x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 July 2017

Pirates of the Bou Regreg

On the trail of the Sallee Rovers, Faisal al Yafai discovers how the ruthless outlaws of Sale and Rabat traded white slaves and helped form modern Morocco.

Flowing from the Atlas Mountains, the Bou Regreg river zigzags through Morocco and empties into the Atlantic Ocean with Rabat and Sale on either side of its banks.
Flowing from the Atlas Mountains, the Bou Regreg river zigzags through Morocco and empties into the Atlantic Ocean with Rabat and Sale on either side of its banks.

The story of Rabat is the story of a river and of the pirates who made Morocco. Pushing down from the Middle Atlas Mountains, the Bou Regreg river is a vein forking along the exposed skin of the country. Just outside Rabat, the river is joined by thin strips of water, ploughing zigzags and curves through the middle of Morocco, until it finally forces itself through the brown sand, splits the sister cities of Rabat and Sale and spills languidly into the Atlantic. From the beach below the Kasbah, I am pushing the opposite way, up past the pinks and blues and greens of parasols scattered in an arc around the sea, up the stone steps that reach the lookout of the Plateforme du Semaphore as it is thrown from the Kasbah's walls. The sun washes out everything it touches, a haze of white on the canvas of Rabat, and swimmers shield their eyes when they look back at the land. By the middle of the afternoon, Rabatis are glad of the water and tumble down the steps to its embrace. Young men in shorts and white baseball caps rush down the uneven steps, taking two at a time, arms around each other as they jump. The girls behind them nudge each other, towels wrapped around their wide hips, some in bathing suits, some in scarves. From the wide viewing platform at the top of the steps, the shape of the city is clear. This was the first part of Rabat to exist, a defensive structure called a ribat that fortified the coast. The Kasbah grew up around it and is still in some ways the most authentic part of the city, with white walls and blue doors, with intricate script curling around the edges; colours that make foreigners coo.

From the edge of the Kasbah, a tangle of streets brings you into the old medina. Unlike the medinas in Fez or Marrakech, it is calm, quietly bustling, a gathering place for the community rather than a destination for tourists. Shops selling handicrafts and spices, music and clothing are all jumbled together, and new sellers place carts full of clothes or children's toys in the middle of the narrow streets for passers-by to pick at. The shops aren't there to sell: everyone has come to buy. Poking my head into a shop with a crowd of boys listening to hip-hop, I am beckoned to join the crowd. For the next hour, I am introduced to a wide range of Moroccan and French music. Sami, the only one who works in the shop and thus the custodian of what music is played, urges me to listen to Nabyla Maan, a young Moroccan singer-songwriter. "She takes our heritage and she throws it out for the world," he says approvingly. And she does: Maan's music is a little microcosm of the new and the old, of traditional acoustic instruments and modern electronic sounds. She is the line between the past and the present, between the medina and the city. I walk off with a pile of CDs happily tucked into my back pocket, including Maan's latest work, on the cover of which she is reclining on the beach with her guitar, the sea fading to nothingness behind her.

