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Morocco's Secret Sands

"It's a place where time stops," Bellinkx says. "You can drive twenty miles out, but that's as far as you can go. Afterward you're unhappy. Essaouira is like a mirage; you dive in and get caught up in the illusion, and you can't get out anymore."

Danish art dealer Frederic Damgaard was first seduced by Essaouira when he visited it as an art student in 1969. He returned frequently, and eventually bought a house by the sea. He also started collecting works by locals, impressed by their visual boldness and strong connection with the place and its age-old traditions, which are Berber and, often, animist. Damgaard not only collected the art, he encouraged the artists, eventually exhibiting them in the gallery he set up in 1988 on the ground floor of a stone mansion just inside the city walls. Today, Galerie Damgaard is one of the town's cultural landmarks, known in European art circles as the home of the Essaouira school of painting.

"But it's wrong to call it a 'school,'" Damgaard says. "Because most of these people are from the countryside and are entirely self-taught. They have never been to any school—much less an art school."

In Damgaard's spacious gallery, the power and unbridled energy of everything on view is palpable. There are fabulous monsters depicted in the dot paintings of the brothers Hamou and Youssef Aït Tazarin; the folkloric signs and symbols exploding on the canvases of Fatima Ettalbi, who got her start decorating women's hands with henna; the whimsical desks and chests of Saïd Ouarzuz, with their outrageous polychrome finishes and their surprise drawers and openings.

Damgaard is not the only game in town. A block away, down a narrow cul-de-sac, a bearded Belgian, Michel de Saint-Maux, oversees Espace Othello, which features another stable of young Moroccans, including the acclaimed Mohamed Zouzaf, who does haunting works on animal skins. And up along the passageway known as La Skala, local artist Ahmed Harrouz runs the city's most unusual gallery, Atelier Le Bastion-Ouest, a skinny multi-level affair housed within a turret of the ancient ramparts.

Essaouira is also fast becoming one of Morocco's most important centers for music. Long a home to troupes of mystical Gnaoua musicians—descendants of former African slaves known for their throbbing percussive sounds and hypnotic chanting and dancing—Essaouira inaugurated its Gnaoua & World Music Festival in 1998. "People here have realized that the Gnaoua are something to be proud of," says festival director Neila Tazi. The festival, held annually in late June, now attracts some 300,000 fans—from visiting Moroccans, many of whom camp out on the beach, to international music heavyweights such as Paul Simon.

Essaouira's newest annual event is the Festival of the Atlantic Andalusias, which debuted last October. Although its main emphasis is on music—Sephardic love songs, Arabic violin suites, Gypsy dances, flamenco rock, even Mexican folk music—the event features seminars and art exhibitions demonstrating the Andalusian contribution to the cultures ofSpain, North Africa, and Latin America.

"Essaouira is the ideal city for this event," says Oumama Aouad Lahrech, a professor of Andalusian studies at the university in Rabat, "because it was founded to be shared by people of many cultures and religions—Jews, Muslims, Christians, Arabs, and Berbers."

While many in Essaouira are rediscovering their past, 21-year-old kite-surfing champion Soufiane Hamaini embodies the future. A surfer since he was in grade school, the blond, dreadlocked Hamaini first encountered kite surfing in 1999, when the young sport's second international championship was held in Essaouira.

"It's incredible," Hamaini says. "You don't just jump—you fly. Sometimes I'm in the air for seven seconds. You feel like a bird. Big freedom. Really big freedom." Last year, Hamaini trained in the kite- surfing center of Tarifa, Spain, and traveled abroad to international competitions. Recently, he's been doing publicity and photo shoots for his new sponsors—a U.S. kite company, a Spanish board maker, and a major Moroccan cell-phone operation. Despite all the excitement, Hamaini remains a devoted Essaouiran. "I've traveled all over Morocco and now Spain and Brazil," he says. "And there's nowhere like Essaouira. It's a theater. I sit in a café and have a coffee and I look around at everyone—and I have another coffee and I don't want to leave. We're all a big family here."

In the end, perhaps the essence of Essaouira's character is the sense of peace and harmony the city projects. "Essaouira is a light shining in the darkness," says André Azoulay of his hometown. "For the uncertainty of the times in which we are unfortunately living, Essaouira is a good answer."

Richard Alleman is a frequent contributor to Travel + Leisure.

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