I didn't get to read Paul Bowles The Spider's House before going to
. But I certainly will soon. I had read "The Sheltering Sky" and it moved me, inspired a definite an interest in the Arab world. Of course I think it was the Beats, particularly William S. Burroughs that got me interested in Tangier. Just across the stretch of water, the foreboding sounding
, which separates South-Western Europe from
. And so it was necessary to start my exploration of
in Tangier, coming across the Strait on a ferry from
The ferry from
was intended to only take two odd hours, but after a delayed departure and then waiting at the Tangier dock for an hour, being shuffled from one exit to another before being allowed to leave, it ended up being nearly four hours before I set foot on African soil for the second time in my life. The boat's passengers, for all that I could see, were all people of Moroccan or otherwise African descent, with not a single other Whitey like me. I was surprised, but not upset at the absence of other tourists. But it did seem to contrast with my expectations from what I had read about tourism in
. Perhaps there really are that many people too afraid to travel, especially to the Arab world, in these days of fear and loathing.
Just as it was by Burrough's literary suggestion that I wanted to see Tangier, so was it that I decided to stay in the same hotel where he wrote Naked Lunch. Unfortunately, his room #9 at the Hotel el-Muniria was booked out, probably inhabited by a Burroughs-devotee of a degree higher than myself. I was able to get a room just down the stairs, a few doors down the hall.
But wait, I haven't even arrived at the el-Muniria yet, nor found the small, strange dank alley that leads up secret stairs past garbage to the street where the hotel hides. I'm still just minutes from departing the ferry and already petit-taxi drivers are anxious to whisk me 'downtown' for 5 euros, okay, okay friend, 3 euros, which sounds very funny to me considering my map indicates it is less than 500 meters. The ATM machine won't dispense money, or at least not from the French interface, perhaps from the Arabic one but I don't trust myself to try. I haven't got any local currency, and perhaps 30 euros in my pocket. I'm half-convinced the exchange places on the pier have an ATM-disabling deal with the banks, and decide to find a different bank downtown. It's a pity to start out with such a negative impression of a country, but then again, I wasn't in the country for more than five minutes before people were trying left and right to rip me off. And my first experience being called 'ALI BABA!' by some touts. But perhaps by my straight-ahead gaze and unaffected pace they could see that I wasn't worth hustling, just hassling. Time and time again, in any city of any size, I ran into fresh punks who got a big kick out of calling me 'ALI BABA'. Beard Man? Something like that. They always gestured to their face, swept four fingers and an opposing thumb down their jaw line to the tip of the their chin, as if stroking a pointed beard, beaming a fat smile of ugly teeth as they would say it to me. Waiting for a reaction. Hell, I like growing a beard sometimes when I travel for a long time, and find it especially appropriate in Muslim countries. And if for no other reason it makes me look like perhaps I didn't just get off the boat or the plane, even if, in fact I have. So I wasn't about to race off and shave just to prevent all the Ali-Baba-ing. I decided that learning some Arabic insults would be infinitely more clever and amusing.
ALI BABA AND THE 40 HUSTLERS
The touts all hang out in clusters at the Tangier port. They pick at their teeth and eye up the new arrivals. The hop to their feet and shadow you for a few paces. Try out clumsy French or English on you: What country? What hotel? Smoke, Smoke? Good stuff, man. The most I'll do is smile at them, idiotically, or perhaps answer them in German. They give up and go away quickly. In Tangier, that is.
It's hot. Not that hot, but the back of my shirt is soaked with sweat and I'm thrilled to take off my pack, strip, and climb under the cold water of my tiled shower. I open the windows and lay on the bed. Children playing in the alley, street cats calling. The odd car or motorbike going by. There is a palm swaying outside my window. It's peaceful, but I'm getting hungry, and am anxious to experience my first
Back down the hill, around the bend, past the garbage that collects in the crumbling concrete passages. Out to the main street. A boulevard runs along the shoreline. Shouts, calls, beckoning at every block, every moment. Finally see a place that looks like a safe first Moroccan meal. It's dim and cool inside. I collect my wits, eat some pizza-like creation, drink a cold drink, and study the map.
Tangier was not much more for me than just wandering streets, day or night, feeling out the scene, taking in the sounds and smells and sights. The
was not that impressive but I knew
would blow it away for sure. The Kasbah was also somehow less than I imagined. Again and again I would find myself getting to a place, a sight, a location I sought out, and wondering if I was indeed there. Was I seeing what I was intending to see, or did it lurk yet around a corner, down an alley? Some places are strange like that. You never really know if you are 'there'... and conversely sometimes it hits you like a ton of bricks. You come around that corner and are standing in front of the Real Deal. Not always a landmark or something in a book or a map. And sometimes it's not part of a search, it just happens. A tense street quarrel, or five old men sitting silently on a bench, or a few wrinkled fellows crouched on a rug playing cards and drinking mint tea. A large storefront with Arabic writing and piles of sweets or trinkets. Or a stream of boys walking by with their portable shoe-shine station. Or a cluster of veiled, concealed women meandering down a marketplace alley. Traveling, or at least adventure tourism in my mind, is the constant effort to maintain this kind of awareness. Otherwise your location is irrelevant. It's not affecting you, and you might as well be home, or asleep. But when I am somewhere and I am amazed, or at least have a heightened sense of awareness that I am not home, that is the real thrill, the real meaning and purpose for me. It is the opposite of homesickness, it is the desire and the want to see something new, be somewhere else. It is what the Germans call Fernweh - the longing to be far away, to go away, to not be home. Not really only for escape, but for experience. Insight.
