Morocco to Madrid 15: Tangier

With Europe being visible across the Strait of Gibraltar, it’s not at all. Surprising that Tangier feels a little bit European at time.  The Moroccan influence still overpowers it, to be sure, bit iif you’re looking for a “Starter’s Kit” for whether or not Morocco is for you, I think Tangier would give you a good sense.

In terms of African ports, it’d be hard to think of a more historic one.  People have been here for over two and a half centuries, it’s the closest point to Europe in the Med and is a strategic point for coming in and out of the sea.  To wit, we figured our first stop today would be the Kasbah Museum, which goes over some of the history of Tangier and its Kasbah.

As we approached the museum, a young man came up to us and said “It’s closed”, which we have learned is code for “It’s not really closed, but I want you to come with me.”  So we went to the front door and started to walk inside and…

…were stopped because it really was closed.

So, we ended up wandering around the Kasbah itself, getting some views of the sea.

We headed back into the medina afterwards, down the Petit Socco, a small square that used to be frequented by prostitutes and neer-do-wells, but now just has some shops and some colonial style balconies.  On our way through it to get some views of the sea, we passed the Spanish Church, which is actually home to Mother Teresa’s missionaries (Sisters of Calcutta), the old mosque, and then back to the square for a look around.

Now, Tangier is known for being a bit of an artist’s haven, and was big into the Beatnik culture after WWII.  There are a lot of little galleries all over the place and I had read of one called the Galerie Conil.  No idea what to expect, but I figured that, since it was the only one noted as a sight on the Lonely Planet map, it must be good.

It was good.

The exhibition was called Labyrinth by an artist known as JMH.  Like, I haven’t been able to find his real name, only the initials JMH.  The pieces were these black and white words done up like lines or mazes, with the mazes reflecting the words.  For instance, there was disobedience, which featured all straight white lines with the exception of two that crossed over (hint: they were disobeying) and the word “Disobedience” at the bottom.

The man minding the shop, whose name I could best figure was “Ahmek”, showed us the upstairs as well, which was a treasure trove of various local Moroccan artists.  There was a cute piece by an artist named Azzedine of two poorly drawn black figures linking arms and walking together with big grins on their face.

So, of course, we bough the pieces.

Or, should I say, we tried to.

I know, I know, Morocco is bleeding us dry.  But I swear, it’s good stuff we’re getting.

Anyway, on to the “tried to”.  We weren’t going to be able to take the JMH piece home, so it would have to be shipped by DHL, which meant there was no way it was getting purchased on anything but plastic, because accountability.  We tried to run our card through the machine at the shop a few times.  No dice.  Ahmek’s friend who was trying to help him said it was because “Visa was busy”, which showed me that his friend obviously knew nothing about how credit cards work.  Going with the “busy” idea, though, we said we’d try later that afternoon when it wasn’t busy.  This led us to a tour of the friend’s nearby shop, which was more of a polite walkthrough, before we settled down in Petit Socco for some lunch,a pair of shockingly cheap and delicious hamburgers.

While we were eating, I also called Visa to establish that, no, they weren’t too busy to accept money.  Which is always good to know.

We kept on wandering after lunch.  Our next destination was the American Legation, which holds the distinction of being the first ever public property held by the United States outside of the United States.  Lots of fascinating history inside, including a letter from George Washington to the Sultan of Morocco, a letter of emancipation from Lincoln’s Secretary of State that freed a prince from Guinea that was captured in a war and sold as a slave, and then shipped to Missouri, and a beautiful picture known as the “Mona Lisa of Morocco.’  It provides a fascinating glimpse into US-Moroccan relations and early US foreign relations – Morocco was one of the first countries to recognize the States as their own separate country.  Also interesting is the nearby Lorin  Museum, which shows pictures and posters from Tangier’s early days.

We took a loop through the new town near the Grand Sacco, over to a terrasse where you could have seen Europe on a clear day, and then past an old Anglican church with (supposedly) odd phrases on its tombstones, which we couldn’t see because, well, we couldn’t find the entrance and I wasn’t feeling too motivated at that point.

On the way, we stopped for some gelato and I was approached by a very sketchy man who asked me if I remember him because “I work at your hotel.”  No, no you do not, so we kept walking.  We also ran into a guy who told us to “Give me your Euros”, in what was either the worst attempt at a mugging, or worst attempt at panhandling.  Either way, no.

See, here’s the thing you have to realize about Morocco, and the reason I say it’s a little bit like Europe.  There is poverty, there is panhandling, there are touts, there are lots of people trying to separate you from your money.  Ultimately, though, the majority of those people are harmless.  You’re going to get hassled but you’re not going to get hurt.  Sometimes, though, you meet somebody who is a little more sketchy than others.

It was at this time that we met Mohammed.

We were less than a minute from our hotel when this guy jumps out from a spice store and asks me to look inside.  I say no thank you, and he proceeds to follow me and start telling me about his “three wives”, the first of which was American, the second of which was Polish, and the third was probably as imaginary as the first two, because this guy does not the money to support three wives if he’s touting at a spice shop.  He keeps insisting we’re American, even though we’ve told him we’re not, and asking where we’re staying.

Now, this is not an uncommon question in Morocco, but there was something about this guy that made me want to avoid giving him the answer.  Problem was, we were so close to where we were, there was no real way to do that.  Daina walked past our hotel and tried to buy some chips, and took an intentionally looooong time choosing so the guy would get the hint.  Nothing.  Eventually, we just went back to our hotel and he jokingly said “I know now!”

Big whoopedie doo!

We took a couple minutes rest to get ourselves back together, as it had been a long day, but we still needed to get back to the Conil Gallery to try and buy that art piece.  We found Ahmek walking between the galleries (they actually have two) and made our way back to the gallery to attempt the purchase.

