The flight had taken less than four hours from London, but I felt as if I was a million miles away. All around me in Casablanca airport people milled around: men in turbans and robes, women in veils and kaftans and headwraps, lively dark-eyed children, old men with beards to their waists, louche lads in sharply-cut suits, girls in traditional dress with modern high-heeled shoes peeping out beneath the hems of their djellabas. All of them chattering away in languages of which I understood either nothing at all or caught just a word here and there. Morocco was the most foreign place I had ever visited: it would have been easy to be overwhelmed, but I was on a mission.
Having discovered that an ancestor – 19 year old Catherine Tregenna – had been stolen out of a church in Cornwall by Barbary pirates in 1625 and taken to North Africa to be sold into the white slave trade, I had determined to research the subject and then write my first historical novel, The Tenth Gift. Trouble was, I knew next to nothing about the 17th century and even less about Morocco. I had done a lot of reading in the six months since I’d decided to write the book, though, and it had led me here.
There are writers in the world who are sufficiently confident in their skill to evoke a place without ever having visited it, and I was going to have to write about the 17th century without being able to go there, no one having been thoughtful enough to invent a working time machine yet; but writing about a time AND a place of which I had no experience felt like too great a challenge. So here I was on African soil for the first time in my life.
I’d love to be able to tell you that I set about my research with the precision of a true historian, but it would be a lie. I did what any new tourist does and wandered the town of Salé at random, finding myself trapped in cul-de-sacs and walking in circles, getting lost in the maze-like streets, suffering sensory overload in the bizarre bazaar. I took a hundred photographs and a thousand notes: the way the spices in the market were piled in multi-coloured pyramids and dried chameleons hung from strings from the stall of a herbman selling cures and ingredients for magic spells; how an old man sat cross-legged on the cobbled street weighing out raw wool in an ancient brass balance; women with seamed faces on upturned crates with hobbled sheep and pairs of ducks and chickens trussed and squawking at their feet. How men sat in tiny openings in the walls, stitching by hand; children sat on stools in the street having their hair cut with shears. At the butcher’s stall goats’ heads stared sightlessly with filmed-over eyes; calves’ feet stood waiting for a thrifty housewife to happen by and take them home for supper. The cries of hawkers, and the smell of frying onions and baking bread were in the air
It was a heady experience for a first-time visitor: but a perfect gift for a novelist. For in some quarters of Morocco, and the medina in Salé in 2006 was one of them, some things have not changed a jot since that day in August 1625 when the corsairs sailed down the coast of Portugal and Spain, up the River Bou Reg-Reg and through the great arched river-gate through which Alexander Selkirk – Defoe’s source for Robinson Crusoe – was taken to be sold in the Souq el Ghezel.
Back across the river is the Moroccan administrative capital of Rabat, and it is here, in the Kasbah des Oudaias, that the corsairs of Salé – known in the English annals as the Sallee Rovers – made their home. The winding streets here are picturesque and colourful, painted to waist height in that particular shade of turquoise blue with which the Moroccans also paint their fishing boats. Talking to one of the local fishermen in my pidgin French, I found out the colour is considered protective – against the elements, and against djinns, those spirits of smokeless fire who live parallel to our world and can be mischievous or even downright dangerous. I don’t know where I expected these violent, marauding, slave-stealing pirates to live, but it certainly wasn’t in these demure, whitewashed houses with their pretty pantiled rooves and extraordinary hidden courtyard gardens in which fountains played and vines and bougainvillea tumbled from carved balconies. I was assured very little had changed here since it was rebuilt as the corsairs’ stronghold in the early 17th century. They had, I was told at the museum in the Andalusian Garden, recreated the way their families had lived in Spain – just visible across the straits on a clear day – before being expelled by King Philip III when forcing through his policy of ethnic cleansing of Catholic Spain in 1609.
I am a great fan of immersive fiction. As a reader I like being plunged into the settings of a book to experience them as the characters might. I want to know what they look like and what they smell of. I want to know what the protagonist might eat, what they are wearing and where they live. Such nosiness comes in useful to a writer of historical fiction: add to that a love of museums and a propensity to get chatting to curators and visiting academics and by the end of three weeks in Morocco, I had a surplus of background material. More than this, I had a proper flavour of the country itself, of its people, their attitudes, superstitions, beliefs and customs, and their pride in their history. Everyone I talked to wanted to tell me stories: every one of those stories rendered up a gem that would make it into The Tenth Gift or into one of my other Moroccan novels. Their passion inflamed my own passion: I wanted to get the book right for their sake as much as for my own and my readers’.
Not everyone has the opportunity or means to visit the site of their historical novel. In many cases locations have changed beyond all recognition, leaving next to nothing from the time of your fiction behind. But Morocco is a very special country: when you go there you are not just travelling in space but also in time: one moment you can be picking up wifi and drinking an excellent espresso in your distinctly 21st century hotel; the next you walk around a corner into the 15th century. In that, Morocco is unique. It makes research a pleasure and I came away from that trip confident in my ability to write accurately about my subject.
Jane Johnson’s author website: www.janejohnsonbooks.com
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