Journey to the End of the World
by Nicholas Shakespeare, Telegraph Magazine (October 26, 1993)
Forty days by camel from Timbuctu or two hours drive from Marrakesh, you cross a ridge of thorny trees and suddenly, on a spit of land in the Atlantic, you come to one of the most romantic locations on earth. Seconds later you feel a damp smack of wind and stinging particles of sand. If you come at night, you know by the wind and sand you have arrived in Essaouira. There are places on the margins of the world that draw you with a tug. Essaouira is one of these.
Drake was here, and Jimi Hendrix, too. Disraeli was born here, so they tell you in the souk. Also Othello. And once you could not move for British bowler hats.
The wind plucks you towards it. Mogadorians call their wind the alizee. When the alizee blows you can't escape. Sometime in the fifth century BC, it blew over an unfortunate army who disappeared in a sandstorm in these parts as they ate lunch. That's rather what it' s done to Mogador.
Approaching from a long, empty beach, the first thing you see is a cane-brake of white minarets, their whiteness severed by a line of rust-red ramparts. Unusually for a Moroccan town, streets are symmetrically laid out and lead in one direction to a square planted with seven rub trees, in the other towards a market where it is still possible to buy belladonna to lethargise lover who shows signs of leaving.
Otherwise this is not a busy town. The men are either fishermen or craftsmen who carve intricate boxes from the knotty roots of the thuya tree. When the wind drops away, the air filled with the scent of sawn timber. The thuya boxes, feebly fastened by tin locks, are town's principal industry. That and sardines.
Of past glories, when this harbour was port for Timbuctu and the most important commercial centre in the country, there are few traces. There is no sign at all of those who dominated the trade: Anglo-Jewish merchant dark gaberdines who effectively turned Mogador into a British outpost Not centuries ago but within the cast of living memory.
I have come in search of the buried British to see if any of our spoor remains. I want to see, something might be resurrected from the sand
Those who feel impelled to the edge of the world will tend to find the British there dangling their legs. Outside the walls is the Consul Cemetery, crammed with our officials who died en poste . They are buried on the clifftop where they can listen to the waves and the patrolling gulls whose beaks are marked with a tomato-red spot as if they had been feeding.
Many of the graves gape open, robbed, yet it is possible to make out some names. George Nercutsos, formerly of Bowden, Cheshire. William Grace. Cecil George Broome (British Consul in Morocco). . . When the writer Robert Cunninghame-Graham arrived in Mogador in 1897, 'half the population were consuls of some semi-bankrupt state'. There was even a Patagonian consul: a Turco-Austrian gun-runner, Abdul Kerim Bey. Not having a P in their alphabet, the Arabs thought Batagonia was somewhere in Franguestan - 'and that contented them'.
But these men transformed Mogador into a trading-post with closer links to Manchester than to Rabat. Here, for instance, lies R.N.L. Johnstom, who wrote: 'A certain foreign gentle man wanted, ironically, to know if Mogador belonged to the Sultan or to Queen Victoria. The response, with hand on heart, was " Bijujhum ya senor "- to both,sir".
On a tombstone mourning the death of two young daughters I come across another name. The sun is so bright I have to make a shadow with my hand in order to read the words. But there they are: 'CHARLES ALFRED PAYTON'.
Archetypal of Britain's presence in Mogador during the late 19th century, Payton served as consul here for 16 years, rising to become doyen of the Diplomatic Service. A day before he sailed from London, his head of department took him aside. 'Now let me give you a tip,' he said. 'The less we hear of you the better we shall like you.'
Payton had jumped at the Mogador appointment as eagerly 'as leaps the speckled trout at the gauzy-winged mayfly'. A stout, white-bearded man from Scarborough, he was, among his other incarnations, a maniacal fisherman who wrote for the Field under the pen-name, 'Sarcelle'. 'Whether he has been too prolix another generation will tell,' was one verdict his columns. He appears to have spent most of his time in Mogador researching these pieces of fishing for dark-striped bream and potting in the sand-dunes.
