Not Tangy or Tangiest, but Tangier

(That title only works in English, since the local French and Spanish spelling is “Tanger”. And it is of course pronounced “tan-jeer”.) Before I begin, I should mention that our friend and travel companion Steve, who was yesterday laid low by Moroccan Montezuma’s Revenge, has largely recovered and is quite his old self. So we are in equal measure relieved about that and paranoid about everything we eat. But anyway…

We were walking to our van this morning for our final departure from Chefchaouen, when at a turn in one of the twisty blue alleyways we encountered a lanky young man, berobed and sporting a close-cropped beard,  standing in an archway smoking a long skinny pipe. He greeted us with a knowing smile and, knowing this part of the country’s reputation as the drug center of Morocco,  we engaged him in conversation as our tour guide Mohammed (he has encouraged us to call him Momo) translated. What’s in the pipe? A mixture of marijuana (“kif”) and tobacco. How much of each? About 50-50, though some folks prefer variously stronger or weaker mixes up to about 70-30 either way. He gave us a small sample. I will not reveal what became of the small sample.

And so we left Chefchaouen for the three hour drive back past Tatuen to Tangier. As before, we drove down winding mountain roads, the yellow limestone cliffs like walls to our right and more clearly visible across the river. The cliffs eventually give way to more rolling hills bounding the flood plain of the river, but the river itself is barely a trickle. This may change: we drove past two substantial dams that were under construction, one earthen and one concrete, that would not only fill that flood plain but submerge part of an adjacent village in the process. We drove through that village, a pretty populous and well-developed enclave of whitewashed houses and shops, and wondered what kind of planning would accommodate the inhabitants.

We passed through Tatuen itself again, the brown and burnt-looking field now empty where yesterday the sheep market was going strong. As we passed through the town the surrounding landscape seemed to alternate between scrubby wasteland and uninviting industrial parks. Steve spotted smoke on the hillside that turned out to be an enormous trash fire, the smoke clinging to the ground like toxic fog, blown gently along the ground. The smoke field was at least an acre or two in size, dotted with silhouetted people scavenging the trash as flocks of birds dived in and out to find their own morsels. In other words, a hellscape straight out of Hieronymous Bosch.

As we approached the outskirts of Tangier, we were struck by…apartment buildings. Huge agglomerations of them like beehives clustered densely across the hillsides, whitewashed multistory boxes of spare architecture.  It was an oddly alien site, almost industrial-looking complexes of flats, all white and gleaming against the ochre landscape. White against brown everywhere; it was like looking through some kind of Photoshop filter. Closer into town, and particularly by the beach, the construction became more individualized, though the density was always claustrophobicly high.

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But the proliferation of construction did tell us that we were entering a more prosperous area. Tangier has a population of about 1 million and is a major commerce and recreation center, the former for its port and ferry service to nearby Spain, the latter because of the broad, well-kept, and generally inviting Mediterranean beach. More on those topics in a moment. It has an interesting history because of its location, essentially straddling Europe and Africa somewhat similarly to how Istanbul straddles Europe and Asia. (Istanbul’s borders literally span two continents, however; Tangier’s do not.)  Its roots go all the way back to the Carthaginians in the 5th century AD, and has at various times been under the control of just about everybody: Phoenicians, Romans, Greeks, Portuguese, English, and Spanish. It even has a nice little bit of American history: Morocco was the first country to recognize the newly-minted United States in 1777, and full diplomatic relations were established in 1786, the US first establishing a legation right here in Tangier.

The ownership problem get solved in 1923 when everybody agreed that nobody owned Tangier: it was agreed by all that it was an international city. This solution became one of the greatest boons ever for novelists, for the city immediately became a notorious hotbed of international espionage and thus the setting for countless spy novels and movies, especially during the early days of the Cold War. The Boris-and-Natasha party ended, more or less, in 1956 when Morocco was granted independence by Spain and Tangier joined the new country. Fedora and trenchcoat sales plummeted.

Before heading into Tangier proper we made a stop at Cap Spartel, a little bit northwest of town and several miles west of Gibraltar. It is the cape (and overlook) that is the official entrance to the Straits of Gibraltar and thus the point where the Atlantic meets the Mediterranean. And here is that magic and slightly arbitrary demarcation, painted on a rock about 30 yards from shore. The symbol is a green star on a red background… in other words, the Moroccan flag:

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Atlantic to the left, Mediterranean to the right.

There is a lighthouse, of course, adjacent to the overlook that attracts multitudes of sightseers and a nearly equal number of souvenir vendors. Here is the lighthouse:

tangier-02That is prickly pear cactus in the lower right, by the way. It is invasive, having been brought here from North America, and is all over the place. The Moroccans have taken advantage of it however, exactly as people in the southwest US do: by eating and making jam of the fruit as well as the paddles.

