Wednesday, November 5, 2014

McCarthy's Casbah- Part III

Algeciras is one of those curious places that seem to exist only because ferry companies need to have a destination to put on their tickets.
If you have ever been to Holyhead, you will know what I’m talking about. Holyhead is a bleak, dire, soulless outcrop of human habitation on the western tip of Wales. Holyhead is just there for the purpose of accomodating ferries to and from Dublin. Perhaps the most depressing thing of all is that there is not even a choice of destinations, which would lend some sort of diversity to the whole operation. No. Just Dublin. Over and over and over again.

                                                             and over..

I once arrived there on said ferry from Dublin and found to my consternation that the onward train had departed about 10 minutes earlier, which left me with the unappealling prospect of having to entertain myself in Holyhead for over an hour. Why ferry companies and local railways don’t co-ordinate their schedules so that the train to civilisation leaves 10 minutes AFTER everybody gets off the boat, rather than 10 minutes before, is a mystery to me, but it would be too depressing to discuss this in depth right now. I walked around Holyhead looking for even the slightest diversion, but could not find any. My usual safe card in these situations is to buy a local paper and sit in a pub for the duration but, as it was only mid-morning, I noticed to my alarm that the pubs were closed. Outside the ferry terminal was a bridge to a short main street and some residential blocks, likely housing the poor people that work for the ferry industry (I can not come up with any other reason for settling in Holyhead) and a park that looked as miserable as the rest of the town. In the end, I entertained myself by confusing the staff of a local Boots pharmacy with complicated questions about non-existing products. When, after about 10 minutes, I had the full attention of the entire staff up to and including the branche manager (who was just about to contact the regional sales rep about all those things I wanted to buy but she could not provide) I made off with the excuse of having to catch a train and walked out of the door. Such is life in places like Holyhead. The advent of a customer from elsewhere is the highlight of the day, and for entertainment you have to go into a pharmacy and discuss mouthwash. I’ve never been in Fishguard but I imagine it’s much the same.

Apart from the obvious observation that Algeciras has much nicer weather than Holyhead, the impression I got from it was almost identical, in that the place was just there to feed the ferry port. I walked towards it from the bus station and, some restaurants and a number of appartment blocks with the paint peeling off aside, saw only businesses that dealt with ferry tickets or other ferry-related things. Ofcourse, these days people buy ferry tickets from websites rather than from colorful port-side offices so, with yet another romantic aspect of travel gone forever, most of these offices were either boarded up or had one Very Bored employee sitting on a chair outside, waiting for business that would never materialise.

                                    Say his name 3 times if you want a ticket

At the ferry port, I found that Algeciras has one major advantage over Holyhead: it has 2 destinations. Tangier was were I was going, but you can also take a ferry to Ceuta which is a place I had never heard of. With time to kill, I installed myself in a cafe and looked up what the hell Ceuta might be. It turned out to be a lot more interesting than I could ever have imagined.

Ceuta is a small trade zone on the North African coast. Apart from its
Meditterranean coast, it is surrounded entirely by Moroccan soil, but is part of Spain. As a Spanish exclave, it is part of the Eurozone but has a tax free status. Despite their small population of around 75.000, they have their own government, lead by the Mayor-President. Morocco and Spain have been in conflict over the territory for some time now, but when Morocco officially demanded Spain cease the territory to them, the people of Ceuta were up in arms and 87% of the population expressed the sentiment that they considered themselves Spanish and part of the Kingdom of Spain.
Does this start to sound familiar yet?
I couldn’t have made it up. Spain has its own Gibraltar, and it is an outcrop of land on the North African coast. Reading this, I might actually have included it in my trip because it would have been quite funny to go to Spain and be in Britain, and after that go to Morocco and find yourself in Spain. As it was, I had not known about Ceuta when I planned my trip and now there was no time so it would have to wait until later.

