Tangier, Morocco: Having passed the night in Gibraltar, Vi and I took the ferry across the Strait to Tangier in a state of grave trepidation, I more than she. We were going into the dark heartland of Islamic barbarity. I knew what Moslems were, having listened to the Republican candidates for the presidency, and I was obviously an American. There was no doubt about it: They would hate me for my freedoms, and perhaps blow me up. Yet such was my passion for journalism that I was going to risk it. I am that sort of man.
The day was mercifully warm after the chill greyness of Madrid, the sky blue and cloudless. The other passengers in the lounge were mostly Arabs. I watched them carefully. I knew that at any moment they might draw their scimitars and behead me for my freedoms.
We docked at the Port of Tangier, passed through passport control with suspicious ease, and caught a taxi for the long ride along the coast to Tangier proper. The driver was named Abdulah. I would soon conclude that all Moslems were named Abdullah. He was a roundish balding fellow in his mid-forties and looked as though he should have been a pizza chef in Brooklyn but had somehow missed his calling. He liked to talk and did so in good if not elegant Spanish.
Yes, he said, times were bad. The economy was wretched. In Morocco the politicians were corrupt bastards, he said, which was the root of the problem. I said that we had the same difficulty in the United States. Violeta, not inclined to allow Mexico to be diminished by comparison, asserted that her country’s cabrones politicos were as corrupt as any that Abdulah and I might present in evidence. Having established our common humanity, we rode on in peace. I’m not sure Abdulah even had a scimitar.
We checked into the Continental Hotel, the name being grander than the establishment. It seemed to have been left over from earlier times, with gorgeous Arabian interiors and wireless internet. Seaward, it overlooked expansive rubble, a concrete desert that might have been a parking lot, and the Mediterranean.
The staff were helpful and courteous, as nearly all people are nearly everywhere. I had read on websites dedicated to genetic speculation that Moslems were of low intelligence. In Tangier they characteristically expressed this inferiority by speaking five languages. The hotel staff recommended a guide, named Abdulah, associated with the hotel, for whose honesty they could vouch. Off we went.
The modern parts of Tangier are like the modern parts of anywhere, but the old city is a joy. There are twisting lanes sometimes only a yard wide, overhung by the second stories of building built God knows when, and blank doors through which sometimes one saw gorgeous interiors of Arabesque ornamentation, or sometimes simple poverty. In such places people had lived since Roman times and before.
Women walked about entirely covered, except for a narrow eye slit, often in brilliant green or magenta silk-looking stuff. They appeared to be about to pupate. Countless stalls sold countless things. We walked along a narrow sloping lane lined by the shops of goldsmiths. “The Jewish quarter,” said Abdulah. Oh, I thought, and asked whether there was trouble with Jews in Tangier. Nah, he said. We’ve got everything here, Jews, Christians, French, Armenians, whatever. Nobody worries about it.
I was astonished, and felt betrayed. I wanted to say, “Now see here, Abdulah. You are not playing straight with us. You are taking advantage of the ignorance of poor innocent foreigners. You don’t behead Jews, and you don’t behead Americans. Then who do you behead? That’s what I want to know.”
But I didn’t say it. I didn’t want to incite him.
Left: Fred and Vi, 17 days into two-month trek across the trackless Sahara, under constant attack by terrorist Berbers, or perhaps Barbers, or maybe Beri Beris. Ignore Mediterranean: This column has no respect for geography. Note bloody bandage on Fred’s head from scimitar slash. Camel is named Clyde.
Now, something that all guides do all over the world is take you to places designed to skin tourists, for which they receive a cut from the merchant. There is no escaping. The stores they take you to always are the cheapest, with the best goods, with the highest quality of authentic local merchandise that China can make. The vender will tell you that he is actually taking a loss, such is his esteem for your taste and obvious good character. Thus Vi and I ended up at a rug-merchantry off a winding spaghetti alley out of the Arabian Nights. The owner was probably named Abdulah.
He began by welcoming us to his humble shop, which wasn’t, in rapid and nearly perfect English which sounded as though it might have come out of New York. Would we like tea? Several apparently mute employees ran for it. Ah, Violeta was from Mexico? He switched to good Spanish. Would we like to see some rugs? Just from curiosity, of course. He never pressured anyone to buy. Just as the sun never rose in the east, I thought.
For an hour Adbulah gestured and his workers silently unrolled rugs on the floor. Abdulah didn’t have a Democrat’s chance in Orange County of selling us a rug, but I didn’t want to make that too clear just yet. I wanted to see his wares. Nobody equals Arabs in ruggery, a high form of art, and Abdulah had lovely examples. Unfortunately we didn’t have lovely money in adequate amounts.
In the other part of Abdulah’s store, which sold everything from hookahs to jewelry, Vi found some shawls she liked. Seeing this, the staff set upon her like defense contractors upon the public treasury. The shawls, they assured her, cost only some amount. A good price, they assured her. A steal.
Vi hesitated, said not now, maybe tomorrow, but she had betrayed her interest. Ah, we give you discount, how about so much? Vi hesitated again, almost…no, no. Ah, well, maybe so much. At this price my children will starve, but for you….
Finally she named a price so low that the salesman looked at the manager for permission. The manager nodded almost imperceptibly. Deal. She had out-Arabbed the Arabs. I was proud.
On our last night in Tangier, we sallied forth from the hotel into the tangled lanes nearby in search of supper. Small shops sold fish fries and potato patties, milk and cheese and sweets. People were perfectly friendly, and showed no disposition to kill us for our freedoms. Perhaps they realized that we no longer had that many. Back in our hotel room we feasted contentedly and asked the desk clerk to wake us up in time to pack. I didn’t catch his name, but I think it was Abdulah.
All original material © Violeta de Jesus Gonzalez Munguia