Tourism: letting my hair down in seaside Essaouira and dancing in the Gnawa world music festival

I escaped from my site last week to attend part of the Gnawa World Music Festival in Essaouira with some other PCVs. Essaouira is an incredible town! It’s on the ocean and the weather was great. It’s been really hot at my site—in the 100s, which has been uncomfortable. I have one fan that follows me around my house but not outside when I am walking or working at the dar shebab. Sometimes my fan blows hot air around my apartment! I am getting used to sweating profusely. In Essaouira I enjoyed the 80s and wind. It is famous for windsurfers and kitesurfers. One day, before the music started, we had a picnic on the beach and watched surfers ride the waves and kites dance in the sky. Then we dipped our feet in the cold Atlantic and let our hair down and blow in the wind.

The old medina (town) of Essaouira is small and has sections with stores selling clothes, meat, fruit, spices, etc. It is actually an UNESCO world heritage site because it is an example of an 18th century fortified town, built with European military architecture in a North African context. I also saw lots of boutiques crowded with American and European tourists selling overpriced items. Essaouira has a bohemian feel too, because of the surfers, boutiques, and art galleries. I bought some leather flats from a store in the souk and was proud to get a “Moroccan” and not “tourist” price for them! The seller was surprised when I spoke Darija and happy when I told him I was living in Morocco and working with youth at the dar shebab.

Melawi and amalu

My favorite part of Essaouira, though, was the port. It is one of biggest in Morocco after Agadir and Safi. After a delicious breakfast of melawi (type of Moroccan bread kind of like a crepe), amalu (almond and peanut paste), bananas, and the obligatory Moroccan mint tea, we got inspired to take photographs of boats in perfect lines, nets being mended, seagulls flying over fishermen picking through their catch of the day, the fish displayed, etc. The colors at the port were bright and beautiful and I let my hair down again to blow in the wind and take in the sun and get light.



After day explorations, which also included a lunch of fresh barbequed fish from the port, salad, and bread, we joined crowds of tourists and some Moroccans rolling their heads in circles and moving side to side. I noticed there were lots of Rastafarian people.

Gnawa music is African Islamic religious spiritual music. The Gnawa people are originally from West Africa but have always had close ties to Morocco. The Gnawa Maalem leads songs of prayer with his group of musicians and dancers. They wear beautiful robes and hats of different colors. Qraqabs (large iron castanets) and the hajhuj (a three string lute) are central to Gnawa music. Dancers often enter into hypnotic trances invoked by spirits. Here is a good article on the history of Gnawa.


At the Festival, one of the largest and most popular in Morocco (and also free), the music is not ritual. The Festival invites international jazz, blues, reggae, and hip-hop musicians to collaborate with the Gnawa groups. I really loved what I saw and heard! This was the line-up of this year’s festival.

Maleem Omar Hayat, one of my favorite musicians from the festival, with hajhuj
Maleem Omar Hayat, one of my favorite musicians from the festival, with hajhuj

I really enjoyed exploring Essaouira and the Gnawa festival. It was nice to treat myself to special foods like melawi and fish. I also felt like I could let my hair down literally as I have said and figuratively in Essaouira because I could blend in with the other tourists. In my small site, I stick out as the only foreigner and Westerner, and as I am integrating, I am very aware of what I wear, do, and say. Peace Corps Core Expectation #4 states:

“Recognize that your successful and sustainable development work is based on the local trust and confidence you build by living in, and respectfully integrating yourself into, your host community and culture.”

Core Expectation #9 adds:

“Recognize that you will be perceived, in your host country and community, as a representative of the people, cultures, values and traditions of the United States of America.”

I have these Core Expectations on my mind a lot. It is a great honor to serve in the United States Peace Corps but it is a lot of pressure sometimes, especially now that it is the beginning and I am getting to know my community and my community is getting to know me. I must make a good impression. I feel as if I cannot completely let go like I am used to in the US.


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