The history of this city is governed by the sea. The waters of the Bou Regreg flow down from the east of the city, out where the ancient Roman city of Sala Colonia sits. A place of thick stones and walls, it looks like rubble, lying in hues of brown and orange dust in the sun, open to the sky, the haze coming off the nearby river. The city was abandoned in the 12th century and its residents moved across the river to Sale. A similar fate befell the other great historical monument of Rabat, the Hassan Tower. A thick, imperial work of sandstone in the middle of ruined columns, the tower is the remains of what was meant to be the largest minaret in the world in the 12th century. Built during the reign of the caliph Yaqub Al-Mansur, at the same time as the grand Koutoubia mosque in Marrakech, it was eventually abandoned. But the building of the tower 900 years ago also marked something else - the end of Rabat's dominance as a city. For centuries it languished - until the pirates came to Sale. Sale is Rabat's younger, quieter sister: a city with a past. In the 17th century, the city of Sale was a pirate republic. Pirates were nothing new in North Africa. They had existed since the decline of the Roman Empire and flourished as the Byzantine Empire retreated - but it was after the 15th century, as the Arabs, Berbers and Jews of Al-Andalus fled south, that piracy took off. The cities of Tunis, Tripoli and Sale - in today's Tunisia, Libya and Morocco - became havens for the Barbary pirates, who roamed as far away as Iceland, attacking ships and even raiding coastal towns for slaves. Captives were taken from Ireland and England, from all along the coasts of Spain and Italy, and brought to North Africa, or what was known as the "Barbary Coast" to Europeans, to work in ships or live in harems. Although this slave trade in Europeans - the so-called white slave trade - did not reach the levels of cruelty and numbers of the Atlantic slave trade, the pirates were barbaric. It was the English, with a gift for making the terrifying commonplace, that named them the Sallee Rovers, kidnappers in the night named as for a weekend football squad. Sale prospered through trade and plunder; in its heyday in the early 17th century, a group of outlaws formed a pirate republic here and, later, merged with Rabat to create the Republic of Bou Regreg. In doing so, they began the modern history of Morocco and doomed Sale to a bit part. The railway line to Sale curves east from Rabat before turning in a voluptuous curve north across the river. From here, an ancient scene unfolds: fields of sparkling green, with no signs of modern life to distort them, old boats sitting dull on the river. Inside the thick, brown city gates, Sale is a sleepy place. Literally: at three in the afternoon, everyone is asleep. They sleep luxuriously, spreading themselves across their merchandise, bodies arched precariously over tables, wrapping themselves around each other, the afternoon sun lulling them to sleep without fear. Here no one will take their things or harm them in their sleep. In the shadow of the Grand Mosque in the centre of the medina, they are safe. Left alone, I wander the shuttered streets, among buildings painted cobalt and brass. On the steps outside Cinema Malak, I sit down to sip a drink, using a map to shield myself from the sun. There is something deeply peaceful about Sale, but there is little to see: it is a village beside the city, a vision of how much of Morocco still is against the wide boulevards of what it wishes to become. The medina's walls now keep modernity out, because while life is unchanged inside, the rest of Sale has become a network of suburbs, a commuter belt for Rabat. Young boys on bikes roll past me, watching me curiously, but saying nothing. The occasional old man smiles; endless galabiyyas and peace greetings. "Do you want to swim?" a bunch of shirtless boys carrying towels ask me casually. They are going outside the city walls and down to the river to bathe. We talk for a while but they never ask the question I am asked everywhere: where are you from? Here, I am no one and everyman. From Bab Bou Haja in the south-west, where the path runs down to the water's edge, I trace the outline of the massive city walls until I reach Bab Mrisa, the greatest of the city's old gates. It is beautiful, a hulking vision of empire in stone and curve, and yet is almost ignored. Elsewhere, the gate would be a major attraction, but there are no tourists here, only residents whose eyes have looked upon the walls too long. At Cafe Essoufara, an all-male cafe of simple white tables and rigid chairs, I wait out the heat of the day. Men are playing cards and -watching a spaghetti western on TV. In the back young teenage boys play arcade games. I sip coffee and think of the sea. Who were these captives who were brought up the Bou Regreg and what must life have been like for them? In Robinson Crusoe, Daniel Defoe's 18th century novel about a castaway, Crusoe's adventures begin after he is captured by pirates and taken to Sale, passing through the city's still standing gates. "Our ship making her course towards the Canary islands ... was surprised in the grey of the morning by a Turkish rover of Sallee, who