Decades before I decided to visit Tangier and let alone move here, Paul Bowles wrote:
‘A town, like a person, almost ceases to have a face once you know it intimately, and visual modifications are skin deep; and a good deal of time is required to change their attitudes and behaviour.’ He concluded, ‘Tangier is still a small town in the sense that you literally cannot walk along a principal street without meeting a dozen of your friends with whom you must stop and chat. What starts out to be a ten minute stroll will normally take an hour or more’.
Tangier has become home for me, quickly and kindly. We’ve melded together over five short months, and the characters who make each day here interesting and ultimately, incredibly fulfilling, were not even known to me a year ago when I wrote a piece titled 11/9 here: https://pinningmywords.com/2017/09/12/1109/
That piece was centered around life and where it may take you; love and my failings in finding it, accepting the circumstances we are granted in the precious little book that is our lives and most of all, making the most of each day.
During a short visit to Paris last month, a year to the day since I wrote 11/9, I re-read it, reflecting on how much can happen in just a year. Over a dinner at a favourite cafe on my final night in Paris, my dinner companions teased me under twinkling fairy lights as we sipped through a bottle of wine, ‘you’ve basically created your own version of Eat, Pray, Love, in your move to Morocco’.
I laughed, advising that while I like to eat, and I am certainly surrounded by a lot of praying (five times daily to be precise) – the one thing I have really found, is love.
Not with one person in particular, but a whole lot of people. Most importantly, I explained, I’ve truly learnt to understand myself in a way I have never experienced in my entire life, and for me, this has been a huge turning point.
The following day I flew home on one of the twice weekly AirArabia flights direct from Paris to Tangier. As we glided over Spain, I flung open my laptop to write a blog about love and finding a new home, only to find the laptop dying a slow and painful death from a flat battery, at which point, I settled for a tin of Pringles and a glass of water and took in the beautiful dusk that blanketed Europe. Butterflies danced in my stomach as we crossed the Strait of Gibraltar before landing on North African turf at sunset.
‘I think I’d like to take in a street kitten,’ I told the server at my favourite restaurant a week after returning from Paris.
I’ve never much liked cats, actually, I find them quite intimidating and clever. One even lifted its leg on my best pink jeans at a cafe earlier in the summer, spraying me with the most fowl smelling scent just as I was about to head out to lunch. But living in Tangier has seen the street children and street kittens kidnap my heart – and at this point in time, it would seem a cat is a more feasible option.
A day after I vaguely indicated that I might like a kitten, I answered the door and there stood the waiter from the restaurant with a shoe box that screamed a little tune, suspiciously kitten like. ‘She found me last night drinking coffee with a friend,’ he explained as I flashed a look of not knowing whether to laugh or cry, ‘I drove her home on the back of a motorbike, you have to take her’.
‘You cant just give me a cat,’ I laughed. But he did, and after about 30 seconds, I wasn’t about to give her back. We bundled her into my shopping basket and headed to the best vet in Tangier, bouncing around in a shared taxi with two old women who flashed suspicious glances towards my crying basket.
The vet looked at me like I was a wet blanket, lunatic foreigner who had been hoodwinked by a kitten and a waiter. ‘You explain in Darija,’ I told the waiter, ‘I’ve got no hope’. I went on to learn that she was probably about two months old and in good health, and the cries that she bleated as her little heart was tested, inoculated and tested again, almost broke my own. I held her tiny head as we treated her for every possible mite and worm, and an hour later, the kind vet was filling out her papers.
‘What is her name?’ He asked.
‘Amira,’ I replied, ‘she is Amira’. Arabic for princess, and as it turns out, every bit true to who she is.
Amira spent the following days munching on cigarette butts out of ashtrays and drinking water from my glass – a kitten who had spent her first months living in the doorways of cafes, she was also a survivor who initially showed absolutely no interest in the scientifically developed packaged food that promised ‘rapid growth and a happy heart’. Her common little voice would bleat from her cot when I went off to bed each night, and she could hardly bare to leave my side.
I was housebound, threatened with the ailment that comes with kitten ownership, commonly known as ‘crazy cat lady-itis’. After a few days, Amira found her purr and a healthy appetite and has since driven me mad with clever tricks and games of hide and seek, usually just as I am desperately trying to leave the house in a rush and as usual, late for wherever it is that I’m meant to be.
