“Be kind, for whenever kindness becomes part of something, it beautifies it. Whenever it is taken from something, it leaves it tarnished.”  

Prophet Muhammad.

Last week the Islamic world observed the birthday of the Prophet Muhammad. Over three days, shops were closed, bars with alcohol licences grew cobwebs in their windows, and the streets of Tangier were peaceful, if only the tiniest bit windswept.

‘It’s just like Christmas,’ a friend had warned the week before, ‘no one will be available to work and it’s important that they don’t,’ she went on to add.

Rain fell a lot over the holiday, and when I woke on Thursday morning I peeped through the curtains to find a sky full of sun, breathing a sigh of relief, a tiny piece of normality had returned.  ‘Thrice weekly,’ otherwise known as Twinkle Toes, came on Thursday rather than Wednesday – he had a disco to host at his house on Wednesday night, in honour of his mothers birthday.

The man with just one tooth who sells shampoo, gas and booze in the ‘barcal’ across the road, was back from four days in Agadir.  Fresh faced and cheeks flushed with colour, he was ready to launch straight back into Darija lessons, shouting my order back at me in the local dialect through the tooth, as the boys who stack his shelves giggled in the background at my pathetic attempts to gargle words from a place in my throat that has never been utilised.

Mohammed who minds the street was almost beside himself with joy when he saw the doors open at the barcal; never one to say no to a tin of Flag, I found him celebrating on the street corner as I walked home on Thursday night.  That evening, men gathered around the fruit stand near the carpark and smoked kiff pipes together, free again after three days of family.

Nightfall comes early these days, but thankfully Autumn in Tangier is nothing compared to Paris; it’s warmer, and the days are clear when its not raining, with views across to Spain simply breathtaking.  

This piece had originally taken a different turn; I had written about eating cous cous one night in the family home of the boy who saved my kitten; the kindness shown by his mother and the way in which he translated from Darija to English, and when I had words to say (I was struggling to get a word in either way, but that is another conversation for another day), they were translated back in Darija.

His mother showed me a video on her smart phone of a Clydesdale horse galloping through a field, and I smiled at the randomness of that particular moment.

I’d spent all week penning a piece about hospitality and the rapidness at which Moroccans speak, drive, and deal with each other.  At times, I feel as though I’m witnessing the biggest fight, only to see two men blow each other a kiss before going on their way.  Darija is loud, it’s fast, and it is littered with French and Spanish words in a hangover from a bygone time, pre independence.

Last night, as I was about to press publish on the original piece, the doorbell sounded particularly loudly.  Expecting Twinkle Toes to arrive with a new special light bulb for a huge glass star in the entrance hall, I was in the midst of pouring a glass of wine and preparing a slice of cheese.  

My hair was scraped back in a scrunchie for the first time since I was about 12 years old, and a fascinating documentary about Lisa Brennan Jobs, daughter of Steve, was playing on the BBC.  Moments prior, I’d finally brought in all the laundry from the clothesline on my small kitchen balcony.  Rain was forecast for the morning, and as the chilly nights set in, it’s always a race to get things into the flat before they are too far gone in the evening chill.

The kitten scattered at the sound of the doorbell, as she always does.

Opening the door with not nearly enough caution, I found a well dressed man with a guttural voice speaking to me in Arabic, not Twinkle Toes as expected.

 ‘Hamo…’ he explained after we’d finished formalities and thanked God for both of our wellbeing, ‘Hamdulillah’ we’d said in unison.  

I then responded in broken French that I didn’t actually know what he wanted, ‘I am Virginia,’ I told him, cross that my documentary hadn’t been paused before I stood up from the kitchen table.  ‘What do you want?’ I asked, to which he again responded ‘Hamo,’ and that he was here to see my house and eat dinner.  

‘I don’t know you,’ I explained in French, probably saying that I have never known him, tenses are not a strong point.

With that, he held his hand up to silence me, before making a call on his phone.  ‘No, who are you calling?’ I asked, adding ‘you can only call Rashid, the guardian of the building.’ But, he was well on his way telling someone that ‘Hamo’ (he) was ‘here’ and ‘she’s’ ‘definitely not an Arab’.

Sans headscarf and wearing a pair of dungarees teamed with orange desert boots (colour is not an option with big feet, but they’re rather nice) and a matching woollen jumper, I couldn’t have looked less like a nice Muslim girl –  more like a  presenter of a children’s television program.

As he hung up, he kissed his hand and waved me goodbye with a smattering of words that I couldn’t begin to understand, before making his way down the stairs, ‘goodbye, I’m sorry,’ he finished in Darija, and I shut the door behind him.

Racing straight to my laptop, I pressed pause on the Brennan Jobs documentary.  I’d missed all the juicy bits about the wealthiest man in the world’s daughter, and her struggles with being the child of the man who invented the machine on which I was typing this.  Then, I reached for my Arabic dictionary, searching the word ‘hamo’ with complete urgency.

Who was he, and what did he want from me?

‘Father in law,’ the dictionary explained.

The poor man, who I’d observed had rotten fingernails but a rather nice shirt, had come all the way up five flights of stairs to meet with his son and new daughter in law and see their house, only to find an Australian woman holding a kitten, linguistically challenged, and dressed like a pre school teacher.

