19 August 2008

Tangier Dysphoria

"Africa was a big place and would offer its own suggestions."
-Paul Bowles, "Let It Come Down" (1952)

We stowed our large packs in a locker in the run-down terminal in Algeciras, itself a run-down, rather lifeless city on the southern coast of Spain. Wanting to travel light, and knowing we would be back in less than a week, we took our smaller day-packs and boarded the ferry for the run across the Straits of Gibralter. We were tired and felt strung out. We'd been traveling for some time and had already journeyed through six or seven countries. A semi-sleepless night in a hot, squalid hotel room with the traffic noise outside the window a constant irritant didn't help matters.

The morning was cloudless but cool out on the deck. Very soon we saw the shadow of land looming up in the distance and we began to get excited. Africa — the dark continent. Sounded so exotic and poetic. Our nerves were tingling with anticipation and anxiety. We really had no idea what to expect. Soon enough we made landfall and disembarked in Morocco.

The first thing that hit us was the cacophony of noise and confusion. Even at that early hour hundreds upon hundreds of people were running all over the place, shouting, shoving, ranting and raving. A thousand rough hands pinched and prodded us. A steely grip attached itself to my elbow and tried to lure me away. The man's dark eyes showed no emotion. His fingers were deeply stained with tobacco and when he spoke he had no teeth. "Smoke, smoke, blow?" he whispered. I wrenched my arm free and stumbled away. RJ gave another miscreant an elbow in the chest and we began to make our way through the crowd of touts, con-artists and pseudo-guides. Our heads were spinning. Jostled at every step, hands on our shirts, pulling at our packs. Think of those vociferous border towns, Tijuana, Juárez, Matamoros. Then increase the insanity exponentially. Add to the mix the strange (to our ears) sibilants of Arabic, French, and Castilian Spanish and you might get some idea of the whirlwind we found ourselves in.

We were annoyed and dismayed. Here was a city whose roots were laid down before the Crusades, before Muhammad, before Christ. A city of true antiquity, founded by the Phoenicians, known to the Greeks and Romans, conquered by the Vandals. It became part of the Byzantine empire before falling under Arab control with the rapid spread of Islam in the early 8th century. Occupied by the Portuguese, the English, and then partitioned between France and Spain in the early 20th century. Tangier was made an "international zone" in 1923, with joint administration of France, Spain, Britain, and later Italy. This was when William S. Burroughs lived and worked and took the name (Interzone) for his book of short stories, which he would later weave into the masterpiece "Naked Lunch." Paul Bowles, Jean Genet, Tennessee Williams, Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, Truman Capote, and Henri Matisse all either lived in or visited the fabled city. That was the Tangier we had hoped to find. It was not the Tangier we found ourselves in. Morocco regained it's independence and reincorporated the city in 1956, but by the late 1990s Taniger had become an aging whore, besmirched and cheaply painted with litter, garbage, apathy and indifference. It's once great history tarnished by the lingering stain of colonialism and sullied by the poverty of an estranged government. Tangier seemed shattered by the abject neglect of a disaffected populace crushed by ennui.

The one bright spot was a solitary and lonely stroll through the old Medina area - the oldest part of the city. We managed this when we somehow escaped the teeming hoard, rounded a corner, and slipped into a time warp. Here we could feel the trembling of the past in the twisting, narrow streets. The myriad styles from one house to another. A wall splashed with cryptic Arabic graffiti. Broken steps leading... where? We heard the melodious Arabic chanting of the muezzin as he called the faithful to prayer. We stopped in a tiny cáfe, literally a hole in the wall, and had small glass cups of steaming mint tea. We sat on beautifully woven carpets and sipped the sweet nectar. The tea was spell-binding in its bright, fresh flavor. Our mood increased greatly, but we decided to move on into the hinterland. We booked passage on a night train to Marrakech.
KJT - Tangier, Morocco (1998)

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