Once again in Tangier, it gets weird.

Ahmek says the reason the Visa didn’t work before is because “we need to recharge the phone”.  At which point he takes the phone out of the charger and walks down the street with it.


What… the…. F!

So we’re sitting in the gallery waiting for the “phone to recharge” when this older gentleman with white hair comes in and begins speaking French to us.  He’s obviously not Moroccan, fairly fashionably dressed, and I figure maybe he’s another guy looking to buy some art.

Turns out, he’s the guy who made the art.

Enter, JMH!

While we’re waiting for the “phone to recharge”, we get the guy’s life story, about he he started off as an architect, artist and sculptor, but then being an architect took over, so once his kids were done school and out of the house, he quit, packed up his things and moved to Tangier to become an artist full-time.  Daina fawned over his work and even got him to sign the page of an artist portfolio that he allowed us to keep, the page with disobedience on it.

At this point, a woman comes in, also French, with a small slip of plastic with numbers on it.  Ahmek follows, and she says she needs a dirham from him.  She starts scratching the paper and looking for a number to dial into the phone, and at this point I realize that “recharge the phone” doesn’t mean what I thought it mean.  Apparently, this land-line is a “Pay-As-You-Go” deal and they had to add more minutes to it.  Problem was, nobody knew what number to dial to do this.  They kept arguing about whether it was Meditel or another company that sounded like Meknes, and dialing “515” to put it in.  Nothing was working.

The show was entertaining as hell, as Ahmek and the French Lady yelled at each other, while JMH offered his suggestions before politely (and smartly) excusing himself.  They mentioned that “Olivier”, who we found out was Olivier Conil, owner of the gallery, usually does all this, but he was in the nearby port of Ceuta dealing with an order and nobody could reach him.  This comedy continued for a bit, calls were made, and nothing was happening.

Suddenly, a man in a white linen shirt and messy brown hair comes into the gallery, causing the French Lady to excitedly proclaim “Ah, Olivier!”

Yes, enter, Olivier.

Long story short (but not really), Olivier was the man to figure it out.  Turns out they had been dialing the wrong phone company to recharge, but they finally got it recharged, the money finally went through, and all was right.  We had just bought the art of a Frenchman from a gallery in Tangier.  Maybe the classiest thing we’ve ever done, done in a way that was the most convoluted way possible.

After checking and double checking receipts and shipping information, we started the walk back to our hotel.  Daina got sucked into a souvenir shop and, out of nowhere, was Mohammed.  He recognized us as “The Canadians” and started hassling the shop owner to make it seem like he had brought us to him, even though he had nothing to do with it.  Obviously, he was hoping for a commission.  While Daina was negotiating, I sat down and Mohammed sat down next to me, really getting insistent with the begging, getting his fact maybe four inches from mine asking for just a few Euros.  I did my best to ignore him and talk shop with Daina, and just when it looked like Mohammed got the message, he was back at it again.  Daina came to an agreement with the owner on a price, at which point Mohammed insisted he was part of the negotiation.  The shop owner even scoffed at him.  He again started to follow us, saying, “Canadians are such nice people, please give me Euros.”

At this point, I showed exactly how nicely we can tell somebody off.

I gave him a glance and said, “Here’s the thing.  Canadians are really nice people, but we also don’t like to be followed, and you haven’t stopped following us either time you’ve seen us.”  He retorts, “Okay, I will stop following you, just give me some Euros”.  I look at him and say “That would be rewarding you for doing what we don’t like, so no.  Goodbye.”  He then tries to go to Daina and say “Want to know how much that thing you bought really cost.”  Daina says “No, not interested, have a good day” and the guy buggers off.

We headed back to the hotel for a longer rest this time before making a decision on dinner.  Zak, the kid who works at our hotel desk, tells us he has a friend who has a restaurant with a terrace with a nice view, and that it’s his mom in the kitchen making dinner.  We figure “Why not?” and make our way over to him.

It was a beautiful view on a nice terrace, occasionally interrupted by some trolls on another roof shining a laser pointer at us and other people around the town.  We had some good chicken pastilla, decent tagine, some soup and melon for desert.  While we were up there, we hear voices coming up the stairs and a startled “Oh, hello!”

It was Mohammed!

He had found some unsuspecting traveler in the medina, had latched onto him and had led him to this “traditional Moroccan restaurant” with a good terrace view.  You could tell that this guy was obviously over Mohammed in the same way we were as they walked away from the terrace.

This, of course, raised a small flag in our heads.  If some sketchy guy like Mohammed was here, then where was here.

At this point, the kid bringing us dinner tells us that our tea was ready “in the salon.”

We had seen a “salon” on the way up, and it looked comfortable, so we wandered back down and looked at the tables… no tea.  The kid points us to a different set of stairs and says “the salon is this way.”

Within two steps, we saw a carpet on the damn wall, followed by more carpets, followed by a FREAKING CARPET SHOP UNDER THE RESTAURANT.

The tea was there, so we start drinking, hoping against hope, that there wasn’t going to be a “demonstration.”  So, of course, in comes an older gentleman to tell us all about the carpets.  I nearly burst out laughing until Daina mentioned that one of them would look great on our coffee table, at which point I shot him a death glare.  This did not need to continue any longer.

Eventually, we were able to extricate ourselves from the sales pitch and head back to the hotel.

Like, what the hell, Tangier?

I guess it makes sense that our last day in Morocco would be the one where we had the most random stuff thrown at us.  It’s like the country wanted to remind us, “Hey, we’re pretty awesome, but can also be kind of difficult at times.  Why don’t we talk about it over a tea and a carpet demonstration.”

Tomorrow, hopefully, less hassle in Europe as we cross the Strait into Spain!

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