Stories of this Canadian girl's adventures exploring Europe & beyond...join me!

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

a moroccan day.

Africa. We spent the day in Africa, and sadly it was only one day. The Phoenicians were here, almost every European power has been here, Jews, Muslims and Christians live here, and even the Beat poets made their home here - here is Tangier, Morocco.

In Europe, it seems to me, the past is largely fictitious; to be aware of it one must have previous knowledge of it. In Tangier the past is a physical reality as perceptible as the sunlight. 
– Paul Bowles

We had attached ourselves to a tour group so we wouldn't get lost, led by a witty Moroccan named Rashid. He effortlessly switched his comical monologues between English, German and Spanish, which was impressive to watch. It felt like we were experiencing a whimsical live version of Frommer's Guide to Tangier, but in three languages. 

Tangier's location brings with it a host of complication and intrigue as it sits at the strategically important point where the Strait of Gibraltar meets the Atlantic Ocean. Only 17 kms from mainland Europe, it also lies at the entrance to all of the ancient civilizations along the Mediterranean. It has been fought over more viciously than that all important seat in the White House. Design influences, such as ornate balustrades looking like neglected theatre sets, bring touches of forgotten elegance to buildings housing innumerable families trying to eke out a living here. I was mesmerized.

Every square inch of 'real estate' in the city's ancient medina is used to display wares for tourists, neighbours and families to buy. The air is musty and hot, alternating smells greeting or assaulting us as we meander through the crowded passages. Like literally walking into a time machine, Tangier's old city grabs hold of you and pulls you in.

We inhale the aroma of sweet dates, cheap leather, pungent cumin, fresh baked rounds of flatbread, sweat, and tobacco. The market creeps along the street, in the hallways and onto doorsteps while the noise of children and the loud calls to prayer intermingle with the sellers persuading us to buy.

Olives, oils, perfumes, textiles, goat cheese, fruit, bread, bulgar, couscous, nuts, and seeds tempt us in the medina as friendly, but tired-looking men and women sit and wait. There is a lot of hard work behind the picture we see.

We make our way to the highest point of the old city, to the Kasbah, and tour the Sultan's palace built at the time of concubines and harems in the 17th century . We walk through low wooden doors into rooms covered floor to ceiling with intricately coloured tiles.

Mosaic arches, benches, and floors in turquoise, rose, and lilac grace each frame of my camera lens. The palace was empty but for us, and two thoroughly bored-looking security guards. Ghosts of seductive dancers to the taps of tambourines and drums floated through each room.We whispered, not sure why.

After the Kasbah, we went in search of refreshment. I had heard about the local specialty: mint tea, and knew that I had to try it. We walked into a disorganized café and immediately noticed that every man was looking at me (and not in a 'hey, she's cute' way). We had been told that this area is not separated along gender lines anymore, though it is still predominantly Muslim. Even so, I could feel the weight of long-held traditions, and suggested to great guy that we sit outside. 

I can't pretend that it wasn't an uncomfortable feeling, but the people were all friendly and the mint tea was the most delicious sweetness I'd ever tasted.

Before we left the medina, Rashid brought us to his friend's fabric store. Deep inside, two employees were busy creating colourful, silky, cottony, scarves, rugs and bags on volkswagen-sized looms. The pressure to buy was friendly but intense, and so great guy and I gently made our exit and went exploring on our own.

Tangier has always had quite the full dance card - whether it wanted to dance or not. It was already a thriving Phoenician trading center when in 81 B.C. the Romans captured it. The Byzantine Empire took control in the 6th century, the Arabs in the 7th, and in the 9th it came under Muslim Spanish rule. Then the Moroccans moved in, followed by the Portuguese, until it was transferred to Britain in 1662 as part of Catherine De Braganza’s dowry. The party was just getting started.

Ancient Phoenician graves carved into the stone, overlooking the Strait of Gibraltar
At the beginning of the 20th century things really became a mash-up for Tangier when the French and Spanish agreed to share the city. This preceded an even more interesting time, when in 1923 Great Britain, Spain, France, the Netherlands, Belgium, Portugal, Sweden and Italy made Tangier an international zone. 

After WWII, the United States came in on this deal, thus resulting in a wave of hip American writers and socialites to occupy Tangier in a smoky haze of freedom and debauchery (if the stories are all true). In 1956 Morocco finally gained independence and took back control of its northern-most hot spot.

The African, European and Arabic footprints that have been left behind in Tangier are evident in the architecture and the street names; but most noticeably in the peaceful intersection of cultures, traditions and religions here. The largest communities, Muslims, Jews and Christians, live together in this city seemingly without major conflict. 

Rashid tells us that the older women here wear various types of headdress based on their religious tradition, unless they have come to Tangier from another place. While some younger locals are pushing the boundaries and experimenting with looser forms of attire. We turn a corner and are met with the fullest aroma of orchids standing at attention on the far side of a beautiful, but ramshackle door. 

There is an eclectic, exotic purée of charm here bearing the facade of a grimy opera production. I'm aware of my romantic, rose-coloured glasses and long for more time to get to know this place and its people. But the ferry back to Spain is waiting for us.

On our way down to the port, we walk through the historic Hotel Continental. This has been the location of countless films due to its unique design inside and out, and home to many prominent figures. The American writer, William S. Burroughs, wrote his masterpiece, Naked Lunch in room 9.

There is an explosion of pattern on almost every interior surface of the hotel; the most intricate mosaic designs I've ever seen. It is an overwhelming amount of colour - an ode to incredible craftsmanship.

For a time Tangier was a weird writers workshop, with the likes of Tennessee Williams, Gertrude Stein, Samuel Beckett, Ian Flemming, Allan Ginsburg, Truman Capote, Jack Kerouac, Paul Bowles, Peter Orlovsky spending time here. Inspired by the raw, lawless, but magical colour of Tangier great novels have been written here, including Paulo Coelho's The Alchemist and Paul Bowles’ The Sheltering Sky

For much of our time we were followed by a super sweet boy, who I would've taken home if I had been able to ask his parents' permission. He was pure, annoying charm, even winking at me when I said goodbye. I didn't take his picture, instead I took this one...a baby camel who was just as cute. 



  1. love the photos - Sie geben mir Wanderlust :)
    Did you cover your head and wear long sleeves while you were there?

    1. Thanks Moni! No I didn't cover my head, but I wore a shawl over my shoulders out of respect. There are many foreigners in Tangier and so the locals are used to different traditions and it seems to work very nicely. I just thought it would be respectful to cover up a little bit - though it was 30 degrees!


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