My sister and I have been planning a trip together for years.
It has always been a trip through Africa. She loves Africa — has lived there for three years, and studied there for half of one.
When I tell her that Africa is too large to call by one name, she reminds me that she knows more of the continent than I do. And, she adds — the immensity is reason enough to keep returning.
After four years of this back-and-forth, one or the other of us backing out, we are here. We landed on the Northern tip of the continent — Tangier, Morocco.
Tangiers is a name drenched in history.
‘Burroughs is in Tangiers/ I don’t think he’ll come back.’
Alan Ginsberg wrote that in “Howl,” a book of poetry I have carried with me for years. I left it behind this trip. There’s nothing good to be found dwelling in the past.
Although in many ways, setting foot into Morocco feels strangely like traveling into the past. Despite the close proximity to Europe — you can see Spain from Tangiers — this is a different world.
Here the motto is “God, Country, King.” It is written everywhere, inscribed on photos and documents and scribbled across huge dams in the beautiful sweeping curves of written Arabic script.
Walking down the street, you may find yourself briefly startled by the sirens of the mosques calling: Allahu Akbar — but not for too long. Soon, it is a part of daily life. A way to keep the time. A reminder: god is great.
That’s a simple view of Morocco, of course. A sweeping stroke of the brush — first impressions, the beginning of a portrait.
“Basically: this country has two types of people,” says Medhi, “ our first Moroccan friend in Tangiers. A young guy, progressive and educated, he feels constricted in his country. “The cool ones, and the ones that want to run your life.”
He adds: “There is no in between.”
If you are a tourist in Morocco, it seems you can do anything you want. No one wants to run your life. They just want your money.
It is an Islamic society, but even in the smaller towns, beer can be had from a place that’s not too sleazy, and it even comes in the proper bottles. A mining engineer, traveling up from Mauritania, tells us that there, you’ll be served your liquor in olive oil bottles — if you dare to drink.
In Morocco, western tourists — and increasing numbers of Asians — are everywhere. You will find them walking the streets in large groups, laughing, talking in English, blonde hair and booty shorts. Some of them seem to pay attention to the culture, but for most, it seems to be a fun diversion — a way to break up the monotony of the Eurozone.
“I’m just here to reset my Schengen days,” is a phrase you’ll hear a lot in Morocco.
“Morocco is not Africa” is also a phrase you’ll hear a lot in Morocco.
It certainly feels a lot more Arab than African. And amongst the tourists, you can almost sense a feeling of Morocco as some exotic, distant cousin of Europe.
In line at the pharmacy, two British women in front of me try fruitlessly to ask the Moroccan pharmacist for iron supplements. They ask me for help, I shrug my shoulders and say: I do speak English, but I don’t speak French or Arabic. I can’t help you much.
Moments later, we cross paths on the street again. I couldn’t get what I wanted either. The pharmacist, lacking my language, did not agree with my self-diagnosis. I think I have schistosomiasis, I tell the women. A water-borne parasite.
You get that in Africa, they say, before realizing — well, I guess we are in Africa!
(I’m fine mom!)
Christina agrees: Morocco is not Africa.
It is not what she knows.
After four years of working at home in Colorado, the polar change has thrown her equilibrium a bit out of whack.
Morocco is Africa, but it is not her Africa.
It is not the progressive capital of Kampala, Uganda, where she studied for a semester. Nor is it the desolate, forgotten territory of French West Africa, where she served three years in the Peace Corps. Morocco is an in-between place, not so advanced as to not need Europe, not so far in the dust as to be forgotten, as in Benin.
So here we are, caught between the old and the new.
Hope you’ll follow along.