Tanning in the Sun in Fez

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The tanners who work in the dye pits at the heart of the Fez Medina spend their days waist-deep in cow piss and pigeon shit.

It is even worse than commuting on the Thameslink.

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Balak! Balak!” the old man shouted in warning and the people pressed themselves to the sides of the derb* and the donkey train clattered through, piled high with animal hides, on its way to the tanneries.

The Medina dates back to the eighth century and the greater part of what is there now was built around the time of Chaucer, Petrarch and the Black Death, two hundred years before Shakespeare, four hundred before the Declaration of Independence.

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The old walls encircle an area of three square kilometres, a medieval tangle of going on ten thousand alleys and lanes – free of all vehicles, unless you count donkeys – winding, intersecting, curling uphill, sloping down, lurching round dog-leg corners, through keyhole-shaped archways, opening out into squares with fountains decorated with zillij tiles and bustling, clamorous souks, and closing in on claustrophobic passages with crumbling walls and battered doors and petering out into silent cul-de-sacs.

More donkeys clopped over the cobbles, laden with gas bottles and bags of cement. Men in woollen djebellas rested in doorways; women in bright hijabs picked through the vegetables at the grocer’s stall. A sheep’s head was on display at the butcher’s.

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A man worked leather in a tiny workshop; others tink-tinked with hammers and chisels on blocks of stones, and pounded copper with mallets; handlooms ker-chunked in the carpet shops; a baker fed discs of khobz bread into an oven, another carried a tray of them on his head through the derbs. The muezzin called the faithful to prayer.

Outside the walls, in the unseen ville nouvelle, there are as many smartphones, tablets, digital cameras, ATM’s, supermarkets, takeaway franchises and chain hotels as there are in any modern city; but the Medina has barely changed since the Middle Ages.

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The tanneries, hidden behind the facades of the leather souk, seem centuries away from the Industrial Revolution, let alone the Digital Age. The tanners who work them are organised into a craft guild, as tanners across Europe once were, in feudal times. Fathers bequeath their jobs to their sons; some families claim to have been in the dye pits for thirty-odd generations.

They work in a tightly-packed honeycomb of vats built of stone and lined with tiles. The grottiest are filled with water, quicklime and cow urine and are so foul that the tanners – who mostly work in shorts and bare feet – wear rubber boots and waterproofs around them. The hides are soaked for two or three days to soften the hair and flesh, then hauled out, scraped and stretched over balconies to dry in the sun.

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Once dry, they are dunked in vats of diluted pigeon poo, which is collected by young boys with one of the world’s less enviable jobs. Their fathers are tanners and they hope, when they grow up, to be tanners themselves, promoted from scraping the pigeon shit off rooftops to standing up to their waists in it, treading the hides for hours at a time until they are softened enough to be dyed.

The hides are then submerged in coloured dyes, which are claimed – some have doubted it – to be entirely organic, using mint for green, indigo for blue, poppies for red, cedar bark for brown, henna for orange and turmeric for yellow (the Fassi insist it is saffron but the economics of that make no sense). A tanner, once again, climbs into the vat.

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The finished leather is sold to artisans who work it into jackets, handbags, pouffes and babouche slippers; and they, in turn, are sold by fast-talking salesmen to tourists who have spent the rest of their money on Berber carpets, Fez blue ceramics and bags of spices.

There is talk now of moving the tanneries out of the Medina and creating a botanic garden in their place. With luck, though, it will get no further than talk.

© Richard Senior 2016

*Narrow alley

Welcome to Morocco, My Friend

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“You tell him fuck off.”             

“Haha. I’m not doing that.”

“Yes! You tell him ‘FUCK OFF!’ and he fuck off.”

“Well he might fuck off if you told him to but he wouldn’t if I did.”

It had seemed a good idea to get to Morocco the classical way, through Spain by train and across to Tangier by boat. But it had meant two long days of travelling and an evening ferry which sailed an hour late (it apparently always does) and no longer comes into the old port but to Tangier Med, fifty-odd kilometres along the coast.

I had taken it for granted that the bus into town would stop right outside the terminal building, but it didn’t, and there was nothing to tell me where it might stop. I asked people at the stores in the port but they gave me instructions so vague they were of no use at all; the security guard on the gate was the most precise with “out on the road” accompanied by an expansive wave of the arm. There were several roads.

The sort of people who loiter around every port in the world approached me with ostensible offers of help but their tone and mannerisms seemed better suited to an early-hours argument about a spilled drink. I walked away from them all. Eventually, a girl who worked in the port showed me the way: through the car park, over a verge, out onto the main road, up to the top of the hill.

