shards of glass, the next morning’s breakfast was a sight to behold. I drizzled sumptuous, clear honey over my Moroccan pancakes—m'smmen. The flaky bread is delectable: crispy, fluffy, buttery and sweet, it leaves your fingertips glistening in its aftermath. Then there are the tagines: the sharp succulence of chicken with lemon, the chocolaty richness of date and lamb, all cooked slowly with vegetables and a side of steaming couscous. The spice markets too are standalone. Huge bags of multi-coloured herbs and fragrant flavours layered into tapestries of powdered perfection—red paprika shouting above light-brown cinnamon.

© Louisa Elderton

My stay in Tangiers was all too brief, for it was Asilah that I had truly come to see, and even then I had an hour-long car journey beyond there to reach my final destination: Chez Mounir. This beachside retreat is known by only a handful of people, and is not the easiest place to reach. You need a car and travel-sickness tablets to tackle the bumpy ride. At this destination about two-and-a-half hours west of Tangiers, my sister and her husband had decided to tie the knot. Marriage! A wedding! And it was well worth the time, energy and effort to reach this little piece of paradise.

Resting just above the beach, a collection of huts sit above a view of pure beauty; endless stretches of ochre-coloured sand that are as long as they are deep; wild waves that crash ceaselessly, peppered with seal-like surfers; hills that are marked with lush patches of green vegetation. But mostly, it feels sparse and pure with no buildings or people for miles around—the only other construction is a half-finished building owned by the luxury brand Hermes, who bought the land and then couldn’t access enough water to finish the high-end hotel, and thank goodness, for this area retains a feeling of locality and simple pleasures that surely would have been suffocated otherwise.

© Louisa Elderton

The only sounds are those of nature, which roar loudly as water and wind collide. It blows life back into you. And here I was, lucky enough to see the woman I admire most entering into a new chapter of her life, which she was generous enough to share by bringing us to what felt like the other side of the world. Sometimes you just want to be on the dark side of the moon, where no one can reach you and everything is calm.

If you do go, take a moment to lie on your back and stare into the sky at night. Sometimes it’s good to stop. The only star-studded sky that I’ve seen outdo this one is in the desert to the east of Morocco, where I once camped in 2013 amid freezing temperatures (boiling during the day, shivering at night). Wrapped up in every piece of clothing that I had with me, I lay on the sand and looked up, only to see a view so full of stars, of the bright light from the past, that it appeared almost as a white plane marked, instead, with moments of blackness. A sky so busy with the complexities of a vast universe that Earth suddenly feels small and simple.

It was during this same trip that I experienced the Valley of the Roses, a deep gorge with an underground water system, which feeds an endless expanse of palm trees that burst through this space. They stretch into the distance for as far as the eye can see, a mottled pattern of green humming with heat, like a tropical runway; you witness it from the winding roads in the mountains above. If you keep driving, you’ll reach the UNESCO site of Ksar of Ait-Ben-Haddo, a seventeenth-century village in the Ounila Valley, and an example of historical southern Moroccan architecture. A collection of dwellings is settled upon a hill, comprised of complex mud structures and defensive walls reinforced by angle towers and a baffle gate. Fantastically well preserved, it has featured in many films, not least Gladiator (2000), who used its muddled streets and buildings to set the scene of Ancient Rome.

© Louisa Elderton

Morocco is a rich and diverse country, which at times feels deeply Islamic, and at others, very European. This mixture, of course, derives from the country’s history, and as a former French colony, the languages of Arabic and French are both spoken. Towns like Essaouira—frequented by the likes of Jimmy Hendrix and Cat Stevens in the early 1970s—are even reminiscent of Greek islands, comprising white and blue buildings that have faded under salt and sun, and seem to march to their own rhythm. Here, you can visit the harbour and select fresh seafood from the seafront stalls, which will barbeque these for you instantly while you wait to eat your bounty. If you have the time and inclination, you might even try riding a camel, and if you manage to find the ones from Mali (with a single rather than double hump) it’s not so dissimilar to horse riding. Taking a trip up into the landscape surrounding Essaouira, you will pass countless goats that have climbed up into the trees, escaping the day’s heat and chewing the leaves.

Sadly we can’t all live forever, roaming the atmospheric streets of Morocco at night. This is the stuff of films, and unless you’re Tilda Swinton, we all have to go at some point. But before you do, make sure you savour Morocco. Switch off your phone and tune into the sounds, which will take you out of your world and into another space altogether.

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