Just as I sat down to put the finishing touches on this piece of writing, a lovely friend who I met one morning at book club in Paris sent me this email:
‘It has been approximately a year and a half since I met you in Paris. I have been following your adventure in Tangier. I am completely envious of you for the cast of characters in your life. Your blog posts have been far too rare, but hopefully that means you are working on a book or some other form of publication. You glow in the photos and I can only take that to mean you are happy and your life is full.
Your trip to Egypt was a true adventure…certainly not the pyramid hopping, photo snapping tourist outing. In our world, we need more Gertrude and less Kim. I’m completely immersed in Italy. I think about moving there every other day. Then I think about packing my books, my house, my dogs, and instead plan my next trip and crawl into a book of some Italian adventure/nature. I’m working my way through the letters of Lord Byron during his time in Italy, and the life of Iris Origo. When not obsessed with Italy, I’m obsessed at the opposite end of the spectrum with the confluence of philosophy and science (physics, neurobiology, chemistry, artificial intelligence A.I) as science/technology grapple with what is the brain/mind (the mechanics vs the spiritual) consciousness/the unconscious in the race forward to developing A.I. These of course, somehow all go back to the age old questions of Aristotle. Humanity is at an interesting turning point. I suppose this is very remote from your world, but in many ways your world is not just an exotic, social beauty, but a place of thinkers. At least, I imagine it so.
I write this mostly to say, I hope your life is as blissful as it appears. I remember when you embarked you were unclear on what it would hold. Sometimes life knows what we need better than we know…’
I sighed and almost cried when I read this. How serendipitous, because each subject covered in the email is something that has been playing on my mind for some weeks now. I particularly loved the part about ‘more Gertrude and less Kim.’ I sleep with Queen of the Desert beside my bed and thankfully I haven’t seen a trace of a Kardashian for an eon.
I have been absent from this blog. My mind has been somewhat blocked and for the first time in my entire life, I have quite literally been lost for words. It’s a maddening thing to go through, because in my head I am writing thoughts and film scripts fast and frequently, but the action of putting those words onto paper or at least the computer screen, has been somewhat impossible.
Dusk, Monday May the 6th, signalled the beginning of Ramadan in Morocco after much discussion about on which day it would fall. Taxi drivers were betting on Tuesday the 7th, friends had heard from trusty employees that it would definitely be Monday the 6th, and Twinkle Toes was sure it would be Wednesday the 8th.
‘Listen to me,’ he said, in that way that only he can.
As my taxi drove into Tangier at dusk on Monday the 6th, following a peaceful sunset walk along the Atlantic, the long awaited perfect crescent moon rose above the big mosque at the top of the boulevard. ‘Ramadan Mubarak,’ I said to the taxi driver, squeezing his shoulder and adding a tip to the fare as I climbed out and headed towards Casa Pépé, the European grocer.
I had a pantry to fill and a fridge to stock.
The month of Ramadan taught me so much and I went in shoulders back, ears ready and loaded with questions.
Each morning for thirty days just before 3am, people would down tools taking their last sips of water and bites of food before sleeping. They fasted from this time until sundown – usually around 7.30pm, when the imams across Tangier would call the town to evening prayer which signalled iftar, literally meaning ‘breakfast’ which in darija, the Moroccan dialect, is known as l’ftour. I loved that time of day as the town, for the duration of the day silent and almost eery, would light up; cafes and restaurants opened and the tinkering of cutlery and sounds of chatter could be heard across my neighbourhood as families celebrated the daily l’ftour.
I was worried about the poor and the homeless. What would they do each night for thirty days with no family and friends to celebrate l’ftour with? With the month being not just about sacrifice and fast but also charity, that question was soon answered. Cafes and restaurants across the country served free harira (soup) and tea to those in need, every night for the duration of the holy month.
With cafes and restaurants closed during the day, I found myself talking less, smoking less, eating less and drinking less. The simple pleasure of having morning coffee with friends was but a distant dream and the confines of my kitchen walls became my reality. Indirectly, I was doing my own version of Ramadan as I made little sacrifices here and there. Sure, I could make coffee on the stove, I could pour water from the tap, but it wasn’t the same. To eat on the run would only be disrespectful and it was somewhat forbidden. I began a daily lunch routine (at home) of wrapping tuna and fresh salad into flat bread, and some nights I would invite friends to cook traditional dishes in my kitchen, enabling us to enjoy l’ftour together.
One night a very dear Moroccan friend, who is exactly the same age as me, prepared a whole baked fish peppered with the simplest of flavours, alongside fresh soup and a glorious salad. ‘Where did you learn to do that?’ I queried.
‘Mum,’ he smiled, ‘I miss her every day and I am reminded of her through cooking what she always cooked.’
We would talk for hours, late into the night, about his childhood in Tangier. Sometimes we’d laugh until we cried, and cry until we laughed. I learnt during this time that our childhoods were so similar, even though we were raised worlds apart and in two very different cultures.