The only space on the bus was on the back seat, either side of a big guy with his legs spread wide and the look of a man who is never too far from considerable violence. Nobody, it seemed, dare sit next to him. I stood. But then a helpful Moroccan tapped me on the shoulder and pointed out that there was space on the back seat, so I had to go sit there. Then the driver flung the bus round the corner and I fell on top of the hard guy.

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He picked me up with a look of extreme impatience and when I struggled with my bag, grabbed it with one hand and slung it into the corner of the seat. I squeezed in next to it and tried to become invisible.

Another shifty guy got on at the next stop and gave me the hard sell for an unofficial taxi, but I declined that and set off walking towards the Medina.

My guidebook said that muggings were “not unknown” along the Cornice, but that slippery formulation – popular with writers who are not sure what they mean – could embrace everything from they have happened on rare occasions to they happen all the time. I walked briskly, in any case, with my 20 kilo pack and 10 kilo day bag.

The closer I got to the old Medina, the more figures slipped out of the shadows and walked in step beside me.

Buenas noches,” they tried. I ignored them.

Bon soir.” I looked straight ahead.

Buena sera.” I kept on walking.

 “Hello.” I quickened my step.

You have hotel?”

 “Yes thanks,” out of the corner of my mouth.

You want hash?”

No thanks,” still not looking at them.

They peeled off and melted back into the shadows, except one who stuck with me all the way, keeping up a constant monologue.  “Welcome to Morocco, my friend.

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 “There are good guys and bad guys everywhere,” he said. “I’m a good guy.” He told me that several times and I thought of Ralph Waldo Emerson: “The louder he talked of his honor, the faster we counted our spoons.”

Ask any of these guys,” he added, gesturing towards the men sitting in doorways, as if I could really approach them and say – in English – “excuse me, but is this guy a good guy?”

The old Medina is a wiring diagram of alleys and I tried to orientate myself while pretending I knew exactly where I was going.

I can help you, my friend,” said the good guy, “just tell me where you want to go”.

Eventually, he wore me down, and I did tell him and he took me up into the Medina but I refused to follow him down the quieter, darker alleys and stood ready to run if – as I expected him to any minute – he pulled out a knife.

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But then I saw a sign for the hostel and relaxed a little. It seemed conceivable that he really was a good guy. I gave him 20 Dirhams for his trouble and he suddenly became very angry and demanded 200. I had only just arrived and was not sure whether 200 Dirhams was a little or a lot and was certainly not going to whip out my iPhone and look it up. I gave him the money with bad grace and worked out later that he had earned about £15 (US$20) for 10 minutes work, which is a lot more than I used to get as a lawyer.

Heroin,” spat the manager of the hostel when I told him the story; “immigrants,” he added. He was the Moroccan equivalent of a Daily Mail reader.

You tell him fuck off,” his assistant advised, if anyone else approached me.  He checked me in and I walked round the corner to find a restaurant and ended up in the Petit Socco and sat at an outside table at Cafe Central, which – though I didn’t know it then – was Burroughs’ local when he lived in Tangier, strung out on heroin, writing the disturbing, hallucinatory masterpiece, Naked Lunch.

I went to look round after dinner, up the street to the Grand Socco, down the next street and into the souks where the stalls were still trading, even though it was late.

My friend…” a man called. I ignored him.

Mon ami…”

Amigo…”

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The lane which I thought took me back to the Petit Socco turned out to be a dead end.

My friend…”

And the man I thought I had shaken off ten minutes before had, in fact, been following me all the time. “My friend,” he said, with about as much friendliness as angry men who tack “mate” to the end of “have you got a fucking problem”.

I ignored him and walked away but he hurried after me. “There are good guys and bad guys everywhere. I’m a good guy.” A different guy but word for word the same lines.

I stopped, turned abruptly, and went in the opposite direction, but he stuck with me like a missile locked on target. “I can help you my friend.” I told him I didn’t need any help; I told him to go away, although not in the words suggested by the guy at the hostel.

What’s that yellow building?” I asked, pointing at nothing at the bottom of the street. It is an old trick but he fell for it and as he looked down the street, I sprinted up it, back to the Grand Socco, and down the first street – the wrong one – towards the port, wondering how I was going to find my way back to the hostel.

At the bottom of the hill, though, I recognised the street, past the bars, along the front where I had walked with the first dodgy guy, and the steps leading up to the Petit Socco, then the alley which led through to my hostel.

