Posts Tagged With: medina

Madrasahs, Medinas, and Souks, Oh My

I alluded to Steve putting on a performance of his own in the main square last night. You may recall that in addition to the rows of food tents and crowds of vendors, visitors, beggars, and pickpockets, there are also clusters of street performers, mostly musicians but also storytellers. There is also the occasional carnival game. Everyone is competing for the visitors’ dirhams, of course, some more successfully than others, and there is no angle left unexplored; better carry a pocketful of change if you want to take anyone’s picture. Steve, however, raised the stakes considerably by first sussing out a needy-looking band of musicians — these guys below — and then inserting himself into their act.

How? He owns a pair of “poi sticks”, which look like high-tech fluorescent light bulbs. What they actually are is a line of 80 programmable LEDs on a motion-sensitive linear mount. When you wave them they blink in accordance with their programming to display whatever image you have uploaded and thus appear to paint the image in the air itself. Steve had prepared a set of Moroccan-themed images — patterns, desert scenes, swords, and even the Moroccan flag — and promptly quintupled the musicians’ otherwise modest crowd with a New Age light show complete with dance moves. Here he is in action:

As you might infer, Steve is not a shy guy. (His wife Thumper is somewhat more introverted, though in private she has only two settings: “Quiet” and “Will you please calm the #%}&@$+ down?”) We like Steve and Thumper. In any case, if you are really extroverted, love high-tech toys, and have too much disposable income, you can obtain a set of these poi sticks for yourself for only $1200. They’re seriously cool. (No, I am not buying a set.)

Our first stop today was one of Marrakech’s best-known sites, the Majorelle Gardens and Berber Museum. They were designed by French expat painter Jacques Majorelle in the 1920’s and 30’s when Morocco was still a French protectorate. Basically, he was looking to create an oasis in the middle of the city, and succeeded; though it is only a few acres in size, the garden is a serene, manicured little forest of cactus and bamboo, home to something like a dozen species of endemic birds. It hosts a few burbling little fountains as well and it is easy to imagine it as a retreat from the chaotic city beyond the walls.

At one end of the garden is the Berber Museum (no photos allowed, alas), a boxy blue and yellow building (you can see it through the cacti in the lower photo) that houses a small but utterly spectacular collection of Berber jewelry, costumes, and artifacts. The jewelry room alone is worth the trip; it is a dark hexagonal room lined with infinitely reflecting mirrors and topped with a black ceiling dotted with lit stars. It feels like you’re floating in space along with a lot of eye-popping jewelry.

Berber jewelry has a very distinctive style. They do a lot of very fine filigree silver work, and they are big on turquoise and red coral. The color combination makes it look like a cousin of a lot of Native American jewelry from the Southwest, an unexpected correspondence that as I think I have mentioned applies to some of the architecture as well. There is a legend that the American Indians are the lost tribe of Israel; they say that about the Berbers as well. Hmmmm.

Majorelle himself has pretty much lapsed into artistic obscurity, but for two things. First, he invented a particular shade of cobalt now known as “Majorelle Blue”, which is of course the color of the building. And second, he had a big fan in designer Yves St. Laurent, who donated the money to have the grounds restored after they had fallen into disrepair, and whose ashes are scattered in the garden. There is a small monument to him in a contemplative little glade at one corner along the path; there are some benches surrounding a small Greek-style fluted marble column.

After leaving the gardens and museum we plunged back into the medina on foot, this time navigating our way through the metalworking district en route to the Ben Youssef madrasah (about which more below). I have spoken before about the clangor of the medinas and souks, and in this case the word applies literally: the alleys were steeped in deep shadow but filled with metal sounds, clanging and banging and tapping and grinding as the artisans turned out tea sets, belt buckles, candelabras, and — like this fellow below — even escutcheons, huge medieval-style locks that would go perfectly on the cells in your dungeon.

Few of the artisans were as cheerful looking or accomodating as this guy. In fact, none were. Most wore dark expressions of concentration, dark eyes glowering at me from the Stygian depths of narrow unlit workshops if they thought I was about to take their picture. I didn’t dare.