Doubling as British postmaster, as well as vice-consul for Belgium, Norway, Turkey and Palestine, he spent his happiest years in 'jolly Mogador'. 'I am the consul of the Great Women Queen over yonder,' he would boast, but the British community consisted of no more than 150, his duties were not onerous a he was able for the most part to confine them reading aloud each day a ten-minute sermon from the Bishop Suffragan of Bedford. Once he imprisoned a lascar and on a separate occasion ordered a Jewish girl to 'stop flirting'. Otherwise he passed his hours with rod and gun, accompanied by a large mastiff called Caesar and a pet gazelle, Pup, who had a penchant for Indian curry. He never fell out of love with the place, not even when he returned to Scarborough.
Mogador was a town, he said, for a poet or a painter to dream of hopelessly. Despite the death of his baby daughters, it also possessed a charming climate for bronchial complaints. 'Is this heaven or earth?' one visitor breathlessly asked, the rheumatic daughter of a Megavissey vicar. To Charles Payton, the 'patient piscator', her question was rhetorical. 'I wouldn't change my seat in the old boat, my good rod and my little soft cap for any throne, scepter or crown in the universe.'
Across the road is the Jewish cemetery, my true destination. Its gate is locked, but after a while an elderly guardian admits me. The graveyard resembles the foundations of a ruined city, each family a street. A dog pants on one of the coffin-shaped blocks. The guardian picks up a sheep's skull and tosses it over the wall. I try to read the names, but few are legible. The wind has licked them away, adding its own Aramaic.
'Anyone in particular?' I tell him I am looking for the Belisha family. He thinks. 'Belisha?'
A man almost forgotten now, Leslie Hore-Belisha enjoyed a spasmodic fame in the Thirties. He was Minister for War in 1939 and before that Home Secretary and Transport Minister. Intimates remember his flamboyance and amazing laziness. Says one friend, 'I used to go round to lunch and a voice would say, "Help yourself to a drink" , and he was just getting dressed.' Immortalized to pedestrians, however, as the creator of the Belisha beacon, Hore-Belisha is of interest to this story because of his descent from a Mogador-Manchester tobacco trader. Another friend was the expatriate, David Herbert. Herbert tells me: 'One day I was talking to Leslie and he said "Do you ever go to Mogador?" I said, "Yes, I do, often," and he said "Do go and find our family cemetery, but don't look for Hore-Belisha. You must look for Horeb-Elisha " When did this conversation take place?' I ask. 'It was sort of beacon time,' says Herbert.
But the guardian is shaking his head. 'Belisha?' he repeats. 'What did he do?' I try in French to summarize the achievements. From over the wall comes an angry klaxoning. A boy's hand raises a whip to a hidden carriage horse. 'He also outlawed hooting at night,' I remember, and then, although I don't believe the story,'. . . or it could be Horeb-Elisha.' This name rings no bell either - and the guardian has been here 40 years. He leads me to one of the few tombs in his care with a legible inscription. 'Could it be Corcos?' he asks. 'The Corcos had family in England'. It must be Corcos,' and he raps on the postone, pleased with himself.
I drive south to meet Ernest Corcos, the last man alive who remembers Jolly Old Mogador.He was born there 90 years ago, but left a while back. 'It was the main commercial port in Morocco.' 'Maintenant, il n'y a rien' .
'It's not worth spending two days there,' says Madame Corcos, who hated the place. Corcos's father was an irrepressible merchant-cum-journalist, also the founder of Mogador's British Club. Corcos says, speaking with a slight lisp, 'My grandmother is English.' 'Was, was, was,' says his wife, stroking a cat. The family were well known. They started Mogador's two English schools, run by Ernest Corcos's aunts, and prayed at their own synagogue. The wooden ark in the Maida Vale synagogue is an exact replica of the Corcos ark, built s by Mogadorians in London who wanted a reminder of their town at the end of the world. Corcos tells me about Mogador during the first two decades of this century. The lisp in his English is because he was shot six times by the Germans in the Italian campaign. Oddly, the bullets haven't affected his Arabic, except when he pronounces English words which have been absorbed into that language. Words like 'dzam'' for jam, 'wardaropa' for wardrobe and 'kicks' for cakes - all products introduced by the British.
