The Pirate City Across the River

Rabat/Salé is one of those city duos separated by a river, like Minneapolis/St. Paul, or Budapest.  The Bou Regreg river divides Rabat and Salé and empties into the Atlantic at the edge of both cities. Here is how novelist Edith Wharton described the two cities in her 1920 guidebook “In Morocco:”

Salé the white and Rabat the red frown at each other over the foaming bar of the Bou-Regreg, each walled, terraced, minareted, and presenting a sinularly complete picture of the two types of Moroccan town, the snowy and the tawny. To the gates of both, the Atlantic breakers roll in with the boom of northern seas, and under a misty northern sky.”

Rabat, Morocco’s capital, is home to about 800,000 people, but if you count the population of Rabat-Salé, it’s more than 1.5 million, making it the second most populated “city” in Morocco, behind bustling Casablanca. It’s a cinch to get between the two cities thanks to a bridge and the relatively new tramway. There’s also the option to take a rowboat across the river to go in between.

If Rabat gets overlooked by tourists (and it does) then Salé gets ignored. Recently, I decided it was high time I know more about that city that is literally right there. I took a tour with archeologist Mohammed Krombi, who was born and bred in Salé and has endless enthusiasm and knowledge about the region. Also, he quite literally holds the key for some important places in Salé, because he’s overseeing the restoration of quite a few of them, including the top of Bab al Marisa, the main gate into Salé’s old city, which we got to climb atop of at the start of the tour.

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Now, about those dread pirates. Salé is known for being home to a group of Barbary pirates called the Salé Rovers who terrorized the North African seas, pillaging goods and people from European vessels. The fictitious seafarer adventurer Robinson Crusoe was imprisoned by a Moor after the Salé pirates took over his ship in 1650s. Back then, Salé was its own country, called The Republic of Salé, and its main commercial activities were the slave trade and piracy. (Here’s an article about this). Salé rejoined the Kingdom of Morocco in the 1700s and it was during that century when the Salé’s pirating was at its peak (the king of Morocco got a cut from the pirates, so stealing foreign goods and selling the ship crews into slavery wasn’t totally illegal).

Interestingly, although pirates did attack American vessels during the American Revolution, after Morocco became the first country to formally recognize the United States as an independent country in 1777, the Moroccan king decreed that American merchant ships could enjoy safe passage in the pirate-enforced waters of North Africa. (You can see a bit of history of this early friendship between Morocco and America in the American Legation in Tangier). But hold up, that didn’t last for long, and Barbary pirates eventually began attacking American ships again, and this led to the Second Barbary War in 1815-1816, launched by the U.S.A. At the end of this war, Britain laid a nine hour siege to an Algerian port, which killed many Barbary pirates and ruined their defenses. This was the beginning of the of piracy in the region, including in Salé.

Salé maintained its reputation as a rabble-rousing city and the first demonstrations against the French were launched in Salé in 1950, inspiring uprisings across the country that eventually led to Morocco gaining its independence from France in 1956.

So, quite a history Salé has!

The city no longer has a canal flowing from the river right into the main gate as it had in the old days.  Nowadays, through the main gate is the historic Jewish quarter, or Mellah (which comes from the word for “salt”).

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Jews had complicated roles to play when they were living among Christians or Muslims. Often they were called upon to do the things other religions were forbidden from doing. For instance, Muslims are not supposed to charge interest for loans which is why Jews became the bankers in many parts of the world. And more nefariously, they became the executioners in some cities, including in Salé. According to our guide, when the Jewish executioners beheaded someone, they’d preserve the head in salt so it could be displayed around town as a warning to other would-be law-breakers. That’s why the Jewish quarters in Morocco are called “Mellah” or salt. (Note: I’ve heard a number of different explanations for why Jewish quarters are called Mellah, and I don’t know which is true). Also, Jews were jewelry makers, which is where the word “jewelry” comes from. In 1915, one-third of Salé was Jewish. Today, there are not many Jews left in Salé, or many Jews left in Morocco for that matter.

Okay, enough history. Here’s what you can see in Salé today: There’s the old medersa, or religious school and it’s stunning, with its worn and faded black, white and mint green tiles, and its hand carved cedar lattice work. In 1920, when the French ruled Morocco, here’s how Wharton described the medersa:

…mere carved and painted shell of a dead house of learning” but added that the “lovely ruin” was in the “safe hands of the French Fine Arts administration, and soon the wood-carvers and stucco-workers of Fez will have revived its old perfection…

I’ll assume this did happen at some point, under the direction of either the French or the Moroccan government, because this place is a real beaut and pretty much worth the trip to Salé alone.

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There’s also a mosque, but it is not open to non-Muslims.

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Salé’s medina, or old city/shopping area, is chilled out and very local. You won’t find tourists walking around. You will find a pretty main square with vendors selling antiques, tea and sweets shops, and rugs. Also, long table covered with pretty much the contents of a Salvation Army store. Our guide said locals can bring anything they want to sell to the square to make a few dirham.

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There are all sorts of shops inside the medina, including a sizable section for buying gold, which you must do if you’re invited to a Moroccan wedding.

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This covered window, called a musharabia, allows women to look outside without being seen, and is common in Arab architecture.

We only toured around the old part, but there’s lots of newness to Salé as well, including a fancy (but mostly vacant) marina development on the river and a visually arresting Grand Theater, designed by famed architect Zaha Hadid and set to open in 2019.

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Development in Salé is a touchy issue because residents of Salé have long felt they get overlooked and discriminated against especially compared with their neighbors across the river, and this is a beef that goes back centuries. The rivalry is evident to this day.  Mohammed told us there’s a saying that goes “Even if the Bou Regreg became milk and the banks became honey, there would never be love between Rabat and Salé.” He told us that it’s more likely for a Muslim from Salé to marry a Jew from Salé than it is for a person from Salé to marry someone from Rabat. Not sure how much hyperbole this is, but I do know that people Rabat will tell you not to go to Salé because it’s too dangerous, and the sleepy and local old town we saw on our tour had me pretty confused about where this dangerous spot is.

For the prettiest part of the tour, Mohammed took us to the old Salé kasbah, or fort, called the Tower of Tears. Sadly, it’s closed to the public. (But if you want to book a tour with Mohammed, which I highly recommend, contact him at Krombamed@gmail.com.). We really enjoyed looking at the 17th century cannons, beautiful arches, and the breathtaking views of the Atlantic, Salé’s old city, ocean-front cemetery, and Rabat’s kasbah, so very close by.

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To Salé,

Emily

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