Oh, and see that long low blob sticking up a bit in the center of the horizon, just to the left of the lighthouse? That is Spain, the town of Tarifa to be precise, less than 9 miles away from us. “Huh, only nine miles!” you’re thinking. “Why, I could make that distance myself in a small boat!” Indeed you could, which is why an enormous number of would-be illegal immigrants to Spain and beyond have exactly the same thought. It is for this reason that the coast around Tangier is heavily patrolled, and why the gate to the ferry terminal is heavily guarded. Most of the aspirants come up from sub-Saharan Africa, Mali and Nigeria being popular starting points. (The Syrian refugees do not come this far west; as you know from recent events, they try and get across Turkey into Croatia.) We saw many groups of young African men loitering near the ferry terminal, apparently looking for a lapse in watchfulness that would allow them to sneak aboard.

We drove from Cap Spartel downtown to the beachfront, which is highly developed and very European-looking, as you see here.

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Tangier: Islamic Miami

The route from the cape took us past the acme of luxury beach houses: the local royal palace, and a little vacation pied-a-terre of indeterminate but vast size, hidden behind high walls and armed guards, belonging to the Saudi royal family. We wondered aloud whether the Saudi and Moroccan royal kids trick or treat at each other’s houses at Halloween. (“I got a gold ingot!” “Awwww, I got another diamond.”)

There is obviously money in this area, which all the royalty notwithstanding, gives off a slightly ridiculous real nouveau riche vibe. The best evidence for this is a string of discotheques along the beach, whose names include “Armani” and (I swear this is true) “Snob”. But it is a popular vacation spot, and not just for Moroccans. Thumper started a conversation with three girls in hijabs who were strolling along the promenade adjacent to the beach; they turned out to be vacationing Dutch.

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Point. Shout. Repeat.

We ate lunch at a seafood restaurant directly across the street from the beach, then headed into the medina. About five seconds after we stepped off the van on the corner of a narrow crowded street, a car came barreling around the corner and stalled directly in front of us. The driver restarted it, stomped on the gas, and promptly lost control, plowing full speed into the rear of a parked car about 20 feet away. This would cause a commotion in the most sedate of places, and Morocco is not the most sedate of places. One quick-thinking bystander immediately jumped into the passenger side of the car to grab the keys so that the perpetrator could not drive away. This led to much shouting and pointing, which in turn led to even more shouting and pointing.

We watched the escalating shouting and pointing for a few minutes then headed up the street into the casbah and the warren of the medina.

Tangier’s medina is somewhat more open and airy than Tetuan’s, and for the most part less dingy than the souk in Chefchaouen. The architecture of the buildings near the entrance is traditional, with clean lines, whitewashed archways, and a minaret.

tangier-05The broadest avenues have the European (especially French) feel that we experienced in Tetuan, such as this street scene.

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But of course it has its share of tiny shops in dark corners too. Pretty much everything is sold here: clothing, produce, jewelry, seafood, you name it. Here’s an olive merchant:

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One interesting aspect of the medina is that from its highest points, adjacent to the casbah, you can (barely) see Gibraltar, faint and low on the horizon like the view of Tarifa from Cap Spartel. Since we visited southern Spain in 2002, we can now state that we have seen  Gibraltar from both Spain and Morocco. (We actually visited it when in Spain.) This thus marks the second locale, the first being Istanbul, that we have seen from two continents.

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Jewish cemetery

We walked past the Jewish cemetery while returning to the van. As in Tetuan and elsewhere, there was once a large Jewish community here (numbering 10,000 in Tangier alone in the 1930’s), which has mostly though not completely vanished. There is still a very small local Jewish community here — I haven’t been able to ascertain the number — and the cemetery is apparently still maintained.

Our driver Ahmed had moved the van from its original street corner — for all we knew, the pointing and shouting were still going on — down to the waterfront near the ferry terminal. As before, clusters of young African men were loitering near the gate, and one managed to provoke the ire of a guard who shoved him away. Even so, one can’t help but wonder how many sneak through this way, or via small boat. There has been some talk in the past few years about building a bridge or tunnel between Spain and Morocco at about this location, analogous to the Chunnel, but it is hard to see what Spain would gain from this other than a new undesired smuggling and human trafficking route.

Our hotel tonight is a significant departure from the the traditional riad of our last three nights. It is a very modern Western chain, originally Dutch, called the Golden Tulip. Our accommodations would not be out of place in any American city.  We are only here for tonight, though; today was our single day in Tangier. Tomorrow morning we drive to Rabat to meet up with the rest of our group; there have been eight of us on this so-called “pre-trip”; we will have a full complement of 16 for the next two weeks.

 

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