I have mentioned frequently how crowded, narrow, and uneven the alleys of the souks and medinas are. What I may not have made clear is that in addition to these attractions they are dangerous too, and not just because of the pickpockets. They are dangerous because the Bangladesh-level population density notwithstanding, they are still streets, which is to say thoroughfares in constant use by motorized vehicles. You rarely see a car in them — they are too narrow for that — but there are mopeds and bicycles aplenty, often carrying comically oversized and insanely unsafe loads as they barrel through the alleys at whatever speed the thousands of dodging pedestrians permits, which is almost always way too fast. The mopeds in particular are a genuine terror, and it is not at all unusual to be physically brushed by them as they maneuver past you; woe betide the unwary foreign visitor who has either insufficiently catlike reflexes or an inadequately developed precognitive sense of when to take a quick step right or left.

Compared to the mopeds, the bicycles are positively benign. What this means in practice is that you are less severely injured when you get hit. (Morocco has the sixth highest rate of road accidents in the world. My reaction to this is “Only sixth?”)

Two-wheeled terrors or not, we walked through the alleys till we reached the Ben Youssef madrasah, the largest Koranic school in Morocco (though it has not been in use as such since 1960; it is a historical site and museum now).

Ben Youssef dates from the 14th century, though it fell into disuse and was restored about 200 years later by one of the Saadi sultans. (Remember the Saadi tombs from yesterday?) As madrasahs go — they’re usually a couple of rooms — this one is vast, with 130 claustrophobic student dorm rooms about the size of a half-decent walk-in closet and overlooking an ornately carved courtyard. The carvings are marble and stucco, and the ceilings of the larger rooms (not the dorms, of course) are cedar.

One of the most common carving motifs is Arabic calligraphy, seen on the photo below. It is essentially identical to what you will find in Andalusian Arabic architecture elsewhere, notably in the Alhambra in Spain. Arabic sculptors make the most of their repertoire of geometric patterns and letters; Islam does not allow the depiction of human or animal forms, so you will never see a carving or sculpture of a person. (They do get away with cheating a little when it comes to animals, though: you will occasionally see a stylized peacock’s tail, though not the bird’s head.)

Alice looks out over the courtyard from a room that she would not have been allowed to enter in the 14th century.

This pretty much winds up our stay in Marrakech — in the nick of time, since Alice just returned from the souk with another couple of hundred dollars worth of jewelry — and we move on tomorrow to the coastal resort town of Essaouira, our final stop before coming home. We’re not all going to Essaouira, though: the 10-person “Michie’s Camel Ride” ensemble is returning home tmorrow, leaving just the six of us who were on the first leg of the trip back in late September. We are also losing Momo, our trusty and genial tour lead, and we will have a different shepherd for this final stop. So tonight will be a farewell dinner for the group as a whole, before we fold our respective tents and the caravan moves on.

 

 

 

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Categories: Africa, Morocco | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Fez: Painted Pots, Nonexistent Jews, and Oh My God What Is That Smell?

Long day today and an early wakeup tomorrow for the long trip across the Atlas Mountains to the Sahara, so this post is likely to be longer on pictures than the usual mordant commentary. And because it is late I am probably not going to be doing a whole lot of proofreading,  so be prepared to endure a heavier than usual dose of Autocorrrect Surrealism.

Before I begin, though, I need to correct an error in yesterday’s post that Alice discovered. It appears that I killed off Moulay Ismail’s imprisoned architect for the wrong reason. He was executed not because he claimed he could build a greater-than-12,000-horse stable, but rather because he said he could build a better city gate. So now I have set the record straight, not that this helps him.

I also want to make a retroactive addition to yesterday’s narrative, because we had a very interesting encounter in the hills that I forgot to mention. I did say that a number of farmers make a hardscrabble, living coaxing olives and hazelnuts out of the brown  hillsides, but I neglected to mention that snails were also on the menu; the Moroccans inherited that particular culinary quirk from the French, and also consider them aphrodisiac for God knows what reason. So bags of snails nagging by roadside stands is a strangely common site, like this:

I also neglected to mention that a conversation with one of the roadside farmers led to an invitation to walk down the steep dirt path to his home for a visit; he lived with his mother in a small cluster of one-room buildings, very dusky and a little primitive inside but not altogether crude: he had a two-burner propane stove, well water, and electricity. He also had a wife, who had decamped to Spain because, well, it was nicer there. He was saving up money to join her, but in the meantime his companion and farm hand was Mom, whom you see here. She had been married off at 12 years old and had three children besides our hazelnut farmer. The two of them were very gracious to us.