These are Corcos's childhood memories: a huge gates closing at eight every evening and a fear of invasion by the local chieftain. Once, the authorities captured a brigand. 'I remember seeing a man in an iron cage circulating on a donkey. I saw it with my own eyes.'
His father, Leon, was the agent for Halford's, - a Manchester firm exporting cotton. Corcos used to watch his father's cotton landing from England in 300-kilo bundles. It was rowed through the choppy water in small boats then lifted by four men on a wooden frame. The cloth was cornflower blue, tailored for Saharans who came on regular caravans from Timbuctu. Those caravans had in the past carried negro slaves and gold, reputed to grow freely in the ground like carrots. Now they swayed from the desert top-heavy with ostrich feathers, gum, almonds and camel skins to make shoes. He said 'I would go in the morning to see the merchants arrive. They came maybe three, four times a year, having traveled 2,000 kilometers. The men were always blue, and they had blue faces.'
'Blue faces?' 'It's true - the spray made the dye run'.
Britain accounted for 80 per cent town's trade. A ship docked from London fortnights, the journey taking five days, and the the wheel stood a red-faced whisky-lover called Captain Campbell. Leon Corcos founded cricket team to play Campbell's crew. They played on the beach and Leon would strike the ball across the sand, thwack , like a Frenchman.
Besides cotton, the Forwood Line steamer carried China tea, sweets, rough crockery from Stafford, silver plate from Sheffield and thousands of bowler hats. 'All the Jews won bowlers.' Corcos reckons there were 9,000 of them. The bowlers made up half the population and the cafes lilted with English accents.
I read some of his father's journalism, wich appeared in a column for the Tangier Gazette entitled 'Mogador Jottings'. An out-of-place urgency infects much of the writing. But it is when Leon Corcos describes Queen Victoria Jubilee celebrations in 1897 that he dazzles 'Mogador Britishers have striven gallantly no to be very far behind their better placed compatriots and they have nobly succeeded.' In animated tones, he describes a town astonished by fireworks displays, gun salutes, musical concerts. The concerts are held in the consul's house and feature the singing of Linger Longer Loo, Private Tommy Atkins, and The Dear Homeland. The singing lasts till 3.30 in the morning.
Afterwards there is a Jubilee picnic for 80. It takes place under the palm trees and the consul gives a rousing speech on British military victories. The lunch ends in disarray as a fierce wind comes up, causing an epidemic of eye-inflammation. This is not the only time Leon Corcos mentions a wind. It is something inescapable. Elsewhere he writes, 'During the whole of last week a northerly wind of terrific force raged in Mogador. It blew so violently that it has blown all my other news away.'
In point of fact, no one was interested in Mogador. That was the sorry truth. And when the end came, frankly not many noticed, save those such as the Corcos family who were already there to greet it.
One can date Mogador's demise from the Berber invasion of 1906. Ernest Corcos was two years old when Kaid Anflous galloped through the gates. The chieftain had with him 200 horsemen. They screamed 'Weeh! Weeh!' the signal for an attack on a Christian or Jew and they brandished Winchester rifles quite likely sold to them by the Patagonian consul.
'They terrorised all the rich Jews,' says Corcos. 'They ordered us to leave our houses and stole our silver. But when they came to our house, my father wouldn't have it.' At 6am four of these armed chleuhs rapped at the door. They shouted for Leon Corcos to let his family out. He told them he was staying put. He said his dignity simply didn't permit him to submit to such a rapacious order. Confronted by this indignant extrovert, the men below weren't sure how to proceed. They demanded to be given something. A mattress? A pillow-case? Anything.
