The Hands That Grab In Tangier

Alana Semuels 


Copyright 2003 by Alana Semuels

  2003 Travel Nonfiction Winner

Photo by Timo Stern on Unsplash

Photo by Timo Stern on Unsplash

I know I am in trouble from the way the border inspector looks at the map. It is not a mere inquisitive expression that dons his face as he squints to make out the words on my mimeographed copy of an outdated travel guide. It is one of rage, of disbelief, of the type that makes me feel like a foolish American who does not belong.

“This map! It is not right.” He glares at us accusingly, as if we had conspired to bring a faulty map across the border and spread its wisdom like disease across the country. He points to a part of the southern tip of Morocco, a part the map labels as disputed territory. “This is Morocco’s. It will always be Morocco’s. No one can say otherwise.” We nod our heads in agreement, but this evidently will not satisfy his burgeoning rage. He launches into a long diatribe about why the rest of the world is wrong on this small point of geography, as if the world wakes up every morning solely to reaffirm its belief that Morocco does not own that small tip of desert. As specks of his spit land on the precious map and begin to spot the country with odd topography, I begin to wonder if the whole idea of Morocco was a mistake.

Venturing from Spain to Morocco was our daring endeavor to shirk the bounds of being those Americans who just did Europe. Convinced that we could do better, we had no fear – our travel histories put together spanned every continent, reaching from Ammam to Quito to Gaborone to Osaka, and further. Morocco was easy compared to where we’d been, yet a necessary notch to tick in our belts; North Africa.

On spring break from our jobs teaching English in Greece, my companion and I had wandered through the easy world of Spain, moving south to the seedy port town of Algeciras. The barefoot man dancing and smashing bottles on the street did not deter us, nor did the hordes of people who appeared from nowhere to cluster in bunches at the bus station, staring at us defiantly. This was Spain no longer, but rather a netherworld between the two countries determined to hold the surplus from the cultural clash. But it was Morocco we were seeking – the fantasy land of sand dunes and Berber villages, colorful bazaars and spices; the land lost in a time.

Thus we are, six continents aside, in the hands of a man lost in the glory of the endless border skirmishes for a bit of desert no one really wants to live in anyway. When our friend the border instructor completes his tirade, he glares at us and hulks away to consult one of his colleagues about the map. The other man looks at us, shrugs, and turns away. Our friend tucks the map away in his pocket, and shrugs, challenging us to do anything about the fact that he has swiped three of our maps and left our backpacks in disarray. Surrendering the maps for our freedom, we hurriedly pack up our rummaged-through belongings and scurry away, free and already lost.

We finally emerge from customs one hour after the rest of our passengers. Devoid of our fellow passengers, the pier has an eerie and deserted look. It is dingy and very wet, and the strangely comforting smell of burning trash pervades the air. The area is bereft of the upscale travelers who had sat beside us on the boat heading out on catered camel treks across the Sahara, and shows no signs of the honeymooning couples dreaming of nights in ancient cities. Alone we stand, as clouds begin to gather ominously overhead. I can almost hear the swarthy Australian who beat us at gin laughing from behind the trash heap.

We are not alone for long. They begin to creep out from beneath the tall wall that flanks the pier, but before long are everywhere. Small and dirty children, reaching out their hands for coins or candy, or anything that we could spare, run at our ankles, taunting and begging us. “Mister, can I have a dollar!” is repeated over and over until we begin to look around frantically to escape drowning in its chorus. I have encountered begging children before, but never have their hands been so unrestricted; they prod, poke, and grab at our bags until we walk quickly towards the town in the distance, trailing small mischievous children like the Pied Piper.

Children in tow, we begin to approach the city of Tangier. Mapless, we know little about where we are going, but only that we want to get to the train station before dark to catch the overnight train to Marrakesh. As we approach the grimy tan buildings rising out of the hills like dirty sand dribbles, the children miraculously begin to taper off, only to be replaced by older and more frightening versions of themselves. While I had been slightly irritated to be followed by a gaggle of begging children, I am disturbed when they transform into older men who stare as if I am walking around their town naked and colored green with a neon sign that says FOLLOW ME suspended above my head.

Their comments are persistent, and are thrust so directly at us that I can almost feel the physical blow as they fall on our ears:

“Hey friends! Don’t worry, be happy.”

“Heeeyy Yankee. You want a guide. You don’t trust anybody else. Not him, not him. Only you can trust me.”

“Pretty lady, he’s lying. I give you the best rates. Tour of the city. I got a nice car.”

