The Light of Tangiers

This is a travel blog about my visit to Morocco 20-24th November, 2015. For a deeper political perspective on my trip, see the links at the bottom.

Tangier, Tangiers, Tanger, Morocco, Africa, migration, refugee crisis, border, no borders, freedom of movement, human rights, racism

View of the Medina from the port in Tangiers

Although the people who love Tangier sometimes feel as though there were a conspiracy afoot to make it the most hideous place on earth, actually such a project would prove extremely difficult. With the exception of a few corners of the Medina, where the old Moorish architecture has not yet been improved upon, there is nothing left to spoil. – Paul Bowles, 1958

The sun drops low as our bus winds down to the Spanish port at Tarifa, bathing the Strait of Gibraltar and everything around it in a breathtaking pink haze. This is the narrowest crossing point between the European and African continents, where the Iberian Peninsula just stops short of kissing the north of Morocco. This is also the site of a migration crisis that is little covered in the news, and gathering more information about the situation and the people who are struggling there is the main motivation for my visit.

Our boat bobs across the water as dusk settles. I’m travelling with a female friend from the United States who is studying Arabic in Granada. We haven’t known each other long, but I feel very comfortable travelling with her and grateful for her company. I have the feeling that we are going to see and hear some deeply disturbing things.

On the Moroccan side, my friend Raz leads us through a hubbub of street hagglers, heaped sweets and bitter spices. The stench of petrol fumes and charred meats mingle. Young boys wolf whistle as they skid past on motorcycles; carts clatter through the narrow streets. Men in traditional djellabas slurp tea by the market stalls along the roadside.

Aside from the migration angle, I know very little about Morocco, or the city of Tangiers that will be my base for the next few days. I have no idea, for example, that Tangiers has long been a haven for international espionage, thanks to its status as an International Zone jointly administered by France, Spain and Britain until 1956. Unlike Raz, I’m clueless that Tangier was home to many of the Beat Poets of the 1950s, such as William Burrows and Paul Bowles, and I’m ignorant of it’s status as the world’s first gay resort—a role it allegedly maintains to a lesser degree today. When I later read about these intermingling histories on my way home, I will struggle to fit my own perception of the city into the picture that emerges. Even less familiar are the descriptions in online tourist literature, which paint the city as, a vibrant, accessible and modern Mediterranean beach resort.” I mean, are we even in the same place?


Walking into town with friends


Murals, probably painted by clandestine artists from West Africa

Raz and another friend have rented a small, bare, ramshackle apartment in the old Medina. They got a good price on the flat—unsurprising given the state it’s in, but they are starting to have problems with the landlord. These problems emerged, they tell me, as they always do, when they began bringing their black friends home.

In Morocco, there are three social strata, each with its own laws and codes: there are the Moroccans, there are the white tourists and western “expats”, and then there are the black Africans. People from these groups are not supposed to mix—especially not as they do in this little flat, where white Europeans from England, Italy and Germany sit with friends from Senegal, Gambia and Morocco to discuss political oppression in the country.

“What’s going on in Morocco?” I ask Michael, a friend from Gambia, after he agrees to an informal interview.

“Now people are not even free to walk around the city,” he tells me, explaining how the situation has been escalating over the last weeks and months. “Wherever they see migrants working they will come to you. With or without papers, they will just arrest you, detain you for no reason… and they are not detaining now in the police station, they will take you now to the forest and they will pack you guys there, the cold will kill you guys. It’s just a way of torturing people.”

Michael goes on to describe how bus loads of people are “deported” south to the desert, all their belongings stolen, and left there to make their way slowly back to Tangier by any means available. Many friends have given up, he says, and are now risking the even more treacherous route east through Algeria to Libya. “The number of people that died in the Algerian-Morocco border is uncountable. Lots of people die there. People don’t know because no journalist or activist go around that area.”


Fresh smoked fish in the 24 hour worker’s cafe

We brush past the smartly-dressed waiter coaxing tourists into his bright white restaurant and file into a small shabby room next door, with two tables squished into the otherwise barren space. Two men wearing djellabas sit at one table, slurping a thin greyish liquid from a bowl. This, my friends assure me, is a delicious morning soup. The cafe also serves fish, barbecued on a little rocket stove by the door of the cafe, and some round fried puffs of potato, which we order several of, costing around 10c each. Raz tells us that this cafe never closes. In fact, it doesn’t have a door. Apparently two or three guys take turns running the place and it’s open all day and all night. When Raz first arrived three years ago and had no money at all, he came here to ask for some food. They fed him well for free and since then, he always comes to eat here, paying this time, and bringing friends.


The Grand Socco

The cafe is in the Grand Socco, a large circular “square” with a central fountain, patrolled by armed police and honking taxis. From here we can see the police station, the English church, the keyhole gate that leads down to the Medina, and the Cinema Rif—an art-house cinema and cafe that’s a favourite hangout for Tangier’s hippster youth, and the best place to snatch fre wifi.


