SUMMARY or ‘The Short Version’
The Serai is the result of a 17-year DIY project by us – husband and wife team, Mark & Ayelen (Scottish & Argentinian). Working in Ibiza each summer and then, each winter in Morocco, investing all our savings in building materials and help from the villagers, stone by stone we turned an idea into reality. We had almost no money for such a huge project but we had energy and time. We set ourselves only three rules: no cement in the walls, never borrow any money, and never hire anyone from outside the immediate community. We knew it might take 10 years or more and that we must simply push forward and follow the flow.
In effect, realising that the true value in the project lay in the journey, not in the end result, we turned the construction of the Serai into a lifestyle choice. And that made it so much fun: learning from books and Youtube how to use lime, how to build vaults and domes, furniture from recycled wood, how to weld all the doors and windows from steel, plumbing and electricity and so, so much more. We made mistakes, many mistakes, but then found imaginative ways to fix and disguise them, and these are the details that people love the most. Friends and volunteers flocked to help us and almost every local fisherman has sweated alongside us. We had to learn Arabic very quickly indeed!
In 2005 I had been invited to join an Arctic expedition and was in London for a few days as part of the preparation for 4 months on the ice. While I was there I bumped into a man I had worked with very briefly in the Middle East the year before.
“Aha!” said Julian, the moment he saw me. “The very man! Can I interest you in a piece of land in Morocco?”
“Er…yeah….maybe….possibly?” I replied, a little taken aback. But, in fact, I was immediately interested because I had been looking for an unusual piece of land to buy for some time. For the first time in my life I had some money in my bank account and I supposed that I should climb onto the ‘property ladder’ like everyone else. In the UK this would definitely have meant a mortgage on some tiny apartment. I was appalled at this prospect. Instead, I began to scout around for something a bit more interesting, something that might lead me down an interesting and unusual path somewhere else on this little planet of ours.
I looked at Croatia, Turkey, Albania and Slovenia; a kite surfing beach project in northern Brazil sounded fun. A year or so drifted by with no decisions – I was busy with overseas work and my passion for paragliding and kite surfing. Then I met Julian. I knew why he thought I was the ‘very man’. In the Middle East, a few years previously I had invited him to join me at a Sheikh’s banquet on the banks of the River Tigris. From that joint experience he knew that I shared his interest in the Arab culture. He told me now that he and his Moroccan wife had recently bought a hectare just above the same beach. This new piece of land had come up for sale immediately afterwards and he was keen that it should go to someone who would not build something out of place on it.
The trouble was, I didn’t have enough time to go and look at it. I was due to fly to Greenland in just over a week. I persuaded my sister, Penelope, to go and have a look. She is an artist and had been to Essaouira before to paint its vibrant street-life. She was to meet in the ancient medina with a man called Jindl. Imagine her surprise when upon arriving at the given address in Derb Lalouj she realised that this was where she had stayed before, with the friend of a friend, Alison, Jindl’s English wife. The plot was thickening.
I am not one of those who would dismiss that as mere coincidence, to be explained by this small world we live on. To me that was a sign that I could either ignore or act upon. I can’t really explain it – it’s up there in the realm of parking places that suddenly appear when you wish for them hard enough – but I had a strong sense of that land in Morocco calling to me. Penelope returned with photographs of a dusty and stony field, at the foot of a forested hillside and just 10 minutes walk from a long, sweeping beach. There was a windowless farmers’ cottage at the bottom; nothing green was to be seen anywhere within the perimeter walls. It was a long way from what I had pictured myself buying.
“So what are your thoughts?” I queried. I remember she exhaled sharply at this. “There’s no water, no electricity of course, no vehicle access; to reach it you walk for 2km down the hillside though the forest. I can hardly imagine a tougher project, so dry and windy, the access! It’s strangely beautiful though and there’s not a modern building in sight. And you’ll love Essaouira. Lots of wind there for kite surfing too.”
I spent the next few days thinking it over, listening to the advice of friends and my girlfriend. This generally ran along the lines of, “You’ve never even visited Morocco. You might not like the people. What about the planning laws? Are you mad?”
With one day to spare I made the decision: I prided myself on having chosen some strange paths in life and this was a junction no different. Sometimes you’ve simply got to hold faith in the outcome. I wired £18k into Julian’s account and flew to Greenland. I would be out of communication with the outside world for almost 4 months.
