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Pete Martin ¦ Transformational Journeys

The Bride in the North: Wandering the Medina in Tangier

MOROCCO | Tuesday, 14 August 2018 | Views [200]

2016 04 02 Tangier (03)

2016 04 02 Tangier (03)

After a traffic jam, then around roundabouts made of building junk, we arrive in the old town. What a difference it is here away from the new town under construction. Small white buildings climb up the hillside above the bay. The taxi driver points to my hotel. I think I may have to walk. He smiles and turns into the narrow streets of the medina. Two scooters and a car reverse to let us through. My hotel is a little run down but wonderful, with balconies and colonial balustrades on the outside, cool courtyards and open ante-rooms on the inside. My room looks down on to the vast concrete square between the ancient medina and the harbour. I can’t wait to explore.

I must get out. I just have to wander through these ancient streets. The hotel receptionist gives me a map and directs me to the main sites of the medina. At the gate, Abdul attaches himself to me but I just want to walk. “No problem, sir.” The streets are tiny, with white washed walls and its always uphill. After two sharp corners, I am lost. One more corner and surely I will be back where I started. I consult the map. Abdul smiles as he’s seen this before. I surrender, “Ok, Abdul, let’s go.”

Abdul is actually good company. Softly spoken, he explains that the street signs are in French and Arabic, but many people in Tangier still speak Spanish, rather than French, because of its proximity. The official language is a version of Arabic, known as Darija, and the Tangerians speak it with a strong accent compared to the rest of their countrymen, infusing many Spanish, French and even English words into their vocabulary. Up until 1956 Tangier was an International Zone under the administration of Europe and is still referred to as the Bride in the North.

The first point of interest Abdul shows me is a plaque marking respect to Muhammad Ibn Battuta, one of the greatest travellers of all time. Born in 1306, he left Tangier in 1325 and over a twenty-nine year period visited most of the then Islamic world. It is said that Ibn Battuta did not take any notes during his odyssey, yet on his return home he provided an account of his travels. The title of his manuscript is translated as “A Gift to Those Who Contemplate the Wonders of Cities and the Marvels of Travelling”, more simply referred to as the “Rihla, or the “Journey”.

Around another corner we stop at a café. Inside there is a strong smell of mint tea. Abdul directs me inside and through a window points to the house that was Barbara Hutton’s residence. The American socialite met her seventh husband here in Tangier in 1964. Away from the strict confines of mainland Europe, Hutton reigned over flamboyant high society parties that were held in the city, most notably with David Herbert, Ian Fleming and the Rolling Stones (who later returned to Tangier in 1989 to record “Continental Drift”). The Stones were also attracted to the seedier side of Tangier, the city of spies, smugglers, writers-in-exile and the locally grown cannabis, known as kif.

A decade earlier, the city had hosted authors such as Paul Bowles, William S. Burroughs, Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg and Tennessee Williams. Burroughs said at that time, “Tangier is one of the few places left in the world where, so long as you don’t proceed to robbery, violence, or some form of crude, antisocial behaviour, you can do exactly what you want.” Burroughs did most of the writing for “Naked Lunch” in Villa Muniria, which still operates today as Hotel el Muniria, and its dreamlike state, Interzone, was inspired by the International Zone that Tangier was.

The Stones would seek out Paul Bowles and Brion Gysin, with their links to the Beat Generation writers, and the weird and wonderful that Morocco had to offer. Brian Jones was so taken with the Sufi trance music of the Master Musicians of Jajouka that he brought them to the attention of the West when he recorded the LP “Brian Jones Presents The Pipes Of Pan At Jajouka” in 1968. The local hash was also a big attraction. The Rif Mountains south of Tangier, where Jajouka is located, is where cannabis is grown and which has been smoked here for centuries. It’s said that the name kif, the processed cannabis, comes from the Arabic word for pleasure. Even today, whilst it’s believed that Morocco provides roughly a third of the world’s hashish and supplies the majority of Europe’s demand, the cultivating, producing, selling and smoking of it remains illegal.

Abdul continues his tour through the Jewish quarter, then into a rundown area with kids playing football against the walls of the cramped lanes to a street of fancy houses now owned by European expatriates. Medina actually means city or town in Arabic and now refers to the Arabic quarters of North African cities that are noted for their narrow streets and boundary walls. Abdul tells me that the medina here has been used in recent movies such as “Inception” and “The Bourne Ultimatum”. We find ourselves at the top of the medina, at the Kasbah (the citadel), which are the old fortifications that house a museum together with some expensive homes and restaurants. Then it is another windy route through to the main square, past Café Central, where Abdul hopes we will watch the football later. We take an abrupt turn into a carpet makers shop. Abdul ignores the sleeping owner curled up on one of his rugs and we climb the stairs to the roof. From here we have an open view of the cityscape, with a green minaret above the roofs of the low rise medina. Washing hangs out to dry on most rooftops. Tarifa, Spain and Europe sit across the Strait of Gibraltar, only forty kilometres away.

After two hours of twisting and turning lanes, trying to second guess which small street Abdul will take next, it’s time for a break. Every time I get my bearings, we go a different way. I’m exhausted so Abdul leads me to a small restaurant. Abdul’s wife’s sister’s niece (or something like that) works in the kitchen. I am the only customer and, even though I ask for small portions, I get much too much. However, my first tagine on Moroccan soil is delightful.

We now visit every bar in the old town to find somewhere to watch the Liverpool FC match. Café Central is showing the local football team, IR Tangier, who are playing away, before El Classico (Barcelona against Real Madrid) starts and it seems that every other bar too is screening this game as a precursor to the main event. Abdul does not give up, chatting to every bar owner and asking for alternative bars. It’s my second marathon around the medina, this time with a full stomach. It’s our last resort; one bar has a screen showing the Bundesliga and nobody is watching. Between us, we convince the owner to switch channels. I have found an angel in both Abdul and the barman, although neither looks particularly angelic. Abdul goes to pray whilst I watch the football.

I ask the barman for a beer but, of course, it’s a Muslim country and there is no alcohol on sale anywhere in the medina, only sweet mint tea or water. Yet everybody is smoking. An old man in a fez hat sits in the corner near me distributing kif to whoever wants to buy it. There are the constant whispers of quiet conversations and the subsequent handshakes of deals being done. My eyes sting with cigarette smoke and my heads spins with the smell of secondary kif as I watch Liverpool FC draw with Spurs somewhere in the middle of the mad medina.

Tags: hashpipe, interzone, kif, medina, morocco, tangier

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