Tangier of the 1980’s was very different to the Tangier of today. He remembers playing marbles on the streets until dusk, and doing homework under the guidance of his father. Trips to the beach and new desert boots were highlights in the memory reel (oh, mine too!). His parents had exactly the same values as mine, and sadly, as the youngest of seven children, he lost them both on the eve of turning twenty one.
One night he told me about the day he forgot to practice his Koranic verses aged about 12 years old, and the tears he shed on the Monday morning at school when he knew he’d be subject to the cane (long obliterated by law in Moroccan schools, for those wondering).
His new desert boots were navy blue and his pride and joy. His mother had bought them that weekend, hence him forgetting to learn the verses. On the Monday he went to school and saw the fury in his teachers eyes when he admitted to his failures. ‘I remember clearly my shoes turning from blue to black as the tears streamed down my face, dropping like a dripping tap onto the suede’.
From time to time he would switch from flawless French to darija and then impeccable Spanish, during telephone calls as he prepared l’ftour.
‘I understand why you are fluent in both French and Arabic, but your Spanish is also very good,’ I commented one night. ‘Soap operas,’ he replied, ‘in the 1980’s, Tangier got Spanish television.’
I laughingly told him that the reason I’m all but linguistically challenged to almost criminal levels, is probably because we had channel 9 Ballarat and the ABC, as pickings in 1980’s Australia.
‘What’s Ballarat?’ he winced. Pulling out the broom stick, I pointed to the little regional city on the map of Australia which hangs in my Tangier kitchen, ‘there,’ I said ‘ that’s Ballarat.’
One night following l’ftour, we went out walking to take in life on the streets and observe what the night was all about. A shoe shiner who lives in a doorway not far from home, was sitting up on his step with a tin of Kiwi boot polish and his brushes neatly stacked at his side. He eagerly slurped on his bowl of harira given to him by a café owner, before sipping on tea served as only the Moroccans can, from high above out of the most elegant silver pot and into a glass. These types of visions became the norm giving me a much better understanding of Islam – not necessarily as a religion but moreover as an entire way of being. The acts of charity and kindness were profound.
Each day, the morning call of Allah Akbar woke me early, followed by a second call not long after. Two Saturdays into the month I found myself in the studio of Cap Radio Maroc, the equivalent of a commercial radio station in Australia.
The host of the morning program had heard about me living in Tangier and was interested in my observations of Ramadan as a foreigner. We chatted madly about life here and all that I had learnt durning the month. I suppose this is where the block with my writing began.
In hindsight I had been taking in so much, I was learning and appreciating a better understanding of Islam and the way in which it defines people and this culture. In my corporate life in Australia we would often enjoyed iftar with our colleagues during ramadan, we’d have cultural days to recognise different religions; we had movements, hashtags, facebook groups, mountains of conversations about equality and the importance of kindness and wellbeing – but right here, in that moment, I was living in something that, thankfully, was sans hashtag.
So, I made the unconscious decision to keep living in it. To keep those midnight conversations alive with my dear friend and his mothers posthumous cooking; to revisit the radio station where my voice, through my questions and observations, could reach taxi drivers, the imams, the children, the families, the shopkeepers and all in sundry who were listening. And I stopped publishing, because I was obtaining what had previously been unobtainable in my life as I knew it before my life in Tangier. And they called the radio station and through translation we spoke, and we all said a collective ‘shoukran bzaf,’ darija for ‘thank you so much.’
At the end of my final visit to Cap Radio, my host laughed into his coffee when I told him that I’d been keeping a tally on my whiteboard in the kitchen of how many petit taxis had sideswiped flowerpots along roadsides during Ramadan. At that stage, it was about forty two. The race home for l’ftour at the end of a long day of fasting was not just very real, but also rather expensive for some.
Trips to the flea market were exhausting on hot afternoons. One day, I decided that I’d complete the task of making curtains for the kitchen and my bedroom – summer was after all, well on its way. Traipsing around the labyrinth in the middle of the market looking for fabric was fun- a length of white here, a smattering of pink there. The stitcher took my measurements (scribbled on a jot of paper) out of my hand and promised to have them finished in just under an hour. He was a dear man, very religious and dressed in a Moroccan djellaba, his lips dry from fasting and his smile so sweet. We had no language, and the temptation to pull out a bottle of water and take a swig, was very real in the moment when I arrived back to collect the curtains, only to discover that they were longer than the length of my apartment.
Returning home that night, I waited for the sound of Allah Akbar, and there it was! I’d done a full day of fasting. I hadn’t necessarily planned to, but it just happened due to being out all day where, to eat or drink would have been totally unacceptable and selfish. The taste of freshly squeezed juice as dusk set in was indescribable, and in that moment, my admiration for my neighbours grew even more than I thought possible.
L’Eid, the day signalling the end of the holy month, fell on Tuesday June the 4th. ‘Ramadan Mubarak’ (Happy Ramadan) became ‘Eid Mubarak,’ (Happy Eid) and fistfuls of spare dirhams were handed to street guardians, shop owners and Twinkle Toes. During the month I learnt that the average taxi driver needs to earn 250 dirhams a day, about 25 euros, in order to make his rented licence worthwhile. So in this time, I began to double what was on the meter and made some very dear friends. One older man almost drove me into a wall when I paid him thirty dirhams (about 3 euros) on a ten dirham fare, before thanking him in Arabic.
