A Tumultuous Time in Tangier — Part II
This is part two of a three-part narrative on my trip to Tangier, Morocco. Click here to read part one of the story.
First impressions aren’t everything.
That’s been proven to me time and time again throughout my life. There have been plenty of people who’ve rubbed me the wrong way at first glance. But given time, some of those people turned out to be dear friends.
I do my best to give people the benefit of doubt before I apply judgment. And I try to employ that same rule when it comes to places I visit.
Tangier and I did not get things started on the right foot. My first 5–6 hours in the Moroccan port were less than ideal, but I wasn’t giving up hope just yet.
The kindness of strangers
After getting situated (and getting a bit of rest) in my roof-top dorm room, I decided to get out and see what this strange new city had to offer. I started by grabbing a bite to eat at a nearby cafeteria.
I had no idea what I was ordering, but fortunately, I was able to point at a couple items behind the display case. The cashier happily served them up without the use of verbal communication. I dined on a combination of meat and spinach pastries and a hot slice of Moroccan pizza. Moroccan pizza is much different from its western counterpart, but it’s just as greasy and delicious.
After some rest and a hot meal, I was beginning to warm up to Tangier. I strolled through the humming medina, admiring its colorful stone walls and breathtaking views of the harbor. For the first time, I was actually able to contemplate and reflect on the deep historical and cultural importance of the city.
After a bit of aimless wandering, I came across the entrance of the famous (or infamous) Cafe Baba.
Baba has an international reputation as a bit of a smoker’s den. In its heyday, it was frequented by iconic figures of the beat generation. On it’s smoke-coated walls hang pictures of the owner and Baba’s former notable guests. Keith Richards, Mick Jagger, Bob Marley and William Burroughs all paid a visit to Baba — and no doubt smoked a pipe or two of Moroccan hash.
I simply wanted to take a peek inside. But my translucent skin tone and wide-eyed gaze sold me out.
I’m a tourist. Take my money.
Two young men approached me and immediately began bombarding me with questions. One of the guys, Mohammed, spoke English quite well. His friend, Omar, was conversational in Spanish so we were all able to communicate well enough.
“A “Moroccan Whiskey” for you?” Mohammed asked with a smile.
He explained that locals refer to the common mint tea served in Moroccan cafes and homes as “whiskey.” Islam forbids alcohol and spirits so actual whiskey would be quite hard to come by in most Muslim-majority countries.
My two new friends seemed genuinely curious in me, and my story at large. After I told them I was from the United States, their eyes lit up. They both carried on about their love for baseball — in particular, the New York Yankees. Personally, find the “American pastime” less interesting than watching paint dry. But as a former sports writer, I entertained.
We talked about travel, sports, language and life in general until our glasses were empty and our words ran dry. I offered to cover the bill for my new friends’ drinks and wished them a goodnight.
“No, no, no,” said Mohammed, “Please don’t leave yet. Let me show you my beautiful city!”
A pang of hesitation momentarily sank into my chest. I glanced down at my watch. It was only 7 p.m. and it wasn’t even dark yet. Plus, how could I turn down a free tour from a local…Tangerine?
My walking tour started off well enough. Mohammed and Omar started off by taking me to some of the highest viewpoints in the city. I caught a glimpse of the setting sun from atop a crumbling wall in the ancient Kasbah. We entered a seemingly random building and climbed a set of endless stairs before emerging on a terrace that overlooked the harbor, and provided a bird’s-eye view of the glowing medina below. I was able to get a peek at the beautiful old town mosque as well as a local musician strumming an oud (an Arabic string instrument) inside his home. My friends also led me to Tangier’s famous American Legation — a building that commemorates the diplomatic and cultural relations of the U.S. and Morocco.
The North African country was the first in the world to acknowledge the United States’ sovereignty from Britain. Thus, the legation seemed a fitting landmark to commemorate my newfound friendship.
But as my tour dragged on, our stops seemed to become increasingly…commercial.
I was taken to shop after shop and encouraged to buy everything from souvenirs and trinkets, to locally sourced tea and candy.
“You HAVE to buy some Moroccan tea my man. It’s the best tea in the world.”
“Don’t you want to bring this beautiful vase home to your mother? You can’t get this anywhere else!”
My “tour guides” were beginning to sound more and more like used car salesmen. However, I was quick to remind them that I was, in fact, a budget backpacker.
“Come on guys, I’m sleeping on a hostel rooftop. I ain’t at the Marriott boys.”
These sales pitches grew increasingly aggressive, but I was able to brush most of them off in stride. That is, until I was led into one of Tangier’s famous Berber markets.
Say no to rugs
Berbers are an ethnic group of people native to North Africa. They are a traditionally nomadic people, known to relocate based on the grazing patterns of their livestock. Men in Berber tribes are typically farmers, shepherds or merchants, while Berber women are well known for their adeptness in creating handicrafts.
Berber merchants are no doubt accustomed to westerners popping into their stores, seeing their beautiful kilimis (tapestries), and dropping some major dough to bring a unique piece of Africa back to their homes. But if the tapestries or rugs don’t sell themselves, the merchants don’t mind trying their hands at the art of persuasion.
I had no idea what I was getting myself into.