Last week I sat in my favourite smoked filled cafe on the boulevard with views across to Spain, and I reflected on the kindness that I see each day in Morocco as I build a life here. I’d planned to write about my endless struggles with language and the kindness always gifted to me by Moroccans.

I have to listen so hard when I’m spoken to in accented French, and I squint like a child at an ice cream stand when Darija is spoken to me and I’m lost, like a mapless explorer in the Sahara desert, when anyone speaks in Arabic.

But no one ever laughs at me- I am encouraged and appreciated when I make any attempt to communicate, as funny as I may sound.

Sipping on my coffee as I planned this blog in the smoke filled cafe, Gloria Gaynor came onto the television and sang ‘I will survive,’ which opens with the only too familiar lyrics ‘At first I was afraid, I was petrified…’ and I suddenly found myself singing along out loud.  An older man sitting at the table beside me smiled, saying, ‘I love this song, it is the favourite song of my husbands sister,’ going on to sing at the top of his lungs ‘At first I was afraid, I was butterflied…’

In that moment, I observed the innocence of language, reminded that I am not alone in the never ending struggle that I face each day with a barrage of words that I have to listen to with complete dedication and determination.  In English, he was only trying to sing ‘At first I was afraid, I was petrified,’ and that Gloria Gaynor ‘is the favourite singer of my sister’s husband’.

As Ben Lee sings in one of my favourite songs, ‘we’re all in this together,’ and as the prophet said, ‘be kind, for whenever kindness becomes part of something, it beautifies it…’

I hope ‘the father in law to be’ found his son and new daughter in law last night, and that they enjoyed a lovely dinner together.

For he, was probably as ‘butterflied,’ as me.

Pictured: a mop drying in the window of a local mosque.



“We need another and a wiser and perhaps a more mystical concept of animals. Remote from universal nature and living by complicated artifice, man in civilisation surveys the creature through the glass of his knowledge and sees thereby a feather magnified and the whole image in distortion. We patronise them for their incompleteness, for their tragic fate for having taken form so far below ourselves. And therein do we err. For the animal shall not be measured by man. In a world older and more complete than ours, they move finished and complete, gifted with the extension of the senses we have lost or never attained, living by voices we shall never hear. They are not brethren, they are not underlings: they are other nations, caught with ourselves in the net of life and time, fellow prisoners of the splendour and travail of the earth.”

Henry Beston, 1928.

As strange as it may sound, one of my first friends in Tangier was a nine year old cockerel named Birdy.

He was handsome and strong and the most wonderful companion. As a single woman, it might sound rather odd that the line above isn’t used to describe a man that may have crossed my path and showered me with love, rather, an animal who had a brain probably the size of one of my teeth.

Raised on a country property, I grew up with animals but was a late comer in truly understanding them. My sisters were good with horses, I was intimidated by them and frustrated that I couldn’t canter freely across fields with my hair blowing in the breeze like they did in Enid Blyton novels. Rather, I would more often than not, fall off them and be left lying in a tussock with tears streaming down my face.

The house kitten hid in an old dairy near the garden shed, and when I’d try to catch her, she’d race of in the other direction, hissing as she did so.

I loved our dogs but was never really all that enamoured, I’d say ‘sit’ and they too, would run in the other direction.

And, don’t even get me started on the subject of sheep.

When I was older, just before my 30th birthday, I was given a beautiful nine week old Cavalier King Charles Spaniel who I promptly named Saffron. Saffron became something of a best friend to me; now that I had my own pet, I learned to love her and care for her like a child.

My heart was broken when she died aged eight, because she had seen me through many trials, tribulations and very happy times; always with a kind and wise head resting on my shoulder. Her intuition was strong, as is the intuition of all animals, they are intelligent and wise, and as Beston wrote, ‘they move finished and complete, gifted with the extension of the senses we have lost or never attained, living by voices we shall never hear’.

Birdy, as much as he was a cockerel who couldn’t speak English, was always happy to see me when I would drop in for lunch with his constant companion and the man who introduced me to Tangier, Jonathan Dawson. When I stayed at Jono’s flat whilst mine was undergoing a facelift all those months ago, Birdy would race up onto my bed after he’d made his first morning call, which came immediately after the call to prayer in the mosque across the way. His pecks were relentless.

‘They’re kisses,’ Jono would say, and of course I believed him.

Birdy died last week, and while he was loved and revered by so many, I have no doubt, just like Saffron, that he will be happily in heaven with all the other animals who left this earth before him.

Birdy’s death came just a week before the 100th anniversary of the Armistice being signed on the 11th of November, 1918, and, while not too many cockerels went into battle, I have to say in the lead up to Remembrance Day, it did make me think a lot about the role in which animals play in the lives of humans.

When Dad and I visited the battlefields of the Somme just over a year ago, we came across a new memorial outside Pozieres, still covered and one that my father was desperate to unveil and have a look at.

‘You cant just uncover it Dad’ I pleaded with him, half laughing and half wanting to run in the other direction as he drew closer on foot. ‘Yes I can, Darling’ he assured me, ‘it is a memorial to the animals lost in the battle of Pozieres, we must have a look’.

