I first visited Morocco in 2001. We visited palaces, hamams, madrasas and gardens and stayed in riads, tents and a couple of real dives. My many memories are punctuated by mosaic tile patterns, beautiful trickling fountains, vast sunny courtyards surrounded by colonnades and green-roofed mosque minarets. I found the architecture, interior design and crafts inspiring and I have long harboured a desire to live in such beautiful surroundings. I tried to inject an essence of Morocco into my home in Edinburgh, Scotland. But a life surrounded by artifacts of my travels is not the same as a life lived abroad, and my heart lies in Essaouira. I now have the opportunity to move to Morocco and live the dream.
My aim is to buy a property in which I can run a guesthouse in Essaouira, a small port town on the Atlantic Coast. Before I can buy a property I need to find one. Although the purchasing process is largely based on the French equivalent, it becomes more complex once you consider renovating, building or exploiting the building commercially. I read a helpful, if outdated, book, ‘Buying a House in Morocco,’ by Abby Aron, before putting myself at the mercy of estate agents and the smsaar (someone in Morocco who doesn’t necessarily have a proper business but who has the keys to several houses and will happily take a commission for introducing you to them and their owners). Frankly, some estate agents deserve the bad press! They can turn the dream into a nightmare. Thus far I have been shown several properties I can’t afford, followed by a run-down ruin within my budget. It’s a blunt tactic and, as I don’t have a secret bundle of cash or rich relatives to lend me a few extra thousand pounds/euros, not a very effective one. Fortunately, not all property developers/agents are like this and slowly I am learning who to trust. Each time my instincts are proven right I become more confident in telling the hustlers and hasslers where to go!
It can get depressing, but every day I am reminded of the fabulous quality of life in sunny Essaouira. And I recall the accounts I have read of others who have gone before me and how they have overcome the trials, tribulations – and in one case, haunting – to follow their dreams.
Yes, you read correctly: a haunted house. Author Tahir Shah has lived for many years in a former Caliph’s House in Casablanca. Shah is of Afghan decent and through his books ‘The Caliph’s House’ and ‘In Arabian Nights’ we can see that he has a knack of tapping into the very lifeblood of Moroccan culture through his understanding of Islam, the historical connections across the Muslim world and his acute understanding of the importance of oral history and storytelling in such societies. However, his descriptions of the time spent buying, renovating and living in the Caliph’s House demonstrate how even someone so sensitive to the local culture is challenged to understand manipulative characters, recalcitrant workers, puzzling loyalties and the strength of belief in jinn – spirits which, inconveniently, are to be found everywhere but in a handy lamp or bottle. Despite such obstacles and tests, the overwhelming impression one gets from reading his books is that Shah is determined to adapt himself to the local culture and community, no matter how irrational either appear to him.
Miranda Innes’ ‘Cinnamon City’ reads as a litany of frustrations: a wobbly relationship, a dodgy car, poor personnel decisions and a seemingly never-ending construction project. While her problems are undoubtedly irritating and while they certainly make it hard to stay focused on the benefits of owning a fully-renovated riad in the Marrakech medina, they are described in such as way as to appear somewhat predictable and potentially avoidable with a little forethought. She doesn’t have to deal with any jinns, at least. The biggest contrast with Shah’s experiences, however, is how – despite her interesting references to Moroccan culture and her clear attempts to understand it – Innes still seems to expect Morocco to bend to her will. Unsurprisingly, when it doesn’t, she is doubly frustrated. All ends well, however, and the final result: Riad Mazie, is still a fully functioning and well-reviewed guesthouse.
Suzanna Clarke’s ‘A House in Fez’ was the first of the Moroccan-property-nightmare-comes-good genre that I read. Despite some (what I would now recognise as typical) run-ins with double-booked tradesmen, jobsworth local officials and missed deadlines, Clarke’s book manages to retain a sense of optimism, interspersed as it is by vignettes of genuine intercultural exchange, albeit often misunderstood, misinterpreted or potentially disastrous. Regardless of the success of Clarke’s interactions with neighbours, newfound friends and others in the local community, she – like Shah, but from a point much further back on the learning curve – demonstrates a genuine desire to better understand Fassis (as the inhabitants of Fez are known) and live according to their practices and rhythms.
All three of these books have highlighted some important practical points for me with regard to my project. For example, the build always takes more time and money than the estimate (but then I knew that from experience in the UK!). Equally importantly, they provide some lessons for life more generally. In Morocco everything takes longer than we Europeans expect. And it is only by taking my time, by trusting my instincts and by slowly getting to know people and their customs, identifying their interests and learning who to trust, that I will succeed. I have chosen to make my life in Morocco – it is not by expecting Morocco to be anything other than itself that I can achieve this. It won’t be easy and there will be aspects of my former life that I will miss, but this is my decision and as the experience of those who have gone before me demonstrates: it is far more efficient (and less exhausting) to swim with the tide, not against it.