They are slick, these guides. They work with each other to corner us and try to extract our trust like it is something that will be earned by whomever gives us the biggest gap-filled smile. As we walk up a steep hill to avoid them, the people in the streets seem to multiply. They are out and out staring now, as if they have never seen two white-skinned travelers trekking up their road with heavy backpacks and faces full of panic. I turn back to the multitude of toothless men who have followed us up the steep hill to convince us that we need them as our guides. Around us, there are an increasing number of men in Berber robes like the Sandmen in Star Wars, their faces hidden, multicolored and hairier versions of the Grim Reaper. I wonder if we are doomed.

One guide has followed us to the crest of the hill, and we begin to converse with him, rewarding his persistence. He warns us that we are in the worst area of town, and it is essential that we get out before nightfall. In his car. For a small fee. And no, he does not accept Euros. Liberal that I am, I try to see beyond his missing teeth and severely misshapen face to the good citizen that he no doubt is. The only image I can conjure involves him taking us to a dimly lit area of town and giving us naive American tourist just what we deserve.

Finally sealed inside the man’s small taxicab, we rush through the streets, towards the center of town, where according to our guide, we can find places to take out money and then a way out to the train station. Our surroundings become increasingly modern, until the smell of gasoline and anger fades away to a busy city street with traffic lights and some signs in English. I am prepared for the stares that accompany us when we climb out of the cab, but not for the wrath of our driver

guide when we offer him American dollars. He is now furious at us, for offering him our currency, for not having the correct change, for not understanding what we have done wrong, and for being Americans with so many dollars to spare. He kicks us out of the cab, our bags his hostage, and tells us to find Dirham, and find it fast.

Through the dusk, we wander the busy streets, searching for a working ATM while our cabdriver follows slowly, waiting to reap his reward in Dirham. Neon lights are beginning to turn on, and I notice a disproportionate number of men walking the streets. They pretend not to stare, but I know that we look strange with our large backpacks and stubborn expressions; I feel no less relieved that they are leaving us alone. We walk disregarded through the streets filled with grime, in need of help, or direction, or even a map.

We miraculously stumble across an ATM, and as my companion wanders off to pay our cabdriver, I stand, calculating the conversions. The people behind me are restless, and I hurry as I complete my transaction. Stuffing my money into my money belt, I beat a hasty retreat from the crowds that have gathered around the curb. Walking away, I hear yet another leering voice. “Lady,” it says softly, persuasively. I ignore it. Knowing that I am the only female on the street, and therefore the only one this voice could be addressing, I begin to walk further. Enough, I say to myself. I surrender. The Morocco I am seeking is obviously not to be found in Tangier. It, the armpit of the universe, is sucking us in to its putrid reeking hole, and I have had about enough of its inhabitants trying to use me to climb out. Enough harassment, enough pleading, begging, cajoling. And the voice repeats. Louder this time, more urgently “Lady.” I hear him start to approach me, and swallowing my urge to start running, I stop.

I spin around, with the same fury that Poe faced his raven, ready to be confronted by an open hand, or a taunting smile, or an offer I cannot refuse. Instead, a tall man in a Berber robe stares at me, smiling softly. He brown pointed hood does not obscure his face, which is dirty, but kind. I do not see what he wants with me until he points to the ground. There, five feet behind me, being trampled by the hordes of passers-by, under a thin layer of a muddy footprint, lies my credit card, my only source of money for the remainder of my trip, the depository of my pay for months of pounding the English language into the minds of unwitting Athenian children. Shocked, I remain staring. “It’s yours, no?” he asks kindly.

Dumbfounded, I nod, lean over and pick it up, still wondering what the catch is. I wait for him to ask for his reward, or my hand in marriage, or impart upon me some wisdom of North African geography. Instead, he steadies my large backpack with his hand, and smiles, turning away. I can barely utter a thank you before he disappears into the crowds, my savior in a Berber robe.

I never found what I was looking for in Morocco, perhaps because our visit was marred by unusual off-season torrential downpours, or because we managed to get swindled at just about every attraction we stopped at, or perhaps most simply because the Morocco of sultry desert nights and romantic piano bars no longer exists. Today even Morocco’s famous cities are crammed with people that need, and hands that hungrily grab at tourists and visitors, hoping to get anything at all. But as I traversed through the gritty cities steeped in legend, an American in an Arab country that awakened all of my stereotypes and supported many of my fears, I realized that there was something redeeming about the filthy, angry streets. And although I now know that as I journeyed through the country, terrorists were plotting in the sandy deserts as beggars were stealing on the streets, I cannot relegate Morocco to the status of another dangerous Islamic country. It was not the towering mosques that salvaged my sentiments, nor the lively night bazaars of Marrakesh, nor the buckets of mint tea we consumed. Morocco was saved for me by the one pair of hands in Tangier that did not grab.

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