Cities of Blue
High in the Rif Mountains of Northern Morocco lies a town they call the Blue Pearl - Chefchaouen. Some people say it’s painted blue to reflect the sky and remind the inhabitants of heaven, while others say it’s just to keep away mosquitoes. Today, some locals decorate special blue corners where they charge the hordes of tourists 5 dirham to take a selfie in their quaint blue worlds.
But despite the bus tours and day trippers, around hidden corners, in the early morning, and in the back lanes tucked beneath the imposing mountain peaks, I fell in love with Chefchaouen’s relaxed charm.
My first day there I met Omar. He was sat outside his friend’s shop, where he sells his macrame bracelets. He called out, making small talk, which I ignored and kept on walking. But he was persistent. It was Shabbat, so I explained to him that I had no money to tip him as a guide, but he said it was alright, and we walked for over an hour, through the winding lanes of the blue medina, down to the waterfall at the edge of town where children splash in the water, and all the way back to his shop, where we sat for hours, chatting to tourists, drinking tea and hanging out. He even bought me lunch.
The next morning I came back and helped him make bracelets to sell in his shop. Around midday he mentioned that there was an old Jewish cemetery in town, although he’d never been. So we pulled out Google Maps, and he followed me down the hill, into the new town, and out onto a bare hillside strewn with the remains of gravestones. He sat on a rock and pulled out a hand-rolled cigarette. As he smoked it I told him it was sad, seeing the cemetery in this state of disrepair. There were no descendants to come back and visit - the graves were unmarked and indistinguishable from each other. He shrugged and said that’s how it was - we do what we can in this world, and try to be good people. Insh’allah. Every sentence here ends with Ish’allah.
We spoke a lot about religion. I explained to him the intricacies of Shabbat observance, and he told me stories from the Quran. We spoke of the similarities and also the differences between our two religions. He was very open about Islam, and also how he practices it. He said sometimes he prays, sometimes he doesn’t. Sometimes he gets busy, or lazy, or just forgets. But he says that the religion is always there for him to come back to when he needs it. I like that about Moroccan Islam, it seems to be very available for people to practice in a way that works for them.
Omar’s family are from the desert. He’s Sahrawi, part of a nomadic desert tribe from the southern part of Morocco. His ancestors would have herded camels, baked bread in the sand, and congregated in desert oases. But he came to live here, high in the northern mountains, far away from his native landscape. I asked him if he missed the desert, but he said he loves it up here in the Blue Pearl.
I find that some people are ocean people, some are desert people. Some are forest people, or mountain people, or city people. I like to mix it up. I get restless being in the same place for too long. But people here have roots that stretch back for centuries. They live together with generations of their family, in homes where their families have lived for generations.
In India, I visited another blue city - Jodhpur. Families there paint their houses blue to indicate the holiness of the Brahmin caste, although today many others have blue houses as well. High on the mountain that houses the royal palace, I watched the sun set with a local family of priests. We drank chai and watched the blue city fade into darkness.
In her book ‘A Field Guide to Getting Lost’, author Rebecca Solnit writes:
For many years, I have been moved by the blue at the far edge of what can be seen, that color of horizons, of remote mountain ranges, of anything far away. The color of that distance is the color of an emotion, the color of solitude and desire, the color of there seen from here, the color of where you are not. And the color of where you can never go. For the blue is not in the place those miles away at the horizon, but in the atmospheric distance between you and the mountains.
In these towns, you get lost in the blue - entire scenes painted in monochrome. Doors, walls, window grilles, electrical panels, flower pots, all in varying shades of blue. It can be very disorienting. This is not the blue of distance that Rebecca Solnit writes about - it’s the blue of presence. When you’re in it, it’s all encompassing, and it’s only when you’re outside of the town, looking back at it, that you can see that the blue is really only small patches of a larger whole.
My time in Chefchaouen was like a dream - four days spent wandering amongst the blue lanes and drinking tea with Moroccan bracelet-sellers. Coming down from it was almost shocking - seeing the green of trees, the scrubby brown countryside, the intense yellow heat of the Moroccan sun. The cool Riffian air faded away as the bus crossed the plains, heading along the coast through the traffic congestion of Rabat and Casablanca, pulling into the stifling 40 degrees of Marrakech just before midnight. The blues faded away through the crowded alleys and colourful souks. The light was intense, the air dry. Those were the sensations that stuck with me throughout my last few days in Morocco.
But as my plane descended towards Edinburgh, cutting through the clouds above the Firth of Forth, the blue hit me, all at once. I was shocked by the intensity of it, the vastness of the quantity of water in front of me. Even the air seemed to be blue, covering the trees and roads below, casting the bright red of the Forth Bridge in shades of blue.
And there it was. I loved the blues of Chefchaouen. I loved the exotic sounds and smells of Morocco, the spontaneity of late-afternoon waterfall swims with macrame vendors, the unreservedness of hitch-hiking on desert highways and going where I felt like going in that given moment. I loved the blue of presence, of being immersed in the unknown. But I also love the moody blues of Scotland, the blues of distance - of being settled and looking outwards at horizons cast in misty shades of dispersed water molecules.
I thought about Omar, up in the Blue Pearl, so far away from his mountain roots. He goes home sometimes, to his parents house in Fez, or to visit friends by the sea in Essaouira. Maybe he also feels the need to mix it up, to change his surroundings. Some people wake up and go to work everyday, walk the same paths, eat the same coronation chicken sandwich from Tesco day in and day out. And some people wander.
Rebecca Solnit continues:
We treat desire as a problem to be solved, address what desire is for and focus on that something and how to acquire it rather than on the nature and the sensation of desire, though often it is the distance between us and the object of desire that fills the space in between with the blue of longing. I wonder sometimes whether with a slight adjustment of perspective it could be cherished as a sensation on its own terms, since it is as inherent to the human condition as blue is to distance?
And so I wander. To Morocco. Back to Glasgow. Who knows where next? And that’s where I’m at now - trying to find the inspiration in the places I am, while carrying through the inspiration of the places I’ve been, and in anticipation of the places I’ll go.