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Morocco's Pirate Realm

Relocate from a cramped East End flat to a haunted mansion, in the middle of a Casablanca shantytown, and you can’t help but slip into the Moroccan Twilight Zone. It’s a world conjured straight from a child’s imagination – a realm of Jinn and exorcists, of dazzling colours, exotic foods, and unending possibility.

During our several years here, we have descended down through the interleaving layers of Moroccan society to its very bedrock. In that time 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 Moroccan cities – Marrakech, Agadir and Fès. Yet, the rest of the kingdom is left largely alone. So, stray a little off the beaten track, and the rewards can be immediate and quite extraordinary. And, as often happens in Morocco, the greatest treasures are where you expect them least of all.

I was reminded of this recently when my daughter, Ariane, came home and begged me to help with her pirate project. She’s obsessed with Johnny Depp, and imagines all pirates to be bumbling caricatures, rather than the ruthless killers of today’s African Horn.

Googling ‘Morocco Pirates’, she began a treasure trail which led right from our own door.

An hour’s drive up the coast from Casablanca is the capital, Rabat. It’s rather staid – orderly traffic, clipped hedges, and droves of diplomats. Across from it, nestled up on the windswept Atlantic shore is the small town of Salé. Most Rabatis like to stick their noses up at their down-at-heel neighbour. They regard it as sordid, squalid, a complete waste of time. I had bought in to the whole Salé-bashing syndrome, and found myself snarling at the mere mention of the name.

But Ariane insisted I’d got it all wrong.

She told a tale of a pirate realm worthy of Jack Sparrow himself, one where Robinson Crusoe had been taken as a slave. For eight centuries, she said, Salé had been a world centre of looting, pillaging, and of white slavery. The frenzied debauchery had reached its height in the 1600s, under the greatest marauder in the Barbary history, the infamous Jan Janszoon.

A Dutch freebooter, and former Christian slave himself, Janszoon made himself overlord of a pirate republic based at Salé. He waylaid many hundreds of ships across the Atlantic and the Mediterranean, possibly extending as far as Iceland and the Americas. In true pirate tradition, he sired countless children. His descendents are said to embrace a Who’s Who of celebrity, including the Marquis of Blandford, Humphrey Bogart, and Jackie O.

Intrigued by this curious fragment of international pirate trivia, I bundled Ariane into the car and sped north.

Soon we spied the skyline of Rabat, all proud and stately as a capital city should be. Across the estuary, the syrupy yellow light of late afternoon gave a glow to the ancient walls of what was once the pirate realm – the Republic of Salé.

Even from a distance there was something bleak and piratic about it.

Gnarled volcanic rocks, breakers, wine-dark sea, and walls right out of Treasure Island. Approaching from along the coast, we found ourselves at an immense and ancient burial ground – tens of thousands of graves packed tight together, the head-stones lost in each other’s shadows.

Unable to resist, we strolled slowly between the graves, the chill Atlantic wind ripping in our ears. Ariane said she could imagine the pirates sleeping there, cuddled up with their secrets and their treasure maps.

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

We went over to it.

Crafted from honey-yellow stone, the Sqala, as it’s known in Arabic, was built into the crenellated sea wall, rusted iron cannons still trained 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. Before we knew it, we’d been ushered inside.

He led the way through a cool stone passage and out onto a rounded terrace, bathed in blinding yellow light. There was something magical about it, as if it was so real that it was fake, like a Hollywood set. The cannons there were bronze, lizard-green with verdigris, each one bearing a different 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 recited a poem about unrequited love. He said there was no better place in all the world to compose poetry than right there, 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 natural 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 sweet mint tea, and yet more poetry, we escaped with directions scribbled in Arabic, directions to the home of Jan Janszoon lost in the maze of the old city.

After six years 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 the 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 glorious twelfth century Almohad style, its one of the greatest treasures in the kingdom, 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, the old Jewish quarter, the air pungent with kebab smoke and baking macaroons, we reached the crumbling façade of a building. Once plastered, 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 progenitor of Jackie O no less.

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