Led Zep, Arab Reggae and the CIA

5 – 7 feb 2014

The mad dash through Europe has hit me harder than I thought; the morning after my arrival in Tanger, I have a bit of a cold. This isn’t made much better by me staying in bed and not eating or drinking enough during the day, so by the end of the afternoon I decide to go out and exploren the Ville Nouvelle a bit. It’s full of  Art Deco buildings with an Arabized twist in details such as doors or windowsills. It’s also full of people; during the day it’s busy, but in the evening it’s absolutely crowded. Seemingly all the young people of Tanger gather here to eat, shop, flirt, and generally enjoy the good life. Moroccans are nothing if not commercially minded, and the main street of the Ville Nouvelle, Avenue Pasteur, is lined with all kinds of shops, restaurants, cybercafes, shoe polishers, children or women selling individual packagesof tissues, and more. The facades of the buildings are mostly obscured by neon signs and other makeshift advertisements which the entrepreneurs hope will lure the emerging middle class into their businesses. My personal favourite is the neurosurgical clinic in an appartment just above the store selling Armani coats for € 20 and Rolex watches for € 17. Also for emergencies! Very tempting, but I think I’ll pass… Despite all the hustle and bustle of the place, it feels quite friendly. Since I’m not walking around with my backpack anymore I’m hardly ever bothered by a hustler, unless it’s one of the feline kind. Moroccans really, really like cats it seems, and (street?) cats are petted and fed wherever they go. The cats see every human as a potential source of scraps of meat and regularly come begging when I am standing still or sitting down somewhere. Most of my excursions only take up a few hours since my cold lasts longer than I expected.


On thursday evening I walk up to the entrance of the medina (the medieval part of the city, surrounded by a fortified wall). Along the road leading to the medina are Berber women selling their fresh produce. Berbers are the original inhabitants of North Africa, although with Arabs having lived among and mixed with Berbers for the last 1300 years or so, it’s not really possible to say anyone is 100% Berber. Still, generally speaking, Moroccans living in the mountains have kept their culture and their language more distinct from Arab influences than those in the cities, who are commonly referred to as Arabs. The Berbers of different areas differ as much from each other as from Arabs, with the Tuareg of Mali, Algeria and Lybia probably being the most well-known tribe. They also each have their own language. The women selling fruit and vegetables in Tanger belong to the Riffian tribes from the mountains in Northern Morocco. Their conical straw hats and colourful clothes make them look surprisingly similar to Peruvian women in traditional clothing. After a day of selling vegetables and fruit from their fields, they are picked up in a rickety minivan and droven back to their villages. The main entrance to the medina itself is through a gate in the walls, at the Grand Socco square. It’s getting dark now, so I turn back to the hotel. When I’m in bed, I listen to the radio, to get a feel for what’s keeping Moroccans dancing and to break the silence a bit. Searching for a French-speaking station, I come across one that starts off playing classic rock (Led Zeppelin’s All My Love and Don McLean’ American Pie, for instance), and then suddenly switches to Arab reggae, which I never even knew existed. Gotta love music as a global language! 😀

On the morning of my third full day in Tanger I feel good enough to go out for an entire day. I decide to finally go into the medina. It’s a maze of little twisting streets and alleys and shops and cafes, and I enjoy just getting lost while experiencing Medina life. Thankfully the medina isn’t too large, and it’s located on a hillside, so as long as you keep walking up or down, you’re bound to find an exit somewhere. It’s also free from the hustle I expected; only in the shopping streets are shopowners trying to lure me inside, but no one follows me around. Away from the shopping streets, it’s wonderfully quiet and uncrowded. People come home with groceries and have a chat with the neighbours, children play in the streets, and cats get pampered as usual. It’s not nearly the madhouse I was expecting and fearing. The facades and doorwaysoften resemble those of  buildings in Spain or Portugal, which is not surprising given the mixed histories of Spain, Portugal and this corner of Morocco (in fact some parts of the style that’s often seen as Iberic is actually of Islamic origin) but just as often they are covered with mosaics or woodwork in Islamic patterns. I also notice many doorposts having a nail or hook that’s covered with fraying threads of fabric in many colours; perhaps this is supposed to bring good luck? After a few hours of getting lost I enjoy a spiced meat sandwich and a mint tea at a cafe in the Petit Socco, the small square in the medina. The quiet mood is regularly interrupted by calls to prayer. It’s friday, which is to Islam what sunday is to Christianity. Every once in a while a large group of men goes into or comes out of the local mosque; I’m not entirely sure, but it seems that the population of the medina attends the mosque in phases instead of all at once. I don’t see any women go inside; perhaps they have a different entrance or time schedule. After enjoying my sandwich, I visit the American Legation museum. Morocco shares with the Netherlands the distinction of being the first country to have recognized the United States, although the Dutch did so by accident, unlike the Moroccans. The museum, housed in what used to be the Legation (comparable to what’s nowadays an embassy), has not only a beautiful medina setting but also lots of interesting displays showing the history of American-Moroccan relations, as well as the history of Tanger and Morocco itself and paintings of Tanger and its inhabitants. Having seen the sights, I decide to leave the medina. There’s an exit right next to the museum, but I decide to take the main exit by the Grand Socco. Following the “just walk uphill”logic as much as the twisting streets allow, I find myself… back at the Legation five minutes later. Determined to get it right this time, I dive back into the maze, only to return yet again to the Legation museum after another 10 minutes of walking. After this slightly Escher-esque experience I give up and just take the exit next to the museum, which turns out to be an emberassingly short 150m from the main gate… In the evening, I go to the Tanger Inn, which is just below my hotel. Some photos and letters are all that’s left of the Inn’s days as a gathering place for foreign writers and other artists; nowadays it mostly caters to young Tangeriens looking to drink, play pool or darts, and listen to the (excellent) selection of western music. It makes for a nice setting in which to work on my travel reports, before going to bed early in preparation for my bus trip to Chefchaouen, in the Rif mountains. Unfortunately, as I tune in to my new favourite radio station, there’s an Arab-spoken talkshow that, as far as I can decipher, is about Palestine, Israel, Mossad and the CIA. Bummer!

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