I got back and slept fitfully, waking at intervals from complicated nightmares.

© Richard Senior 2016

Casablanca’s Forgotten Colonial Heritage

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Just as the muezzin began the call to prayer, a man lurched into the middle of the boulevard, swayed like a palm in the wind, then tottered diagonally at speed to the pavement and collapsed at the feet of another man sitting outside with a café noir. He pretended not to notice.

Casablanca is not Morocco,” said the novelist, Paul Bowles, in 1966, “it is a foreign enclave, an alien nail piercing Morocco’s flank”. It is different, for sure, from the rest of Morocco, but it is as much Morocco as Marrakesh, and as interesting in its way. It is just not the Morocco the tourists expect.

There is an ancient Medina, but it is not much to look at and the tourists hurry away disappointed and urge others not to go. They miss the point, though. Casa is not about souks and snake charmers, carpet shops and donkey trains: it is about the ville nouvelle.

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The French meant the new town to be a shop window for the Second Empire. General d’Amade let slip the scale of their ambition in 1928 when he wrote that, “by the end of the century, French North Africa will be the United States of today, with Casablanca stepping into the shoes of New York”. Of course, that was not quite how it worked out.

Planners and architects, frustrated by the conservatism of the authorities in France, flocked to Casablanca where they were free to do more or less what they liked. They schemed grand boulevards, lined with palm trees, connecting to monumental squares. They imported Art Nouveau and Art Deco and blended in classical Moroccan touches to create a Néo-Mauresque style of their own.

Jean Vidal’s short film, Salut Casa, shows what Casablanca had become by 1952: a beautiful, bustling city with spotless streets and gleaming white facades, and honking cars, dozens of bicycles and the occasional camel, and pavement cafes, grand arcades and luxury shops.

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The streets are not spotless anymore; the facades no longer gleam.

Boulevard de la Gare was the grandest of the grand boulevards in colonial times, stretching proudly from Casa Voyageurs station to the old Medina with upmarket shops beneath its porticos and marble-floored arcades leading through to adjacent boulevards. The luxury shops are long gone from what is now called Boulevard Mohammad V.

At the station end of the street, the rusting shutters look as if they were rattled down decades ago; the signs are from a bygone age. One shop has been gutted behind the grille and filled up with 10, 15, goodness-knows-how-many years of Coke cans, cigarette packets, fast food containers and rubble, all coated with a thick layer of grime. Ruined men lounge in doorways and rummage in bins. Kids kick a scuffed football between the walls of an alley.

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But to fixate on how much the ville nouvelle has declined is to see the glass half-empty. The point is how much has survived.

Casa Voyageurs’ clock tower can still be seen way down the boulevard, just as the planners intended in 1923. It is always half past two, twenty to six or a little before quarter to ten, depending which clock face you check. The monumental buildings which the camera panned across in Salut Casa are by and large still standing.

Restaurant Petit Poucet is much as it was under the French Protectorate, with the original bar which Albert Camus, Antoine Saint-Exupéry and Édith Piaf have all leant against.  At the end of the block is the Maroc Soir and Le Matin newspaper offices. A few letters have dropped off the facade, so Le Matin is now just  e Ma  n, but it is a nice example of Casablancan Néo-Mauresque, as is the Central Market across the road with its keyhole-shaped arch and green zillij tiles.

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Avenue Hassan II still has dazzling white Art Deco buildings, the town hall, the law courts and the Main Post Office from 1918 with its columns and arches and a frontage of zillij tiles in emerald green, royal blue and gold

You could lose a day wandering the streets in the scalene triangle between the Medina, Parc de la League Arabe (the French called it Parc Lyautey) and the Central Market, remembering to look up to see curving balconies, zillij tiles, ornate brise-soleil, entrance gates worked into the shape of peacocks and bouquets of flowers, ghost signs from the days of the Protectorate, and the huge stone crown topping La Princière salon de thé.

There is a hint of a renaissance in downtown Casa. The Art Deco Cinéma Rialto and half a dozen period hotels have been beautifully restored inside and out. The new tramway has thinned out the cars whose exhausts had been filthying the grand old buildings since colonial times.

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But there is a tension between those who want to preserve the heritage and those who have to pay for its upkeep. The old Hotel Lincoln is emblematic.

It was the first landmark building on Boulevard de la Gare, a masterpiece of Néo-Mauresque. But it lost its lustre after the French left in 1956 and the owner has, reportedly, wanted to tear it down for decades so that he can build an office block. Campaigners persuaded the authorities to list it as a historic monument, and since then it has been left to rot.