After a night in Tangier, and then breakfast somewhere on the edge of the Ville Nouvelle (
) at a quasi-Parisian café, I pack my bag and head to the train station. I don't know what the schedule is, I'm not even sure where I will go. This kind of non-restraint, freedom, fills me with a sense of happiness. Of course, it means I could end up sitting at the train station drinking overpriced coffee and chewing crappy cheese sandwiches for the next three or four hours, or just turning around and coming back to the downtown if there really aren't any good trains for a while, but what the hell. I've got a book. I'm alone. No one is waiting for me, and conversely, I might run into someone interesting at the train station.
I end up on a train to
. The train compartment is almost full from the start and after a few stops it - like all the other compartments - is pretty much full. Spoken Arabic all around me. Luggage packed above head and below foot, blocking doors and floor. Thirty minutes into the ride the air-conditioning doesn't seem to be doing anything. It starts getting really hot in there. A teenage girl and her sisters offer me their paper fan to use, smiling. I decline but then after their insistence do take it and fan myself a bit, fanning warm sweaty air onto my damp face. I have to change trains in Sidi Kacem, and when I get out of the train it feels like I have stepped into an oven. There is not a cloud in the sky, the earth is dry, orange, cracking. I pray
is not this unbelievably hot.
, WILL YOU LET ME SLEEP
From the train station I walk a kilometer to the
, the old city. It's late afternoon and most of the guesthouses have only shabby, depressing, or otherwise too large and expensive rooms. Tired and not intent to go to a sixth place to look, I take a tiny room in a back alley, second floor. Scarcely wider than the bed, fortunate to have an old sink hanging on the wall. The medina is more interesting than Tangier's. I walk around for a long time, taking a lot of photographs, smiling at a lot of children, generating a lot of attention from the locals. In the hours I see perhaps three other apparently foreign tourists. My fumbling French and four word Arabic vocabulary proves crippling. At nightfall I manage to stumble upon an eatery where I can make myself tangibly clear to the waiter. Yes. Food. Dinner, please. Sorry, no Meat. Vegetables. French and English and a lot of gestures, maybe I even moo'ed like a cow and shook my head 'No.' I'm served a couscous dish with some vegetable stew, a basket of bread, and a glass of fresh mint tea. It's not remarkable, but I'm hungry enough to eat it all and give the waiter and exaggerated thank you before disappearing out into the medina's passages again.
My first night in
is my second night of poor sleep. There is a lamp outside my window, many bugs finding their way in, it's hot as hell despite laying naked on the white canvas sheets fresh after a cold shower. And there's the noise. Motorbikes, chatter, rusty metal gates sliding down, slamming. I feel alone, alien; but more than anything I just feel so goddamned exhausted and uncomfortable and wish I could sleep. Sometime around three I fall asleep. And at six I awake, staring at the peeling ceiling, unsure whether to get up or lie there with hopes of finding another dream before the morning sweat would come and hope for sleep would vanish.
The city is a sea of sound: waves of urban noise crashing on my tired, aching ears. After two coffees and armed with a hat over my baking head, I wander the streets, find my way out of the medina and into the
and find another room. Fourth floor - hopefully cooler and quieter than my first room. No singles, so I take double. More couscous, somewhere, but where, I don't know where. I don't know where I am. I go from one meal or glass of tea to the next, wait for the sun to go down so I can crawl back to my room and try to read, then sleep. I take a cold shower down the hall in a white tiled cabin, scarcely wide enough to turn around in. I sit out on the balcony to overlook the night town. I read for an hour, two, and then feel like I could take another shower just to cool down. Instead I run cold water from the sink over my head, dry my hair shortly with the towel and sit on the balcony awaiting scattered breezes before getting back in bed again. Bugs biting me. Bugs I can't find when I turn the light on and comb the bed. The sheets really are just simple cheap canvas, of the same texture and weight with which I would stretch a canvas. At two I think I manage to fall asleep. I was meditating on the memory of an old man muttering, humming a repetitive Muslim prayer. The sun beating down on his dirty white rags. He's sitting on a block outside the café in the
. I sleep.
At seven the room already feels like an oven on defrost, and I rattle down the stairs and back out on to the streets. I watch the overfilled buses sputter by. Taxis whirl on. Cosmopolitan
youth strut their stuff, eat their ice cream cones, model sneakers and jeans with western brand names. I try to play it cool and walk around licking a cold soft-serve cone, too. Occasionally I pass some curious Moroccans who smile or wave to me.
I manage to find a small bookshop with a fair amount of English material. I buy an Arabic phrasebook, which also has a short French chapter in it. And I spend a few hours at
's Goethe Institut. After all it's been more than a week since I read 'Der Spiegel,' my favorite German news-magazine. When I see they have pork on the menu of the café there, (in a Muslim country) I decide not to patronize their arrogance and instead go to a small coffee shop for my afternoon espresso.
At night, back at the room, I'm on the balcony mumbling to myself again how I need sleep, and how it even looks more comfortable somehow for the teenage boy sleeping on sheets of cardboard on a trash-littered rooftop below me. One more night of this and I'll crack. Do I go further south, farther from Europe and the accessibility of leaving
in my debilitating heat-wrought depression? Or do I go north, already to Fes, and if it's good stay a week there, then maybe in the mountains a few nights and then on to Spain? After all I came here for
. The promise of a mad
and the thick and real of it all in
. But Marrakech has an unknown charm to it, and a historical presence I feel I need to experience. If I can sleep, I promise myself, then I will go south, to Marrakech. And then somewhere on from there. Sleep comes.