Morocco's Buried Pirate Republic

(This article by me is in today’s Financial Times)

Relocate from a cramped flat in east London to a haunted mansion in the middle of Casablanca, and you slip into a Moroccan twilight zone. It’s a world that could have been conjured straight from a child’s imagination – a realm of djinn and dazzling colours, exotic foods and unending possibility.

For six years, while we have been restoring our house and slowly getting to know the country, I have become preoccupied with the Morocco that tourists rarely glimpse, the one that lies just beneath the surface, waiting to be discovered by anyone ready to receive it.

Every day Europe’s budget airlines ferry tourists back and forth, depositing them at the gates of a few key cities – Marrakech, Agadir and Fès. Yet the rest of the kingdom is left largely alone. Stray a little off the beaten track, however, and the rewards can be immediate and quite extraordinary. And, as often happens in Morocco, the greatest treasures are where you expect them least.

I was reminded of this last month when my daughter Ariane, 9½, returned from school begging me to help with her pirate project. She is obsessed with Johnny Depp, and imagines pirates to be bumbling caricatures, not the ruthless killers of today’s African Horn. Googling “Morocco pirates”, she began a treasure trail which led almost from our own door. An hour’s drive up the coast from Casablanca is Morocco’s capital, Rabat. It’s rather staid – orderly traffic, clipped hedges and droves of diplomats. Separated from it by the mouth of the Bou Regreg river, nestled on the windswept Atlantic shore, is Salé. Most Rabatis stick their noses up at their down-at-heel neighbour, regarding the small town as squalid and a waste of time.

I, too, had bought in to the Salé-bashing syndrome. But Ariane insisted I’d got it all wrong. She told a tale of a pirate realm worthy of Jack Sparrow himself, the place where Robinson Crusoe was enslaved in Defoe’s novel. For eight centuries, she said, Salé had been a world centre of looting, pillaging and white slavery. The frenzied debauchery reached its height in the 1600s, under the greatest marauder in Barbary history, the infamous Jan Janszoon.

A Dutch freebooter, and former Christian slave, Janszoon made himself overlord of a pirate republic based at Salé. He waylaid hundreds of ships across the Atlantic and the Mediterranean, possibly extending as far as Iceland and the Americas. According to pirate legend, he sired countless children: his descendants are said to include the Marquess of Blandford, Humphrey Bogart and Jackie Onassis.

Intrigued by this curious fragment of international pirate trivia, I bundled Ariane into the car and sped north. Soon we spied the stately skyline of Rabat. Across the estuary, the syrupy yellow light of late afternoon gave a glow to the ancient walls of what was once the republic of Salé. Even from a distance it looked bleak: gnarled volcanic rocks, ominous breakers and wine-dark sea.

Approaching from along the coast, we found ourselves at an immense and ancient burial ground – tens of thousands of graves packed tight together, headstones lost in each other’s shadows. We strolled slowly between them, the chill Atlantic wind ripping in our ears. Ariane said she could imagine the pirates sleeping there, huddled with their treasure maps.

In the middle of the graveyard a fisherman was crouching, holding a long rod, an old paint can filled with fish heads beside him, surrounded by cats. When I asked him about pirates he narrowed his eyes, nodded and pointed to a low fortress at the edge of the cemetery.

A canon at the Sqala, a sea wall fortress
Canon at the Sqala, a fortress on the sea wall

The Sqala, as it is known in Arabic, was crafted from honey-coloured stone and built into the crenellated sea wall. Rusted iron cannons still train on the horizon. A policeman was standing outside. He had a weather-worn face, watery eyes and a big toothy grin. Ariane asked him about pirates and, before we knew it, we’d been ushered inside.

He led the way through a cool stone passage and out on to a rounded terrace, bathed in blinding yellow light. There was something magical about the fort, as if it was so real that it was fake, like a Hollywood set. The cannons were lizard-green with verdigris, each one bearing a crest.

“They were obviously captured by pirates,” said Ariane knowledgeably. “If they weren’t, the crests would all be the same.”

