Birds sing, branches sigh and darkness drinks up the red wine of sunset.
Muhammad ibn Ghalib al – Rusafi (d. 1177)
Five weeks ago, I set off on an adventure I’d long dreamed of.
My fascination with travel began the moment I left school, where I boarded a plane from Australia and set off for a year in England. Throughout that year I found places such as Paris, and Rome and Athens and all that is beautiful and brimming with history, on a continent so far from home, but one that felt incredibly familiar right from the moment we first met.
A few years later I made my first of many visits to India, on another continent, where I became enchanted with not only the colours that were associated with even the most dreadful situations, but also the sounds and the smells and most of all, the deep seated history that quite often haunted me with each corner turned.
In India, it became clear that millions of people had trodden the same path before me and while nothing was original, it also wasn’t contrived, and I tripped over my feet as things happened with such rapid spontaneity that I often felt as if I was in a dream.
Each time that I leave India, I feel an indescribable feeling, as if I’m leaving a piece of me behind.
In Josephine’s Istanbul apartment all those years ago, we spoke about the beauty of India and the fashion in which it simply captures the heart in ways that are often hard to explain – we agreed that India has made it difficult for any other place to size up to when it comes to measuring magic. When we spoke of Morocco, she urged me to come here – ‘you’ll find bits of it there’.
One afternoon, I told her about an old friend of our family, ‘he lives in Tangier,’ I chirped, ‘has done for years’.
Her aeroplane mask slowly moved away from her eyes, when no more than ten minutes later, a documentary about Tangier came onto the television screen. Michael Palin spoke of a city where eccentricity is celebrated and where for many decades, expatriates have lived amongst locals in a fabulous fusion – for years and years they have trodden the cobblestones of the Grande Socco, and most are now considered locals themselves.
On the television screen, a rooster trotted along the top of a sofa in a room full of books as his master spoke of his love of Tangier.
‘That’s Jonathan,’ I said to Josephine, as she lit another cigarette. Her eyes flashed blue as they did in rare moments of happiness, before she pulled her aeroplane mask away from her face, pretending not to be intrigued. ‘You’d better go to Morocco,’ she told me, after I woke her from what I thought was a deep sleep. One eye cocked, she’d watched the whole thing from a gap in the left corner of her mask.
Two weeks ago, I left the north eastern Moroccan city of Fès and its (often) haunting winding cobblestoned alleyways that can frequently lead to nowhere. In Fès, I found scents belonging to seemingly no one wafting under my nose, as ghosts from a thousand different pasts danced ever present through it’s medina; a wonderland set amongst medieval Marinid architecture, vibrant souks and old world atmosphere. I happened upon rich academic history when I stumbled across the 14th century Bou Inania as well as the Al Attarine, while searching for a celebrated leather store that I’d written into my travel notes.
At the end of my stay in Fès, a blind man whose eyes flashed white drove me to the train, wishing me good luck in Tanger as we neared the station. ‘Inshallah à Tanger, bon voyage à Tanger Madame, Inshallah’. Little did he know, I was nodding at his Inshallah’s for different reasons and to this day, I still don’t know how he can drive a car for a living with so little vision.
The train trip from Fès to ‘Ton- jee’ is five hours in duration, which includes a one hour stopover in Sidi Kassel- a tiny little village where I found birds chirping on cables overhead, pausing their chatter only to flutter into the distance as the 3.07pm to Marrakech rumbled through the station.
The landscape began to change as we neared Tangier at dusk. Rolling hills were rich and green and my eyes danced as I counted rows and rows of gum trees, which soon turned to olives, before the great mass of white wash that is the city of Tangier loomed in the distance. I felt it’s lure, well before I’d stepped off the train.
Jonathan Dawson towered over everyone on the platform at the train station, his hair combed back and a neck tie arranged with precision, lead to a smart coat and trousers, finished with shoes so shiny that I could have used them as a mirror. ‘I didn’t need to even try to guess which one was you,’ he said, linking his arm in mine, ‘you’re the image of your mother’. To return the compliment with ‘you’re also the image of your mother,’ would have sounded rather odd, but I remember Jonathan’s mother with such fondness and she too was tall, handsome and utterly charming.
Walking towards a 35 year old Renault parked at an angle at the edge of the station, we were met by Tariq, a divine man who has been nothing short of completely helpful since the moment I arrived- just yesterday he took me through the instructions of my mobile phone card, where he tried not to laugh at my pathetic attempts at understanding instructions in Arabic.
‘Do you mind if we go straight to drinks,’ Jono asked, as Tariq heaved my suitcase into the car in the same moment that I stepped into a puddle of mud. ‘Not at all,’ I replied, ‘even though I look like a gypsy’. ‘You look ravishing,’ he assured me, as we chugged through the traffic and into the distance.