I mentioned that we visited Momo’s apartment and met his family, and told you that his wife Amal had prepared a sumptuous snack table for us. I wanted to include a photo of said pastry extravaganza but had trouble uploading the image, which I hereby offer for your enjoyment. The incidence of diabetes in this country is very high, which is no mystery whatever. Moroccans love their cakes and cookies and are diabetically good at producing them.

 

I also tried to convey a sense of our centuries-old riad, and described how the owner greeted us in the atrium and told us about the history of the place. Here is a photo of that scene. It in no way resembles a Holiday Inn. Our room is on the top floor, and directly above us is a terrace that offers a spectacular view of the city.

Fez is the oldest city in Morocco, and because it sits among the hills there are a few places — not just our riad rooftop, from which you can enjoy a panoramic view of it. Here is one taken from across town.

If you were able to zoom sufficiently far into this picture one of the things that would strike you is that every, and I do mean every, home has a satellite TV dish on the roof. The paraboloids are so ubiquitous that they are sardonically referred to as Moroccan Mushrooms. I found their ubiquity a little odd: with such rampant poverty, how is it that everyone can afford satellite TV? The answer, explained to me by our local guide, lay in a factoid that I offered a few days ago, namely that Morocco has no intellectual property laws. That means that any enterprising electronics technician with a grounding in cable box encryption and a touch of piratical larceny in his heart can build a bootleg cable box that can receive and decide the satellite signal, and sell said box for a couple hundred dollars. That may sound like a lot but it’s a one-shot deal: you save up your dirhams until you can buy one of those bootleg set-top boxes, and you are set forever: 1200 channels and no monthly subscription fees, forever. And that explains why those dishes are everywhere.

Armed with that particular useless bit of knowledge (useless to us, but very handy for the locals), we set out for our day tour of Fez. The city really has three parts: the medina in the old city, which dates from the 9th century (that is really old, people!); the so called New City, which is a still-wet-behind-the-ears 700 years old; and an actual modern downtown area. Our first stop was the Ibn Danan synagogue (there is one other) in the so-called mellah, or Jewish quarter, of the New City. It is small and no longer functioning as a place of worship, maintained instead for historical purposes through various grants. Here is our local guide, the very articulate Hisham, showing us the Torah scroll. (The scroll, though real, is no longer consecrated and cannot be used in an actual service.)

I assume that there is some kind of selection effect at work since we are an American tour group (despite my being the only Jew in it) but I continue to be bemused by the astronomically disproportionate frequency with which the Jews pop up in our tour guide’s expositions and in our sightseeing. It seems like we are constantly hearing about one  or another Jewish quarter, or synagogue, or historical personage, or edict, or what have you, such that an uninformed tourist might reasonably conclude that Jews make up about 10% of Morocco’s population instead of the actual 0.008%. Strange. And it is also a result of this phenomenon that every time something about Morocco’s Jews gets mentioned, everybody instinctively turns to me for more information as though I were somehow automatically imbued with this knowledge by virtue of having been Bar Mitzvahed 49 years ago. (News flash: I wasn’t.)

Anyway, having satisfied our daily Moroccan Jewish History quota, we moved on to a pottery collective. It is a collective created for the purpose of preserving the craft, which used to be handed down from father to son but is now threatened by globalization, the figurative sons now being more interested in more 21st century pursuits. Here is one of the potters at work:

There were a lot of beautiful things been made, and of course being sold: tile tables and fountains, and all manner of pottery even including — wait for it — mezuzahs. (For non-Jewish readers, that is the usually oblong religious talisman placed on the doorframe at the entrance to Jewish homes.) We were walked through the grounds watching men of various ages mix clay, fire pots, lay out tile mosaics, etc.; women were employed only in the pottery painting stage. At the end of the tour we were inevitably led to the gifts shop, which I will grudgingly respect for having high quality stuff. Our credit card balance did not escape the gift shop unscathed.

From there we moved into the Old City, dominated by the medina. Like the other medinas and souks we have visited, this one was a crush of humanity and an assault on the senses, this one even more so that the others because of its partially ceilinged and thus more claustrophobic quarters. Its size distinguishes it as well: we were told that there were 62 miles of streets (!) and that if we became separated from the group that we should not wander around to try and find our guide, but rather should stand still and wait for him to backtrack to us. Otherwise the risk was that one would end up wandering the maze forever, lost in sensory overload until eventually giving up and opening a bakery. Anyway, here are some scenes of the medina. First, the crowd itself:

And that is a wide part of the street. The danger — and I am not kidding here — is that the density of people is so high, and the streets so narrow, that there is an actual risk of being run over by a donkey carrying some merchant’s wares, like these guys carrying tanned animal hides:

And here is a fish merchant. Notice the shark’s head, standing on end at lower right.

