Published in Dawn’s Prism on 22 January 2020
As our bus moved away from Rabat, traversing the plains and the slopes, and then wound its way up the Rif mountains, I looked at the view: scenic, yes, but those who have seen the Himalayan and Karakoram ranges and its many valleys, the Rif mountainous region has nothing to write home about. But when the contours of the ‘Blue Pearl’ of Morocco started to emerge, I couldn’t take my eyes off the window of the moving bus. Nestled up on the mountain terrace, the city looked enticing in its many shades of blues and neat structures. Spelt Chefchauoen, a word I had wondered about and was not able to pronounce properly, turned out to be شفشاون on a signboard in Arabic — simple and melodious.
The bus dropped us at the station located at the slope of the valley amidst the sleepy city’s administration buildings and new residential areas. We took a taxi to get to the medina, the walled city founded more than six centuries ago and got down at the main square. That Friday, the square, lined with small cafés and shops, was bustling with activity as the weekly vegetable market set up at the centre was in full swing. We waited for the person from Dar Meziana, the guest house we had booked in, to fetch us.
A young man came to guide the way and we entered the old stone arch Bab el Ain. Inside the arched door, a labyrinthine network of narrow alleyways spiralled up, lined on both sides by blue doors and walls. One of the alleys with stairs painted blue led us to Der Meziana. Inside the patio of the hotel, very fine paintings —street scenes from Shafshawan — and decorative tiles with silhouettes of Moroccan men in jellaba and women in kaftan painted in pastel shades adorned the walls, all signed by the same artist. The young man at the desk told me the artist is a friend of the owner. When asked if the tiles were available for purchase, he showed me several reproductions for sale and I bought three.
We got up at the break of dawn on the echo of the azaan. From the balcony, the city appeared peaceful and quiet, with its many shades of blue gleaming in the golden morning rays. After the sumptuous breakfast at the terrace of the guest house, we set out to explore the medina. The main street had small shops on both sides, full of exquisite handicrafts — woollen, leather, wood and ceramics, and paintings by local artists.
Dotted by tea shops and dhabas, the street was coming alive, with shops opening and sellers arranging their ware and crafts on bamboo baskets. The pace was relaxed. The alleys shooting out from the main streets had potted plants and at several places, doors were covered with grapevines, bougainvillaea and other creepers. At vantage locations, signboards of riads and spas peeped out from the foliage.
Most of the shops and galleries in the old medina are owned and run by the families of local artisans and artists themselves. In Morocco, I observed that artisans and craftsmen, working under many cooperatives, are respected and valued for their skills by society and supported by the state through exhibitions (i.e. Artisan Expo), trade shows and linkages to international artists and experts in the field. The younger generation, that receives 12 or 14 years of schooling, often take to the family craft and trade.
Ayub, a young man of 23 who manages a small gallery, tells us he comes from a family of painters. His elder brother, Ismail, and his cousin Yousuf — whose signatures we noted on the many canvases — paint scenes, mostly in oil colours, from Shafshawan. Both have studied up to baccalaureate level. They say, “Most of us love to draw and paint. We learn it from our parents. Shafshawan city does not have an art school. But nearby at Tetuoan, we have a fine arts school’.”
Another shop full of painted ceramics and tiles, canvases, local objects d’art and hand-made jewellery is owned and run by a soft-spoken 38-year-old Mohammad Ouragli, who paints with a unique medium — sand mixed with colours. Ouragli tells us he is from Andalusia. Shafshawan, founded in 1471 by Abu al-Hassan Ali ibn Moussa ibn Rashid al-Alami as a small fortress to fight off the Portuguese invasion of northern Morocco, provided refuge to Muslims and Jews fleeing from Andalusia, Spain. Until today, many of the residents feel proud of their roots.
Shafshawan was full of tourists — mostly Europeans, Americans and Japanese — strolling the alleys, taking pictures. We came to know that the city has some Chinese residents as well: we spotted signboards of Chinese food and visited one of their dhabas.
With minimum, basic furniture, this small place is managed by Tin, a 30-year-old Chinese woman, and her two friends. The food was good, prepared by a Chinese chef.
During a chat, Tin told us she and her friends come from Hunan. A few years back she, a school teacher, and her male friends visited Shafshawan and fell in love with the place. They decided for a longer stay, invested some money, rented a place and started the eatery, catering to the few Chinese families residing in the city and tourists.
“I like it here. The pace is slow, not like in China, which is so frenzied, just work, work, work. We now shuttle between Hunan and Shafshawan. We plan to try out this mode of living for three years.”
We were told that the residents paint their houses and alleys twice a year with a mixture of chalk, pigment and water. I wondered if it was a sense of collective identity and collective good that all agree on one colour or was it due to a royal decree? It was difficult for me to find the answer from locals due to the language barrier. Whatever the answer, a traveller in Morocco gets the impression that each city has developed its own distinct identity and the inhabitants are proud of it. Apparently this has come about through an urban planning process which involves rehabilitation and sustenance of historic sites, creation and maintenance of public spaces, consultation and consensus of residents, respect of traditional culture and its blending with modernity and enriching with state-of-the-art techniques.