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

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