Following Ramadan I left Tangier for London where I caught up with two of my oldest friends, lifelong friends from school. We laughed about my life and all that it has become. ‘But you feel safe there, Pin,’ they begged between drinks, to which I responded ‘I can honestly say, I’ve never felt safer, nor have I ever felt more enlightened.’
And then began the feast to follow the fast. I had turned 40 in April, and from London I travelled to Paris to meet a very special person.
Edwina is the eldest of my two younger sisters. Essentially, we are (almost) Irish twins. I was born in 1979 and she, late in 1980. As children, we were close and always in each others pockets. Edwina is incredibly funny, brutally honest and extremely kind. When I sent a little note to most of Australia and the rest of the world over a year ago, advising that I’d be holding a lunch in Tangier on July the 4th, 2019 in celebration of life and a new decade, she quite simply phoned and said ‘yes, I’m coming.’
Never mind her not yet two year old child, he is just like her. Formidable, adaptable, funny and unaffected. Our parents, known as Gunny and Bimpop to the grandchildren, had a plan laid out with Edwina’s husband Tim, and his family, which allowed her three weeks away from her adored baby, Alby.
Having not seen my family for over a year, I was full of butterflies on the train from London to Paris. Once in Paris, I approached the hotel from the metro l’Odeon – my local metro prior to leaving my life in Paris for a new one in Tangier. On arrival at the hotel, the receptionist advised that ‘Madame Edwina’ was taking a nap, so I approached the lift with a casual demeanour. The door opened, and there she was. We held each other very tight and I think I did a little hiccup. As a bonus, another of my dearest friends was in Paris that night and the three of us went for dinner and serious laughter. The two of them would join me in Tangier the following week, therewith with masses of very good friends who either live here, or were set to fly in to celebrate.
The week that followed was beyond anything I could ever have imagined. Some of my very favourite people traveled half way across the world to be in Tangier, others couldn’t – there are always jobs, children, ill health and lives in general to consider back in Australia. And, Morocco is a long way to come for lunch.
But over four days, I hugged some of my dearest friends very tight with my sister at my side at all times. I didn’t actually know how important those four days were as they unfolded. It was a heady whirlwind – drinks in wonderful Anna’s divine garden on Tuesday night, gin and tonics in my flat on Wednesday night, and then lunch for fifty eight with the formidable and brilliant Abdou of ‘Chez Abdou’ on Thursday. He is legendary in these parts, and not a single square meter of his beachside paradise is safe from the paintbrush – with every little corner decorated in the most terrifically kitsch hues of mauve, yellow and orange. Since the early 60’s, Abdou has fed everyone from the Rolling Stones to the man who lives next door – I adore him and he made the day even more special than I could have ever imagined.
As dusk set in I sat with Abdou in his little corner behind the kitchen, glass in hand as the party rolled on outside. Everyone was happy – new friends, old friends, friends like family- all partied together. It was the most perfect day. The Atlantic Ocean crashed in the distance and the faces of all those I love dearly were sun kissed and happy. No one was about to go home.
We did eventually leave on a big bus and had a good nights rest before drinks with my dear friend Gordon in his beautiful garden the following night. As the night drew to a close, my heart was heavy but ultimately very full as I waved everyone goodbye, dragging them out of his garden oasis and into waiting cars. A perfect week had come to an end. ‘See you soon,’ we shouted through tears of joy and laughter. Of course we will, I reminded myself in a moment of comfort, as I waved the last car off along the little track and up to the road alongside the Kings Palace.
Frederick Buechner wrote ‘One life on this earth is all that we get, whether it is enough or not enough, and the obvious conclusion would seem to be that at the very least we are fools if we do not live it as fully and bravely and beautifully as we can.’
Just a week after that glorious time spent here in Tangier, our dear man and friend to everyone he knew, Stephen Jones, left us in the cruelest of ways in Spain. He owned those few days in Tangier, holding court for the entire time he was here. Those who knew him fell over him and those who’d just met him, were enamoured by him. In life, we all adored his emotional, witty and kind ways. His jokes were terrible, his heart was gigantic. I will forever treasure every, single second of the twenty year friendship we had – he was a brother to us all. Most importantly, he was an incredible husband to our dearest friend Fi – they loved each other so dearly and we all admired their love and friendship – it was a marriage like no other.
This blog and every, single word I will ever write is dedicated to him, to Fi, to their three beautiful children and extended family and masses of friends.
Thank you Jonesy for all that you did for all of us – in life you collected people, connected people and taught us all so much.
This is for you, in acknowledgment of your good advice, brilliant humour and devoted friendship and for the fact that you lived life both bravely and beautifully. I know you’d approve of me using those two words.
Brave and beautiful. You truly were. And in our hearts and minds, you always will be.
The past three months have taught me so much, whilst we can’t prepare for what tomorrow will hold, we must make the most of this day.
Pictured: the most beautiful day.