Safi: a city where I wasn’t going at all

Safi: a city where I wasn’t going at all, and where I ended up in a strange way (Morocco)

A visit to the small Moroccan town of Safi, on the Atlantic coast, was not at all part of the plan of the Morocco Tours. We went from Tangier to the south along the coast, visiting everything of little interest: Assila, Rabat, Casablanca, El Jadida. Then we were supposed to take a bus to Essaouira, and from there to Ouarzazate via Marakech. Even at the El Jadida bus station I did not feel well, and on the way I was completely “unraveled”, and there was a three-hour ride ahead of me. I got off at Safi, a town I knew absolutely nothing about. I was to spend the whole five days here, coming out into the light of day when the temperature dropped to at least 38 degrees. And, I must say, Safi to this day seems to me the coziest town in Morocco, although I do not argue that it is totally subjective!

An unusual hotel

I entered the town from the side of the bus station. It was dark and raining, thanks to the fact that it is February. The guidebook got quite wet, so I stuffed it deeper into the backpack. As mentioned above, I felt unwell and was looking for the nearest more or less acceptable place just to go to bed. And this place was found – Hotel Atlantide (site), half a kilometer from the walls of the old city. From the outside the hotel looked like a luxurious residence of some colonial governor, and clearly did not fit into the understanding of “budget trip”. Friends, but this is the off-season, and prices are cut almost in half! And this is not yet a promoted tourist city. Therefore, the pleasure cost me a little more than 150 dirhams, which corresponds to about $22.

Do you think I told about the hotel six whole lines for nothing? Who reads my LiveJournal, knows that the topic of stars is very unimportant for me. From the hotel I expect a clean bed and comfort in the room. And that the windows would not be on the noisy street. That’s all. I do not expect anything else from hotels. But here was a special case. It wasn’t just any hotel. It was a historic building from the French colonial era, which housed, if not a governor, then clearly a very rich man. Marble staircases, moldings, huge rooms, chic garden, swimming pool, antique furniture. As the French who are nostalgic for that era say, “Nostalgie Quand Tu Nous Tiens.” I remember just walking around this amazing place for at least an hour, and in my head I was associatively spinning snippets from French movies with Belmondo and Perrier. By the way, today I’m going to download French films of that era, like “A Weekend at the Ocean” with the young Belmondo, or “There Was a Policeman” with Michel Constantine. Thanks to colleague gillederais for the tip.

The next morning I went down to the reception, and asked about the history of the hotel. There was the owner – a colorful and extremely intelligent man who knew many languages, but not English. And yet we somehow understood each other. Here is how it was. As you know, after World War II, nationalist sentiments in North Africa rose sharply in the direction of ending colonization. De Gaulle waged an implacable war against rebels in Morocco, Algeria, and Tunisia. But the days of French colonization of northern Africa were numbered. Knowing this, and knowing that nothing good could come of the rebels, Europeans fled en masse from Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia.

Between 1950 and 1956, more than a million French people, most of them born in Africa, were essentially forced to abandon everything and return to France. At the same time, there was a similar mass exodus of Moroccan Jews to Israel, when an entire community of about 400,000 left the country in just a few years. The Jews had traditionally been allies of the French colonial administration, and as the French withdrawal approached, it became clear that the Jews would be the first to be hit. The “pogrom” movement against the local Jews grew like a snowball, and they left everything behind and fled Morocco. By 1956, when King Mohammed V returned to the country from exile and the independence of Morocco was proclaimed, there were virtually no Jews or French left. However, I have an interesting separate report on Moroccan Jews.

We will return to the hotel. So the French were abandoning their possessions and leaving Africa. Tens of thousands of luxury villas were either abandoned or sold for next to nothing. To this day, in every major city in Morocco and Algeria, you can see whole neighborhoods of villas where no one lives. Morocco tries to honor property rights, but it does not give the descendants of those French people the right to get their houses and gardens back. Somewhat reminiscent of the problems of the Palestinian refugees in Israel, whose houses are still in ruins to this day and their owners are not allowed to exercise their right to property.

Yes, you got that right – this hotel is of the same French heritage. And it is quite possible that the descendants of the owner of this huge residence were tourists here. They no longer have any other rights here.


On the third day I felt much better, and the nasty flu began to recede. Taking advantage of this happy circumstance, I went to explore the town. Let us skip the semi-mythical times of the Phoenicians and start with the fact that in 1508 the Portuguese arrived here and built a strong fort, which we can still see today. The city was never a particularly important port, and the main base of the Portuguese was in Essaouira. It was for centuries a quiet harbor, and Safi developed as a small craft and fishing town by the ocean. Then the Portuguese were succeeded by the French, but even under them nothing much happened in Safi. That is why the town has remained almost perfectly as it has been for centuries.

Tourists fly through Safi without stopping, hurrying to the more hyped Essaouira – and so it will always be. I myself would have whizzed past without getting happily ill along the way. It sounds strange, but it was the only time in my life when sickness brought some kind of benefit. At least in the context of knowing the beautiful!

