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Into the Sandstorm

Across al-Madiq

MOROCCO | Tuesday, 14 February 2017 | Views [269]

I sat crammed in the back of an ancient Mercedes, listening to the guttural radio and the rain drumming heavily on the roof. How often, on childhood holidays, had I stood on Andaluz beaches and gazed at the lights just visible across the sea, wondering what lay on the other side? I looked at the mist and the damp concrete towers, and was unimpressed.

The taxi pulled up at the top of a narrow defile, opposite a grimy old fortification. "Here - Kasbah!", the driver squawked in pidgin English. "Hotel - this way!' And he led us downwards.

It has been written that to cross the Straits of Gibraltar into Tangier is to step into another world. Following that taxi driver down ever-narrower, ever-steeper alleys into the ancient walled city, I could see why. Such a sudden barrage of otherness I have never known. Islamic archways the shape of lit candles; women in bright shawls, men in long robes and skullcaps; yellow and blue, white and red and purple alleys; swirling Arabic murals; vendors calling to us from their caverns, which burst with silk, overflowed with spices, billowed with smoke from grilling meat, all flashed before my eyes before I had time to take them in. All the while the rain blew in my face.

We reached the hostel on Rue Ibn Battouta. A tall building, winding upwards in Moorish style around a central courtyard, richly decorated in glittering tiles and stained glass. The friendly host showed us up to the roof terrace, looking out over the tumbling rooftops to the sea, lost to the February fog. He pointed out the supposed tomb of Ibn Battuta, perhaps the greatest traveller who ever lived, just next door: "People say he never saw the Pyramids, because he said they were round. I think he saw them in a mirage in the distance... I don't know how the hell he got by in China. No-one spoke Arabic there. No Google Translate in those days!"

I went out for lunch, tried to find my way back, and got lost in about 7 seconds.

"My fren, the Medina is this way."

A middle-aged man approached.

"My name is Noumi. You are welcome in Morocco. Let me show you how we treat guests. Where you are from? ...I have fren in Liverpool!"

He not only led me back to the Medina, he showed me around the souks, down alleys so narrow I had to walk sideways, brimming over with vegetables, spices, books (I wanted to look but my host sped me on), and tools, old guns, brilliant pots and plates, silver and gold, so many treasures I stopped noticing them. The sun had come out now, it was hot; I tripped over stray cats; flies swarmed around batteries of chickens. In a back street he led me up into a crumbling Moorish building, in whose recesses men wove dresses on ancient looms. He showed me a great red mosque, and another, white, that turned out to be an Anglican church, with English names on the gravestones. He pointed out writers' houses: "Paul Bowles live there!"

I can't believe I fell for it.

Before I knew what was happening, he had ushered me into his friend's carpet shop, and I was being served mint tea while carpet after magnificent carpet was spread before me. "These are from the Atlas mountains!", the salesman enthused. "These are from the Tuareg country in the Sahara... No, don't worry if you can't fit it in your suitcase, we deliver all over the world! We take euros dollars pounds Australian Canadian New Zealand dollars, we even take plastic fantastic money! Shall we say 275 euros?"

To cut a long and embarassing story short, I told him I only had 200 dirhams (about 20 euros). He brought out the smallest sample he had - a yellow item which I suspect may be a prayer rug - and I bought it just to get out of there. "You buy another one for mum? 150?", he called after me as I left.

"Now I take you to Berber pharmacy", said my faux guide, as the muezzins called out for afternoon prayer.

"Aren't you going to pray?", I tried to shake him off.

"Yes I am go to pray, but first I take you to Berber pharmacy, and then I take you to..."

"Just take me back to the al-Andalusi." I snapped, hopelessly lost as I was.

"Is just up here."

"Take me to the door."

"My fren, why you think I lie to you..."

"TAKE ME TO THE DOOR."

"...My fren, you give me money", he implored when we arrived. I gave him 50 dirhams to sod off, and went inside, furious with myself.

Soon afterwards I set out for the old American Legation, where I had agreed to meet my fellow traveller. 

Another middle-aged man attached himself to me. "I saw you with that man earlier," he said. "I'm sorry about that. Not all Moroccans are like him. He is just trying to make a living. I will show you to the Legation." I thanked him, and we corkscrewed up some more brightly painted alleys.

"Where you are from? ...My brother lives in Sheffield! Which city you are from? ...You are cockney? Lovely jubbly!" I laughed. Suddenly my good Samaritan whipped a lump of greyish resin from his coat. "You want buy hashish? 50 dirham."

"No."

"20?"

"Absolutely not."

We reached the Legation, where my companion was waiting. "My fren, you give me money! I am not like the other man, any money is fine, even 1 dirham..."

I gave him half a dirham and went inside, still more furious with myself and with Morocco.

The Old American Legation, though, was my kind of place. A tranquil oasis in this chatoic city of tight alleys and rain and touts; in another Moorish building built around a peaceful central coutryard; full of old maps and arcane history. Here I learned that Morocco was the first country to recognise the nascent United States, and that Tangier was once briefly held by England - part of the dowry of Charles II's Portuguese bride, along with Bombay.

We sought out some mint tea nearby, as darkness fell, early, on the Medina. Afterwards we set off in search of somewhere to eat. I wound up alley after ghoulish alley, under archway after Islamic archway, as tout after tout attached themselves to us, trying to sell us hashish, telling my fellow traveller she must wear a headscarf if she goes to southern Morocco, telling me I should really wear the djellaba (a hooded robe worn by Moroccan men) as, after all, he wore jeans when he went to France, and his brother just happened to sell them, just over here...

There was no escape. "You Danish?" they approached my companion, who is tall and blonde. "You Spanish?" they said to me, as we walked down to the cranes by the sea, still locked in fog and drizzle still blowing in our faces, as the muezzins wailed for evening prayer and the neon crescent moons flashed green atop the mosques.

Soon my fellow traveller left to catch a night train to Marrakech. I'm writing on the roof terrace, looking out over Tangier at night - the heap of lights and shadows, pierced by minarets. Is that old Andalusia I can see, flickering on the horizon, beyond the smoky haze of the port..?

Thus my introduction to Morocco, half magnificent and half unbearable...

Tags: ibn battuta, madiq jab al-tariq, morocco, old american legation, strait of gibraltar, tanger, tangier

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