She is also becoming very fat.
The man who comes to the flat for three hours, three days a week, cried with happiness when he met Amira. I have a sneaking suspicion that he’d rather like to work in a homewares store like Pottery Barn, but with a lack of any such place lining the streets, boulevards and alleyways of Tangier, he comes to me instead, bossing me around and rearranging the furniture when he’s not watering the plants, or mopping the floors – and he always sings along to the Charlie and the Chocolate Factory soundtrack in Arabic.
Our relationship is an odd one, with him believing that I know absolutely next to nothing about anything – ‘you don’t understand,’ being his favorite criticism. When I had people for drinks the night after I arrived home from Paris, I complained of being too tired to even open the door – summer in Tangier had almost killed me. ‘Go,’ was his only instruction, pointing towards the bathroom, ‘I fix everything’. I returned ten minutes later and with ten minutes remaining before 30 people descended upon my dining room, only to find an outfit of his choice had been selected from my wardrobe and ironed, and was now hanging proudly on the kitchen door. He, on the other hand, was busy making carrot fritters that I had by no means asked for, nor did I actually want.
His love for Amira is heaven to watch, and when I leave the flat for a walk down the street, I return to a happy home and a kitten that reeks of his perfume after loads of kisses during serenades of love songs sung in Arabic.
Last week following lunch with friends, the two of them greeted me at the door looking suspiciously sheepish, like something might have been wrong. She glanced at him, he at her. ‘What happened,’ I laughed, before being shown to my newly arranged dining room, the table precisely not where it had been, and all the kitchen chairs transported from the kitchen to join their dining room cousins in a melange of ‘half Berber, half Spanish farm house/chaotic chic’.
Earlier this week, as we finished hanging pictures in my study, I observed that the dialogue between us had completely changed from ‘you don’t have any… insert required cleaning product,’ to ‘we don’t have any… insert required cleaning product.’ After I’d farewelled him that night, I caught a glimpse of pink on the dining room table. He’d not only rearranged the roses that were looking rather limp in their vase, chopping their stems and changing the water, but he’d lovingly scattered the remaining petals over the white table cloth. They are still there as I don’t have it in my heart to move them.
Tangier has taught me that the most unusual of people will enter my life, many of them culturally so different but all of us with shared complexities.
Mustapha who drives the taxi always asks after my family. When I advise that they are well, he always responds with a smiling ‘hamdulillah’ (Arabic for ‘thanks to God’). Mohamed, who guards the street, bustles towards me with a key to the door and an extra set of hands to help carry my baskets. I thank him profusely to which he responds with a huge smile and a hearty ‘hamdulillah’.
The ancient man who runs the bottle shop around the corner has just one tooth remaining and is insistent that I learn to count in classical Arabic – not the local dialect of Darija. He hisses through the tooth with his tongue and shouts ‘BON-JOUR’ when I walk through the door. I have no idea what he is saying, ever, but the sparkle in his eyes is ultimately very telling. When I leave him with ‘a bientot’ he always responds with a loud, hissing ‘hamdulillah’.
Each morning, I am woken as the first call to prayer the ‘adhan’ sounds well before the sun is due to rise. Cries of ‘Allah Akbar’ echo across Tangier in an un-synchronised fashion from mosque to mosque. It is a beautiful alarm clock, and when the second call is made about an hour and a half later, I know it is time to rise and face a new day – never sure what it may hold.
But, one thing is for sure, Paul Bowles was spot on with his observations. A short walk home always turns into a social outing, and for this, I feel ultimately very grateful.
As I finish typing in a smoke filled cafe overlooking the Boulevard Pasteur, huge threatening rain clouds loom overhead. A rainbow has formed over the Medina below, casting shades of pink across two large cargo ships chugging through the strait, and Spain is barely visible in the distance.
It is a moment of magic and reflection.
This one is for my dear Dad who, upon hearing about Amira, warned ‘a dog has a master, a cat has a servant’. He’s always full of wisdom and this week, I am particularly grateful for his health after a rough trot over the past week or so. He too, is proving to be cat like.