Wednesday, May 26, 2004

The Strait of Gibraltar

If it were thousands of years ago, I have little doubt that the people of Gibraltar would worship their rock as a god. Walking around, it is always with you, a looming presence of mostly tree-covered white rock that also makes a good guide if you get lost. The Rock of Gibraltar is what led not only to Gibraltar's current prosperity, but to its very existence as a unique territory in the world, for it is on its account that Britain took the small peninsula from Spain in 1704, giving rise to a distinct cultural identity, British with a Spanish flavor.

Spain, of course, wants Gibraltar back, and the legacy of that dispute is visible today in the travel possibilities around the Strait of Gibraltar. On the north side, you have Gibraltar and the Spanish cities of Algeciras and Tarifa, while on the south you have the Moroccan port of Tangier and the Spanish enclaves of Ceuta and Melilla. All of these are thoroughly interconnected except Gibraltar, which is connected only to Tangier by ferry. No ferries ply the waters between Gibraltar and Ceuta, and to go overland to the Spanish town of La Linia you must walk or drive yourself.

The Gibraltarians, however, want no part of Spain, which they derisively refer to as "Tomatoland." And aside from the fact most speak Spanish, there is very little reason why they should, as Britain has been the main cultural influence. Gibraltar's brightly painted churches and cathedrals are mainly Protestant; the only sign of Catholicism I saw was a bar called "The Angry Friar," next to a building called the "Convent Guardhouse" with two cannons outside. Gibraltar is one of those places where the taxi drivers double as tour guides, and the one we had stated firmly that no matter what Britain and Spain agreed on, it wouldn't matter because they would have to listen to the people of Gibraltar who ardently desired to remain British. It's also interesting that the greatest event in Gibraltarian history is apparently the Great Siege of the 1700's, and many are the stories told of the deeds wrought by the Gibraltarian people as they sought to remain free of Spanish control during that deparate time.

The town itself is nice if cramped. Real estate is at a premium, so they brought in Dutch experts to raise the ocean floor and literally build on to the territory to the west. Despite this, there is still space for a large botanical garden patrolled by cats under the protection of a local cat welfare society. The rock itself is also reserved mainly for its scenery. After you pass through the Jews Gate, so named for a recent discovery of a few hidden Jewish graves near it, you find yourself by the Caves of St. Michael, used for military purposes during World War II, and a short distance away from the home of a bunch of small Barbary apes, who climb around near the level where the peak becomes cloud-covered and tend to surprise tourists by climbing onto their shoulders.

Because of Gibraltar's population shortage, they have to import labor. Historically they have brought in Spaniards, but during a time when Spain closed the border, they brought in Moroccans instead, and today many of these remain, serving in restaurants or cleaning hotel rooms in the shadows of society. When you consider the fact that these workers are generally fluent in at least one or two European languages, the inequality of opportunity in the world becomes clear: A bright student in the U.S. always thinks of becoming a college-educated professional of some sort, while in Morocco they might hope for that or they might hope to become a waiter in a Western restaurant.

If the Moroccans in Europe are often invisible, the Europeans in Tangier stick out dramatically, sauntering in tour groups through the old city, dressed in shorts and tank tops in a society known for its reserved dress and making comments at customs like "It's always surprising to see the Arabs in police uniforms inspecting us." Thanks to frequently advertised day trips from Europe, Tangier is the only Moroccan city many Europeans see, and as someone commented to me before I left, this is rather unfortunate.

According to a bit of tourist literature, when Samuel Pepys was governor here, he described it as "the excresence of the earth." It is Morocco's rough edge, and as you arrive at the port, you are met immediately by an army of hustlers, all promising deals on hotels, taxis, and in shops, while in reality the prices will be inflated because they get a commission in addition to whatever they wring out of you. I almost made it out without difficulty, but then a cop started insisting I was going the wrong way, gesturing back into the port. I later deduced he was wrong, but at the time as he kept gesturing wildly felt little choice but to listen to a hustler who took me through another gate, then followed me all the way into a cheap hotel. Financial damage was minimal, as I managed to knock the room price down to what it would have been in Jordan; more annoying was the clamor made outside my room by the hustler and another who had joined us en route as they demanded large (by Moroccan standards) amounts of cash.

This is partly the effects of geography on Tangier, for throughout not only Morocco but all Africa there are poor and desperate people who see a job in Europe as the key to success. Many make it to Tangier but are never able to hop the Strait, becoming even poorer and more desperate as they've whatever savings they had getting here. Tangier was also an international city for a long time, so its cultural notes are about Rolling Stones concerts in the kasbah and the like. As a result you can leave a restaurant where Africans gather at night to talk about Ghana's soccer team and watch James Bond movies to wander over to the Petit Socco, where men sit drinking vast amounts of tea and coffee, while hustlers badger you with offers of marijuana.

If, however, you concluded this was all there was to Tangier, you would be wrong. For lunch Saturday I wandered into a restaurant across from a mosque where I had a good conversation with another customer and the owner, who together had enough understanding of my Arabic/ability to make themselves understood that we could talk. Looking closely at the hustlers, it seems clear that even those who use their services don't care for them. At a place overlooking the port; fro, which you could see ferries coming in, huge ships at anchor, and fishermen out in the distance, a deaf young man started pointing stuff out to me, then gestured for me to follow. I knew he was a hustler but was curious, and noticed him rub his fingers together as we passed an old man, who sighed with a bit of irritation. We got to the old man's shop, the hustler gestured for me to enter, I declined, and shopkeeper actually looked at me with respect. As I was leaving the young man started pestering me for money. I decided to give him 2 dirhams more as charity than anything else, and when the guy turned to the shopkeeper to angrily protest the paltry sum, the shopkeeper shrugged a very clear "not so bad," while looking at me with respect again.

All of that could have been just another routine (Tangier makes you suspicious), but it was a common pattern I noticed in the city, that bystanders would appear concerned/annoyed when hustlers would approach me, then relieved/respectful as I ducked their offers. Their work sucking dry the tourists is not highly regarded in Moroccan society (which of course has many businessmen who would prefer to have the profits from the most gullible customers all to themselves).

But I was still glad to get out of the place where Europe and Morocco meet and reach areas where Morocco is just Morocco. So now I am in Fez, where I am doing a private study in medieval Arabic at the Arabic Language Institute in a part of the Villa Nouvelle overlooking the old city. But more of that later...


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