Morocco is a little over three times the size of Wisconsin, and if maps are to be trusted, mostly diagonal east to west. So when we touched down in the middle of Morocco after blissfully uneventful 8 hour, then 2 hour flights from Chicago, to Madrid, to Marrakesh, it was a relatively short drive westward to reach the lovely seaside town of Essaouira as our “intro” to the country.

Many hotels are referred to as “riads” in Morocco, and our Riad Chbanate had sent a driver to collect us from the airport in an SUV. With my background of “fly thrifty” I’m not used to having a checked bag at all but my trio of traveling companions each had a couple of bags, and we were fairly jam packed into the vehicle. Our driver Hamoudeh spoke enough English to be jovial and convivial but due to jet lag, we were surprisingly quiet on most of the drive as we each passed in and out of drooping sleep in turn.

We arrived outside the walled Old City of Essaouira by 5 or so, and a porter from the riad met us at the car to take our many bags. Cars are not allowed inside the city (although moped riders either are allowed, or no one cares enough to stop them). The old city is, surprisingly, not actually that old in the scheme of things, having only been built in the mid 1700’s. Still old enough though that the narrow, dim, winding streets would certainly not fit any modern 4-wheeled vehicles. Chbanate (the riad, and the street it’s named after that it’s situated on) is placed right along the easternmost wall of the old city, so it wasn’t a long walk.

After an hour to very briefly nap, we set out for dinner. Although we were no more than a kilometer from the ocean breaking along the fortress walls, the tall thick stone buildings absorbed almost every sound. The eastern part of the city seemed to be mostly residential and not very touristy at all. Small restaurants, little more than stands, would have little groups of local families clustered around them chatting quietly. As we continued westward for another five minutes, European looking tourists increased until finally we burst onto a well lit main street covered with souvenir stands and cats, lounging everywhere.

Speaking of cats, the culture – at least of Essaouira as I can’t yet speak for the rest of Morocco – seems to be similar to Istanbul, where cats are most beloved and found as endearing. A welcome change toward the relative antipathy the average Jordanian, at least in my neighborhood, had toward them. Over the past couple of days I’ve seen several men, managers of touristy trinket shops, dutifully shaking out plastic bags of kibble into beautifully painted bowls, surrounded by a dozen mewing kitties gently patting his leg and gazing soulfully up at him. The majority of the cats I attempted to interact with were curious and friendly, coming up to my outstretched hand and rubbing their faces up against it and trilling at me. My aunt in particular adores cats and is greatly enjoying this aspect of the trip.

Dar Baba was our dinner destination for the night, at the recommendation of the riad. I could tell we were in a majority-Muslim country due to the cocktails being more expensive than the main courses, at 150 dirham ($15) apiece. But it was our first night and worth celebrating successful flights, so all four of us had one.

The next day we had a 9am tour of the near-Essaouira region with a nice young guide named Rachid. While it was supposed to only be a six hour tour, Rachid seemed to be enjoying his time with us so much that he kept us out for another 3 hours beyond that, and even though my mom and aunt kept saying, we should be paying you more, and isn’t your wife worried about you since we’re keeping you so long? He would just laugh, shake his head and say he was enjoying himself too.

To start, he drove us to a small village, Korimat, that was having their Saturday Souq (market) to sell products of all types to the even smaller villages around it. Everything from camels and donkeys on one end of the sales spectrum to Star Wars children’s pencil cases were up for grabs. Mostly though, we saw argan nuts/pods and olives – bushels of them being brought in from the vast swaths of farmland surrounding us to be weighed and purchased in bulk by resellers who would take them off to processing plants elsewhere.

