Never in my life have I observed anything more bizarre than the first sight of Tangier. It is a tale out of the Thousand and One Nights… A prodigious mix of races and costumes…This whole world moves about with an activity that seems feverish.
— Eugène Delacroix, in a letter to Alexis de Tocqueville
It’s midday in Tangier, Morocco. I am standing at the Tanja Marina Bay, Morocco’s first urban marina gazing into the blue waters of the Mediterranean as its freezing breeze carry to me, historic smells and sounds of this ancient and historical land.
And despite the slanting midday sun, the cold weather persists. Far in the distance, lies Spain, separated from Tangier by a mere 20 miles of the Strait of Gibraltar.
On a clear day, am told, one can see the whitewashed Spanish town of Tarifa, just 45 minutes away by ferry. In addition, the north Moroccan coast is less than 10 miles from some Spanish holiday beaches.
It is Spain’s proximity to Tangier that has made the country a popular target of many African migrants, Nigerians inclusive, eager to escape to Europe.
According to Reuters, Tangier is the latest springboard for African migrants trying to make it across the Mediterranean to Europe. Its importance has grown recently since Italy began closing its ports to migrants rescued at sea.
According to official figures, as of May 2019, Morocco had stopped 30,000 people from illegally crossing to Spain and busted 60 migrant trafficking networks.
At the Nigerian Embassy in Rabat, Embassy Officials inundated me with stories of some desperate Nigerians who come all the way to Tangier in attempts to cross into Europe. ‘’We are often called out to take care of these Nigerians any time they are caught by Moroccan authorities’’ my sources confirmed.
This is more so because Morocco is paid by the European Union to help keep off migrants from crossing into Europe. And the way Morocco does, it is not really of concern to European nations, specifically Spain.
It is on record that the President of Tangier region, Ilyas El Omari, recently urged the EU to help Morocco and his region integrate migrants through training programs and investment to create jobs and avoid tension between locals and migrants. This plea led to the EU’s promise last year to give 140 million euros in border management aid to Morocco.
I had come to Tangier as part of the Conference of Union of Writers From Africa, Asia and Latin America on an excursion to what is generally regarded as Morocco’s Literary capital.
After Rabat and Casablanca, it was only expected that my group of multi lingual writers must touch base with the city that had once attracted ‘eccentric foreigners, artists, writers and spies’.
History has it that when Count de Mornay travelled to Morocco in 1832 to establish a treaty supportive of the recent French annexation of Algeria, he took along the Romantic painter Eugène Delacroix.
Delacroix not only revelled in the orientalism of the place; he also took it as a new and living model for his works on classical antiquity.
Around the same time, a circle of writers emerged which was to have a profound and lasting literary influence.
This included Paul Bowles, who lived and wrote for over half a century in the city, Tennessee Williams and Jean Genet as well as Mohamed Choukri (one of North Africa‘s most controversial and widely read authors), Abdeslam Boulaich, Larbi Layachi, Mohammed Mrabet and Ahmed Yacoubi.
Among the best known works from this period is Choukri’s For Bread Alone. Originally written in Classical Arabic, the English edition was the result of close collaboration with Bowles (who worked with Choukri to provide the translation and supplied the introduction).
Tangier is the latest springboard for African migrants trying to make it across the Mediterranean to Europe.
Tennessee Williams described it as “a true document of human desperation, shattering in its impact.” Independently, William S. Burroughs lived in Tangier for four years and wrote Naked Lunch, whose locale of Interzone is an allusion to the city.
Located on the Strait of Gibraltar where Africa meets Europe, Tangier has long held strategic importance.
Ruled through the centuries by waves of conquerors including Romans, Vandals, Byzantines, Arabs and Portuguese, the city is more than two and a half millennia old, making it one of North Africa’s most ancient. In the last century, Tangier became a hot spot for the international jet set.
We were many that departed the lobby of the Golden Tulip Farah Hotel in Rabat, Morocco that rainy and cold morning. Writers of all ages and genders from different backgrounds and nationalities, all united by the love of the written word.
Having been ensconced in the Hotel’s Conference Hall for days, it was time for the multilingual group of writers from Africa, Asia and Latin America to visit the Moroccan Literary capital of Tangier.
As our heated bus glided along the well laid Rabat roads for the three kilometre trip to the Rabat-Agdal Railway Station, the cosy interior of the bus was a welcome relief to the frosty outdoor weather.
As we later boarded the Al Borak, Africa’s first high speed train for the one hour and ten minutes journey to Tangier, we congregated into small clumps of writers based on our language proficiency.
It was okay in the conference hall where interpreters via headphones made communication easy. However, matters were different in the train where communication was limited among some writers to half gestures, nodding of heads and hand signals.
It was the need for a better communication that made some writers to congregate into small clumps of writers based on their language background.
And while the Arabic speaking writers who were mainly from Lebanon, Egypt, Jordan and Morocco sat together, those from Asia sought refuge among writers from Bangladesh, Afghanistan and Nepal.
The Vietnamese writers sat together just as the writers from the French speaking African countries of Ivory Coast, Senegal and Cameroun. However, some writers were polyglots and so, could mix freely.
Seeing writers such as the Pakistani, Imdad Aakash, the Nepalese Yug Pathak, the Russian Oleg Bavykin as well as our Administrative Secretary, Randa Barakat from Egypt, among others switching effortlessly from their native languages to French, English and Arabic humbled me.
I soon found myself sharing train seats with the witty and humorous Pakistani poet and bookseller, Imadad Aakash, with whom I quickly struck a warm relationship.