Staring out to where the water joined the sky, the policeman suddenly began reciting a poem, apparently about unrequited love. He said there was no better place in all the world to compose poetry than right here, and that poetry was his true love.

I asked if he’d ever heard of Jan Janszoon. He cocked his face to the ground beneath his feet.

“The dungeon,” he said grimly.

We went down jagged steps, along a vaulted corridor bored out from the stone, lit by shafts of light. Home to nests of stray cats, it was damp and smelled of death. The officer showed us a truly miserable cell which looked as though it had been quite recently used. His grin subsiding, he explained that the last prisoner had been forgotten, and had starved to death.

“Was it the famous corsair Jan Janszoon?” I asked.

The policeman shook his head. “For him, you must go to the old city,” he said.

After some sweet mint tea and more poetry, we escaped with directions, scribbled in Arabic, to the home of Jan Janszoon in the maze of the old city.

Living in Morocco, I am no stranger to walled medinas, and have traipsed through dozens of them – often searching for a cryptic address. In that time I’ve learned to be thick-skinned when approached by hustlers laden with tourist wares.

Slipping through the Bab Malka Gate, we prepared ourselves for the usual onslaught of salesmen and mendicants. But it didn’t come. Instead, the silence was so pronounced that we could hear children playing marbles in the labyrinth of lanes. Without waiting for us to ask, one of them led the way to the great mosque.

Built in the 12th-century Almohad style, it is one of Morocco’s greatest treasures and one of the least known. The boy said there were seven doors, one for each day of the week.

Twisting and turning our way down the whitewashed lanes, we found a time-capsule of Moroccan life from a century ago. There were vegetables piled high on carts, and chunks of fresh mutton laid out on fragrant beds of mint; tailors busily sewing kaftans, mattress-makers and carpenters, brocade-sellers, and dyers hanging skeins of wool in the sun. And, rather than any tourists or tourist kitsch, there were local people out shopping, bargaining for underpants and melons, pumpkins, wedding robes and socks.

When Ariane showed the scribbled directions to the marble-playing boy, he led us to a spacious square, the Souq el Gazelle, the wool market. It was packed with people buying and selling used clothes and brightly coloured wool. The boy said it was where slaves had once been sold, having been dragged ashore from captured ships.

Nudging a thumb to the directions, I asked about the home of Jan Janszoon.

The boy beckoned us to follow him.

Winding our way through the Mellah, an old Jewish quarter, the air pungent with kebab smoke and baking macaroons, we reached the crumbling façade of a building. The dressed stone was exposed, ravaged by the elements. A fig tree had taken hold and was growing out from the side, and the studded wooden door was falling to bits. The boy glanced at the scribbled directions and gave a thumb’s up.

Ariane and I stood there in awe. We were on hallowed ground after all – at the home of the greatest pirate in Barbary history. The house lies derelict now, roofless and ramshackle beyond description. The doors have been bricked up, many of the stones pilfered, the magnificent carved masonry shattered. But squint at it in the early evening light and its soul comes alive. Use your imagination and Jan Janszoon is standing at the great door, welcoming you from its frame.

As the muezzin called the prayer, his voice singing out over the tiled rooftops of old Salé, I whispered thanks to Janszoon and to his band of marauding corsairs. Through a special conjuring of Moroccan magic, the Dutch buccaneer had lured us through a keyhole into his own pirate realm, the Moroccan twilight zone, where nothing is ever quite what it seems.

Tahir Shah is the author of ‘The Caliph’s House’, about his move with his family to Casablanca, and ‘In Arabian Nights’



Where to stay

The Riad Albahaca is an unexpected delight, a traditional riad with rooms looking out over the Atlantic (doubles from €100).


Shopping in Salé is wonderful and geared to locals not tourists: hunt out baboush slippers and kaftans and golden wedding crowns. Shops close after lunch, then stay open late into the night.


Dive in at the deep end and eat a tajine at one of the hole-in-the-wall places in the Mellah.


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