What is argan exactly? Some sort of nut that women like their shampoo to have in it apparently? We went to a woman-owned argan cooperative next, Afous Argan, where a team of wonderful muhejebeh (headscarf-wearing) ladies welcomed us enthusiastically and showed us their muscular team of grinders, using stone grinding wheels to methodically pulverize the seeds within into oil – roasted seeds if the oil was destined to be for food, unroasted if it were to be used for cosmetics or hair. I hung back at the door as our guide shook the hands of my aunt and mother. In Jordan, a bescarved woman would never shake an unknown man’s hand. It just wasn’t done! But she smiled as she turned to my dad and I, and shook our hands each in turn as well.

Rachid was quick to emphasize that while Morocco is Muslim, it is not the middle east and their culture is not as restricted in many ways. After having a light lunch of tajine-cooked chicken with hyperlocal olives at the home of his aunt and uncle on their farm, I attempted to thank his aunt for cooking for us in Arabic. I apologized for only speaking Shami, the Levantine Arabic that is common in Syria, Lebanon, Palestine, and Jordan, to which Rachid chuckled and said, actually they only speak Berber in this village, so she can’t understand your Arabic at all. (he translated, of course – thanks to the influx of Egyptian movies throughout the Arabic-speaking world, and Shami’s similarity to Musri (Egyptian), he had no difficulty understanding my simple, if accented, sentences).

After we returned to Essaouira, Rachid’s tour continued as he showed us the original fortress that had protected the city from European attacks after it was constructed by the Moroccan sultan. Apparently the king had asked a French architect to design the layout of the city, and the king also wanted the city to immediately thrive in business, so he asked many prominent Jews from throughout the region to move to his new city and handle imports and exports. Until the 1960’s and Israel’s well-known campaign for Jews to move to their new country, there had been a very large number of synagogues and Jews in the city. After the Reconquest in Europe, when the Muslims, and then the Jews had been kicked out of Spain via Gibraltar, apparently a large number of the Jews had remained in Morocco, specifically Essaouira.

Rachid took us to an old synagogue, Beyt al Thekira (House of Memories), that in January 2020, the King had converted to a museum to commemorate the long history of collaboration between Jewish people and Moroccans (apparently one of the king’s closest advisors is a Jew from Essouria, and that man’s daughter is the head of UNESCO). He gestured to the middle of the central courtyard where a Qur’an and a Torah sat open, side by side, on a pedestal. “That is something you will not see almost anywhere else in Muslim countries, the two holy books together, but here in Morocco we respect the Jewish people.”

My aunt Betsy is Jewish and what with the current battle going on between Hamas and Israel, she had asked us all to not mention “the J word” in general, and definitely not herself in particular, while in Muslim-majority countries. While on our layover in Madrid, she mentioned that in the past couple weeks, several people in her home city have refused to speak to her. I looked over at her now as Rachid was talking and saw tears on her cheeks. “There’s something I should tell you… I’m Jewish” she said quietly. He replied that he had figured. The two of them embraced.

Before we bade farewell to Rachid, I asked him where the name Essaouira had come from, and he told me that it came from the Arabic word pronounced “sowwer” which I knew well, as it meant ‘to take a picture’ at least in the Jordanian slang I knew (I can never speak for Classical/Qur’anic Arabic) – I would say ‘tuh-suwwerni?” to people all the time in order to ask them to take a picture of me when I’d be at various photogenic locales. “They named it that because the city was as pretty as a picture,” he said. I recalled that as we had drove over the last big hill just to the east, there had indeed been a beautiful viewpoint overlooking the white and blue painted city, with massive ocean waves crashing behind it. I could totally believe it!

It’s not true unfortunately, so either he was joking with me or misinformed. The real meaning of the name, just about how the city was planned and constructed from the outset with security walls around it, is a little less poetic, but according to Wikipedia it was even typically called “Mogador” (all the restaurants and businesses we saw with that in the name now suddenly made sense) until the 1960’s after the Islamic leader who lived in the original village in the middle ages, so even the bland “walled city” name is even more recent than the relatively recent city!

Blandness of name aside, it was a lovely two day stay in the city. I definitely recommend Riad Chbanate (the dinner we had there on our 2nd night was also excellent). Come and take lots of sowwers of your own.