And now a butcher. Yes, that huge grotesque thing hanging in the foreground at right is a decapitated camel’s head. Yes, they eat camels. No, we haven’t tried it. The heads make great Christmas presents, though.

As I’ve mentioned before, the medina is a 360-degree assault on all five senses, very alien but oddly exhilarating. But the hubbub is punctuated by unexpected islands of serenity, small quiet mysterious alleys that radiate off the Main Street and force you to wonder who lives their and what they do. I was photographing one of these, all in shades of white and gray, strangely bleached in comparison to the riot of color elsewhere, when a young boy jumped out of nowhere into the frame, grinned at me, and disappeared again. Here he is:

Our meandering a through the medina led us to a leather tannery (and store, of course). The store is at street level, and the owner asked us if we wanted to go upstairs to see the tannery itself, which of course we did. Before marching us up three floors, though, he handed each of us a sprig of fresh spearmint plant without explanation. Its utility became nauseatingly self-evident as we climbed the stairs, the stench of dead meat and ammonia growing unbreathably stronger with each step. Sure enough, by the time we reached the top we were holding the spearmint beneath our noses on every other breath to keep from gagging; we needed it like a scuba diver’s air hose. It was by a very wide and unpleasant margin the worst thing I have ever smelled.

And here’s the punch line: the actual tannery works are at street level behind the building. That is, we were going up to the roof to get AWAY from smell. Variously holding our breath and breathing therough the spearmint leaves, we took our photos looking down on the operation while trying not to imagine what the odor would be like at close range. So here is the view, which I assure you does not remotely convey the experience, for which you should be very, very grateful. In fact, benign words like “smell”, “odor”, and “aroma” are entirely unequal to the descriptive task. “Stench” starts to approach the concept but still falls a long way short; the English language needs some altogether new word to describe the olfactory sensation. Something like “glarrrrghblechomygodgag”, which I admit looks a little Welsh but which is definitely moving in the right direction. See what you can come up with. (I can hardly wait to read the comments section of this post.)

Photos taken, we got the sales pitch back in the store. The leather goods were indeed beautiful and the prices reasonable but by no means negligible. Alice came close to buying a jacket but eventually decided against it, apparently emotionally wounding the salesman to the point of suicidal depression as he followed us out into the street and down the block.

Our final stop before dinner was at a madrasah, which is to say, a religious school. The madrasahs serve as both schools and a sort of community center and are deeply rooted in history. The one we visited dated from the 14th century, spectacularly ornate with calligraphic carvings and geometric colored tiles tesselating every square foot. They were in remarkable condition after 700 years, especially considering that the courtyard is open to the elements at the top. Here we are in the front courtyard:

We ended the day with another home visit, this time to a delightful middle class family living in the modern downtown part of the city. Father was a waited and had to work, and so we had dinner with mother Hadija; her 23 daughter Loubnna (in her second year of medical school); her 22 year old daughter Fatima (studying economics), and her 15 year old son Otman (high school). Their English was pretty good, especially Loubnna’s, though we occasionally fell back on French. They were more than gracious, very warm and welcoming and eager to share their lives with us and ask about ours. We were there for about two hours and enjoyed every minute of it. I took some pictures of them, and they of us, which Fatima wants to share through Facebook. So I guess I am about to become Facebook friends with a 22 year old Moroccan girl. (The 23 year old, Loubnna, says that medical,school keeps her way too busy for Facebook.)

And that was our rather long day. Tomorrow may be even longer, most of it on the us as we head to the desert. I suspect that Internet connectivity may be spotty for the next four or five days, but I’ll do the best I can.

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Down the Rabat Hole

This will be a short post for the simple yet boring reason that not a whole lot happened today, it having been mostly a travel day on the van to get us from Tangier to Rabat. It’s about a 3 1/2 drive through not especially interesting countryside, mostly big industrial-sized farms that are far more similar to their American counterparts than to the small family farms that we saw in the Rif mountains. The countryside is mostly pretty dry, as you might expect, but the farms are irrigated. The most common crop that we saw was strawberries, with okra a distant second. Lots and lots of strawberries, protected from the sun under acres of plastic sheets… “strawberry fields forever”, one might say, if one was desperate to insert some lame humor into an otherwise pedestrian blog post.

