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Morocco's Secret Sands

For the first hour out of Marrakesh, driving through central Morocco, the visuals are unremarkable: a monotony of cactus-studded plains broken occasionally by a scruffy olive grove or a dusty roadside village. If there is a highlight on this first leg of the journey to the Atlantic coastal town of Essaouira, it is the stop at Sidi-Moktar, where the highway from Agadir in the south joins the route to Marrakesh. Here a vast plaza is edged with cafés and filled with trucks, buses, and taxis. The specialty is kefta—grilled, cumin-spiced meatballs, made from beef that can be selected from the adjacent butcher stalls and ground before your eyes as strolling carpet salesmen and shoeshine kids vie for your attention.

Beyond Sidi-Moktar, low table mountains start to appear on the horizon. Once you've crossed these, everything is different: green, hilly, and amazingly tidy. Shepherds—very young boys, very old men—dressed in hooded djellabas tend flocks of sheep and goats. Camels and donkeys graze side by side outside adobe villages. Neat stone fences surround elegant olive groves. Cows lie in fields of purple wildflowers. Soon the sea comes into view, then a dazzling village of white cubic buildings with blue doors and windows, more Mykonos than Morocco. At a roadside overlook, camel drivers offer photo ops, but the best view is of the city itself, rising alongside an enormous crescent-shaped beach and a sparkling bay, dotted with the bright sails of windsurfers and the parachutes of kite boarders.

With its strong breezes, Essaouira—which bills itself as Wind City, Africa—is one of the world's top windsurfing and kite boarding spots. This North African beach town has a lot going for it besides water sports, however. In recent years, the city has become a cultural center, a place where the calendar is studded with world-class music and arts events and where galleries show internationally known local artists. Meanwhile, the real estate market is booming, as savvy Moroccans—and Europeans who've tired of the scene in Marrakesh—buy and redo medina mansions, betting that Essaouira will be the next hot place in North Africa. All this is a far cry from my first visits here in the 1970's, when the town was basically just a day trip from Marrakesh, a good place to buy inlaid wooden boxes or woven baskets in a sweet small souk and dine on grilled sardines alfresco by a crumbling seawall.

Youth is a large part of the town's new spirit. "Essaouira is now fashionable among young Moroccans and the youth of the world," says antiques-shop owner and oral historian Miloud Ben Ahmed, a septuagenarian who was an extra in Orson Welles's Othello in the early 1950's. "This has always been a city of tolerance," he says. "It still is, and I think that attracts young people."

People like Amal and Maouna, cousins from Casablanca who run the hip Pizzeria Les Trois Portes, which is built within the ramparts of the medina. "At first we had some problems," Maouna says of their enterprise, a decidedly non-traditional one for two Muslim women, even in tolerant Essaouira. "People said some bad things—they think only men can take responsibility. But now they are adjusting."

These days, the main problems the cousins have are the normal ones associated with running a business. They'd like to build a roof terrace, for example, to compete with a rival café on the main square, but they have been refused a permit by the city because of their historic location. They were also disappointed when, in the spring of 2003, the Brad Pitt sword-and-sandals epic Troy, which was to have been shot in the area, was transferred to Malta and Mexico because of the Iraq war and a deadly terrorist attack in Casablanca. The incident affected film production and tourism, andshocked this moderate Muslim nation and longtime U.S. ally, whose popular young monarch, King Mohamed VI, has been aggressive in combating Morocco's Islamist radicals and has made a point of promoting tolerance and women's rights.

Some of the roots of Morocco's liberalism can be traced to the founding of Essaouira. Built in the 1760's by a visionary sultan, Sidi Mohamed Ben Abdallah, the city was one of the world's first free ports. Ben Abdallah commissioned a French architect for the design, using the European grid system for its streets rather than the haphazard layout of traditional Moroccan medinas. The sultan also invited the country's most prominent businessmen and tradespeople to relocate to Essaouira; many of them were Moroccan Jews, who at one point made up close to 50 percent of the city's population. Finally, Ben Abdallah invited European governments to set up consulates in what was to become a thriving port for the next 150 years. Eager for contact with the world, the sultan was the first head of state to officially recognize a newly formed country some 3,000 miles across the Atlantic: the United States of America.

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