As tempting as it was to drink Moroccan beer in our hotel’s sky bar until our bar tab demanded our entire travel budget, Will and I decided to do what we had set out to do, and explore a region different to home. We hadn’t researched Tangier as much as the rest of the country, and at every turn, we found something new, sometimes unsettling, but at others simply beautiful.
We strolled along the sun-stricken coast, ducking under buildings to hide in their shade. Shops lined our walk where merchants sold ornaments and household appliances. There were a few tourist shops with minimal souvenirs and an abundance of cafes with Wi-Fi and outdoor seating. Across the road, the beach lay abandoned. The lunchtime heat proved too much. Our exploration continued until we reached a paved hill overrun with the only tourists we’d seen outside of our hotel. Naturally, fearing we were missing something, we followed them.
The shade vanished, and we stood atop the hill with slopes heading towards a bustling souk surrounded by cracked buildings. The sun glowed above. The walls around the town were old, as old as buildings in Europe are, but European architecture doesn’t show its age as though it was built to survive bombing campaigns and diseases. Europe was rebuilt over the years. This was history in the present, bulging at the seams as people were forced from the narrow main streets into the smaller thinner alleys and discovered something new and different down a road they’d never have travelled without the push.
We were at the gates of the Medina. I’d seen it labelled on our map, but it seemed further away than our brisk walk suggested. The shops and intermittent coffee breaks shortened the length of a relatively short stroll. Excited at visiting one of the oldest neighbourhoods in Tangier, we raced towards the white archway preventing taxis from taking tourists further. Shops sold lights, furniture, traditional textiles, ornaments, handmade jewellery, spices, postcards, water and anything a local found or made to sell. Every shop, different, yet somehow, the same.
As soon as we passed under the archway into the Medina, an older resident who spoke with a basic level of English followed us. The colour in his clothes had faded, and his sandals allowed dust to gather around his feet. ‘You need a guide,’ he said. ‘These streets can get confusing. It is like a how you say, a maze. Where are you from?’
‘Very far away,’ he said. ‘I’ve lived in the Medina my whole life. I know the streets well but not much English. This way.’ We tried to explain we were okay alone, and we were looking to explore Tangier and happened to find ourselves here, but he dismissed our concerns. ‘Tangier’s a beautiful place,’ he said. ‘Morocco is very beautiful. You’ll have a great time.’
His words pulled us from every direction we attempted to turn and into the path he wanted us to follow. Our protests continued, but the stranger kept talking and inviting us to follow him. This experience was as foreign to us as the city itself, but we didn’t know how to stray from him. The simple act of conversation kept us engaged and bound to our unofficial guide.
‘I think we’ll be okay from here,’ Will said. ‘Thank you for showing us around.’
‘Okay,’ the man said. ‘I don’t have much money, let me show you my shop and then if you want to buy something, you buy, if not, you go, but let me show you my shop. It’s just this way.’
The narrow streets were still crowded and sloping, and as much as we didn’t want to follow the stranger, the cramped alleys, bulging with tourists never proved too much of a threat.
‘Tourists always think Morocco is unsafe,’ the man said, ‘but Tangier is a very safe place. We have kidnappings, but they’re down south in the desert where no one goes. Morocco is very safe. Tangier, Fez, Casablanca, and Marrakech are the safest places on earth.’
The shops began to fade. Less of them sold postcards. The women who sold textiles and children’s toys replaced by women on front steps snapping dust out of clothing. The last shop we passed sold light fixtures from a time before ours.
‘My shop is just around the corner,’ our guide said.
Will and I glanced at each other. We’d unintentionally walked into a place teeming with tourists and ended up deep inside one of the oldest neighbourhoods in Morocco with a stranger who didn’t speak English, but it was just around a sloping corner, what’s the worst that could happen? We’d lost the tourists at the last turning, or was it the turning before? Neither of us could remember. The man pulled us around another corner, and then another.
‘This is it,’ the man said. ‘This is my shop.’
Darkness shrouded the alleyway. Even the sun knew it had no place in this part of the ancient Medina. White lion statues stood outside watching over jewellery and wallets strewn across a table, but the man ushered us into the shop before we had a chance to browse the accessories. In the doorway sat a larger built man who never smiled or acknowledged us.
The man we’d followed introduced the grumpy stranger as his friend. ‘Don’t speak,’ our unofficial guide said, and it sounded abrupt with his limited grasp of English. ‘He wouldn’t understand, no English.’