The roof caved in a long time ago; one floor collapsed in 1989 and killed two people, another section fell down in 2004, killing a homeless guy who was sheltering inside, another in 2009, and yet another in 2015. Only the crumbling walls of the central section survive…for now.

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Casa’s future is hard to predict. It could become an African Valencia with its Art Nouveau and Art Deco facades rejuvenated, or it could be another Coventry: a city which once had buildings worth seeing.

© Richard Senior 2016

Camel Train to the Sahara

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How are you, my friend?”

“I’m very good, thank you. And you?”

“Very good. Insh’Allah. First time on camel?”

“Yeah. I’ve ridden elephants, though.

“Camel is different.”

“Of course. No trunk, right?”

There is an art to getting on a camel. No one told me what it was. I got on like a drunk trying to scale a fence. The Bedouin, then, told the camel to get up and, in three distinct movements, it thrust its head forward, extended its back legs – tipping me forward as if in a roller-coaster going over the top – then brought its front legs up to meet them.

There was a group of us – British, French, Dutch, Austrian, Canadian, Korean and Japanese – gathered from hotels, hostels and riads around Marrakesh and driven 350 miles across country to the edge of the Sahara where the road stopped abruptly and the towns thinned out to villages, then hamlets and finally to nothing but an isolated hostel and sand. The camel train would take us the rest of the way.

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The camels were roped together in two groups of four with a Bedouin leading each group. I had the camel at the front of the train behind a Bedouin in an ankle-length thobe and turban, and jeans and Asics trainers. He hummed to himself as he ambled through the dunes, until his smartphone rang. He was a digital nomad.

The winds had stacked, shaped, sculpted, smoothed and polished the sand into hills and valleys, peaks and troughs, soaring anything up to five hundred feet, then plunging back to the desert floor, gently undulating, and soaring up again; the ridges were sharply creased, the slopes pristine.

It was all the same to the camels, who plodded along with deliberate steps, never slowing, never slipping, up sinuous inclines, along knife-edge trails across the dunes, and down slopes steep enough to worry me about going over the handlebars. They have a reputation for being foul-tempered things which spit and burp and growl, but then so do some of us. These camels had a relaxed air and beatific smiles. They seemed barely to notice, let alone to care about, the strangers on their backs.

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The sand glowed orange in the dying sun of the late afternoon; the shadows were long and dark. We stopped at the top of a dune and looked west and watched the sun slip below the horizon, then set off again in the twilight.

It was a lot more comfortable on the camel than I imagined it would be, but my thighs eventually began to protest at constantly stretching around the saddle bags and I was glad when we got to the camp.

The camels sank to their knees and I got off as clumsily as I had got on. The Bedouins unloaded the saddle bags and we dumped our stuff in the tents. They were a roughly rectangular shape, flat-roofed, waist-high, with a wooden frame covered with stitched woollen blankets.

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There was a big communal tent, too, with flickering lanterns, low tables, Berber rugs and a family of tabby cats. The Bedouins poured out mint tea, lit a crackling camp fire and cooked a simple but perfectly good tagine. The cats noisily begged us to share it and, as always, it worked with me: they got the chicken and I had the bread and potatoes.

I had packed an overnight bag and shorts and a t-shirt to sleep in, but I am not sure where I thought I was going to find water, nor whether I really envisaged stripping off and getting ready for bed in the dark and the cold of the desert. As it was, I just laid down fully-clothed and pulled a couple of Berber rugs over me.

The cats crept into the tent in the middle of the night, or at least I assume it was them: something around that size bolted out when I got up to go to the loo, and I didn’t want to think about what else it might be.

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A wind had picked up by then and howled with a quiet determination. The sky was crammed with stars. The camels were sleeping with their necks stretched out across the sand in front of them. The last embers of the fire glowed weakly.

I was perhaps an hour, as the camel plods, from the nearest hamlet but it was easy to imagine that I was hundreds of miles in any direction from human habitation, further from the modern world and all its annoyances: far from endless TV shows about forgotten celebrities and amateur property developers, interspersed with excitable adverts for products which nobody needs, from constant finger-wagging and pettifogging rules, from unsmiling one-upmanship where fun ought to be, from lives too busy for living. It was just an illusion, though.

We were back on the camels in the bitter cold dawn, hooded and gloved, to welcome the sun back up.

© Richard Senior 2016

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