Crossing the Strait of Gibraltar is more than just a one and a half hour ferry trip between Spain and Morocco. The narrow stretch of sea that connects the Atlantic Ocean to the Mediterranean Sea constitutes both a geographical and cultural divide between Europe’s mainland and the very north of the vast African continent. It feels like stepping into a very old new world, one where lives are lived less artificially and time adapts to the people rather than the other way around.
I got to Tangier with a mix of raw excitement and sensible caution, my usual sentiment when arriving at an unknown destination. Even though my time in India has taught me how to deal with scamming taxi drivers and overbearing touts, it still took a bit of time getting used to this environment again. I find that it’s usually best to just approach it as a game, kind of like a level in Super Mario where you have to get to the end (the local bus) by finding your way past all the preying creatures (the touts) and obstacles (the misdirections given by taxi drivers). The reward at the end of the level being a 7 Dirham bus trip in the company of amicable locals instead of a 100 Dirham cab ride knowing you’ve been ripped off.
That being said, my first impressions of my half-homeland were overwhelmingly positive. Entering Tangier’s medina is like diving head first into the deep end of an exotic pool of colors, scents and sounds. It’s an intricate maze of narrow, winding alleys occupied by mountains of olives, buckets of spices, trays of headless chicken, all governed by an eclectic mix of characters who have found their fit into the bustling whole. The sense of logical and deliberate (and dull) purpose that so often guides Western society is nearly absent, replaced by an intuitive, clashing and vibrant atmosphere where everybody creates their own framework to reality, instead of it being prefabricated for them.
So structural and cultural differences run deep, and I am the first to acknowledge that as a traveler you often only get a superficial glimpse into a much more complicated local world. Overall though, just having seen what I’ve seen and having met who I’ve met here so far has made me further question what makes life meaningful and ultimately successful. And if you think that sounds deep, that’s probably because it is. I can’t always be talking about nuclear toilet visits and flying feces (don’t ask). As cliché as it might sound, the shielding and protective biases to a “good life” that many people at home surround themselves by - myself included - are slowly yet increasingly broken down as a consequence of encountering those of others. It’s interesting to compare what is considered valuable, and which ideals should be strived toward. Group society versus individualism, sound tradition versus uncontrolled progress, earthly roots versus flailing leaves, Africa versus Europe.
Don’t take my word for it, this is the wisdom of Abu Bakr, probably the most interesting person I’ve met here so far. As a Guinean musician working abroad, he has lived in Morocco for three years and is as down to earth as he is opinionated. I was told that the best way of reconciling seemingly surreal situations to reality is by just accepting that “this is the African way”. And not in the bullshit commercial Shakira way, but rather an unpretentious Rastafari way. I taught him the ukulele, he taught me about priorities in life.
And we went out to the most hilarious night club I have been to in a long time. Imagine your run-of-the-mill local dance bar, complete with blasting commercial beats, a busy bar and a modern, liberal crowd. Only one thing is missing: the dancing. Instead, everybody gets seated at small tables, smokes shisha with their drinks and glances at whoever catches their fancy. So obviously our little group of partygoers danced their asses off, in front of a crowd of onlooking (or rather staring in disbelief) locals. Arabian nights never felt more different than they sounded.
In contrast to Tangier’s craziness and intensity stands the supreme peace and tranquility that prevails in Chefchaouen. Arabic for “Look at the Horns”, referring to the shape of the mountains surrounding this small mountain village. Peacefully set amidst the Rif mountain range, the town and especially its center are characterized by the many bright blue painted houses. Chefchaouen’s medina is relaxed and hassle-free, its people laid back and even the many cats seem to be chilling out - although with cats you’re never quite sure what they’re up to. Maybe it’s the calming effect of the blue hue that encompasses everything here. Or perhaps the fact that the surrounding mountains produce nearly half of the world’s hashish. That’s not a typo or a literary exaggeration. Hash is everywhere here. Available for (hidden) purchase on every street corner, consumed by nearly everyone (male) in town, its aroma mixing with the mountain air every moment of the day and night. Smoking a joint is pretty much like having a beer, which is ironic because beers are nowhere to be found. This of course as a consequence of Islam’s guidelines regarding alcohol consumption.
Looking at this through a broader lens really highlights to me the somewhat narrow-minded view the West has when it comes to substances like marihuana. Especially when it condones the systemic abuse of alcohol, often to much more detrimental effect. I suppose performance-driven capitalist economies don’t really benefit from their work force slowing down their pace, rather promoting hedonist excesses to balance people’s increasing stress levels. So much for the conspiracy theory section of today.
Let me conclude on a positive note and share my profound relief for no longer having to explain my name or its pronunciation to every goddamn person I meet (Allahu Akbar!). In fact it’s now the other way around and I am being corrected myself on how to say it. I have to admit that that is quite refreshing, if not slightly annoying in a different way. The road to perfection is a long and winding one I suppose.
All things considered, I have been positively and deeply touched by Morocco so far. I’m becoming prouder every day to be able to say that I have some of my roots here, and for the next two and a half weeks I will continue to explore it as much as I can. The African way.
September 27th, 2016