We arrived in Rabat around lunchtime and did a quick spin around the city in the van to get a feel for it. It is a somewhat schizophrenic place: very modern looking on the one hand, with a gleaming light rail system that would be the envy of any American city, yet at the same time exuding the Moorish ambience of the royal palace and the very large mosque next door. And overlooking the city and its river (called the Bou Regreg), the largest casbah we have seen, a huge medieval fortress housing a walled town with its souk and medina, and an ancient royal garden. This casbah is a classic Moorish fortress, with tall onion-shaped arches under classic medieval parapets like a marching row of squared-off teeth.

Momo (our tour lead Mohammed) brought us all to lunch at a bustling trattoria adjacent to Rabat’s central rail station. It was a very American kind of place, serving mostly burgers, pizza, and, um, shawarma (which if this were Greece you would call gyro). It all had a very big-city feel to it and could have been any European city except for the proliferation of women in hijabs. But far from all of them: being the capital (and having a population of 2 million), Rabat is pretty cosmopolitan. There we a larger percentage of Wester-dressed women her than any other place we’ve seen, and this included the co-owner of the restaurant, an attractive and thoroughly Western 30-ish woman who spoke nearly perfect English and came over to chat with us for a while. (Her father is the other co-owner.)

We had a couple of hours to kill after lunch, so Steve and Thumper and we decided to do some exploring on our own. We had heard that the casbah gardens, called the Andalusian Gardens in the guidebooks, were worthwhile, so despite the likelihood that we will be visiting them tomorrow we jumped in a cab and instructed the driver in French to take us there. That did not turn out as well as we hoped. Not because our French was inadequate — we can get by in that department — but because, unbeknownst to us and the guidebooks notwithstanding, the locals do not refer to them as the Andalusian Gardens but rather the Oudaya Gardens, Oudaya being the name of the casbah. The only reason we got there at all was that Alice showed the driver a map indicating our destination, at which point the light bulb went on and he charged forward. The ride took about 10 minutes and cost $1.50. I gave him two bucks in dirhams and felt like a big spender.

The gardens were pleasant if unspectacular, more enjoyable for the setting beneath the castle walls and the locals strolling about that for the flora. The was a group of teenagers playing music on a guitar and flute; pairs of women in hijabs taking selfies with their phones; families with children; lovers sitting on a ledge holding hands. It was cool in the shade and fragrant with roses, an unselfconscious little idyll behind high walls.

An archway at one corner of the garden led to an outdoor tea salon on a terrace overlooking the river, where for two bucks apiece we each had a glass of achingly sweet and satisfying mint tea and a plate of genuinely spectacular almond cookies. The river view itself is austere; it is broad and shallow with surprisingly little boat traffic, and long low rows of boxy apartment blocks on the far shore. One boat in particular caught our eye: a large dark brown wooden dhow, surprisingly resembling Captain Hook’s ship from Peter Pan, lay moored at the shore. We had been told that we would be having dinner aboard a boat tonight, and wondered if that was it. (Spoiler alert: it was.)

Leaving the terrace, we ambled through the medina for a half hour or so, a stroll that include Alice getting waylaid by an insistent lady selling henna tattoos. Alice plunked for one — the lady wanted five bucks, Alice offered two, deal accepted — and sported a nice henna curlicue on her arm that listed all of about a half hour before washing off.

Back at the hotel we finally met the rest of our group, a gregarious crowd of folks who mostly hail from New Orleans and mostly already know each other. They seem like a real good group that will fit in nicely with our current eight, and I expect we’ll enjoy our time with them. So far I’ve identified among them a nurse, an architect, a caterer, a retail store and coffee shop owner, and a rheumatologist. They’re all very good-humored and interesting to talk to; over dinner the rheumatologist was telling me about some volunteer work that he did in a refugee camp in Iraq.

Dinner on the boat was surprisingly good and the setting surprisingly elegant considering that it looked from the outside like some kind of tourist trap. (Our tour operator, OAT, does their homework in this regard.) Tomorrow we’ll have a city tour that I expect will bring us back to Oudaya. But that’s fine with us. I’ll post some photos of the day in my next entry.

 

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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.

tangier-09

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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