This Arctic epedition is worth diving into briefly as it had a massive impact on my initial reaction to seeing my land in Azrou Issa for the first time. I was part of an 8-man British team re-enacting for television the race to the South Pole in 1911 between Englishman Captain Scott and Norwegian Roald Amundsen. Like the modern Norwegian team racing us, we were equipped with the same clothes, food and equipment as the original explorers. The only difference was that, because dogs are not allowed in Antarctica any more, we were heading north, not south and our ‘South pole’ was an arbitrary point on the map 805 miles/1,288km from our start point. And both us and the Norwegians had film crews following us on snow-mobiles.
Easiest to remember now are the beautiful memories from that trip: the light, the midnight sun, comradeship, the dogs finally running well towards the mountains. But after day 40, like Scott, we were man-hauling – pulling the sledges ourselves through a blank, white, monotonous landscape – which is as miserable an experience as man has thought to devise for himself. Soon after this phase of our journey began I developed subperiosteal haematomas on my heels, a kind of bone bruise. The heel is the transfer point of one’s leg power into the boot and thence to the skis; every step was intensely painful and with days, weeks, months of this torture stretching ahead of me like some horrible nightmare I had to find an escape. When I didn’t manage to detach my mind from my heels I could spend hours silently sobbing into my frozen balaclava. That pathetic behaviour would be impossible to maintain; I would have to give up, on television, request a rescue plane out, in front of everyone: my friends, colleagues, my father. This, my ego would not and could not allow.
My rescuer was Azrou Issa, a tiny fishing community in Morocco where by now I must surely own a field above the beach? I imagined digging a well there and then, as if by magic, the photos my sister had taken vanished from my memory as green tendrils of growth began to cover the landscape. I imagined myself there, labouring bravely at dry stone terrace walls. At night in the tent I struggled to design a house and disliked all my sketches. But that failure did not slow the transformation of my parched field into something like the Hanging Gardens of Babylon, or the Alhambra. In the paradise of my creation water trickled everywhere and the trees dripped fruit.
Fast forward a few months and I found myself striding down through the forest with Allison and Jindl. We came out of the trees and stopped by a low wall. It was relatively early in the day and the sun was still behind us. In front and to each side was a stupendous view of ocean, forest and farmland. Jindl swept his arm imperiously across the landscape , all the way from left to right.
“Theez iz yorr lend!
For a moment I was confused. What was my land? “What?” I said, panic rising suddenly from my stomache. Surely he didn’t mean this field? There was nothing on it. It was just dust and rock; not a single tree grew there. These thoughts, of course, lasted a second only. I had revisited the photographs since my return from Greenland. I knew the reality, I wasn’t mad. Yet the greenery of my frantic, arctic imagination hadn’t quite died completely. In shock, in a sudden realisation of the enormity of this project, the true reality of it there in front of me, I think my mouth just sort of hung open, like the fool realising his money has been so easily taken from him. Sweat prickled on my lower back, as it does when you realise that you’ve really, properly, shamingly cocked something up.
“Theez iz yorr lend! Once again Jindl swept his arm from left to right.
I said nothing for quite a while. As we climbed over the wall I inwardly berated myself for such a stupid financial decision.
“Don’t worrry. We will dig a well and you will hef a lot of watterr.” Jandal announced some while later, no doubt sensing my lack of enthusiasm. I nodded mechanically and was fairly uncommunicative for the next half an hour as we discovered my farmhouse was locked and we had no key, and that it was getting hot and there was no shade. The walk back up through the forest to the car felt like a retreat in disgrace.
The next day, however, I returned alone, determined to explore properly. I brought with me some food and, crucially perhaps, some of Morocco’s famous ‘black’. I found an occupant in my house called Jalil. He was one of the many brothers who had sold me the land and had been born where we sat on cushions. He made tea while I absorbed the simplicity of the life here; the farmhouse was really just two narrow and windowless rooms. On the beach I met some teenagers fooling around on a broken surf board. I walked onwards to the headland at the southern end and found a low-tide paradise of rockpools and vast caves. Returning to my land, I walked through the adjacent village and ended up sitting on a wall and sharing my hash. Everyone was incredibly friendly. Of course we had not a word in common, but conversations of a sort we certainly had and I found that I liked them all very much.
When I set off through the forest again to hitch a lift back to Essaouira I was in a completely different frame of mind from the previous day. This was a super interesting piece of land, just what I had been looking for. It was perhaps a little more challenging than I had originally set my sights upon but that was a good thing. I never for a second imagined buying something easy.