Asilah, a City of Shapes, Faults, and Risings

Written by Hank Martin in Middle East

If you travel North of Tangier, Morocco and head towards the smell of salt and the squawk of birds you find Asilah standing stout and thick like a dwarf. The legs of the city are thick walls that run beside the beach, foundations buried deep in loose sand. Above the wet block wall, the color of a middle aged man's hair, white pushes up like Tetris.

Rising in squares and rectangles the pieces keep falling until they surpass the gray wall and cut shapes out of the blue sky. These boxes have drooping eyes cut into their sides, elongated half circles that look towards the crashing Atlantic Ocean. Some of the eyes are framed with green and others blue, just like humans.

On the sea facing side the walls turn to algae and dirty rock before tumbling in to the ocean. You could throw yourself over the high wall, plunge 30 feet to the rounded boulders below and kill yourself. I wonder what secrets such as these lie beneath the whitewashed walls of Asilah.

The Earth below is raised, and this city thrives on the hump of a beach, an elevated rocky outcropping that forms a defensible position. The white walls shine like pearls in the hot sun and hide the failures of the past. This was once a city of piracy.

However, piracy is the climax of the story, not the beginning. Inside the safety of the walls smooth streets rise up a few steps and drop down. This up and down continues throughout the ramparts of the city. If you turn inward, going to the guts of Asilah you find a maze of streets, a roof-less white tunnel that turns one way and then another. This labyrinth is small and home to only a few today.

Like the ocean outside, the tide of this city rose and fell, bringing in periods of desolation and prosperity. Probably the most prosperous time was an ill-received time. The thick walls and elevated location were perfect for scoundrels pirating trade through the Strait of Gibraltar, a point where the fingers of Africa and Europe get as close as God's finger was to Adam in the Sistine Chapel. Between these two fingers a narrow strip of water flows, a perfect bottleneck for pirates.

As these things usually go, a country, Austria, finally said "that's enough," and bombarded the city. They wiped out piracy from this location, only to have it spread elsewhere like a plague. That's the thing about evil, you cannot stop it.

The city lay there, wallowing in it's wounds and shame for years. On quiet, lonely nights the wind would come from the ocean and whisper "Assssilllahhhh," searching for the city that once was. Then money and love returned to this city a hundred years later. Houses were fixed and walls repaired. Everything was painted white, and, like a flower breaking free in spring, life took hold once again on this piece of rock.

I walked the streets, up and down the stairs, round and round again this small city. It was white and pure, not a person was around beside a few Moroccans selling camel rides on the beach. This place is an extension of people.

Formed in 1500 B.C. this city rose through trade and then underwent economic collapse. The void was eventually filled by Moroccan pirates, who were sent scurrying out of their holes like rats at the shock waves of cannon fire and bullets. From here Asilah limped on, resilient but low. Not defeated for good, but defeated. Then it rose again, bathed in white and crowned in bright caps like an angel come for a second reckoning.

The inability of humans to let a thing curl up and die alone like an animal in the woods is Asilah. The people here, the city, could have packed it up and shot angles out of Asilah to other parts of Morocco. Tangier is not that far away. Instead, they stayed, planted their elliptical feet in the rock bed and worked. They took their greatest low and built Asilah. The Tetris blocks fell, silently and with resolve, and now you look upon a city rising from the sand and representing the indomitable spirit of humans.

About the Author

Hank Martin

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Traveling for a world education and writing about the life lessons learned.


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