'I categorically refuse,' he said.
Leon Corcos held out until the arrival of a French cruiser, but thereafter he walked with armed guard. From this time on, his column has a desperate air. 'Mogador stands absolutely helpless - and it is the farthest port from Europe!' The picture city had become a prison.
His wife strokes the cat ' Pussy, tu as dis bonjour? '
I ask Corcos if he remembers the Belisha family. 'The Belishas?' Yes, he knew the family. They were 'fairly prosperous' and dressed in frock coats. He thinks they lived in the old Jewish quarter. The mellah.
I enter Mogador by the gate near the cemeteries. The crowd is enormous, so large it swallows you on stepping through the arch. It is composed of women in white haiks and men in sand-coloured jellabahs , floating forward in squid-like movements. The current bobs you towards the mellah, with eddies on either side. Four girls debate the merits of six sheep's heads arranged on a blue tarpaulin. A man looms at a window, his cigarette a red dot at his mouth. A veiled woman trails a volume of mint.
I am looking for Mr Cohen, a Jewish silversmith who claims to be one of only 12 Jews left in Mogador. Twelve out of 9,OOO.
He is busy behind his counter. Yes, he knows where the Belishas lived: '56 rue de Mellah'. 'Can you take me?' He is reluctant 'Please.'
We walk quickly through the shoulder-wide s streets to a large whitewashed building entered by a small blue door. The door is open. A damp patch disfigures the narrow stairwell.
'These three houses together,' he says stretchting his arms. 'They were of the family Belisha.'
A man emerges from the next-door bakery. What's going on? Mr Cohen explains my interest. Suddenly proud, he boasts, 'Monsienr Belisha was a minister of war or something. In England.' The baker doesn't look very fascinated, and Mr Cohen takes his leave.
I am peering inside when someone brushes past. The man wears a mud-spattered jellabah and is unshaven. 'Only rnusselmen here.' He wags a finger. But a young girl, Fatima, waits for him to disappear andsays, 'Come.'
In the open courtyard there's a brazier and a drying blanket and some thin orange cats. Two veiled women lean down from above, their chatter stopping abruptly. Fatima leads me to the roof. Thirty families live in this building, she says. There used to be many more, but the neighboring house has been evacuated. The sea had breached the walls, eating away the tender stone. No, she has not heard oft he building's original owners.
I don't know when it was the Belishas abandoned 56 rue de Mellah. But they scattered to Buenos Aires, Turkey, Manchester. In Britain the name perished with Hore-Belisha. It is recollected only in a throbbing orange globe and the introduction of silent zones, forbidding the hooting of car horns between the hours of 11.30pm and 7am.
From the Belisha roof, you look over the whole of Mogador.You see the island where Drake ate Christmas lunch in 1577 and saw 'verie ugly fish'. The gulls nest there now, squirting their mustardy excrement on to trespassers.
You see the outlines of a Phoenician dye factory, the purple shipped to Rome for use on Imperial togas. (When the son of the local ruler visited Rome in a robe purpled from the murex of Mogador, Caligula had him executed.)
You see the robes that flap dry above the mellah, today a red-light district known as Chicago. The size of these haiks accounts for the diaphanous shapes of the mellah prostitutes.
The haiks in Mogador are a yard wider than anywhere else in Morocco and justly famous for their startling colours. At night the wind wraps the women's haiks about them, so their contours stand out and their features are revealed, rich brown, like faces cooked slowly in argan oil.
One of the very last Englishmen in Mogador lives in what used to be a famous brothel. He says, 'I bought it off the madame, a short, plump woman called Sadia. She kept on saying she looked like Gina Lollobrigida. Her apartment was at the top. In the good old days clients had to leave ten dirhams on each step, with someone , picking up after them. Only the richest made it. She rented the rooms downstairs to 50 fishermen who slept like sardines. But she wouldn't accept sailors, only captains who fell in love with her and then squandered their income. "This," she would say, pointing between her legs, "has been responsible for many shipwrecks".
