Tangier – A Special Hell

“There is only one thing a writer can write about: what is in front of his senses at the moment of writing.”

William S. Burroughs, Naked Lunch

I wish I could tell you a story. But I can’t do that here. Not in Tangier.

That’s not how it works at Africa’s door. You’re in whatever narrative it decides. Your first time coming into Tangier is like your first time getting into a fight. You are not ready.

The Caves of Hercules, where legend says the mythical hero stayed before his 11th epic adventure.

Hustle a taxi using multiple currencies, broken English, and lines in the sand on frenziedly negotiated prices. The yellow line that divides a two-lane road less about rules of passing traffic and more a scoreboard for whatever the local equivalent is for machismo. As if each passed junker counts toward a braggadocios Tangier tally, I wonder where drivers meet at the end of their shifts to compare scores. I bet there’s good food there.

I assume our driver doesn’t want to die either. A phone in each leathered hand while merging into a roundabout, he turns the radio up and swerves around two children fighting in the street. All with enough spare attention to point out the auburn sunset over his home. The cabbie pulls the hand break to a jerky stop on a downhill slope near the medina. We are now in close-quarters contest with travel. A thunder dome of motorcycles, tuk tuks, and panhandlers. Lavish, bright allures that’ll land square on your dropping jaw. No photos allowed.

An old man stops walking in the middle of a busy street to light a cigarette while the teenage boy acting as our guide points up through the smoke. If you want the good stuff here it’ll require you walk uphill for it – like most everything else in life, the young one tells us. Sage advice delivered with a pubescent crack in his Arabic accent. Markets always open “only today” in the ancient medina and its fabled tight corridors. Souks filled with color, spice, and blood. The wafting smell of fish guts mixed with citrus and fresh bread that molds when the day dies.

It’s no coincidence that everyone you meet says they’re from wherever you’re going, even if you’re going in no particular direction. Merchants hawking tapestries and teacups, designer jeans a block away – receiving their regular trickle of customers led like lambs by guides paid under the table, our 15-year-old bright-eyed hustler no exception. Tangier is like cracking open a fleshy nut, scratching at every cranny for the last sliver of flavor, then turning the mallet upon yourself.

Patrons of the Cafe Tingis roll their own cigarettes and attach them to the end of recycled filters. A lone, hurried waiter returns treys of empty glasses back to the smoke-filled bar, where an alchemist turns gold into sweet mint tea. The shadow-covered aisle of a Petit Socco street filled with little white tables turned cigarette-stained beige. The air smells like sewage, a beggar, and a suited Frenchman – all soon to be awash with the setting sun’s call to prayer.

I don’t know what Morocco is. It is water too deep to dive and too choppy to swim. It is a place where children play in a mosque courtyard like it’s Allah’s playground. It is a place to chase demons into Zagora’s Sahara horizon. From the moment you arrive, Tangier demands a soul. A most special sort of hell.

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