Sunday, 6 March 2011


My first-ever visit to Africa was extremely short, but with such a surrealist element to it that it has remained in my memory ever since. I had signed up for a tour of southern Spain, to Granada, Cordova and Seville (all richly deserving of a visit, but that’s another story), but included in the tour was a boat journey across to Tangier for an overnight stay.
We were under the guidance of Pedro, a middle-aged dyspeptic Spaniard with a very cynical and sarcastic attitude to Moroccans. He told us how essential it was to follow his instructions precisely. The first surprise came when he told us to collect our bags and prepare to disembark: the unexpected aspect of this being that the boat was clearly still some distance out from the harbour. But we obediently followed him to the exit doors, which were down in the belly of the ship, where all the luggage was stored.
But he was quite right, because a seething mass soon built up behind us, pushing and shoving to get to the front. In these situations, the British tradition is to form an orderly queue and wait patiently, which mean we lose out to nations who don’t observe these niceties, but fortunately our party contained a number of strong-minded American matrons who fought off any interlopers. Then finally we docked and the doors opened. The crowd surged forwards and found – nothing but a yawning gulf! There was no gangplank! After we had teetered on the brink for what seemed like ages, a gangplank was finally put in place, only for a mob of hairy stevedores to charge up it and fight their way in amongst the passengers in order to get at the luggage. Eventually just ONE passport official appeared, and insisted on looking at every page of each person’s passport before he would let them off, presumably to check that no-one had been visiting Israel. Thanks to Pedro’s experience, we weren’t held up too long, but other less fortunate people were still disembarking four hours later. There was more trouble a little while later, when a policeman asked to inspect the passports of one couple and promptly disappeared with them. Pedro was furious. “The next time a Moroccan policeman asks to see your passport”, he raged, “Tell him to push off! Tell him it is none of his business!” (Personally I wouldn’t like to try this tactic)
It was Ramadan, which meant no Moroccans were allowed to eat or drink during the hours of daylight, though this did not apply to tourists. Drinking no water during August must be a serious trial. Shortly before the official nightfall, when it was actually still daylight, the streets emptied and all the shops closed in preparation for the evening meal. We were warned not to go outside, since only criminals would be out on the streets at this time. So I went back to my hotel room, which overlooked a number of flat-roofed homes. I watched them all lay out the food on tables on the roof, and then I suppose there was a broadcast over the radio to say that it was now officially night-time, because all the families suddenly started to eat at precisely the same moment.
We were taken to Tetuan, a squalid little town where we saw people living in what appeared to be windowless cupboards opening onto the street. In the evening we were treated to a display of belly-dancing by a fat and unattractive woman, We had a local guide who took us round a tourist shop that dealt in sterling, and helped us bargain for goods. I found the bargaining custom very irritating. I watched one man in the party buy a leather purse, for which the asking price was £5, but was eventually beaten down to £2. Another tourist who was watching this transaction said, “I’d like one of those too”. The salesman promptly started at £5 again. I showed a passing interest in a rug, and was told the price was £80. I explained that since I only had £10 left, and he wasn’t going to let me have it for that, we should abandon the negotiations. He clearly thought I was a tough bargainer, and even when I left the shop he ran after me shouting, “Okay, £55!” I longed for British supermarkets and set prices.
There was a bar on the boat which took us back to Spain. As soon as we pulled out of port, many of the Moroccans at once went to the bar and started boozing, thus not only breaking the Ramadan fast but also the laws against drinking alcohol. Pedro snorted with contempt. “They think they’re safe on a Spanish ship! It’ll be full of secret police! They’ll all be locked up when they go home!”
All this was thirty years ago. No doubt things are different nowadays.

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