Setting foot on a new continent is not something you do very often in your life. Most of us are born on one, so unless you’re from Indonesia, Japan or The Philippines that most likely leaves you with just 5 additional ones to go to.  Having already set foot in North America, Australia and Asia, and not expecting ever to get to Antarctica, Africa was my second last so it was with some excitement that I boarded the ferry to Tangier.  The ferry wasn’t exactly packed, so I easily made my way to the bar. I ordered a Cruzcampo and was asked if this is was my first time going to Morocco. I confirmed that it was and was told by the bartender that I should go to the Border Patrol officer at once, otherwise I would be spending most of the trip in the queue. I thanked him for his advice and went in search of an official looking guy in a uniform but could not find one. I walked around the deck and when I returned to the bar, the barman pointed at a picknick table that had been set up in the bar and was manned by an Arab guy in his mid twenties, dressed in shorts, flip flops and a blue Nike t-shirt. He was armed with a laptop and a rubber stamp and when I gave him my passport he, again, asked if this was my first time in Morocco. When I said yes, he had a brief look through my passport and stamped it without questions. When he returned it he asked me how Holland was these days with a smile on his face that betrayed a certain fondness for the country.


                            Welcome to Morocco

This brings me to a short interlude in the story, which I will use to point out the special relation between Holland and Morocco. Unlike the links left over from colonial history, which explain the large numbers of Indians in Britain, Algerians in France and Indonesians in Holland, Morocco was never connected to the Netherlands in any way. It was, in fact, a French colony until as late as 1956.
From the mid 1960s, however, large numbers of Moroccans moved to the Netherlands to take up the jobs that they could not find at home and that Dutch people were unwilling to do. Most of them expected to work in the Netherlands for a couple of years until the economic situation in Morocco got better, so they could return to their homeland and families with a nice fat bank account, certainly for local standards. Because of this outlook, many of them didn’t put a lot of effort into things like learning the language or integrating fully into Dutch society, which proved to be a bit of a problem when it emerged that the employment situation in Morocco was not going to improve any time soon and a lot of them stayed. In the late 70s and early 80s, under a bilateral agreement between the two countries, a family reunification scheme was developed which allowed the labourers to bring over their families. At the moment, the Moroccan community in the Netherlands is the 3rd biggest, after Turks and migrants from the former colonies in the Carribean like the Dutch Antilles and Surinam, numbering about 400.000 people, or 2.3% of the population.

Because of the large Moroccan population, the Dutch government has allowed a significant exception to their passport regulations. For reasons unclear to me, the Dutch government does not allow its citizens to have double passports. I found this out recently when I enquired about the possibilities of getting an Irish passport. Inspired by friends who are now Polish-Irish, Australian-Irish, Polish-Australian and so on, I thought it would be nice to have an Irish passport to express my loyalty to the country, as I have been living here for nearly a decade now and have no intention of leaving any time soon. Imagine my surprise, then, especially in the light of the ease with which my friends acquired additional passports as if they were fridge magnets, when I raised questions about this with the Dutch embassy and was informed in no uncertain terms that if I considered applying for an Irish passport, they would withdraw my Dutch citizenship at once and I would henceforth be considered a foreigner in the country where I was born.

                                                    Welcome to Holland

Not being intimidated by a faceless burocracy, I pressed the matter further and eventually found that there is a provision that allows me to get an Irish passport and still keep my Dutch nationality, but I would have to get married to an Irish woman. So, unless you plan to marry a foreigner, you can only have a Dutch passport as a Dutch citizen.

