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Jo'Burg Days: Two Days In Tangiers

…The taxi passed a tiny donkey with a figure sitting sideways, covered from head to foot in a burnoose with only a pair of dark eyes showing… Barbara Durlacher writes of a colourful, suspenseful and unexpected overnight stay in Tangiers.

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

Head over the bowl, retching on an empty stomach, seasickness had her firmly in its grip. Frightened and alone, all she wanted was to get back to dry land. What on earth had made her decide to visit Morocco on a day pass? ‘As soon as we dock, I’m getting on the next boat back to Gibraltar’ she vowed, ignoring the fact that would double her discomfort and sea-sickness instead of alleviating it.

At last, after what seemed hours, the ship docked in Tangiers and she tottered ashore. Due to the storm, no further sailings were scheduled. With dread she realised she would have to spend the night there.

The worst of the storm was over but a fine rain was failing, bathing the scene in watercolour greens and greys. Softly illuminated by the last rays of the setting sun, the town looked like something out of ‘Aladdin’s Tales.’ The taxi passed a tiny donkey with a figure sitting sideways, covered from head to foot in a burnoose with only a pair of dark eyes showing. Wars had changed the faces of cities; and a desperate battle had been waged in the Western Desert by the British and Germans, but there was a scene from the Bible.

By the time the taxi reached the town, dusk was falling and her first priority was to find somewhere to sleep. Her arrival had been noticed and she was marked as a stranger. Soon a gaggle of small boys was following her, offering their help. They offered to change her English pounds for Moroccan Dirhams insisting that their rates were better than the banks. Not trusting them, she insisted instead that they take her 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, for all she knew they might be conducting her to a brothel or a ‘White Slaver’s’ den. Then escape would be impossible.

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, heightening the dread that gripped her. An air of menace seemed to pervade the room, and this, together with the blackness of the night outside, the long bewildering walk through the Souk, her weariness after the rough voyage, and the awful seasickness increased her feeling of dread.

Negligently he demanded her passport, slowly turned the pages and entered the necessary details in a ledger. He then firmly locked the passport in a drawer and pocketed the key. Only then did he consent to show her the room. Heart thumping, she took the key from him, entered and quickly locked the door. She placed a chair under the handle hoping to keep out intruders. Crossing to the window, she closed and barred the wooden shutters and, feeling very frightened and regretting her impulsive decision to take a day trip to Tangiers, she rued the impulse to visit this city with such a bad reputation for drugs, smugglers, and the ‘White Slave Traffic.’

Momentarily expecting to be dragged out screaming, all the stories she had been told rushed through her mind. Too frightened to sleep, she lay on the bed 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 around her waist and lay fully dressed to wait until daylight. Time passed slowly, filled with her longing for daylight, and her determination to return to Gibraltar the following day.

Some hours later, she was woken after a restless night by a tinny banging and knocking. Leaping up she opened the shutters. Bright sunlight and blue skies greeted her eyes. Glancing into the gloom of the narrow street she saw the source of the noise. A small herd of brown and white goats were delicately picking their way along the alley, munching cigarette packets, orange rinds, banana skins, fag ends and anything edible. The Middle East’s answer to a refuse removal service, it is one that 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.

Not long after her rude awakening, a scratching at her door alerted her once again and, removing her primitive safety measures, she opened it to see a small boy. Cheerfully wishing her “Good morning” he motioned her to follow him. Wondering what further dangers could lie in wait for her, she doubtfully obeyed. Using sign language, he led her up to the roof, where she discovered a charming scene of gaily dressed tables under colourful sun umbrellas set for breakfast. Small posies of fresh flowers decorated each table, large jugs of orange juice, croissants, and even Cooper’s Oxford Marmalade filled the buffet table, while smiling waiters in red fezzes and white “khansus” stood ready to take the guest’s orders.

Mewing seagulls paced the parapet in the sunlight, 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 the quick turnaround of weekly plane-loads of holiday tourists from Britain.

Like all tourists on package holidays to the Costa del Sol or the former Spanish Morocco, they arrived raring to go and ready to enjoy every moment of a cheap holiday in Tangiers. Like all tourists, they expected to find the beer, the babes and the beaches as enticing as in the travel agent’s brochures, and hotel “Bab el Mansour” was doing everything it could to come up to scratch.

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