Tangier: From the Serene to the Sinister

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Tangier is at peace early in the morning. The shouting and jostling, the growling of scooters, the beeping of horns, the working-day sounds of hammers and saws and push-carts being trundled over cobbles are for later, much later. Nothing much happens before ten.

All you hear for two or three hours after sunrise is the sussing of sparrows, the guffaw of the gulls, the strangulated crowing of cockerels, and a single, early, petit taxi down at the old port.

The waking sun casts a painterly light on the buildings tightly packed up the hill to the Kasbah*. There are domes and minarets and hundreds of flat roofs in different sizes, at different levels and different angles. Each has a cluster of rusting satellite dishes, a listing aerial and a line of washing; some have the ruins of old children’s bicycles.

Some time after nine, the shutters go up on the hole-in-the-wall stores, which all seem to sell the same staples: tissues, bottled water, boot polish, hair spray, soap and Laughing Cow cheese. Workmen arrive and start hammering and sawing. Bread sellers fill display cabinets with discs of khobz bread; micro-patisseries put out their wasp-blown pastries.

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A man emerges onto the roof of the building next door; he hawks, spits, farts, and begins his morning exercises. A woman in a bright pink hijab opens a door onto another roof terrace and unpegs her washing. There are more petits taxis down at the port by then, and a few people milling about. The scooters and sirens seem to start all at once, as if somebody flicked a switch.

You go downstairs and walk round the corner, along the alleys, past the hole-in-the-wall shops, towards the square. The Medina** is a wiring diagram of alleys, all sinister shadows and eerie silences, which are suddenly shattered by your footsteps on the cobbles reverberating between the walls.

You take what looks like a shortcut and end up, lost, at the other side of the Medina and eventually, by chance, after much frustrated wandering, several dead ends and mounting anxiety, you know where you are again.

Round a dog-leg corner, a pair of sullen young men are leaning against the walls, one either side, and you have no choice but to carry on walking towards them, even if every instinct urges you not to. They ease themselves upright as you approach, and, back home, that always means trouble. But you are not at home, now, and they are just making way for you.

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The cafés are filling up in the Petit Socco, the square at the heart of the Medina. People seem to stop and stare as you swing into the square, sit down and order what everyone is drinking: mint tea. There is surprising hostility in some of their faces, or so it seems.

Suddenly there is an excitable shout and a scraping of chairs from one of the darker salons de thé and a bunch of young men explodes into the square, shoving and shouting; fingers are jabbed, Arabic consonants coughed up and spat out. You expect knives to be pulled and glasses to be smashed and tables and chairs knocked over. But, again, you are not at home any more and all that happens is that one of the men slaps another on the arse and they stop shouting, start giggling and go back to finish their tea.

Chinese motor-trikes with pick-up bodies rattle down the street as you sit and sip your tea; a man walks up it, towards the Grand Socco, holding a small flock of quacking ducks upside down. A truck stops to make a delivery and a cat curls up in its shade for a nap; her excitable kittens scamper underneath to swipe at the breather tube hanging behind the cab.

A little after midday, muezzins across town start the call to prayer: Allāhu akbar. Ash-hadu an-lā ilāha illa allāh…. When the first one starts, another takes it up straightaway, as if suddenly reminded, then a third, a fourth, a fifth, until it echoes across the rooftops from every corner of the Medina and beyond, dropping off one by one, until there is again, finally, a single voice. It is spine-tingling the first time you hear it but it soon becomes part of the regular background noise.

Except, that is, for the first call to prayer, at dawn. “As-salatu Khayrun Minam-nawm,” the muezzin sings at half-past five in the morning: prayer is better than sleep.

I’ll be the judge of that, you think sulkily.

(c) Richard Senior 2015

*Fortified part of the Medina

**Ancient walled city

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