My pleas were realised after we were (thankfully) distracted by a man named Neville who had moved to Pozieres from Bendigo, Australia, to caretake at the memorial, undertaking tasks such as mowing the lawns and minding the covered statues. I was so grateful when we found Neville.

A week later, on Friday the 21st of July, 2017, dogs, horses, ponies and pigeons were amongst the crowd at the unveiling of this new memorial honouring the thousands of animals who never returned home.

Over nine million animals from all sides died during the First World War, not one was a volunteer, and in the case of all the surviving Australian animals, nil were allowed to return home.

Australian WW1 correspondent, Charles Bean wrote, “ the animals came to know when a shell was coming close; and if, when halted, the horses heard the whine of an approaching salvo, they would tremble and sidle closer to their drivers, burying their muzzles in the men’s chests”.

Animals often served as mascots during war, raising the spirits of the troops through their natural affection and innocence. One of the most famous mascots was a black bear from Canada named Winnipeg, who remained with his unit for several months. Later placed at the London Zoo, he made a great impression on A.A Milne and his son, inspiring Milne to write Winnie the Poo. In a general manner, during war, cats are said to have been greatly appreciated and could traverse No Man’s Land without coming to any deliberate harm.

When I traversed the busy Rue d’Angleterre, Tangier, at 10.45 on Sunday morning last week, only a minute late for the Remembrance Sunday service at Saint Andrews Anglican parish of Tangier, I encountered seemingly a thousand kittens stalking the street, while others slept under taxis waiting for their next fare.

Pigeons were shooed from the busy Berber market where women sit each Thursday and Sunday morning wrapped in their traditional red and white Berber dress, topped off with wide brimmed straw hats covered in pompoms.

Upon entering the church gardens which house a divine cemetery, birds chortled in abundant trees and I almost shed a tear, as the sound of bagpipes ushered me into the church.

In 1880, Hassan I of Morocco donated land to the British community in order to build a small Anglican church in Tangier. After the church was built, it was found that it was not sufficient for the increasing number of worshippers, and a new one was built in 1894 which became what we know today as the Church of Saint Andrew.

The interior is designed as a fusion of numerous styles, notably Moorish. The tower is shaped like a minaret and the Lords Prayer is carved in Arabic over the alter.

As I took my seat on Sunday morning, I cast my eyes over the congregation. Pretty hats atop English heads were smattered through the middle pews, and members of the Royal Air force and Navy sat proudly up the front, alongside the Deputy Head of Mission from the British Embassy in Rabat. If my memory serves me correctly, there was also the Commanding Officer of HMS Sabre, as well as a representative from the Gibraltar Defence Police. Regular Sunday parish goers, many of them migrants who have fled various West African countries, nursed children in their laps and we began with a rousing version of God Save the Queen. At 11am precisely, the bugler led The Last Post; always in equal parts as haunting as it is sobering. Almost on cue, the call to prayer could be heard from the mosque in the grand socco, just as the service came to a close.

We remembered them, before spilling out into the church yard where wreaths were laid over the thirteen English headstones in the tiny Commonwealth War Cemetery on the east side of the gardens. Chatter was abundant as the African boys took to their drums, chanting tunes about peace on Earth, and at this point I took a moment to observe the names on the headstones in the beautiful gardens.

The writer David Herbert, has a simple headstone under a tree alongside the path leading up to the church, where inside, a plaque can be found commemorating Emily Keene, famous for introducing the cholera vaccination to Morocco. Major Harry Twentyman, Sir Harry Maclean, Paul Lund, and the writer Walter Harris, can also be found in the garden amongst almost two hundred other names who both lived and died in Tangier, many of whom are fondly remembered by people still living in Tangier.

As I finished my meanderings, I found the graves of Alexandria-born Claire de Menasce and her second husband, Commander Roy Howell RN. De Menasce was the mother of Claude-Marie Vincendon, the third wife of Lawrence Durrell whose brother Gerald, wrote one of my favourite books, ’My Family and Other Animals’ in a stunning memoir of his childhood on Corfu.

The churchyard scene on Sunday could have been lifted from Gerald Durrell’s rightfully adored book. Chatter in English could be heard through the trees, pigeons crooned, and kittens scattered through the bushes as I walked in their direction. Webs woven by spiders in established English trees twinkled with late morning mildew, and the bagpipes played us out of the churchyard, just in time for lunch at Jono’s.

Which, as always, was great fun and the only thing missing was Birdy.

This week as we’ve reflected upon the memory of the men and women who have put their lives on the line in war – all wars, senseless and sad as they are, I have also enjoyed the reminder that in times of both war and peace, animals have remained one step ahead of us – their masters and servants, providing companionship and protection with the extension of the senses we have lost or never attained.

Remembering Birdy and Saffron, and all of our furry, fluffy and feathered friends. 100 years on from the ‘War to end all Wars,’ we can only hope for peace in the world, but it is comforting to acknowledge the important role that animals play in our lives, each and every day, just as Durrell and Beston have done in their poignantly written pieces.

Which will also live on.