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El Jadida—and an ode to the new one.

May 30, 2010

A recent article in the New York Times announced that, sometimes, a laid-back, low-key destrination is just the ticket. I concur.

Sometimes, a destination off the beaten path can in fact be better, you see? Perfect in the simplest of ways. Unexpectedly pleasant. Unforgettable. Full of tranquil surprises. Soothing, soothing to the eye… And to the soul.

Oh yes! I concur. Because I visited an anonymous town in Morocco, and was captivated. I never imagined it, never thought of going there. But I did, by chance, and was captivated.

El Jadida, an unassuming, unpretentious Moroccan coastal town. Yet, indeed unforgettable. Indeed soothing.

AK always mentioned it, he always told me about it. He spends countless weekends there, and visits it in the summer with his friends. I never thought of it. I barely knew anything about it, only minimal pieces of trivia: El Jadida is the hometown of the celebrated Moroccan writer Driss Chraibi, and the prominent Moroccan artist Chaibia Talal; and off the top of my head, I knew that it had a Portuguese past. But it had never made it to my list of wished-for destinations. Not even because of AK’s obvious interest in it.

And then, while planning one of my trips to Morocco, AK suggested that we stay in El Jadida. I consented, uncertain but with an open mind, and on a Sunday night, a Moroccan grand taxi brought me from Marrakesh and dropped me in downtown El Jadida. There I was. At the hometown of Driss Chraibi and Chaibia Talal, at another town with a Portuguese past. Tired lights coming from poles illuminated the streets, a light breeze gently blew my face. AK looked at me trying to see in my face something to tell him about my first impression of the town he had talked so much about. I looked around, I took it in.

A few minutes went by, AK hailed a taxi. A white Renault pulled over in front of us, we hopped in. As the car drove away, I sat in the back seat, trying to discover the town in the dark: white walls, speed bumps, elegant houses a manicured park with picnic tables, motorcycles neatly driving by, streets with scattered lights and lined with short palm trees, the air and smell of the ocean water, an imposing Acima at a certain interception. And then, we arrived at the apartment building where we were to stay. Four flights up, and we knocked at the house of Jalal and Hassna, AK’s uncle and his wife, and definitely two of the most gracious hosts I’ve ever had. A young couple, like us, they welcomed me as if they had forever known me.

We spent six weeks in El Jadida. Six unfussy, modest weeks. Quiet, undisturbed walks along golden-sand beaches; the historical, thick alleys of the medina; the always colorful, always alive streets of the outskirts of the city. Short trips to the countryside. Breakfast after midnight. Koufta dinners by the side of the road. Trips to the market in search of fresh ingredients. Nights of unmistakably Moroccan music, accompanied by the unavoidable dancing lessons. Messy hair. Trips to the hamman.

I was captivated.

 

Every day, as we again strolled around the city, I was struck by the infinite charm of a place I knew nothing about. And I found myself happy to be there as I wondered how come it had never been in my list of wished-for destinations. Oh yes! I was captivated. By its unexpected beauty, by the mysterious contrast of its humble and shattered yet majestic character.

Its massive walls of hewn stone. Its discreet Moorish lines. The vestiges of its Portuguese past. Its eclectic aesthetics. The chilled attitude of its lucky inhabitants. Beaches, with sand the color of orange sunsets, extending further than the eye can reach. The way the sun set over the palm trees and painted everything gold. The lazy streets. Moroccan crafts hanging from the outside walls of sleepy shops. Its undeniable Moroccan spirit.

Children play loud games of ball next to the walls of crumbling buildings marked by time. Women stroll along in groups, holding whispered conversations. Old men stand in pairs, facing the ocean, reflecting and discussing life lessons, while young ones sit alone with their thoughts, perhaps wishing they already knew the lessons the old men can talk about.

 **********************

For a bit of historical and practical information:

El Jadida lies on the Moroccan Atlantic coast, less than 60 miles south of Casablanca. The Portuguese took control over the city in the early 16th century and remained in power for over 200 yeas. During their stay, the city was known as Mazagan, or in Portuguese Mazagão. In 1769, it came back under Moroccan control, during the rule of Sultan Sidi Mohammed ben Abdellah. When the Portuguese left, the town was burned down and rubuilt and resettled in the 19th century, during the rule of Sultan Abd er-Rahman. It was at that time that Mazagan was baptized with its Arabic named of El Jadida, or “the new.”

El Jadida is an important port city, and as such it is the main port for Marrakesh and several other Moroccan cities. However, it’s the beach that is the indisputable main interest. Moroccans from Casablanca and Marrakesh, and from all over the country, as a matter of fact, come to El Jadida in masse during the summertime; the beach isn’t very popular among tourists. In all honesty, the beaches of El Jadida look amazingly beautiful, but they aren’t the cleanest—they are considerably polluted from the ships at the nearby port. If I want to take a dip, I’d choose the ideal alternatives at Sidi Bouzid and Phare Sidi Ouafi.

El Jadida has very modest sightseeing. But the again, the charm of the city is mostly in its mood and in the way it captures what it does have. The main attractions are the Portuguese Cistern; the Church of the Assumption; the Porte fe la Mer, from which the Portuguese left in 1769; and the four remaining bastions (they were five originally): Bastion de St. Sebastian, Bastion the St. Antoine, Bastion the St. Espirit, and Bastion de L’Ange. The Grand Mosque of El Jadida is interesting due to the fact that it seems to be the only pentagonal minaret in the world.

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