And suddenly, I was being introduced to what felt like a thousand new friends in a beautiful flat, high above the medina, on the eve of the Easter weekend. One woman took me through the importance of using ‘tu, not vous,’ when speaking French in Morocco, ‘you’ll sound provincial and silly using formal Parisian french,’ she warned. The following day at a wonderful, intimate lunch at the beautiful Tangier home of an English interior designer, a writer visiting from London chuckled when I told him this tale, ‘oh, I’d rather be provincial – all the more reason to stick to vous,’ he laughed, as I admired his beautiful three piece green linen suit. Well, he’d been eyeing off my gold socks in church – where on earth did I find them?
With Jono going through what he calls ‘a catholic revival,’ he’d marched off to the cathedral on Easter Sunday, and I made my way to St. Andrews, the ‘English church’ in comfortable shoes, gold socks (I’ve got ten matching pairs from Paris, and brought them all to Morocco) and a mental list of people I needed to say hello to – ‘you’ll see so many people there, do send my love,’ he told me as we parted ways after coffee.
Not certain how I’d know ‘everyone,’ having arriving in Tangier less than 48 hours earlier, I walked through the beautiful gardens of the English church, bathing in the sunlight which threw teasing glimpses of warmth through palm fronds and other types of greenery above. Headstones were littered throughout these pretty gardens, where I read names more suited to the births deaths and marriages of a British newspaper than a town in North Africa. Moments earlier, I’d waded through a market outside the gate of St. Andrews run by Berber women selling vegetables.
The church was packed full of Tangier locals and their Easter guests, and Jono was right, I did recognise almost everyone – kisses were planted on both cheeks during the moment usually reserved for ‘peace be with you,’ and hymn 179 was sung in a thousand different accents.
As I began preparing for this piece, I read somewhere that Tangier is a city that clings to Europe, just as much as Europe clings to Tangier. When we arrived at his apartment on my first night here, Jono led me out onto the terrace with Birdy, his feathered dog who began life as a humble rooster. ‘You have Spain over there, Gibraltar there and the coast of Morocco over there- where else in the world can you see three countries from such a tiny vantage point’.
Each morning, woken by the Birdy’s crows and the second call to prayer, I sat on the terrace enjoying coffee as I felt myself becoming lured, stitch by stitch, into the magic of Tangier.
Multiple lunch invitations have ensued, and phone calls overheard in the streets of Tangier might be heard to end with cries of ‘lots of love – do pop by for a gargle if you’re still here on Wednesday’.
Jono’s self named ‘racketty old flat’ is a minefield of books and artworks, all carefully arranged with the same easy style as his outfits. Birdy dines on left over pudding and salty snacks at the end of lunch, and a fire burns in the library where Jono tells the most hilarious tales. One evening, we bonded over a shared hatred of tinnitus, a ringing of the ears we discovered we both suffer from, which keeps us awake at night and frustrated during the day. That same evening, as I wept with laughter at one of his ridiculously funny stories, Jono handed me an antique hearing aid made of brass which looked like a horn more suited to a brass band. We cried with laughter as I held it up to my ear and could hear properly again, while Birdy attacked my gold socks with such ferocity that I thought I’d lose a toe.
For many years, Tangier has attracted the wild, the talented and the wonderful from all corners of the globe. It only takes a coffee with Tangerian friends, or a visit to a churchyard, to see and hear of plentiful names (many of which leave me in complete disbelief), who have trodden this path before me. Some stories are hard to believe and others, quite regular.
On Tuesday, following coffee with another new friend who I have come to greatly admire for his courage and brightness, kindness and wit, we walked home together after an hour of rain, as the sky cleared momentarily. He bumped into a Moroccan friend outside my front door whose eyes lit up when he introduced me, explaining that I was going inside to write – ‘make sure you write something nicer this time,’ the stranger advised. Laughing, I asked if he’d read what I’d written before, ‘no, but you can always write nicer,’ he finished.
Just as birds sing, branches sigh and darkness drinks up the red wine of sunset, Tangier, and Morocco as a whole, continue to teach me the importance of now, and the moments that will follow. I will be forever grateful for the kindness and humour shown by each and every person that I have met here. When I asked in advance if I could write him into this piece, Jono responded with ‘of course, you must write whatever you like, its been so wonderful having you here’. I would write everything, but I’d need a thousand pages and I think a little bit of the magic needs to be left to the imagination.
I feel that this is the first of many séjours to this city, and each day I trip over my feet as things happen with such rapid spontaneity that I often feel as if I am in a dream. And, I know when I leave Morocco, in particular Tangier, I will leave a piece of me behind.
If Birdy had his way, it would be my big toe.
More to come.
Pictured: Easter lunch at Veere’s.