Except, that is, if you are of Moroccan descent. Before people start screaming about Moroccans getting away with everything, calm down. There is a good reason for this. When, like me, you migrate permanently, you most likely leave behind a good number of friends and family members and you will miss them. Because of this, you will want to make regular visits to your home country to catch up and say hi and so on. Moroccan people in Holland found themselves caught in a corner. If they did not get naturalisation to the status of Dutch citizen, there would be all kinds of administrative problems with them applying for things, registering for government related programmes etc etc. The problem is though, that by becoming Dutch citizens, they would lose their Moroccan passport, which is something that the Moroccan government sees as treason. I have heard many stories over the years about newly naturalised Dutch Moroccans who arrived in their cars at the very port I was leaving from now, only to be either refused entry into Morocco or have their cars and all their luggage confiscated, on the grounds that they were deemed a threat to the state or something similarly anarchistic, because they had renounced their Moroccan citizenship. To save the situation, the Dutch government created this one exception, allowing Moroccans to have 2 passports so they can visit their family without spending half their holiday in a trench war with the Moroccan border patrol.

With the coveted stamp that guaranteed entry into Morocco, I made my way to the deck to catch some sunshine. We were about to leave the port and the combination of sunshine, sea breeze and excitement made me feel great. I looked over my shoulder to see the ferry port slowly receding behind me and then looked ahead. That was Europe. That is Africa.

Standing on the deck of a ferry in 30 degree heat is a very special sensation. Where ferries in my part of the world are generally hit by sharp and cold gusts of wind coming from the North Atlantic, a ferry across the Mediterranean exposes you to a gentle and warm breeze. I loved it. I walked back inside for a new beer and made my way to the front of the boat. Spain was well behind us now and Africa was not quite visible yet, leaving us in limbo between continents. It was the third time I had passed an international border by boat, but the first time I had actually had my passport checked on the boat itself and ofcourse the first time I had moved between continents by way of water. It all made for a very special boat trip. It was made even better when I noticed a large pod of dolphins swimming alongside the ship. Who needs a special dolphin spotting trip when you can see them from a regular ferry? It was pretty cool to see the dolphins from relatively close by and they seemed to have a good time as well, jumping up from the water and bumping into each other. After looking at the dolphins for a while, I got bored of it and decided to focus on spotting Africa again.
No, I didn’t know either that a group of dolphins is called a pod, I looked it up on

                                                       Here be dolphins

After another stop at the bar, where I had an enjoyable conversation with 2 English guys who were living in Spain and could not quite understand why the people of Gibraltar were so desperately clinging on to their status of being British, I made my way back to the front deck and now noticed that Africa was appearing in the distance, beyond some hazy fog that lay over the water. I could clearly make out mountains but no further details like towns or ports. One of the things I had only found out when I was in Gibraltar, was that Tangier has 2 ferry ports. The regular one, which is right in the city itself, is these days reserved for cruise ships, probably because cruise ship passengers have limited time but a lot of money so the authorities would not want to cut their valuable spending time by having them arrive in Tangier Med, which is 40 kilometers up the coast or 45 minutes on the bus. So Tangier Med port is where we were heading. Not that I had any idea where to look, or what for, ofcourse.

As we approached the Moroccan coast, things started to become more clear. I could make out a settlement here, a fishing port there and the occasional lone building on top of a hill. When it started to become clear that our port wasn’t too far off, I noticed a massive piece of graffiti on the side of a mountain. Well, it wasn’t graffiti in the traditional sense of the word, but some phrase in Arabic was plastered across the side of the mountain in letters the size of houses. I figured it must be some sort of government announcement, or otherwise the Moroccan counterpart of Banksy has really turned it up a notch.
I approached a Moroccan girl who was taking pictures of the coast and asked her if she knew what it was for. She confirmed in perfect English that it was  in fact a message from the government and that it read “FOR GOD, KING AND COUNTRY”. We had a chat and she informed me that she worked in Spain but usually went home to Tangier for the weekend. As there was no work in Tangier, apart from working in a shop or as a waitress in a restaurant, she had decided to move to Spain. This, however, was only a temporary solution, she informed me, as she was just living in Spain until the situation in Morocco got better. She could never settle permanently in Spain and leave Morocco behind. It reminded me of the story of the Moroccans in Holland who moved all those years ago, and were planning to be back home after 5 or 6 years.