Poorly coloured merchandise stacked on shelves and tables greeted us as we entered the dimly lit room. A tiger skin stretched across a wall to the right of the entrance. The statues outside blocked the only window. Leather bags hung from the ceiling. The shop felt cramped with limited space for us to move as though it was designed to prevent an easy escape, and we’d have to claw our way through leather purses and Lion statues.
‘This way,’ the man said again. ‘This is my friends’ shop; my shop is upstairs.’ Will and I glanced at each other and then around the premises. There was no visible staircase.
‘This way, come,’ a collection of voices said. Then, five younger faces emerged from behind the tiger skinned rug. All of them dressed in colourful robes, except a heavily bearded youngster sporting a white gown. The man who led us here stepped back and edged us forward.
‘No,’ Will said. And we scurried out through leather and statues and past the man at the front door who let us out without a fight and with a broad grin.
Will led us the way the stranger had taken us, but the streets all looked the same. We’d turn so many corners; we’d lost track and turned down whatever avenue appeared as though it led to tourists. If in doubt, follow the crowd, but there were no crowds, no signposts, and nothing that stuck out to us. There was a light shop, but every other shop sold the same style of lights.
We turned a corner, and another and nothing looked new, or familiar. We’d followed a stranger into the maze and fled him long after we should have; we should’ve left him when the postcards were still visible. Now we tried to find our way out of the cobbled streets alone. Another turning, and the roads began to widen. Doorways had numbers painted beside them. There were no shops in this part of the Medina. Kids ran around, kicking a ball and screaming.
Will and I slowed our pace, relaxed, as though we weren’t lost and content to be free from the darkened streets of the shop that was empty at first. It wasn’t the darkness that threw us; it was the strangeness of it all. All of it was new to us. A stranger in a foreign country led us into to a shadowy alleyway and into a shop with a man who wouldn’t smile to greet us before another group ran down the stairs eager to drag upstairs and out of sight. There’re no maybes about it, we overreacted, but sometimes paranoia can save your life.
‘It’s closed,’ a squeaky voice shouted. We kept walking. More kids’ voices squeaked in the distance. ‘The road is closed. You can’t go this way.’
More corners, and the numbers on doors greatened. Stone buildings stretched four floors. People glared at us. More kids sprinted towards us, screaming at us that we couldn’t go this way, or that the road ahead was closed. There was no sign, no information except a faded line scribbled across the floor with red paint. A man a little older than us paced towards us and recognised we were lost.
‘You can’t come this way. We live here. Follow the line.’
We followed the red line as the sun bore down on us, and it led us back to him. The man snickered and waved his arm, urging us to follow him, and we found ourselves navigating around more corners. The streets had widened and let more light through to the ground. Sweat poured, and my tongue felt dry. My heart raced. All I wanted was to find the way out of this place and some water, but our new guide led us around more twists and turns, and up inclined cobbled roads until we reached a steep staircase stretching up to the third-floor houses.
‘Is it much further?’ I asked.
‘It’s just up here,’ he said, lazily lifting his arm to point, as I panted and felt my heartbeat through my skin. The dehydration had got to me.
We climbed the stairs, panting as sweat dripped from our foreheads, but the annoyance of our physiology couldn’t stem our delight from the sight of the sun bouncing off the blue sea. Cars whizzed by in the distance, and boys laughed around another staircase carved into the cliff. Kids ran around with a lone goat, weaving in and out of trees with green and brown leaves on the cliff’s edge.
‘Go there,’ the man said, pointing to a white brick doorframe with gravelled walls, but we stood and admired the sight of tourists flocking to the large archway opposite into the Medina. It was easy to believe we may not have found the way out of the oldest neighbourhood ourselves.
‘Thank you,’ Will and I said in unison, and we traipsed towards the sea.
‘Hey,’ the man exclaimed, and we turned to see him smiling at the top of the staircase with a lit cigarette. ‘You need to pay.’
Will and I tried to explain that we didn’t ask him for his help, but the man shrugged and stared at the crowd congregating by the new staircase. The men sat around the edge of the cliff, glared at us and laughed harder. They urged us to pay the man for his time. Will handed the man a faded green Moroccan note and said it was all we had, but our guide smirked and wandered off down the staircase.
We hopped down the stairs to the main road and headed for the sea. We were on the opposite side of the Medina. It was going to turn into a long walk home, searching for water and trying to avoid the sun.
‘Why didn’t we go upstairs?’ Will asked, as cars sped by and waves crashed into the shore.