Discovering Tangier With A Little Help From A Friend

Sunday, February 15, 2009

Discovering Tangier With A Little Help From A Friend

Many travelers skip Tangier on their way to the rest of Morocco due to the city’s sordid history and dodgy reputation. But, as I discovered, sometimes all it takes is just a little help from a friend from the inside to discover the wonders of the city.

By Jeffery Smith

“Why don’t we go to Marrakech tomorrow?” somebody casually suggested during a lull in the conversation. It was late into the night, and I had just spent the last several hours sipping wine and sherry with a group of Britons at a ranch located in the verdant hills between Vejer de la Frontera and Barbate in southern Spain. A few minutes later it was decided: Oliver — a friend of mine — and I would hop on a ferry on the southern coast, make our way to the train station in Tangier and take the overnight to Marrakech. We were wary of spending too much time in Tangier because we both had parents with dubious experiences there in the 70’s. But if all went to plan, we’d only have to spend a few hours in the fabled city. As it turns out, a few hours in Tangier wasn’t nearly enough time.

Most travelers familiar with the region would suggest going to Algeciras to catch the ferry to Tangier, but instead we opted for a 45-minute bus trip bound for the wind-swept town of Tarifa, a city we had been to a few weeks prior. Tarifa is the windsurfing capital of the world and ten minutes on the small peninsula reveals why: the levante, or dry, hot wind, is unrelenting. Ten days in Tarifa — for those of you who are not inclined to windsurf — and you will quickly understand why the area has such a high suicide rate. From here we took the Tarifa-Tangier ferry. Run by a monopoly called FRS, the voyage is a short 35-minute jaunt across the Strait of Gibraltar.

Tangier sits at a cultural crossroads. It is home to nearly a million people with a diverse mix of religious and artistic influences. Founded in fifth century B.C., Tangier has been home to the Phoenicians, Romans, Portuguese, French, and Spanish before gaining its full sovereignty. In fact, it wasn’t until 1956 that Tangier officially became part of Morocco.

The gateway to Morocco is also an important entry point for the Mediterranean. Trade and commerce drive the city’s frantic pace. Food vendors and fruit carts line the inner city streets alongside rows of cable and low-hanging electricity lines. The traffic and bustle blends to white noise once you start to appreciate the aged architecture of this ancient city. Moorish towers and crescent moons dot the cityscape, while the cobblestoned streets and whitewashed dwellings reminded me of southern Spain. The main drag along the coast, Avenue Mohammed VI, boasting multistory high-rise hotels, palm trees and modern business buildings reminded me of Rio de Janero. But the strange and beautiful call to prayer adds a quality incomparable to any city outside the Arabic world.

After exiting down the ramp from the ferry, we were met with the daunting task of passing hoards of taxicab drivers, tourist “guides” and those generally looking to find any rube who might give them money. We avoided the first and second stream of hasslers, waving them off with “no thank you,” “no gracias” and “la shokram.” We made our way to the foreign exchange kiosk to trade our Euros for Dirham and it was here that we met Hassan.

Hassan had an extensive English vocabulary and he offered to show us around; he proved to be a blessing in disguise. He was helpful in securing a taxi, train tickets, luggage check, and scheduling our food and souvenirs before meeting the six o’clock departure. Our taxi took us to various places, teeming with people and commerce, but with Hassan, we were never idle for too long before moving on to a new corner of the city.

After a little while spent seeing the city, Hassan took us to see what he described as “a traditional Berber with the finest rugs in all of Morocco.”

“Friends,” Hassan said as our car weaved in and out of traffic though the city’s narrow streets. “I know where we can get the best quality rugs and jewelry in all of Tangier.”

“We’d kind of just like to just grab a small meal and go to the train station,” I told him, mindful of the time.

“No, no.” Hassan protested, dismissing my suggestion with a wave of his hand. “You need to meet my friend. He is a real Berber and is only in town for another week. He travels from the desert with his people’s rugs and crafts.”

morocco2“We’ll just get those things when we go to Marrakech,” Oliver replied.

“No, no. Marrakech will not have these authentic Berber rugs. Trust me.”

Five minutes later our driver jammed the gear-shift into park and we were soon following Hassan up a set of stairs, walled on either side by a hidden corridor of workshops, stores, tea bars and fruit carts.

Hassan’s friend, Cherif Khalifi Mustapha, was not your typical-looking Moroccan Berber — at least not according to how I envisioned it. He was around 45 years old, had fair skin, towered over most Moroccans at five-foot-eleven, weighed around 200 pounds, and he wore a traditional hooded garment called a djellaba.

Mustapha was educated and raised in Spain, but after leaving to travel Africa, he decided to adopt the Berber lifestyle and philosophy of simplicity. Living in small tents and focusing on religious meditation, Mustapha was part of a group called “Les Nomades” and he traveled from the desert to Tangier regularly to sell his people’s rugs, jewelry and other handicrafts. Mustapha was an expert salesman who obviously had experience with the Westerner mindset. He was cordial and informative, offering us several rounds of traditional mint tea. After explaining “Les Nomades,” he began dressing us as blue and azure versions of himself — having us try on native turbans and djellabas. Then he began taking out rugs and jewelry insisting that price was not important — “Only focus on what speaks to you,” he would say.

The rugs ranged in size, complexity and fabric, but they were all stunning. So too was the price of his people’s handiwork. Ranging from a few hundred dirham to a few thousand, I found that my haggling skills were not what they needed to be for this situation. Nevertheless, I came away with a fine assortment of Berber crafts that did, as Mustapha had suggested, “speak to me.”

Afterwards, Hassan took us out to eat before loading on the train. We had explained to Hassan that we were looking for something light and cheap — this was not what he delivered. But, after finishing our memorable meal, we had no regrets.

The Moroccan chicken wrapped in pastry and traditional couscous was absolutely divine. The chicken was moist and the dish’s rich spices, tinged in cinnamon, gave my senses a crash course in Moroccan cuisine. Hassan never promised to take us someplace cheap, but he did promise to show us the best food in all of Tangier, and he didn’t let us down.

It turned out, Hassan was not only a blessing in disguise, but a guide in disguise. He gave us a quick education on the Moroccan haggle, showed us more of Tangier in an afternoon than most might see in a week, and made us realize that we had a lot to learn before getting off the train at our next stop in Marrakech. If only every city in the world had their own Hassan.


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