February 24, 2024
Our Guides in Tangier

The economy revolves around tourism, drug smuggling, illegal immigration and prostitution. Obviously we were people in need of help.

By Todd Mondschein

Tangier is not a welcoming city, and has the worst reputation in Morocco. One has to come prepared - to plan in advance where to stay and go.

That’s what most tourists do. However, that is not really seeing the city, but playing into an artificial point of view created by locals stereotyping themselves to the notions expected by Westerners, hiding from them the real underbelly of what goes on in the port of Morocco.

So we were dropped off at the port under a brutally hot North African sun. The boat had left for Europe, and we had to kill at least four hours on this unknown continent until the next ferry.

In Tangier, the mafia has more power than the government. There is virtually no health care, and it has one of the highest HIV rates in northern Africa. The economy revolves around tourism, drug smuggling, illegal immigration, exports, the body trade and prostitution.

This kind of mayhem is what intrigued my family.

As soon as we got off the boat, our bags were sniffed by drug dogs. It was a ridiculous routine; an attempt to make it look like there was law and order. In a city of drug and weapons exports, honestly, what type contraband could we have had?

We got through the gate, and were firmly on African soil.

“Hey, hola, bonjour.”

Suddenly a stampede of fake tour guides in white robes hovered around us. They were greeting us in every language, to see which one we responded to. We continued to ignore them.

One decided to claim us. He followed us wherever we went, as is if we had set up his tour in advance.

¿Hola, de donde sois?
Speak English?
We looked past him. Quickly, he stopped in front of us to cut off our path.

“Don’t be scared, don’t be scared, I can tell you are scared,  but don’t. I will show you around, I will take you to see the best, all the best, for you.”

He stared my father in the eyes to try to look sincere, but was really staring at his euros.

He smiled to expose his peg teeth. It was the smile of a gypsy, obvious and very uncomfortable.

My father was just as determined not to have a guided tour as this middle-aged Moroccan was to give us one. He was asking for four euros, but there was no price cheap enough for a guide who was probably just going to show us where the best restaurants were.

We wanted to see Tangier for ourselves. So we kept walking. So did the guide, following us at a dangerously close distance.

We walked faster and faster, and then found ourselves in the Medina, the old bazaar, with its monolithic Arabesque architecture.

We stopped. Still, the man tailed us.

We wanted to enjoy ourselves without the pestering guide.

“What can I do to have you get away from us?” my father asked him.

“You are in Africa, and in Africa there are a lot of mosquitoes,” the guide answered.

It could have been a mistranslated phrase from Arabic. Or was he implying that he would always annoy us, pester us and buzz around us, until we could find a away to repel him?

Eventually we agreed that he would only leave if he got paid. Then, he explained that this was how he made his money: not by giving tours, but by annoying people; following them, making them uncomfortable, and eventually sucking their blood … their euros.

My father took out a euro, and waited for the man to open his hand. Suddenly, the assertive guide became what he really was: a desperate beggar. The coin dropped into his palm. Receiving it almost made his knees buckle, like a drug addict shooting up heroin. When the euro dropped into his hand, he saw it in slow motion. It was the highlight of his day.

It’s sad, that we tourists have that much power.

We walked on. Our guide vanished into the crowd like a spirit, looking for the next group.

A Table Drama

Finally, we had fresh air. But the souk was a hot cauldron of sweat. People were shoulder to shoulder, buying vegetables, dripping their sweat into columns of olives. It was hard to differentiate your sweat from the sweat of others, because the sweat was communally distributed around the market by everyone brushing against everyone else.

Outside the market we found ourselves in an old square, with a cafe and a pension above it (pension, in this context, meaning whorehouse). Suddenly a loud Arabic wall of sound erupted from one of the tables. A man was yelling at the waiter.

Kids started coming into the square to watch what would happen. People looked out of their balcony windows, hoping to see a good fight.

Eventually we figured out that they were only arguing about the bill. At the climax of the bickering, however, the angry client took the pen that the waiter had left on the table, grabbed the waiter by the neck, and attempted to stab him. The people sitting next to him stopped him, but everyone else wanted to see it happen.

The kids found this funny. Probably because he the man was using a pen and not something more threatening.

The Man without Eyes

In the side streets around midday, there was nothing going on. People were inside, with the doors open. Cats were crawling around the winding alleys, looking for dropped food.

We gave in to our hunger and settled for a food stand on a corner. When we walked up to ask for a pita, my mother felt a tap on her shoulder. Already scared by that, she turned around to look a man straight in the face.

He had one of the most grotesque faces I’d ever seen. His eyes had been recently gouged out, and there were two holes where they’d been. Inside the holes were puss and red rings of scar tissue still healing. I saw into his head.

My mother walked away from the stand without ordering, panicking and frightened. We decide to give up, to find our way back to the port.

We walked through the labyrinth of streets, some deserted, and some moving like a streams. On a crowded street in a relatively slummy market where broken electronics were being sold, a Mercedes Benz drove rapidly, not caring to stop and wait for people to get out the way.

People ran from it and tried to find some space between the car and the wall, but there was very little room, because the car was obnoxiously wide for the narrow streets. Clearly the driver was showing who was boss. The car represented power; I was sure this was the mafia I had heard about.

At last we saw the port. We were pestered by child beggars asking for money and trying to sell us unbranded cigarettes. Other children were sitting in a shady corner, passing around a hand-rolled hashish joint.

Then a mother walked up the street holding her son’shand. The other kids looked at them, too stoned to be jealous.

The boy was elaborately dressed. His mother smiled at us. She seemed quite proud of her child, and the child looked happy. They were clearly wealthier than most of the other people we’d met today. But the son did not seem spoiled; he seemed grateful for his mother’s attention.

My father asked if he could take a picture of the boy. As he snapped it, the boy smiled.

We waited for the next boat. Tired, scared, shocked and still hungry, we stood without talking, looking at the Berbers in their traditional bells and wide feathery straw hats, who had come with all their belongings piled into a wooden wagon, all the way from the desert to where Africa falls in to the Atlantic.

They came to sell homemade banged copper bracelets to tourists waiting for the boat. But there was nothing special about the bracelets, those clunky objects. When a Berber came over to me to sell me one I refused it, because the bracelet was quite ugly, and I didn’t have the energy to dig deep into my pocket. By not buying it, I got his respect.

We looked at each other, and smiled a little. Finally, he and the others gave up asking, and like the rest of the people waiting, just stared across the strait, to look at and imagine Europe.

2 comments about “Our Guides in Tangier”

  1. carole bookless says:

    It has been 20 years but I quite liked Tangiers. Compared to the rest of Morrocco it seemed laid back and easy going. No one really bothered me. I stayed a few days to get oriented and then continued on my way. Maybe it was obvious I had little money so I wasn’t bothered. The only children I remember seeing were school children in clean fresh uniforms. I have pictures of them and they seemed smiling, happy and intent on getting to school. Maybe things have changed that much in 20 years or maybe I see things differently than the author.

  2. PhillDanze says:

    Excellent read. Intriguing, confronting, and very visual. Thank you.

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