22nd July 2015
I had wanted to return here because of good memories from our previous trips to this country: it is not always wise to return with the aim of recapturing moments.
Two things conspire against us this time: the weather is extremely humid and hot – very reminiscent of Samoa – and accommodation prices are escalating with the summer season (and Morocco’s economic recovery). In what used to be a very economical country to travel in, we are now confronted with prices equal to Spain.
We are staying in the Petit Socco (Souk) in Tangier at the edge of a café-lined plaza adjacent to its rabbit warren of alleys. It is the olde part. Tangier is a vast, sprawling city, but staying in this olde area with its adjacent Kasbah is, quite frankly, the better way to appreciate this city and its culture, and it is clear that many travellers agree. Our budget Hotel Mauritania (recommended to us by my young nephew Thomas from his recent visit) is getting very busy.
Besides being ancient, Tangier is also a very hilly and populous city and suffers (well, we suffer) from the same sewage problems that abound around the Mediterranean, with those same breath-catching wafts as you walk near its many drains. Picture the close, cobbled alleyways, small stalls and shops selling every possible commodity you may require, competing Arabic music blaring out, open bags of spices and herbs, mounds of olives, cloths and colourful clothes old-and-modern, aromas of char-grilling fish and baking bread and you will get a picture – and yes, it could also be India.
We have decided not to linger in Morocco because of the aforementioned influences and apart from yesterday’s forty minute taxi ride to spend the day in Asilah (a small and typical coastal fishing enclave) will be returning to Spain tomorrow; any excess time after visits to Gibraltar and England will be spent where Rachel chooses (our return to Perth is earmarked for the end of August).
Taxis are the better way to get about either locally or for near, cross country runs. The local taxis work off the meter and are very cheap. The long distance taxis are mostly old, 1980s vintage Mercedes diesels with no air conditioning and, inevitably, missing rear window winders. One can hire these to yourself, but the idea is to share – they take six passengers, as we did yesterday – and that way they are very economical, albeit, in this weather . . . well, what the hell, in the car, out of the car you sweat big time: this humidity is something else! One tends to linger in the shade, hesitating to cross the bright, sun-pounded street, or perchance tarry a while longer over some transaction in an air conditioned shop, or casually place oneself in front of their fan for a few precious seconds longer than required. Precious, cooling moments.
Fourteen kilometres separates Spain from this part of North Africa and on most days they are clearly visible from each other’s shores. Some Englishman has swum from Tangier to Tariffa (with chaser boats and helicopter) but, tempting as it must seem from this coast on a good day for the Millions of Africans who want to get a foothold in Europe, they are not stupid enough to try swimming. The majority of these “clandestines” (as a local called them) venture the crossing in boats – and many drown in the crossing due either to their boat or the sea’s condition. The vision across the Strait from here is very deceptive; the Strait flows like a river with a powerful current and can get very rough.
Many rich and famous people have lived here, and many still do. Keith Richards retains a house here; Yves Saint Laurent and his partner Pierre Bergé lived here (and what a mansion – google it and have a look); and the well-known-names-list goes on. The city was known for its international citizenry as well as its debauchery, and, curiously, the debauchery is still there – there are still many needy people here. As for the drug taking, it still exists, but mainly kif (the pollen) and hash, and the government has in their wisdom seen fit to legalize possession of up to 25 grams of this latter product. Men, young and old, can be seen smoking their Sebsis (long, decorative wooden pipes with disposable clay bowls) at any tea room or café . . . or anywhere. I have no idea if the women do; due to the religion they are a little less open to scrutiny. So, you can safely assume that most of the male population is, a lot of the time, safely stoned. The government’s intent is to keep the younger ones away from the more destructive harder drugs that are ravishing our countries – so don’t knock it.
After a disappointing meal in a touristy mock Arabian joint that was recommended we followed the sound of drumming down a back alley and found ourselves witness to a pre-marriage celebration. The celebration is put on by the groom for neighbourhood friends and family, and consists of musical entertainers and the slaughter of a beast. Sound familiar? Well listen up (as they say in USA) and look at the pictures (we video-recorded a lot too):
You may notice some blood on some of the participants in the bottom row . . . well, this group came on after the slaughter. In one of the pics the man in a white and green striped Djellaba was doing a call and response routine – very effective. The first group at top were incredibly energetic with much leaping and jumping while clicking those ancient castanet things in their hands and with the drummers pounding out an intoxicating rhythmic drum beats. The purple shirt band’s music was equally intoxicating, if in a more modern vein, with the rhythm master (drummer) setting an increasingly fast beat for those who were dancing.
And then the beast was dragged in – blindfolded, kicking and bellowing. In the narrow street it became decidedly dangerous and we moved along a bit. When the dark deed was done we were just out of blood spatter range but a lot of the young chose to smear themselves with the bulls blood. Yes, I found the act abhorrent, but Rachel reminded me that this is similar to what they do in Samoa (without the blood smearing), and this celebration, anyway, will have had old roots and the meat is shared out after being hung for two or three days. You can go and buy a supermarket plastic-wrapped steak if you like and pretend that no animal was killed in the process.
T’was very interesting both musically and culturally. Yep, the buckets are for the offal and the stomach contents. I watched with detached disgust as the stomach lining (that damned tripe again) was washed. I deliberately missed the coup de grace but I think the butcher simply cut its throat right through, blood spraying all round, then I saw him raise his knife in two hands above the milling crowd. I’m off meat for a while. We had encountered another street butchering the day before but Rachel was discouraged from taking photos (but she got a couple). We didn’t know what it was about then, but I suggested it was some significant ritual worth photographing. At the one we witnessed the next day we actually had everything explained to us by an obliging family member who spoke English and they didn’t mind us taking photos at all. That was very hospitable of him.
The Souk (I have felt quite restrained about photographing the people here but snapped these off at dusk)
Here it is more residential; it is easy to see the influence their architecture has had on southern Spain. There is a large Jewish settlement still here, but the city is divided into Portuguese, English, French and Spanish enclaves – as befits a truly international city.
Asilah (on the Atlantic coast south of Tangier)
There are thousands of stray cats here, but while they are generally not kept as pets they are fed in the streets. It seems cats all around the Mediterranean are treated with a degree of respect, though not petted, but a muslim, should he or her touch or be touched by a dog prior to going into a mosque to pray must turn around, change their clothes and wash. Touching a cat, however, is not a problem.
Moroccans do love to talk – even more so than the Spanish – and it is indicative of their preservation of their ancient culture in its food, herbalist and spice shops, architecture and clothing. One stark difference with ours is the muted isolation that mobile phones have brought to us – you will well know what I mean.
I haven’t warmed to their food so much this time, but we managed to find again their lovely snacky pancakey type foods, some made from polenta and which are eaten with honey or yoghurt. It was also good to once again eat their yoghurt – set in glasses – and they make delectable real fruit smoothies too. Avocados, mangoes, peaches, plums, oranges, pineapples, bananas and fresh figs (which we have been buying from a street vendor and devouring daily) are just some of the seasonal fruits. Bugger this chilling fruit so we can have it all year round – what is wrong with eating just seasonal fruit.
We have weaned ourselves off alcohol while here. Very few Moroccans drink it even though it is available in some places and we are happy not to look out of place. Most seem to be ‘good’ practicing Muslims, and the effects of hash-smoking on the people are far preferable to that of alcohol consumption I would argue. We have been drinking oodles of sweet, hot-yet-refreshing mint tea and found their coffee to be excellent. I did miss my cold beers for a few days though.
Art work on the wall of a calligraphy shop in Asilah