I think of Sadia that night when I walk to the port and watch the sardine fishermen unloadihg their slippery catch. It is dark on the quay and the gulls fly into the lorry lights like the whites of frightened eyes. They are the souls of sailors a who went down at this latitude.
Watching the gulls from a small, open square set back from the port is an extraordinary effigy. It is not commemorate any consul, merchant or sultan, but Orson Welles. Orson Welles Square celebrates more or less the last occasion anything happened in Mogador.
With the departure of the Jews, the town subsided into obscurity. A few artists settled here, attracted by the light, and some not very good writers. Then, in June 1949,Welles arrived to film Othello . He anticipated a nightmare. 'When I arrived in Mogador, I got a telegram that they [the Italian backers] had gone bankrupt . . . Sixty people! No costumes, no money, no return tickets, nothing!' In the event, Welles experienced 'one of the happiest times I've ever known'. The whole town mucked in as extras, each person rewarded with a daily ration of two dirhams, a tin of sardines, some Coca-Cola an some bread. Welles strode about the ramparts caped as the jealous Moor and apparently lost his false nose during the filming. Mogador not being a place to find replacement noses too easily, he continued with his own - with the result that he appears in the film sometimes big-nosed, sometimes not.
Because there were no costumes, everything had to be improvised. Local workmen were employed to make armour from battered sardine cans and Rodrigo's killing took place in a steam bath, using towels. Afterwards Welles walked in his nightgown through the streets. 'It was heavenly! I was convinced I was going to die. The wind blew all the time which seemed to me associated with my death . . . And I was absolutely, serenely prepared never to leave Mogador.'
Carved from local wood, the image he has left behind is unrecognisable as either Welles or Othello . It has the trim beard of a founding father and rests on narrow shoulders, as if some vital part of the body has plopped into the sea. The statue was unveiled last year by the Crown Prince who renamed the square. Renaming is habit here: four years after Welles's Othello won the Grand Prix at Cannes, Mogador changed its name to Essaouira.
No one knows for certain what Essaouira means. It means, according to whom you speak: ocean rose, fortified place, a picture, a photograph, or "well-drawn" , as in the words uttered by the Sultan in 1764 when shown the rectilinear plans of his French architect, Theodore Cornut. As Essaouira, Mogador has not shone. There was an interlude in the late Sixties where the nearby village of Diabat, seen along the beach, became a popular hippy resort. In the dunes where Consul Payton used to crouch waiting for a whimbrel, there sat cross-legged Jimi Hendrix (on bail from a heroin charge in Toronto), Margaret Trudeau (escaping Pierre) and Cat Stevens. By the Seventies the kif-smokers moved on. Today the beach surveyed by Welles attracts French windsurfers.
I walk from Orson Welles Square through the straight streets. It is raining. I take refuge with a silversmith who says, 'You know Disraeli was born here?' 'He wasn't, actually. 'Well, then, his father.'
I tell him this is a canard too. The at Disraelis came from Venice. But in the absence of sterling evidence, anyone is free to believe anything about Mogador. Politely he listens as I lament the lack of records, of photographs, of postcards even. I complain that the sole monument to the past is a wooden bas-relief of a portly American film-maker.
But it's is in such cramped rooms, in a silversmith's stall, escaping rain, that you find Lady Luck He asks, 'Would you like to meet someone who owns the uniform of a British consul?'
So it is that I meet Mounfir Brahim. A slight Berber in a thick blue jellabah with brown watchful eyes, he is waiting for me at the Cafe de Paris. He confirms the silversmith's unlikely story. He keeps his uniform on a farm 15 miles away.'It's gold,' he says reverentially, 'and there are spare buttons.' He has a quantity of the consul's , other possessions. 'Oof, I have thousands of them, thousands,' and his hand finds a forehead to clap.