A surreptitious snap of the armed police in front of Cinema Rif

We meet P in the Senegalese cafe. P has been in Morocco trying to cross the Strait to Spain for more than three years. Before arriving, he had already been on an odyssey of several years, first tracing the route of the slave trade with a group of Americans he met by chance in his native Gambia. This journey lasted over six months. He stayed in South Africa for five years, before flying to South East Asia and continuing his journey through Laos, Cambodia, Vietnam and China. In China he was imprisoned for a year and three months on invented charges of being an illegal immigrant after corrupt police stole his passport, before finally being deported back to Gambia. There, he found that his mother had died and everything had changed. He left again after a few years and headed north to Morocco, where he is still surviving today, waiting for refugee status from the UNHCR that may never arrive.


Michael and his partner take us to a cafe they know on the other side of town, giving us a migrant’s tour of the town on the way…


“Here is where there were 50 people sleeping in the park, with women and children, after police evicted all the black people from the Boukhalef neighbourhood en masse several months ago. Most of those people are still homeless today.”


“Here is the shop where you can buy a zodiac [the black rubber boats that people use to try to cross the Strait to Spain]. When the police sieze the boats, they sell them back to the man in this shop and then you have to come again and buy the boat.”

I have an urge to visit a Moroccan bar. We walk across the long dark beach, Raz and a British friend walking far ahead of us, her Moroccan partner and I lagging behind. He tells me about his recent visit to Tunisia, about social movements in Morocco and how angry he is with the Moroccan people, his compatriots, for not wanting things to change. We get to the other side of the beach, where the nightlife used to be, to discover that all the bars are closed down. Apparently this is part of the project of the new marina, which will essentially be a kind of gated community for rich foreigners and yachties. All of the bars have been closed down already in preparation for this project, despite the new ones not being ready for several months to come.

We eventually find a bar on the road back into town. We order one drink each. The owner is delighted with us. First we get a salad, then we get a second salad, then he brings us plates of fish, then skewers of kebab. None of us eat meat, so Y carefully wraps each ball of meat in a napkin and deposits them in a bag to share with friends back at the flat. The reality of the bar jars sharply with the reality of the border, the reality our friends are living.


The new marina, viewed from the Kasbah. On a clear day, you can see Spain.

Five days is just a brief glimpse of what life is like in Morocco for the people risking their lives every day to reach Europe, but it has given me a valuable insight and the ability to speak and write about what is happening there.

Independent journalism is basically prohibited in Morocco, and only a small handful of NGOs are permitted to operate, with very restricted activities. There are at least three independent grass-roots initiatives that are worth supporting:

The Alarm Phone operate a 24 hour helpline for boats in distress across the Mediterranean. They contact emergency services, document abuse and actively advocate for people to be rescued at sea. This volunteer-run initiative saves many lives each week.

Interzone Voices are a relatively new project, aiming to amplify the voices of migrants stuck behind the southern border, through creative projects, music and testimonies of human rights abuses.

No Borders Morocco are part of the wider No Borders Network. They campaign for freedom of movement and an end to the racist border regime.


Just a few of the thousands of young people who lost their lives on the Spain-Morocco border

On the way to the port, I buy snacks from a toothless man, who grins when I ask if he can speak Spanish. “Español, Francais, English, Arabic…” he tells me, each pronounced in a perfect accent.

My bus winds up the hill, back to Algeciras, where my train rattles me home to Granada. But my city life now has a bitter taste to it. A woman at my language exchange spends ten full minutes ranting about how she can’t find the right kind of coat that she likes. It feels disgusting to me. People are being battered to death at the fences trying to reach this place, I think, and all she can think about is a new coat.

The barman is a friendly guy I often speak to. He asks how Morocco was. “Very disturbing”, I tell him. “People are being killed at the border. They are being disappeared, and nobody is even speaking about it.”

He shrugs and walks away.

I wrote about my time in Morocco with a different slant for In the Fray Magazine. Read it here.

You can read my full interviw with Michael at Uneven Earth.

My friend Raz has written a song about his own experiences.

4 thoughts on “The Light of Tangiers

  1. I have visited Morocco; Fez and Marrakesh. I travelled round by train and stayed at a riad run by an Australian woman. With my own eyes I could see the poverty and the domination of tourism in a society where they have elections but the reality is that the king still rules. Thanks for revealing the reality of Morocco. I won’t be going again but unfortunately many UK tourists will.

  2. Excellent writing, Jo. I’ve not been on WordPress for a loooong time, but glad that the first article I saw when logging back on was one of yours.

    I hope you’re well. x

  3. huh Jo, thank you for sharing this
    breaks my heart reading it, in this never ending battle for borders and land that have been drawn up by us humans, its sad

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