When he learnt that I successfully straddle the tripod of Literature, medicine and politics his bemused eyes lit up as he asked, “When do you sleep?”
The first of its kind on the African continent, the Al-Boraq is a 323-kilometre-long high-speed rail service between Casablanca and Tangier, operated by ONCF in Morocco.
While the Al-Boraq may appear to be very impressive, some Moroccans were not happy with the train system which reputably cost the Moroccan government a whopping $2 billion.
The train, inaugurated by Morocco’s King Mohammed VI and French President Emmanuel Macron in November 2018, runs at speeds of up to 320km/h between the glossy new Tanger Gare and Casa Voyageurs stations, stopping at the industrial city of Kenitra and the capital Rabat before going on to sprawling and magnificent Casablanca.
King Mohammed VI named the high-speed service Al-Boraq in reference to the mythical creature that transported the Islamic prophets, notably the Prophet Muhammad from Mecca to Jerusalem during the night journey.
We travelled in the air-conditioned First Class cabin with its plush comfortable seats, abundant leg room, and an interior design that evoked the golden age of rail.
Down the end of the carriage was a television screen that constantly displayed messages in French and Arabic including information about the train’s speed. Everything about the train was impressive.
However, while the Al-Boraq may appear to be very impressive, some Moroccans were not happy with the train system which reputably cost the Moroccan government a whopping $2 billion.
Apart from the belief that the train is an expensive folly whose funds would have been better spent on overcrowded schools or the overtaxed medical system, this group of Moroccans even questioned the economic viability of the heavily subsidised transport system .
On the other hand, the train’s proponents, praised the Moroccan government for the high tech modern marvel. Their belief is that the benefits of having such a futuristic infrastructure will “trickle down” to the rest of Morocco.
This group of proponents also believe that in addition to the remarkable gain in travel time, the Tangier-Casablanca High Speed Line will bring cities closer together and speed up mobility between the two metropolitan areas.
In addition, it is believed that the project will contribute to the development of national expertise and know-how, and promote the transfer of skills and initiating the development of a local rail ecosystem that will have a regional or even continental impact.
Everything I have heard about Tangier was true, except that the city was even more beautiful than I had imagined.
After a reception at the Press House where officials of the local writers association gave us some insight into the current works of Moroccan Writers, we went on sight- seeing.
Tangier is a fascinating Moroccan city to visit. It has many of the things that travellers love–a sense of exotic mystery, interesting history, beautiful vistas, and unspoiled beaches.
Our first visit was to the Medina (Old City) where amidst its beautiful labyrinthine, we savoured artisans who specialised in leather works, handicrafts made from wood and silver, traditional clothing, and Moroccan-style shoes.
It is easy to lose one self in the labyrinthine medina, however, before this happened, some of us decided to take a walk along the beach alongside the famous Avenue Mohamed VI. As I breathed in the rarefied sea wind, I did a symbolic dipping of my bare feet in the Mediterranean sea as a form of tribute to fellow troubadours who had come before me.
The Tangier American Legation Museum (TALM), a thriving cultural centre, museum, conference centre and library in the heart of the old medina was another stop for me.
Housed in the only historic landmark of the United States located abroad, the museum exhibits a large collection of art and historical items. It also has a Paul Bowles Wing dedicated to the writer and composer who lived most of his adult life in Tangier.
It would have been a good idea to pay tribute to a fellow traveller but time constraints did not allow me to visit the Tomb of Ibn Battouta, a famous 14th century traveller who was born in Tangier.
Lunch was at the open-air Café Hafa, a Tangier icon, the almost-century-old cafe made up of tiers of whitewashed balconies that cascaded down a steep hillside toward the Mediterranean, opening panoramic views of the sea and far in the horizon, the nation of Spain.
Already famished by the long walk along the beach and the rarefied sea air, I tackled the grilled salmon, mashed potatoes and salad meal with a hearty gusto.
Moments later, filled to the brim with the gastronomic exercise, we all waddled back to the bus for the short trip to the Gare Tangier Ville Railway Station to embark on our return trip to Rabat.
Back in the everything I had heard about Tangier was true, except that the city was even more beautiful than I had imagined. We commenced our return trip as the beautiful masterpiece of technology nosed its way towards Rabat.
Just after the industrial city of Kenitra, inspired by the relaxed atmosphere of the wonderful trip and a hearty lunch with copious amount of drinks, a sonorous voice from the far corner of our coach raised a beautiful song in Arabic. He was quickly joined by other voices mainly those of the writers from Egypt, Morocco, Lebanon, Jordan and Palestine.
The song was accompanied by measured and stimulating clapping of hands. Before long, the whole coach became enraptured by the melodious song which I was told, was a popular love song by a popular Arabic musician.
Tolstoy said, “Music is the shorthand of emotion,” and he is right. Music exists outside language. The instantaneous emotional resonance of a song will always come to the fore irrespective of the language in which the song is rendered.
Before I knew it, those of us who did not even understand Arabic soon joined the reverie with our clapping and the nodding of our heads. Inspired by the persistent stirring of the melodious music, some writers had moved to the aisle of the coach where they swayed and gyrated to the music.
We were still singing and clapping and dancing as the train later crawled into the Rabat-Agdal Railway Station half an hour later. It was a befitting end to a beautiful train journey.
*Dr Wale Okediran, an award-winning novelist, travel writer and former parliamentarian, is the Secretary General of the Pan African Writers Association (PAWA).