The woman in the worn green jellaba and distinct Amazigh features is in her early forties. She cuts a striking figure as she moves from person to person in the cafes around Place Moulay Hassan clutching a bunch of curling papers in her right hand. She insists that everybody view these papers; they are her art works and her raison d’etre.
Kadisha, born locally in El Hanchane, says she has always lived in Essaouira. She tells me that she paints most days, buying paint and paper for 2 dirhams from the local stationers. Her art is always on A3 paper, is always portraits and often from her imagination.
The purpose of showing her work is to earn money; she prices that work at 500 dirhams per piece, which converts to approximately £40, a reasonable sum in Morocco where the average wage is 50-100 dirhams per day. She has few takers though and the art she shows is mostly the same every day, though there is some variation when new works are introduced.
Establishing a rapport with a local person, especially of the opposite gender, can be a difficult process. Cultural and social differences quickly become apparent and the issues around gender roles in Morocco are always a major impediment. Inviting Kadisha to join me for coffee at the Cafe de France to discuss her work causes considerable consternation amongst the waiters. Several boundaries are being broken, that of a western man socially interacting with an impoverished Moroccan woman in a public place and secondly that of a poor , lower class female sitting in a bar frequented by affluent tourists. Kadisha though is unperturbed by the tangible sense of discontent; she engages in conversation with me freely, her disrespect for convention apparent, her intellect sharp and intuitive and belief in her art absolute.
Following coffee she leaves Moulay Hasson square and hurries through the crowds of the medina, trying to achieve sales. She is unperturbed when rejected and moves on to the next potential buyer, her slight figure walking with considerable intent. Having circulated the medina she returns to the potentially rich pickings of the cafes and the captive tourists around the large square; another cycle of endeavour is underway.
We continue to meet at the Cafe de France, though our different languages cause considerable difficulty. I invite her to join me in a snack there, which she accepts. The waiters continue to demonstrate alarm at the scenario but comply with the order and serves the meal which Kadisha eats with relish, pulling at the food hurriedly with her fingers in the Moroccan way. It was at that point that I began to appreciate how hungry she might be and just how difficult and socially sequestered her life might be .
She confides that she is divorced with 2 older children and says she has no other family. Her ex-husband has moved away and contributes little and she has no siblings. It is difficult to obtain a more comprehensive picture of her life; where in the city she lives, what her home is like, what the fabric of her life might consist of. It is widely understood that divorced women in most of Morocco have difficult lives; they are socially stigmatised in a culture where virginity is disproportionately valued. Such is the social stigma and financial disadvantages divorced woman are frequently abandoned by their families through shame and may turn to sex working to survive. It is also suggested that prostitution in Morocco is widespread, a situation the government plays down in order to not discourage tourism. A cursory online search will find evidence to support these views.
We occasionally walk out of the stultifying medina and down to the beach where we sit and watch the waves coming in, the wind cooling the heat of the afternoon sun. On the beach and in the bright sun the colours of her clothing are turned as rich as the colours of her paintings, and her headscarf, a traditional feature of Amazigh dress, frames her rich dark face. Her brown eyes squint a little as she looks out into the glare of the sun reflecting on the sea. I derive a sense of privilege from being with her.
I invite her to join me for a ‘celebration meal’ following my passport being returned and we eat in a relatively up-market restaurant overlooking the beach, sitting amongst customers of an entirely different class. She perhaps overhears negative comments made about her and responds with some sharp Darija which causes raised eyebrows and even looks of derision. She piles the stones from olives and bones from her beef tagine on the table top beside her plate as she might have done in the cheapest of the medina cafes. She has brought her paintings with her and also some other pieces of paper with Arabic writing which she unfolds. She tells me they are songs she has written and starts to sing a song in French which might have come from Cabaret, her head rolling and her eyes darting from side to side in mock and exaggerated comedy. She repeatedly sings the words with ever increasing parody.
On my last full day in Essaouira we agree to catch the morning bus to Sidi Kaouki beach where I hope to take some simple portraits of her. I am aware of a sense of patronage towards her from me, which she has responded to by occasionally asking me for donations of money and suggesting we get a house together, either in Morocco or perhaps in the UK. She shows me a Moroccan passport she keeps in her handbag with a photograph of her from perhaps 20 years before, her face younger without evidence of her current hard life. I flick through the aged passport and see that it is out of date and there are no stamps inside; she confides she has never left Morocco. I feel guilty at my potential exploitation of her, my greater wealth and travel opportunities and comprehensive social integration. What inviolable rule states that some people should have more than others, have less hunger, have a roof over their heads which others cannot take away.
We reach the bus stop and step onto the bus. I am acutely aware from previous conversations with hotel staff in Fes that at any time in our meetings the Moroccan police might assume that Kadisha is a prostitute soliciting rather than a friend being with me often at my invitation. A journey together to Sidi Kaouki was the greatest risk of all. As we wait for the bus to depart I sense her uncertainty and she says she prefers to spend the morning in the medina. We get off the bus and she agrees I can take several portraits of her in the shadows away from where the bus is idling and where the light is softer. Then she walks off through the old stone arch alone into the medina.
I meet her for the final time that evening in a cafe and show her the photographs and the initial article I had uploaded onto the internet. She looks at herself without comment and says ok. She repeats the title I suggest, Kadisha Arist de Essaouria, and again says ok. We have coffee and then she leaves for the last time, vanishing into the crowd.
I assume that Kadisha will continue to walk the medina of Essaouira displaying and selling her artwork. Her need, like many Moroccans in similar situations, is to raise sufficient money to survive on a day to day basis. Stigmatised, largely excluded from and derided by many parts of her own community the muslim collective responsibility of ummah should ensure that she does not starve. In reality the stigmatising and medieval attitudes in Morocco towards divorced women, as well as Kadisha’s strong individuality and apparent disdain for her own society, makes her life more difficult than it ever should be. I see little evidence that she has supportive social structures and much evidence that her daily journey through her community is attritional with inevitable and frequent flash points.
To my mind, her art represents more than the series of paintings she invariably carries with her; like most creativity it seems to signify a continuing thoughtful and dynamic relationship with her environment, both internal and external. It may also suggest that she retains some fundamental self-value that, despite all the challenges in her life, she refuses to compromise.
Kadisha is a fictitious name.