Mohamed is waiting for us at the port. He smiles and waves and I am very glad to see him. It’s not easy to find the place where we’ll be spending the next two nights. Dar 23. Up an indifferent alley of the old medina, behind a formidable black door. A b&b? More like a private home with rooms. Exquisite, beautifully decorated rooms. The owner, Peter (a former fashion designer who hails from Hong Kong, but is French, with a mother living in Long Island), rents them at a fantastic winter rate of 70 Euros, with breakfast, all inclusive.
Mohamed, Peter’s assistant, speaks Arabic and French. As we walk from the ferry to Dar 23, he talks about the city of Tanger.
Close to two million, he says. But most of them come in for the work, from the south. When we have a holiday, the city empties. They go back to their families. Of the two million, maybe five thousand stay behind.
That’s a typical Nina/Ed exaggeration, but I get the point. People are here to earn cash as best as they can.
Both Ed and I wanted to come to Tanger, even as we have very different memories of Morocco. I was here with my daughter (though not in Tanger) some three years ago and it was an exciting and wonderful trip. Ed was here some forty years ago (in Tanger) on a quick half day jaunt from Spain and felt that this was plenty. Still, he agrees now to come back. Curious to compare it to his youthful impressions.
To me, the most troubling thing about the trip is the ferry crossing. I hate being on a boat in rough waters and the Straits of Gibraltar look choppy all the time. I cannot fathom now how it could be that I crossed the Atlantic three times as a kid on a ship. These days even a half hour out on wavy seas makes my stomach heave.
The ferry from Tarifa to Tanger is big. It’s a catamaran, with the word “jet” emblazoned on it, which to me signifies speed. That’s good. The faster the better.
The ticket agent does warn of winds (I know, I feel them – Tarifa winds) and she admits that the advertised amount of time for the crossing (35 minutes) is plain wrong (it’s closer to an hour), but it’s the ferry or skip Morocco, so after a bracing breakfast/lunch at our favorite café in Tarifa...
...we board. With a small number of Moroccans returning and a large group of Koreans with many very large suitcases visiting.
You know the saying – quit worrying because what’ll get you in the end is not the thing that triggers you worries – well, the crossing is just fine. I even enjoy it (the same cannot be said for a handful of Koreans, who, despite their counter motion sickness exercises, look utterly defeated by the end of the hour).
And as we alight in Tanger, there is Mohamed.
Tanger. I’ve read dismissive comments on the Internet from those who come for the day from Spain and by dusk are glad to be done with it. They say that it lacks tourist attractions, that it makes Morocco look bad. I am in our room at Peter’s and I listen to the chanted calls for prayer sounding over the city, I think about the mint tea we drank earlier and the Moroccan cakes we ate on the rooftop of some place in the Kasbah and I think -- Tanger is fascinating.
Dar 23 – the place Mohamed leads us to – hasn't a sign or any indication of what's inside. Just the street number of the house. Our stunning white room and tiled bathroom (there are only three in all) are up several flights of steps. Its windows open up onto a view of a ledge with potted plants.
On a lower level there is a small living room and Peter invites us there for a glass of mint tea with nuts and dates and Moroccan biscuits to munch on.
He gives us pointers on how to navigate the city (unlike in Marrakech, where shop keepers are after you to sell their stuff, here, it’s the people out on the street who try to ‘assist you’ in any way they can. Often for a coin. It is, in fact very hard to tell when someone is being friendly because they are pleased to see a foreign visitor or because they want something in return).
We lose our way very early on in our first walk through the old town. The map isn’t accurate, the streets are without any understandable to me logic.
Even though we start in the old medina, very quickly we find ourselves outside of it. That’s okay. We need to check dinner places. And get some Moroccan cash. Here, in the 'newer' Tanger, the streets are wider and the houses bear an uncanny resemblance to Andalusia. With a Moroccan twist and a Tanger entryway.
...and so long as we have the cash now, we need some more Moroccan cookies, because they are so extraordinarily excellent, what with the almonds and the walnuts and the pistachios...
Back in the medina (the oldest Arab quarter of a North African city), we try again to locate the Kasbah. You’d think this fortified navel of the old medina would be easy to get to. You’d think. We pass through dark alleys and shop filled alleys. On wider lanes there are cafés. Men only cafés. The men watch soccer, play cards, drink sweet mint tea. They’re places where I know a camera would not be welcome. Women are out on the streets, mostly in the company of one another, with their children. Or, they're home, attending to things there.
Finally, we reach a square with an added fortification protecting it from the rest of the city. The Kasbah. The walls are crumbling now, tilting toward the sea.
The views from here are to the sea and toward the eastern coast of Morocco.
We find a little place (at Peter's suggestion) – all in blue and white, waiters included)...
...that serves wonderful snacks – tomatoes, olives and cheese with the flatbreads that we see everywhere, cookies and strawberries...
From the terrace (or is it rooftop?), you can see the medina spill down to the water.
We sit at a table facing the square, so that we can watch people cut through, heading into the medina.Men in pointed hoods and Fez, women in colorful robes.
It’s not crowded here and I can tell that for Ed, for this reason alone it’s a good place to be. We linger until it becomes too cold for me to linger anymore. We rejoin the river of people in the old quarter.
As we walk again through the medina, I am taken in by the fast pace, the colors, by the enormous amount of “stuff” for sale here. Tanger may not draw crowds of tourists like Marrakech does, but it certainly does not lack the small shops of woven stuff, metal stuff, ceramic and leather stuff. And just stuff.
Shops with embroidered robes and caftans sell things locally made. We pass shops where men weave and sew...
...and then, finally, a food market where women make cheese discs with palm leaves, others sell the ubiquitous flat breads, and olive vendors seem mildly bored with their assortments of olives, even as I can’t get enough of them.
The piled produce is tightly packed. Overflowing. How much will be sold before the closing hour?
It’s evening now. Dinner time. We step out of Peter's Dar 23 into the alley. Everything appears darker now.
And still, in and out of the medina, Tanger continues to be preoccupied with buying and selling.
We go to a place that serves a set menu. A friendly place, where the waiter moves from table to table, on good terms with everyone.
It’s not cheap by Tanger standards: about $20 per person for all five set courses and a bottomless glass of a home made drink of fruit juices. At 8:30 the place is nearly full. Initially, about half are from elsewhere. Not Morocco. But after 9 the balance shifts. Women, cloaked in long robes, escorted by men in more western clothing come in, sit down and begin to eat.
We munch on the dips and olives and then proceed to the fish soup. And the shrimp and squid with spinach. And the grilled fish. And the strawberries with raw honey and nuts and barley with honey as well. With glass after the glass of their delicious pulpy fruit (grape, strawberry and who knows what else) juice. Too much food we keep saying, but it comes nonetheless, dish after dish, fresh, honest, delicious.
Night at the medina. I can see a star or two, but it’s hard. The alleys are narrow. The old, often crumbling buildings block much of the sky. No moon for me tonight. Shops are closed or closing, but the noise level along the wider passages remains high. Male voices. Greeting, selling. Food stands are still drawing crowds. Snails? Some egg dish? Sesame bars? These are guesses. Much of Tanger is a muddle of guesses for me. The city is like a tightly wrapped box that uses too much packing tape. You need special tools to get it off. A common language would help. French will get you places, but you need Moroccan Arabic, or for some -- Tarifit (a Berber language from the nearby Rif mountains) to start ripping at the layers.
In the meantime, we walk with our 'non, merci, non' as men and boys offer to lead us here, there, to the Kasbah. Up there, Go there, to the Kasbah.