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Las Manchas

In Plenary, Presentation on April 24, 2014 at 9:41 am

Las Manchas

In Tangier, a body in a blanket: borne through the souk at shoulder height, a brisk pace and accompanied by boisterous call and response. Later, from our room, the sound of women’s chant in some adjacent house and of their ululating – whether in mourning or in celebration of come unconnected event I do not know.

We eat in the courtyard of the women’s charity and amble afterwards around now familiar shops. I buy incense and K lamps, and a wet, grey day opens up into sunshine. They call it the white city but there’s a good deal of clutter in the colour and a good dose of yellow and brown, as if the city were an ageing photo of itself, sunk into a geriatric tint and turned sepia.

It’s good to be back; we’ve been down the coast a little, in Asilah, a resort town with Portuguese and Spanish history and a beautifully maintained medina, although I suppose it could be accused of being a little sanitised – certainly so in comparison with its crumbling counterpart in Tangier. We’ve spent a pleasant couple of days there in what is essentially a typical seaside town but with added Moroccan intrigue.

Sitting outside the old walls with two tall mint teas, for instance, at around eight in the evening, the quintessential seaside promenade; it seemed the whole place was out. A steady trickle of foreign visitors like ourselves, affluent young Moroccan couples in town for a getaway, women dressed in Muslim bling, families with their children – girls hanging on to their mothers’ arms and looking up adoringly while their sullen brothers walked a few steps behind in a sulk or with a little more cheer played leader out in front,fathers walking along looking either proprietorial or like a spare part, depending on how you chose to read their blank expressions.

The town’s popularity with the Spanish has made it cosmopolitan in some respects, and its regular art festivals leave their mark in the form of countless murals, but the locals looked like a conservative bunch – women covered up and men in djellabas or preppy slack and sweater combinations. There was a notice in the reception of our hotel, advising that Muslim couples who wanted to share a room would need to produce a marriage certificate. Another notice in the bathroom castigated the tourist, in comical English, for ruining the towels with their newly acquired henna tattoos, and ended with four words which could have been either an expression of utter contempt or one of undying love: “Your stain is permanent.”

Sitting in the medina’s central square one morning I noticed that workers had congregated to put up some barriers, set out some chairs and assemble a makeshift stage. I wondered out loud what it might be they were preparing for and K took a moment out from her pastry to look up.

“Perhaps it’s a stoning,” she observed, drily.

Her quip was no doubt a result of our shared frustration at the difficulty in getting hold of a beer in this Muslim town. It’s astonishing how important being told you can’t have a beer can make beer seem. We walked the length and breadth of that town looking for one without any luck. Don’t get me wrong – we saw a lot of beer. There are restaurants all along the front that sell it. But they wouldn’t serve it to us, because we weren’t eating there. We learned later that standard practice is to go to one of these places, order a saucer of fish or whatever, and proceed to get hammered.

But how were we to know? Eventually, we found a little shop and got some takeaways to drink in secretive seclusion, back in our room. A tiny little place without signage of any kind on the front or smiles of any kind on the faces if its staff.

“It’s like queueing up for your methadone,” was K’s verdict, and although we had our beer at last, and despite finding Asilah very beautiful, we were beginning to look forward to Tangier, and familiar territory.

Dean’s Bar doesn’t look a bit like Rick’s Café of Casablanca fame, although it may well have been the inspiration for it. The piano is gone and I sit in the windowless back room sipping Tangier’s most reasonably priced brew – you can pay six euros for a small bottle in some places – with K beside me and a couple of middle-aged, dour-looking men at other tables. Out front the bar is busy and there are tapas but no bohemian expats or spies in evidence. That Tangier has vanished with the piano but pilgrimages like this place remain, apparently indelible though I suppose they too will disappear eventually.

In the meantime they draw me here, thrilled to be downing a bottle of Flag inches from a mark on the table that Tennessee Williams might have made, or Francis Bacon, or Ian Fleming. A few feet from where William Burroughs was refused service because Joseph Dean, the probably Egyptian cross-dresser with the fake name, didn’t like the look of him.

Perversely, although Tangier is a much better bet for a beer than Asilah, we come unstuck when we try to combine a drink with something to eat. Our usual place in the medina is closed and obvious alternatives are either too expensive or too far away. It’s late and kitchens here close early, and a fraught half hour of debate culminates in the bustle of the Socco Grande with me screaming blue murder at a taxi driver, and getting back out of his moving car, and giving up on the idea of wine with dinner, and heading a couple of streets south for a fish restaurant I have heard about where we take a seat and try to calm down and are served the best John Dory I’ve ever eaten, entertained by the jocular owner till we find ourselves in a good mood again, in spite of our sobriety.

Strolling afterwards, the door to Dean’s is just a little too dark to be inviting. I suggest another pilgrimage: the Tanger Inn, where the likes of Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg took a drink, and which in subsequent years became a knocking shop frequented by middle aged men with a taste for Moroccan boys. They’ve gone now too but the bar remains a stop for the literary tourist in this wonderfully seedy city. Knowing I haven’t the faintest idea how to get there, K is sceptical.

“It’s a bit late,” she says, and she’s right. I would like to tick it off my list, though.

“Ok, but next time we go to the gay brothel, yes?”

“Yes, alright darling.”

In the morning, torrential rain. We’re lucky and avoid the worst of it, making our way downhill through the medina and to the port between two heavy downpours. The large windows of the domed port building frame Tangier. From here it is indeed a white city, from the heights of the kasbah on our right through the cascading old town and right along the corniche which crescents the bay to our left. They are building a marina here that will almost certainly transform the city, such is its scale. A new chapter, but I hope those marks of old Tangier, those traces, are not completely erased. The ferry pulls out and the water is jade green beneath a gun metal sky, smeared with rain showers out on the Strait.

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