I was paraded into a nearly pure white marble room lined with thousands of colorful rugs featuring geometric patterns and shapes. The room was a metaphorical lovechild of Ikea and some sort of ancient Islamic Apple Store. And if my senses weren’t already overwhelmed enough, a merchant rushed up to me and began to instantly smother me with kindness.
He practically hugged and kissed me before shoving me down on an ottoman stool and started removing my shoes for me.
“It’s okay man, I got it…”
My tour guides took a seat nearby and looked on with enthusiastic grins.
The merchant said something to his young assistant in Arabic (or maybe in Berber?), and before I knew it, I had a mint tea in one hand and a platter of pastries in my lap.
What the hell is going on here?
In addition to tea and pastries, I was fed one giant compliment sandwich after another. The merchant, using his most gentle tone, conversed with me about my travels as he pulled out a gigantic binder from under one of his shelves. He flipped through page after page; proudly pointing out the many Americans he had done business with. Under each name was a price, phone number and an address.
“Sir, can you please tell me what state are you from, sir?”
“Oh yes, very good sir. I’ve sent many rugs to Georgia. I send them all over.”
He quickly flipped through his binder before putting it back down and pointing to a line that read, “Sandy Springs, Georgia.” I almost spit out my tea after I read the price tag just below the name and address. $650…I guess they have a lot of open floor space down in Sandy Springs.
The merchant rolled out rug after rug, encouraging me to stand up and walk on each one.
“Do you like this one? This one is very beautiful. What about this one? What colors do you like? Here’s one that suits you perfectly!”
What I wanted to say is, “Please stop. I don’t really give a damn about your rugs.”
Instead, I replied, ““Uh, yeah they are nice.”
Why can’t I just be rude?
Mohammed suddenly butted into the conversation after staying quietly glued to his smartphone for about 15 minutes.
“So do you like any of these?”
I pointed to a red rug with a hip, tribal pattern. It was the kind of rug that would look fantastic hanging on the wall of a bohemian espresso shop in Portland.
“Yeah I like that one I guess. But I don’t really have the….”
“Oh yes,” he exclaimed. “That one is super nice my man! You have to get that one! You just have to, it’s perfect man!”
The merchant jumped in with his own enthusiastic pitch of that particular rug before I cut him off.
“I just really don’t have the money to buy one,” I said apologetically. “I’m a student. I don’t have much money. I’m on a budget.”
He wasn’t deterred.
“I understand,” he said. “For you, a huge deal. I want you to have a wonderful gift from your first time in Morocco. So you tell me, how much would you give me for this rug?”
“I don’t know. Maybe 20 to 30 euros?”
Suddenly, the merchant’s entire demeanor transformed. The gentle old man now sounded more like a casino big boss.
He said something along the line of, “Sir…These rugs are all handmade one of a kind items. This is how we make our living and feed our families. Please make a reasonable offer.”
What I heard was “Whattya trying to screw me? You think I’m some kinda chump?”
A wolf in sheep’s clothes.
We went back and forth for at least another half hour, with my final offer never climbed higher than 50 euros. Hell, I only had 60 in my wallet. But resilient as I was, my opponents were more so.
“I don’t have enough cash.”
“I accept Visa.”
“Sorry, I’m just not that interested.”
“Let me show you a few more items.”
On and on it went. I tried to check the time on my phone. Dead. I was becoming very anxious. I had no idea how to get out of the building I was in, much less, how to get back to my hostel. I was at the mercy of my “friends.” After what seemed like an eternity of haggling, I couldn’t take it anymore.
“Look, all I have is 50 euros and that’s all I’m willing to spend. So you can either take it or leave it.”
“One moment sir, I think I have just the thing!”
The merchant fumbled through his wares before pulling out a tiny, bathroom-rug-sized tapestry from the bottom of a stack. It was less than 1/4 the size of the larger kilimis were were haggling over. I wasn’t impressed, but I also wanted to GTFO.
“I’ll take it.”
“Splendid, sir. I know you’ll be so happy.”
“Are you sure,” asked Mohammed. “That one is very small. The others are much nicer.”
Yes I’m sure. As much as I’m sure that you are getting a commission of this freaking rug.
I gave the merchant my money, shook his hand and followed Mohammed and Omar down a flight of stairs and out of the miserable market. My guides asked if I wanted to go see another sight. I let out an almost hysterical laugh as I asked them to please point me in the direction of my hostel.
Mohammed continued to wear a smile and make polite conversation with me as I was led back down past the Kasbah, and into the medina. But just before we escaped the claustrophobic alleyways and entered a crowded square, my guides stopped me.
“It’s been fun man, glad we could show you around,” said Mohammed.
“So my man, we are going to need some money for the tour. Maybe just 10 euros each?”
I should have seen it coming from a mile away. I’d been played. Now I have a rug I don’t want and I can’t fit in my backpack and I’m getting shaken down. I opened my wallet, almost delighted to see that I only had one bill — a 10 euro note — left. In hindsight, I could have probably just walked away. The two guys seemed harmless enough and I doubt they would have forcefully robbed me. But at that point, I would have paid any price just to lay down in my bed. I opened my wallet and showed what I was working with.
“I’ve only got 10 left boys. If y’all hadn’t pushed me into buying that rug I’d be able to give you more. Here ya go. Tear it in half for all I care.”
They didn’t protest. They accepted my payment, told me directions to my hostel and disappeared into the warm, North African night.
To be continued …
Originally published at Breaking Abroad.