July 26th - July 28th, 1999
Three days before we enter Morocco, their King, Hassan II died. We're not sure of what the media coverage in the states was like, but in Gibraltar it was all over the place. Hassan II had been king for 39 years, so we knew that we would enter a Morocco in some kind of mourning state, but from the news all seemed calm and that the transition to his son should occur smoothly. So we proceeded and caught the morning ferry to Tangier. We're both a little apprehensive, as we haven't been in a third world country in some time and Tangier - the largest port city in Africa - has quite a rough reputation. All goes smoothly, however, and we find a rather nice hotel in the medina (the old arab part of town). It's then that we find out how Hassan II's death will impact us the most. His son, Mohammed VI, has declared forty days of mourning, and all Muslims must abstain from gambling, sex and alcohol. That means neither partake nor serve. We've just entered a dry Morocco.
Our room in the medina is quite centrally located -- so centrally, that we're near one of the large mosques in town. Below is the view outside our window. Anyone who's ever spent time in a Muslim country can appreciate what this means. Mosques call the faithful to prayer four times a day, with the first call at around 4AM in the morning. And with the advent of 20th century technology, the muezzin or crier who used to stand at the top of the mosque's tower and call out the prayers is now replaced by loudspeakers and very large amplifiers. However, we'll take it over the screaming moterscooters that the Spanish and Portuguese love any day.
The activity at the mosques do seem to be much greater than one would expect -- probably a consequence of the mourning of the king's death. Another unexpected consequence of the death of the king is that Moroccans, upon learning that we're American, smile and tell us how good a people we are. Turns out that when Bill Clinton attended the funeral ceremony in Rabat and walked the three kilometer procession behind the new king, he befriended an entire nation. Many world leaders did not do this, and it was noticed. The amount of good will Clinton generated with that act is quite considerable, and all Americans in Morocco are reaping benefits from it.
We didn't expect to stumble across an American landmark overseas, but that exactly what we found in a little medina walkway. The first diplomatic mission that the United States ever had is in Tangier. The only national historic landmark overseas, the United States acquired the building as a gift from the Sultan of Morocco in 1821. Today, the American Embassy is in Rabat but the Legation continues today as a museum of Tangier and of interesting Americans who've lived here. We were very fortunate to get a tour from the museum Director, Thor Kuniholm.
One half of the building is of a Moorish design and the entire building straddles both sides of the walkway used to access it. The rooms of the former Legation (an archaic term for diplomatic mission) are each devoted to different themes. Our favorites were the room full of woodcarving prints of old Tangier, some dating back to the early 17th century, and the Paul Bowles room. Bowles is an author who still lives in Tangier and wrote about life in Morocco. Thor had to chuckle when he mentioned that Bowles' old suitcases are to be sent off to Paris for a museum exhibition on France's relationship with and history in Morocco. We think the thought of these beaten old things sitting in an alarmed, climate controlled glass case is what struck him as funny.
If you're interested in reading more about Paul Bowles, we understand http://www.lemmus.demon.co.uk/bowles.htm is a good place to start (thanks Greg F. for the tip!)
Another Legation feature is the extensive English language library available for all Moroccans to use (one room above bottom right). The Legation also has the world's most extensive collection of English language research materials on Morocco and is available to serious researchers. Finally, just to prove it, here's the park service's plaque designating the Legation as a National Historic Landmark.
The Legation operates mostly on donations, so if you have English language books you don't need or simply want a tax free deduction that benefits those overseas, look no further. Check out the Legation's web site at http://www.visiontec.com/talm/ for more information.
A short walk from the American Legation is the Lorin Foundation, a group committed to the arts and artist community in Tangier. They were having a photograph exhibition showing the Tangier that once was. You see, Tangier between the years of 1923 and 1956 was declared an international zone and loosely governed by eight European states and America. It quickly became this sort of "anything goes" place that attracted all sorts of bankers, spies, pedophiles, drug users, gays, Beat Generation poets and bored heiresses. Looked like a pretty wild town, especially with nine countries picking up the tab. With Moroccan independence, the curtain began to fall (in 1960 100 brothels were closed) and the photo collection presented by the Lorin Foundation recalled those lost, heady days.
Above the photo collection young artists have a workspace to come to and practice their crafts (we show a few above right). We're sure the work being done today at the foundation to keep art alive in Tangier would make Maritha Lorin (who died a few years ago) quite proud.
You won't find it in any of the guide books, so here's a map (above) and the address. If you watch carefully, there's a sign telling you where to turn off of Rue Des Siaghins.
Built on the high ground of Tangier overlooking the Atlantic and the city's harbor, the Alcazar is a grand old Moorish style fortress in pretty good state. Converted to a museum, most of the Alcazar is devoted to showing artifacts of how people lived in centuries past. Of course, a display of the weapons of war both pre- and post-gunpowder are there, but rooms are filled with furnishings and art of those times. Most interesting was the treasury vault with its intricate carved wood ceiling (center top) and the sultan's dining room (center bottom). There was even a courtyard devoted to the Roman times, complete with some pretty well preserved statues (right).
The State of Tangier
We have to admit it was hard to see the photographs of Tangier of old in the American Legation and Lorin Foundation, and then step outside and look at what Tangier is today. The streets and buildings show an advanced decay all too typical of the third world. Tangier's sewage system makes Porto's look state of the art, with the raw sewage being dumped just off of a beach used by children for fishing and swimming. Plots that appear on the maps as parks look more like this today:
Of course part of the reason things are so rough is that people are poor here, but there's more to it than that. No one here cares enough to do anything about cleaning or fixing anything up. They seem resigned that filth is a part of life. It's a shame, as there are more than enough idle men and women to affect real change. Fully half of Morocco's population of 28 million is less than 20 years old, and with the growth rate they have we can expect the population to double early next century. That should make it real fun here.
Not only can it be dirty here, it can be dangerous as well. For the first time in my (Jim's) life, a crowd tried to pickpocket me -- in broad daylight! One simple martial art whack ended it all, and no other blows were exchanged, but it did bring home all the tour book warnings of how Tangier is a den of thieves. We did see one fight in the medina (broken up by the crowd) and sometimes we would come across blood on the street. A number of youths had black eyes and there were altogether too many idle males from all parts of Africa just hanging out.
Finally, a scratchy throat Jim noticed on the ferry ride from Gibraltar has proven to be some sort of flu. We kind of figured that somewhere in the third world we would catch something, but we didn't expect to have it coming in. Jim's flu isn't too much of a factor (yet).