gave chase to us ... and were carried all prisoners into Sallee, a port belonging to the Moors." Defoe does not detail Crusoe's hardships in Sale apart from to talk of the "common drudgery of slaves" and Crusoe soon escapes. Not everyone was so lucky. Of those kidnapped from the coasts of Europe, many were sold to the ruling pashas in cities like Sale, who used them to build public works and buildings or to row the corsair galleys. Many, especially the women, were purchased for their ransom value. The others who were sold to private individuals followed the fate of slaves everywhere - some became companions to their owners, others were worked hard and died. Facts about the pirates and their captives are hard to come by. Before I came to Rabat I had read -astonishing facts about the Europeans brought in chains to North Africa: I had read that, in 1600, half of the population of Algiers was made up of European converts to Islam and their descendants; or that, in the mid-17th century, when the colonies in North America were flourishing, there were more British slaves and concubines in North Africa than there were colonisers in the whole of North America. It is impossible to know the truth - that time is shrouded in myth and often overshadowed by the subsequent colonial crimes. Even the numbers of slaves are unclear: some historians have challenged the usual figure of 35,000 European slaves, estimating their number at over a million. The facts about that time may lie in dusty manuscripts and documents across the region, for future scholars to unpick. What is certain is that the traffic was not all one-way. Many European sailors became pirates or worked for the rulers in Tunis or Algeria. Few now remember the Dutch pirate Simon de Danser or the English pirate Captain John Ward, but these were men who rose to great status and wealth attacking Europe's shipping. There were many others: between the 16th and 17th centuries, there were at least 15,000 "renegade" Europeans working in Barbary, many as captains. Some were former slaves who had converted to Islam, others were looking for opportunity and wealth. There were two crucial differences with the later Atlantic slave trade: here, the defining factor was not race and no one was doomed to slavery simply by the circumstances of their birth. The other was that there was a way back. Many slaves were released after several years, or if their families could raise ransoms. The English diarist Samuel Pepys recorded in 1661 that he had met two -Englishmen who had previously been slaves in Algiers who "did make me full acquainted with their condition there. As, how they eat nothing but bread and water ... how they are beat upon the soles of the feet and bellies at the Liberty of their Padron." Across Spain and Italy, Catholic orders would collect money to free the slaves: churches across the south of Europe had collection boxes designated for that purpose. The roads out of Sale are thronged with cars and on the way back to Rabat there is a poster of the King and someone has mischievously written "pirates" underneath it, either as a piece of decoration or social commentary. In a way, the two are linked: without the pirates, there may not have been a king. The Republic of Bou Regreg, formed out of the twin cities of Rabat and Sale, lasted for around 40 years and was finally ended by the rise of the Alawite dynasty in the middle of the 17th century, which tired of the provocation of the pirates and pushed to unite the country. That dynasty has survived, through all the upheavals of the region and the world, unbroken to this very day: the current king of Morocco is a direct descendant of the first Alawite Sultan Moulay al Rashid. Heading back to the medina, I get into a taxi and find there is already someone inside, a dark, striking teenage girl half-covered by a black headscarf. She is wrapped in her own thoughts in the very corner of the car and we ignore each other until she breaks the silence and asks me a question in English. She turns out to be from Mauritania, a young teenager without family studying in the Moroccan capital. No doubt there is steel behind the shyness, but for a while as we talk I can't see it, so protective am I of this small woman in a city far from home. In the gathering darkness of the medina we walk straight down Mohammed V avenue, amid the lighted lamps of sellers offering cooked meats and sandwiches, as she tells me of the poverty of her country and the loneliness of Rabat. Together, we dip under a narrow archway at the very end of the medina and find ourselves in a vast cemetery, two strangers in a country that isn't ours. From here to the lighthouse there is nothing but white tombstones, the endless dead turned to face the sea. How many were foreigners, I wonder, brought from villages across Europe to live and work in a foreign land? How many longed to be buried in the land of their birth? She leaves for home and I stand there under the stars thinking of what forces still bring outsiders to this land. The days when the corsairs sailed up the Bou Regreg have long gone, but the endless waters of the Atlantic still bring new people to this calm and quiet city, to a land that isn't theirs. travel@thenational.ae