One of the charms of visiting different cultures is exploring the hidden nooks and crannies and discovering areas of well used and tarnished, but living, cultural landscapes. One of those areas could once be found in the old harbour area of Tangiers, a centuries old sanctuary of buccaneering. The harbour once contained a boat repair yard which was a veritable graveyard for unrepairable boats and a busy, noise filled area for boats actually being repaired. All boats would be monolithic chunks of sculpted wood designed to survive the uncompromising seas, tides and weathers around the confluence of the Atlantic Ocean and the Mediterranean sea.
All the boats contained veritable scars and welts from their travails; battered and split wooden hulls, scratched and striated coats of paint demonstrating different levels of decay. The repair process was arduous and time-consuming, though boat owners, chandlers and carpenters never seemed in a hurry. There was a timelessness and the yard seemed exactly the same irrespective of the number of times visited or the months between each visit.
My last visit there was several years ago where I met a friend Liesbeth and we ate mackerel from one of the small cafes that lined its walls. As we ate, the bite from the sea salt on the breeze merged with the smell of wood and tarps, and the the heavy smell of diesel. What sprang out from this semi-industrial landscape was the adornment of colours and writings on the hulls of many of the boats. It was like a picture gallery.
Several weeks ago I wrote a blog post regarding Emily Keane, the Sharifa of Ouezzane, an English woman who, in a remarkable story, married one of the most powerful and spiritual men in Morocco. The post can be read here.
Her husband was the Sharif of Ouezzane, Hadj Ahmed Ben Abdeslam, an exalted and powerful religious leader directly descended from the Prophet Mohammed. His religious order formally resided in Ouezzane, a town in northern Morocco on the edge of the Rif mountains, famous for olive and wool production. The Sharif’s former 3 wives continued to live in Ouezzane, and after their marriage in 1873 the Sharif and 23 year old Emily chose to spend most of their time living in Tangier with their 2 sons.
In Tangier the family lived across several homes, including the Zaouia of Ouezzaniyya and the Dâr Damânah. The Dâr Damânah, however, is more than a house; it is a divine agreement, confirmed in a visionary visit from the Prophet Mohammed himself, that ancestral baraka, or sanctity, should continue to pass down through the family of the Grand Sharif from generation to generation. The Prophet decreed that the family’s house should be designated for ever Dar-el-Demana (house of surety), a token of this agreement, and a title the direct descendants bear to this day. It is held in the highest veneration throughout Morocco, Algeria, Tunis, Tripoli, Egypt, Turkey and India.
The Dâr Damânah and family home of the Sharif and Emily is in the Marshan area in Tangier.
Many cities of any size in Morocco have a Medina ‘quarter’; these are distinct city sections which are often the oldest part of the city, walled, with maze like streets and relatively car free. Many cultural, historical and architecturally interesting features can be found in medinas.
A stimulating and visually interesting aspect of walking Moroccan medinas is viewing the colours and street art used to decorate the many alleys and lanes. More than just brightening up inner city thoroughfares it has been suggested that colours are used intentionally as tourist and cultural branding exercises, and that cities are recognised often internationally due to their colours. Examples of this are Chefchaouen, world famous for its blue walls, and Marrakesh, well known for its red colour. Other reasons and explanations for the adoption of colour schemes include reflecting local natural colours, influences from local or national religious associations, regional cultural influences and influence of colour from sub-saharan African contexts.
I made the journey to Interzone from Tarifa across the 11 mile stretch of Atlantic where, in the distance, the Rif mountains stood in a coruscating haze of a bright September day. Interzone is an area where sea, ocean and cultures collide.
Tangier was an International Zone from 1912 to 1956 and became the destination for many European and American spies, writers, artists and musicians. It enjoyed a reputation for hedonism where any pleasure was readily available. Indeed author William S. Burroughs who lived for long spells in Tangier, wrote, “Tangier is one of the few places left in the world where, so long as you don’t proceed to robbery, violence, or some form of crude, antisocial behaviour, you can do exactly what you want.”
It was almost 2 years ago that I was in Morocco on the occasion of the Muslim celebration of Eid al Adha, more commonly known as the Feast of Sacrifice, a celebration of significant importance in the Arab world which marks the end of the annual Hajj pilgrimage.
I had crossed into Africa by ferry from the Spanish port of Tarifa and completely by accident found myself at the beginning of the preparations for the festival in Tangier. Sheep and goats were herded through the city streets, loaded into cars and busses and chased through the colourful narrow streets of the medina. Adults and children were excited as the animals neared their own homes, children rushed to greet them and local families keenly watched as sheep and goats were tethered outside in the medina. Residential areas became temporary livestock quarters. In the Muslim cemetery adjacent to the strikingly green Marshan Mosque hundreds of feted but fey animals grazed on the grasses between gravestones, shepherds watching and ensuring their short term safety. Walking back into the city, the spinning wheels of grinding machines noisily announced the incipient celebration as men queued with knives at the roadside hardware shops lining the Avenue d’Anglettere.