                                             Royal graffiti

While I was preparing for this trip, I had read a lot about Tangier, and not just in the McCarthy book.
Tangier is a very old city. I don’t mean that the city as it is now can do with some maintenance; it was a city more than 2000 years ago, when most of today’s major European cities were nothing but marshlands or patches of country side. Over the centuries, Tangier has always been a wanted possession for any empire, mainly due to its strategic position at the entrance and exit of the Mediterranean, thereby giving it the power to decide who could and could not enter. Though it was an indepent city-state for most of its existence, it had been occupied by both the Holy Roman Empire and the East Roman Empire, before coming under Arab control in the 8th century.
After a period of relative calm, several colonial powers tried their hand at it; first Portugal, who conquered the city of Ceuta we discussed earlier, with the clear intention of using it as a launch pad for the conquest of Tangier. It was then taken over by the British who had planned on teaming it up with Gibraltar so that no one could enter or depart the Mediterranean without their permission. As these things tend to go, the local people revolted and the British decided that it wasn’t worth the hassle, especially when the sultan of Morocco launched an attack in an attempt to incorporate Tangier into his country. As a parting shot, the British set off all of their explosives and then set fire to what was left before retreating to places where they were safe from Arabs baying for their blood.
After a period of decline, (the population was as low as 5000 by 1810) Tangier was revived from an unexpected angle when the newly independent United States of America opened their first overseas consulate in Tangier in 1820. Due to its geographical position, Tangier became a hotspot for European embassies in Africa. After another century of fighting, bombing and colonial tug-of-war between Britain, Spain and France, Tangier became a seperate international trade zone in 1923, while Morocco was cut up between Spain and France. After the second world war, Morocco finally became independent from France in 1956 and was joined in this by the city of Tangier, where I was now about to get off the ferry. Clearly, this was a city with a fascinating history.

The modern city, too, had plenty of interesting stories to tell. During the cold war, Tangier was a hotspot for international espionage and smuggling, most likely because it was away from the main centres of power with the convenient addition of lax law enforcement personnel who were easily convinced to look the other way with a small bribe.
I had also spoken to other people who had been there and read through a couple of guide books. Apart from the ubiquitous beggars and petty thieves, the one thing you were supposed to look out for were the ‘guides’, of whom there are plenty according to every source I consulted. Due to the crippling poverty in Tangier, and the absence of  employment opportunities for anyone who isn’t connected to the owner of a shop or restaurant, lots of men try to make some money by showing you around the city for a fee. This may sound like a decent proposal for the average traveller who doesn’t know the way around this chaotic city, but stories abound of this not going as people think it might. A lot of people, not used to having to pay for directions, find themselves confronted by angry guides who demand money. Even when a price has been negotiated, guides often ask for more for services that have allegedly been provided, such as tips on where to go next, or where to eat. Then there are the people who want to see the medina or the kasbah, and are taken into this confusing maze of alleyways and then asked for extortionate amounts in order to be guided back to the city proper. Finally, the vilest trick that is played on tourists is that they are being shown somewhere by a guide and, while the guide is pointing out a feature, or has gone inside a tea shop to negotiate a good price, are mugged. When the guide returns, he insists on pursuing the bad guys to get back your possessions, runs off and is then never seen again, arguably because he is splitting the loot with his buddies who robbed you in the first place.

While I thought this over on the bus, I couldn’t imagine a seasoned traveller like me being all too phazed by this. I’ve been around and seen my share of persistent beggars, homeless people and other con men, so it would take a lot more to fool me. On top of that, I had clear instructions from the hostel on how to get there: From the bus station, take a taxi to the car park of the Continental Hotel, cross the street, take the first right, then the first left and then right again. The Continental sounded like a an American hotel chain, so I would probably be looking for a 15 or 20 story hotel tower, with a car park the size of a football pitch. I would cross the car park, go right, left and right again and arrive at the hostel, probably situated above a shop or office, where a nice cold beer would be waiting for me.
Easy, Right?

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