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Jo'Burg Days: Two Days In Tangiers

Barbara Durlacher, in a column which begins with menace but ends in delight, paints a colourful word picture of Tangiers.

The ferry lurched furiously, huge seas crashing against her sides. Although the weather had been reasonably calm leaving Gibraltar, the storm and fury had increased steadily as the vessel entered the Straights. By now the passengers were suffering the effects and there were few people on deck or in the public rooms.

Head over the bowl, retching on an empty stomach, seasickness held her firmly in its grip. Frightened and alone, all she wanted was to get back to dry land. What on earth had persuaded her to make this crazy decision to visit Morocco on a day pass? “I’m taking the next boat back as soon as we reach port!” she decided, her stomach heaving once more. After what seemed hours, the ship docked in Tangiers, and she tottered weakly ashore. All further sailings were cancelled due to the storm; she would have to spend the night in the town.

The storm was clearing, but a fine rain was falling, bathing the scene in watercolour greens and greys illuminated by the last rays of the setting sun. The taxi overtook a figure in a burnoose, seated side saddle on a tiny donkey. Wars had changed the faces of North African cities; a desperate battle had been fought in the Western Desert by the British and Germans, but that scene was as old as the Bible.

By the time they reached town, dusk was falling and her first priority was to find somewhere to sleep. Her arrival had been noticed and she was marked down as a stranger.

Soon a gaggle of small boys was following her, “Wanna guide, lady? Wanna boyfriend?

“Chewing gum … baksheesh!! We changa your money, give you good rate, better than the bank!”

“No! Go away” she said firmly, but when they refused to leave, “OK, then take me to a cheap hotel.”

After many whispered consultations, she was led deeper and deeper, down narrow twisting alleys further and further into the souk. Apprehension twisting her guts, she realised that as a young single woman in a Moslem country she was fair game and that anything could happen. As the walk continued, her fears grew stronger. Maybe she should break away from the boys and find her way back to the main shopping area where there were still a few people about. If she left it longer, “They might be taking me to a brothel or a White Slaver’s Den” she thought, horrified. “Anything can happen, and I’ll never be able to escape!”

Finally, after interminable twists and turns, the biggest boy banged on a heavily carved door set in a whitewashed wall. After repeated knocking, the door was slowly opened to reveal a dark, mysterious room lit by the yellow glow of an oil lamp set below desk level. The illumination threw into sharp relief the face of a negro wearing a red fez, his huge black shadow outlined on the wall behind, heightening the dread that now gripped her.

She shivered at the air of menace that seemed to pervade the room, while the blackness outside was frightening. She felt bewildered by the walk through the souk, “I’m so tired after the rough voyage, and that awful seasickness” she thought, “I don’t even know if I could run away”.

Abruptly the Negro demanded her passport, slowly turned the pages and wrote down a few details. Then, locking it firmly into a drawer, he pocketed the key. ‘You come with me’, he commanded, starting to climb the stairs. Stopping at a door, he handed her the key and heart thumping, she entered and quickly locked the door.

“Better put this chair under the handle, and hope it’ll keep intruders out,” she thought, wedging it firmly. Crossing to the window, she closed and barred the wooden shutters and, feeling very frightened and regretting her impulsive decision, she wondered what had impelled her to take a day trip to Tangiers; this city with such a bad reputation for drugs, smugglers, and the “White Slave Traffic”.

Momentarily expecting to be dragged screaming from the room, exaggerated stories rushed through her mind. Too frightened to sleep, she lay on the bed. “Won’t turn the light off, better give myself a chance to see my abductors, if anything happens,” she decided, leaving the dull 20-watt bulb to burn through the night.

Afraid of what the dark might bring, she kept her money, watch and return ticket strapped to her waist, and lay fully dressed, determined not to drop off, waiting for daylight. Time passed slowly, filled with her agitated fears and her determination to return to Gibraltar the following day.

Hours later, she was woken from a deep sleep by a tinny banging and knocking. Leaping up she opened the shutters. Bright sunlight and blue skies greeted her. Peering into the gloom of the narrow street she saw the source. A small herd of brown and white goats were delicately picking their way along the alley, munching cigarette packets, orange rinds, banana skins, cigarette ends and anything edible. The Middle East’s answer to a refuse removal service, it comes with a built-in re-cycling system. The tinny banging came from the bells around their necks and the knocking was their insistent kicking against the wooden doors begging for scraps of stale bread from the housewives.

Not long after her rude awakening, she heard a scratching at the door. Removing her primitive safety measures, she opened it to see a small boy. “Bonjour Madame” he cheerfully wished her, as he motioned her to follow him. “Oh, heavens, I wonder what now?” she thought as she complied. Using sign language, he led her up to the roof.

Here she discovered a charming scene of gaily-decorated breakfast tables under colourful sun umbrellas. Small posies of fresh flowers ornamented each table, large jugs of orange juice, beautiful golden croissants, fruit and Cooper’s Oxford Marmalade waited on the buffet; a chef in a high white cap flipped eggs on a grill, and smiling waiters in red fezzes and white “khansus” stood ready for orders.

Mewing seagulls paced the parapet, and far out she could see the mirror-flat sea with a couple of freighters waiting to enter harbour. In contrast to yesterday’s terrifying gale, the sea this morning was docile and quiet, reflecting nothing of the previous storm.

Amazing as it might seem, the frightening place of the night before was not the local brothel, nor was it the headquarters of the Tangiers branch of “White Slaver’s Unlimited” ready to abduct her and sweep her off to life imprisonment in a sheik’s harem.

The place the small boys had so carefully conducted her to the previous night was a charming and well-run package tour hotel, geared up for tourists. Like all visitors on package holidays to the Costa del Sol or the former French Morocco, they arrived ‘raring to go’ and ready to enjoy every moment of an inexpensive holiday in Tangiers. Here they expected to find the beer, the babes and the beaches shown so enticingly in the travel agent’s brochures, and the hotel was doing it’s best to live up to their expectations!

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