From Morocco to Melilla: A Reeducation in Normalcy

Monday, November 17, 2008 | Melilla, Spain

Ryan and I did our part to combat Spain's financial crisis, by tossing back Cruzcampos in Melilla.
The Moroccan in me could tell right away that Melilla was not normal.

With the border just a few hundred feet behind us, Jacqueline and I boarded a local bus to take us into the center of town. Surprisingly, we were not shoved, we received a printed receipt for our bus ticket, and we actually found a seat. This being Europe, of sorts, I was not surprised to see Euros exchange hands or to hear Spanish, but the rest was highly unusual.

Melilla is itself an abnormality. One of Spain's two remaining colonial outposts on the Moroccan mainland, this diverse enclave is an anomaly in the human geography of North Africa. My two-day visit in the sleepy off-season was hardly enough to make sense of it.

* * *

Along with its fellow colony Ceuta (located further west along the Moroccan coast), Melilla is a prime
target for African emigrants hoping to sneak into Europe through the back door, and a well-policed border fence surrounds the city. But despite its officially intolerant view toward immigrants, during our visit Melilla appeared a perfect model of intercultural tolerance.

Jacqueline and I were surprised to see so many dark-skinned women with their hair covered in hijab—the perfect model of a Moroccan woman—jabbering rapidly to their kids in Spanish. In Melilla's elegant downtown, at one moment we found ourselves peering wide-eyed into a storefront overflowing with Christmas kitsch. It was located underneath a second-story synagogue. In the street, a pair of Indian Hindus, local parking attendants, directed traffic. I thought that the contrast with Morocco could not have been drawn any more sharply. That is, until I saw a man strolling down the street wearing a yarmulke the next afternoon, something so inconceivable across the border just a few kilometers away.

* * *

Melilla's fortified medina seemed disappointingly sterile in comparison to the characteristic grit and bustle of Morocco's old cities, but downtown Melilla, a marvel of modernist, Art Nouveau façades, easily compensates. Statues, including some nude busts, decorate Melilla's crisply landscaped central park. In chic storefronts around town, mannequins model skin-tight jeans and low-cut blouses.

Back in Fes, of course, such displays would constitute extreme "hshuma"—the Moroccan word for "shame" and the keystone of the country's society, in which everyone vigilantly peppers everyone else with the word in order to enforce the rigid, unwritten code of acceptable behavior. When Jacqueline and I saw local women sashaying along Melilla's sidewalks while actually wearing these European fashions, we muttered "hshuma" under our breaths. We smiled to each other, knowing that, thanks to some unfortunate accident of cultural osmosis, we had said it only half in jest.

* * *

The small handful of Fulbrighters with whom we traveled had come to Melilla simply to renew our Moroccan visas by leaving, then reentering. For me, that concern was secondary—I came for the pork. Though they're well hidden, we've dug up places to buy alcohol in Fes. Pork, however, is one vice that has proven practically impossible to find in our corner of the Muslim world. At breakfast on Saturday, just a matter of minutes after reaching Melilla, I sunk my teeth into a greasy grilled bacon, ham, and cheese sandwich. As it hit my mouth, I briefly wondered if it was normal to feel such ecstasy at the taste of mere grilled pig. Yes, yes it was.

To round out my forbidden meal, I ordered a carajillo, a local breakfast specialty made of espresso spiked with brandy.

Things only picked up at lunchtime. We found a hopping midday hangout, Bar Alhambra, which served up cheap morsels of traditional tapas—mini chorizo sandwiches, bacon-wrapped shrimp, fresh fish filets, and steaming saucers of siesta-inducing paella. That's what the locals packed in all around us ate, anyway. Armed with only a few words of Spanish, we had to test our luck by picking random items from the menu. After ordering manitas de cerdo, we found ourselves poking at a gelatinous pile of stewed pig's feet, and decided to start ordering by pointing toward our neighbors' plates. Luckily, the sangria and beers were flowing smoothly.

* * *

On Sunday, we straggled back into Fes, fresh visa stamps in our passports.

Allah, in his infinite justice and wisdom, had already punished us for our hshuma by sending a local Moroccan bus company to screw us out of a few extra bucks and leave us on the side of the highway outside Fes, rather than at the city bus station. How quickly our next reeducation had begun.


mom said...

you are a funny guy, Andrew!
love, mom

Anonymous said...

Colonial? Well, Ceuta and Melilla were already part of Spain when Morocco wasn´t even a project. There are other countries, such as Turkey, with lands in two continents, nobody would think the asian part is Syrian just because it stands in a different continent. A Colony is, for instance, Gibraltar, which was a war payment from the Government of Spain to the british, and according to what was signed in 1715 should have been already restituted to its legal owner.

Andrew G. Farrand said...

Yes, "colonial".

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