First Taste of Tangier: Not So Bad After All

Tuesday, April 7, 2009 | Tangiers, Morocco

Locals leave the mosque in one of Tangier's main squares, beside the old medina.
Many Moroccans think of Tangier the way Americans think of a place like Newark, New Jersey. (Phrases like "the armpit of the country" come to mind.) TV travel personality Rick Steves once called Tangier "the Tijuana of Africa."

In seven months here in Morocco, I have had the same conversation every time I've asked anyone—Moroccan or expat—about the city. Their response always starts with a great sucking in of air, then a slow exhale. Their eyes wander off. "Wellll..." they say, struggling for a word that could describe the city favorably, yet still truthfully. Their face betrays signs of the struggle—there must be something good I can say about the place—before they inevitably shrug and settle, with a liar's smile, on "It's nice."

The reputation of Ibn Battuta's home town seems never to have recovered from its role, in the 19th
and early 20th centuries, as the unregulated international dumping ground where Europe cast its most conniving diplomats, its smugglers and dealers, its painters, poets, gays, and riffraff.

* * *

We couldn't believe how many women there were.

As a rule of thumb, you can usually gauge the level of personal security in a Moroccan city by the number of women on the streets at night. This particular evening, Tangier thrummed with men and women strolling casually, many arm-in-arm with their friends or habibs. While the seedy edges lurked, Tangier's vibrant centre ville immediately appeared a far cry from the shady, irreputable port Jacqueline and I had been led to expect. Above the brightly lit storefronts, grand high-rises and construction cranes towered skyward into the darkness.

The caf├ęs around Place de France—once the renowned hangouts of Beat era vagabonds—still seemed fashionable with locals. A block from the square, we found Pension Hollande. The hotel had been converted from a once grand consular residence, complete with a wrap-around porch. We checked into a room—a former salon, its high ceilings adorned with crown molding—classic "backpacker baroque."

After dinner at a nearby Chinese restaurant, Jacqueline and I settled into a corner booth in one of the least slimy man-bars I've ever visited in Morocco. Tangier was full of surprises, we agreed, over the din of the mustached lounge singer and his enthusiastic keyboardist.

Truly exploring Tangier, however, would have to wait. This trip was, after all, primarily a jaunt to Spain to renew our visas and escape, if only for a few days.

* * *

Even at 8:00am in the morning, Tangier’s ferry port was everything I had feared. The city had at last begun to live down to expectations.

All around us were persistent touts, faux guides, money changers, and pushy baggage handlers. Policemen flailed and whistled, but failed to maintain order among the churning crowds.

This particular morning, hundreds of Moroccan women had turned out—migrant workers taking the ferry across the Strait to temporary posts in the fields or hotels of Spain. Each wore the same style of brightly patterned djellabas and head scarves of Rif Mountain villages, yet no two looked quite alike. They were admittedly hard to discern, however, struggling as they were over one another in a constantly squawking mass, and heaving their bursting plastic sacks toward the passport control point with little remorse for the trampled.

In a sure sign that we have spent too much time in Morocco already, Jacqueline and I, no longer ashamed to throw some elbows ourselves, deftly navigated the melee and boarded the ferry. In 40 minutes, we knew, all this would be behind us.

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