Hills give way to the Rif mountains, olive groves to pines and the long ascent to Chefchaouen begins. Founded in 1471, Chaouen (as it is known here) was a mountain stronghold for jews and moriscos – refugees of the reconquista in Spain. In fact, nowhere in Morocco has such strong and direct connections with its neighbour to the north. The town was seized again by Spain in 1920 and only returned to a newly independent Morocco in 1956, complete with the empty mosque the Spanish had built to ingraciate themselves and which was never used.
For years it has held an allure for the traveller – its Andalucian visuals, the unique culture that arose through the isolation and blending of diverse populations and not least because the surrounding countryside is one of Morocco’s principle production zones for kif; hashish to you and me.
As we finally pull into town it is larger than either of us expected, encompassing as it does a sprawling Ville Nouvelle. I glance at K who has been looking forward to awakening to the braying of donkeys each morning and to rural scenes of pastoral charm; she is processing her “not going to happen” moment and over the next couple of days I will process a few of my own. The truth is our encounter with this “pueblo azul” is characterised by disappointment and diarrhoea.
About the disappointment; a trip to this town it seems is not the same as an encounter with its culture or its people. The visitor is held at arm’s length. One can smoke kif, shop, or eat and that’s about it.
We sit down to dinner one evening in a restaurant that has been designed (horribly) to evoke an arabian dream or some such nonsense. Never mind that Chaouen and Morocco for that matter is Berber – not Arab.
The restaurant is of course done out entirely in blue just as the town is and we sit there feeling a little blue, truth be told. The Buena Vista Social Club is playing in the background and the Cuban soundtrack is jarring to say the least. It comes to a stop thankfully and is followed by (have you guessed yet?) some blues.
I’m not making this up.
The whole – blue-heavy – melange is too much. It conceals Chefchaouen. For this and the other reason we begin crankily referring to the place after a couple of days as “Shitchaouen”.
About the diarrhoea; you don’t need to know. Suffice it to say that what took place in the men’s toilets at Chaouen bus station when we went there to get our tickets home was unspeakable. It’s going to stay with me for a very long time.
Blue is a cold colour. The stalls and souks that line the main square and the few streets behind it before the town slopes steeply upwards – as it has done for centuries – are more like a line of defence than a welcoming embrace; a confrontation. We wander in the higher reaches and although no one says anything untoward we do not feel welcome up there in the scruffier residential streets.
I point my camera at yet another set of blue steps but a traditionally dressed woman wants to ascend them with her child . She admonishes me not to photograph her and I of course acquiesce, waiting till she has disappeared around a corner before I get my shot. Then it dawns on me that even my waiting is intrusive – she casts a number of backward glances to make sure I am not surreptitiously picturing her.
Regular viewers of the photoblog will know that my shots do not often include people, though there are exceptions. I am no fan of a certain type of shot – women in antique clothing engaging in antique tasks, the child in the medina running past the photographer, the shot of an “ethnic” and wrinkled face looking directly into the lens. They often appear posed but I believe it’s usually the case that they’re staring in disbelief at the affrontery of someone who has pointed their camera without introducing themselves or asking for permission.
We’ve all seen them, usually in reputable publications. At best an iconography of nostalgia; at worst the pornography of racism. Look at the brown people; wide-eyed as they stare back at us – at our intrusion, our dominance. When a camera is used as a weapon a photograph is an act of violence.
Up here and down there in the square the older generation – men in hooded djellabahs, women in sometimes colourful full-length skirts and headscarves – are like ghosts to us and us to them. They wander around their own town with the haunted look of the once again refugee.
This is a place that has woken up an umpteenth time to the reality of invasion. They’ve had it before with the Spanish and now they have it with, well, mainly with the Spanish – who flock here from the mainland and from the nearby Spanish enclave of Ceuta on the African coast, taking time off in the one town in this country that most resembles their own. As Chaouenis spurned the Spanish mosque in the past so now they are retreating uphill and taking their community with them.
The visitor is left to smoke, or shop, or eat.
I wonder to myself, as one of those visitors, if there is nothing about Chaouen’s culture -about Berber culture- apart from blankets and baskets that we might take an interest in; that we might find a way to celebrate and support? To respect.
From time to time you hear music. More often than not it has a Berber quality – Berber music is percussive, repetitive and thrilling and I get snippets of it in Chaouen which cheers me up a little. However it always seems to be coming from somewhere I can’t go; the mosque, the school, the madrasa.
It makes the hairs on my arm stand and reminds me of Siwa in Egypt – the furthest eastern outpost in the Berber world. It’s a place that is still happily engaged with its visitors, perhaps because it doesn’t feel overwhelmed by them.
The music and – in a strange way – the reserve of the townspeople here in the face of this latest invasion, reassure me. They still have it, I convince myself, but they’re not going to give it away so easily this time.
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