The town can be divided into three parts: the Medina (the old part of town inside the city walls), Qasr el-Bahr (the Portuguese fortress on the beach), and the upper part of Ville Nouvelle (the colonial buildings and villas).

In my opinion, the medina in Safi is one of the most pleasant and comfortable in all Morocco. It’s clean, beautiful, not spoiled by mass tourism. They don’t run after you, they don’t shout at you, they don’t pull you into the shops. And they don’t try to cheat you, as they do in Marakesh and Fez. Everything is quieter and calmer here.

The capital of Moroccan ceramics is here too!

Studying the guidebook more in-depth, I read that Safi is also the recognized capital of Moroccan ceramics. I can’t tell you how good the local ceramics are compared to others, but that’s not the point. What is interesting is the fact that an entire area of old Safi is a medieval workshop for firing clay and finishing the finished ceramic utensils. Here they work the way their ancestors did before the arrival of the Portuguese. Nothing has changed at all!

Pottery comes here, after undergoing all the degrees of processing, to a colorful and quite modern bazaar, where it will be appreciated by rare tourists.

The Moroccan Synagogue

On my fourth or even fifth day walking in Safi, and enjoying my rapid convalescence, I saw a strange building that looked like this

There were frowning soldiers with submachine guns strolling by this building, and when they saw me they stared absolutely unfriendly. When I went straight to them in order to ask what was inside, they tensed up and pressed their machine guns to themselves. But my intentions were crystal clear and simple. I asked them what was inside. Because they didn’t speak English, the soldiers couldn’t understand me.. I was about to go on, so as not to embarrass the law-enforcers, when suddenly a friendly man appeared from somewhere, and explained in broken English that inside was a “Jewish place”. What? A synagogue? No, “no sinagogue, but jewish place!” -He went forth to carry out his business as the man. I was unsure. Are there any Jews left here, or even members of the synagogue? So I again accosted the soldiers, who were beginning to get nervous, and asked them to call the commander.

I did not have to wait long, and soon a car marked “Gendarmerie Nacional” drove up, and a stern man in shoulder straps and a cap got out. He came toward me with the words “What’s a problem? The soldiers immediately told him in Arabic that there was a troublemaker, and nodded at me. I joined in the conversation and said that I was just curious to go inside and that I was just a tourist. The policeman asked me why I wanted to go inside. I replied that I was just walking around Safi, and I was wondering what was inside. He finally relaxed, and smiled, “There’s a Jewish synagogue in there,” and tourists are not allowed in. I was persistent, though, and told him I wanted to go in because I was interested in the history of the Jewish community in Morocco (admittedly, I made it up as I went along!). The policeman was obviously frightened, and asked me if I was really a tourist, and if I was interested in getting my real estate back. I answered that no, that I was just a tourist.

Friends, do you remember what I told you above about the French villas abandoned in the 50’s? That’s where it all comes from! Apparently the Moroccan authorities are very wary of the subject of seized property, and have instructions to keep track of those who will go around sniffing around.

A word or two about religion

I will not torture the reader with this strange scene. All I will say is that they checked my Russian passport and asked me if I had any other citizenship. Are there any relatives in Morocco? Did I really not speak French? The policeman then began to call somewhere and dictate the data of my passport. What a load of crap! Then they asked me to wait for a few minutes. Then they asked what nationality I was. What would you answer to such a question? But take your time, because it is not that simple. Would you say that you are Russian (Ukrainian, Georgian, Chinese)?  And they would not let you in. I remembered that in Morocco they don’t let non-Muslims into mosques, and several times I entered mosques pretending to be true believers, and once I even repeated the phrase I had memorized the day before: “Ashadu al-la Ilaha Il-la Lah, wa Ashadu anna Muhammad r-rasulu Lah” (no deity worthy of worship except Allah and Muhammad is the Messenger of Allah).

Accordingly, what if the same rule applies to all other places of worship? So I replied that I am a Jew. To a certain extent this is true, because my mother is indeed Jewish. I had another phrase ready in case I was tested, “Baruch ata adonai eloheinu melech a olam asher kideshanu bemitsvetanu vetsivanu lehadlik ner shel yom tov” (Blessed are you, Lord our G-d, king of the universe, who created the light of fire and who calls us to light these holiday candles). Admittedly, this Jewish blessing is a bit off-topic and is said on the holiday of Passover, but I don’t know of any others. Therefore, I apologize to those for whom these subtleties are fundamental. You would agree that for a mundane “check-up” that would be fine, wouldn’t it?

…and they let me in! The policeman bloomed, told me “Shalom,” and showed me the inside. Quite interesting! It turns out that famous Sephardic sages are buried here, and that the synagogue and cemetery itself are a pilgrimage site for religious Jews. It’s a very beautiful and amazing place. As the caretaker (a Muslim) told me, there are no Jews in Safi anymore. Almost all left in 1956, and the few remaining old men died of old age. But the place is not empty. Religious Jews from France often come here, and the synagogue itself not long ago received subsidies from the state and was completely renovated. Cool! After an interesting tour of the entire complex, I left ten dollars in the donation box, and gave the caretaker the same amount.

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