We drive to Mounfir's farm. The argan trees are black with pyramids of goats, nibbling the husks. The trees don't grow anywhere else in the world, only in a tiny radius around Mogador. A train of harelipped camels shambles along a path. Mounfir is sick because ; 18,000 camels have come by lorry from the Sahara and they are eating the crops.
We stop before a low white house on the shoulder of a hill. He asks me to wait while he prepares everything. I sit on a wall looking at the trees humbled by wind, the ochre landscape which seems empty but is not. As Mounfir does whatever he is doing, I think of the 'dumb trade' mentioned by Herodotus. From traces of fire discovered in these parts, it is likely Mogador was the location for a transaction known also as 'silent barter'. Carthaginian sailors would leave their trinkets on the sand, retreat to sea, and at sun-up find a pile of gold in their place. I wonder what Mounfir has for me.
There's a whistle. He's ready. I enter a small neat courtyard shaded by a solitary tree - and there it hangs. Suspended from nail in the wall is the official dress uniform of a British consul circa 1890.
'Consul George Broome!' exclaims Mounfir, unwrapping four gold-leafed buttons from a piece of newspaper. He bought the uniform at auction from a Jewish family when they sold the former Consulate in the rue Etienne. He also bought Broome's sky-blue tin trunk, his boa-skin suitcase and the contents of several cardboard boxes.
Mounfir's wife brings a pot of mint tea and we rifle through the boxes. The relics are poignant. They beloto Sir Charles Payton's successor, but include some of Payton's own possessions - such as an etching of Scarborough and his collection of ten-minute sermons. In one small box I find Broome's MBE and the certificate of his marriage ceremony in Bolton. In another some leather-bound books: The Greyhound - their diseases and treatment; Gibbon's Decline and Fall; British Butterfly Moths, with engravings by Lizar, 1836.
'You know Lizar? He's bien connu , says Mounfir, who is also an artist. He admits to being influenced in his own art by Lizar's Grizzled and Drinker Moths.
Together we empty a box of letters. From Broome's firm in Manchester, about a consignment of almonds and gum arabic. From Broome's sister-in-law, about her new false teeth. 'I am satisfied borrowed teeth cannot be made comfortable unless you have a full set.' Another box is full of postcards and photographs. A slave market . Consul Payton dressed for action, carrying a rod. Consul Broome and his hazel-eyed son, also consul to Mogador. Kaid Anflous surrendering to a French colonel.
I point to the boa-skin case, its corners scuffed like a chest. 'What's in that?' ' La musique ' grins Mounfir.
He opens the case and withdraws some large pages. The sheets are covered with notes and blotted with fox-fur. A moment passes before I realise what they are. I am looking at the music sung so gustily at Queen Victoria's Jubilee. Valse des Diables, Linger Longer Loo, Her Bright Smile Haunts Me Still.
Back in Mogador, I climb the Portuguese ramparts. It is my last afternoon and I want to see the end of the world again. I squeeze between the crenelations and turn my face to the wind. When you follow the trajectory of the bronze cannons, their immense green muzzles aimed at the south, you give in willingly to a vertigo. You think: so this is what it must have felt like.
From these ramparts you can see the rocks that caused so many shipwrecks, fashioned by the gale and spray into unbelievable shapes. Beyond those rocks was once the Green Sea of Darkness. According to Pietro D'Abano in a book published in 1342, it was a boiling ocean where magnetic mountains plucked the bolts from ships. The mountains had a secondary power, making anyone who gazed at them insensible with laughter. Among the superstitions solemnly catalogued by the author of Conciliator Differentiarum was a belief that men who sailed towards the shore did so both giggling and sinking. That laughter is this afternoon in the hysterical shriek of gulls scattered over the sardine boats. The shore can be glimpsed through their confetti. It begins at the town walls and curves away into a bumpy escarpment of sand dunes. Of that shoreline nothing was known and everything possible. For centuries.