I have powdered my groin with sugar and cinnamon.
Open-minded chap though I am, I didn’t do it deliberately. No, it was an accident, the result of taking to my dinner with a knife and a little too much enthusiasm. I’ve been here before. In this restaurant but also right here, facing a plate of this – cinnamon, fine sugar, pastry, nuts and…chicken.
It’s a pastilla, and I find myself back where I first discovered this unusual Moroccan dish, here with my parents and K. I’ve since tried it in other places but nowhere is it as good as here. I say unusual but let’s be honest; it’s downright bizarre. I eat it, as I ate it the first time, in a fitful series of giggles and sighs. I find myself having to take little breaks in order to mentally process my meal. I rest my head in my hand. I look at each of my fellow diners. Are they seeing this? Can they believe it?
You can keep your grubworms and your candied scorpions; this is food at its most surprising, challenging and wonderful. A tablet made of pastry, a disc filled with the aforementioned ingredients and who-knows-what spices and layered on its upper surface (piled, heaped) with dusty sweetness – a checkerboard of brown from the bark of the cinnamomum verum and the white of the sugar.
A significant quantity of which, I’m embarrassed to note, has ended up on my groin. The first cut of my knife into the pastilla’s brittle shell has produced a spice cloud that has descended upon me. I look like the messy one at a cocaine party. With what I hope is a modicum of dignity, I wipe the offending area and return to my chicken cake.
After a memorable evening, the five a.m. call to prayer rouses me. It doesn’t take much – I’ve had a restless night of stuttering sleep snatches and unsettling dreams; the amplified voice of the muezzin is welcome. Later, at breakfast, my fellow guests will complain about it in a good-natured way – the earliness of it, the loudness. I like it.
I’ve spent some time in a number of Muslim countries and the call, though formulaic, is never the same. This muezzin’s delivery is unusually spare; there is almost no decorative flourish as he repeats Allahu Akbar, then Ash-hadu an-la ilaha illa llah, then Ash-hadu anna Muħammadan-Rasulullah, and so on. He completes each phrase with a long, sustained note and ascends the scale by a quarter tone (don’t quote me on the technical details: I’m trying to paint a picture here) at the end so that his call terminates a tone or so higher than when it began. The minimal approach is mesmerizing.; it might just be one of my favourite calls to prayer.
A few moments later, the second call and somewhere out there, prayers begin.
There has to be an element of ego to all of this, a pride taken in a call well called. A little bit of research reveals that these men can indeed achieve fame and that their minaret performances are sold as recordings all over the Arab world. That people quite happily sit and listen. I find myself coming up with album titles: The Incomparable Vocal Stylings of Hassan Mahmoud Mulla, or perhaps An Evening (and Morning, and Afternoon) with Sayid ibn Binyamin ibn Abd al-Aziz, or maybe Now That’s What I Call a Call to Prayer!
And so on. After breakfast we wander the souks. If you’ve never been to Tangier, you may nevertheless have encountered it. In a cinema, or on your sofa. Although not easy to corroborate, there are plenty who believe that a certain Bogart/Bergman classic was actually based on this city, hotbed of wartime and post-war espionage that it was during its International Zone years – the same International Zone that was to become the Interzone of William Burroughs’ Naked Lunch.
It is utterly unique, at least in my experience. Outside one of Morocco’s best preserved medinas a city sprawls that has seen better days, through cosmopolitan expat neighborhoods, the old international district and a very new Islamic city. Tangier’s most famous expatriate resident, Paul Bowles, lived here for most of his adult life and, perhaps more than anyone else, exemplified the hedonism and contradictory nature of the place.
It isn’t our first time and as we navigate the alleys of the medina we are able to be, if not quite found, then at least a little less lost. Interzone is gone, along with the spies and the artists who made a home here. An expatriate community remains, made up of the less renowned but possibly more useful as the city begins to revive itself, but the Casablanca connection is reinforced when we step into a three story emporium of jewels, carpets and antiques that seems, unless my eyes deceive me, to be owned and run by Peter Lorre.
Perhaps I exaggerate the likeness. His name is Magid and that is also the name of his shop. He doesn’t quite have Lorre’s eyes but he has that unctuous, velvety way about him, not to mention the fez. I’m not sure for a moment whether I’m in Tangier or Casablanca.
Across the way, in Merenides, antiques and design crafts are offered à prix fixe, so no haggling is necessary. Downside is we can’t afford anything. On to Besou, then Bleu Fes. A day in the souk – as usual I buy little (a bottle of argan oil in the market and a plain tagine) but, as usual, I enjoy the rigmarole.
The following morning I sit with K on a balcony overlooking the Socco Grande and the Sidi Bouabid mosque. We are each enjoying a six euro beer. Muslim country. The buildings on the other side of the open space, shabby and dusty and in something approaching an art deco style, are largely a mystery to us although we do know a café down there, and a pastry place. Away from the obvious charms of the medina, where the Tangiers of the International Zone and all that intrigue begins, more discoveries await. The ferry is expensive but really, it’s our nearest city and we don’t come enough. We promise each other that we will return as soon as we can, and there is absolutely no doubt in my mind what I’ll be having for dinner when we do.Follow @RobinJGraham