Five men called Mohammed – Tangier, Morocco – December 2016

The touch-down in Tangier was rough and a shade too flirtatious with death, for my liking. I scanned the red dust dirt of the land as the plane wheels scorched the earth and closed my eyes for a second. Finally here, in Morocco. A dream of mine. Something that simply had to happen; the return to North Africa. Bliss.

The cattle customers got off the plane, pushing and shoving out into the soft December silk of early evening.

Then came the queues for immigration under the watchful and amused grins of the arrogantly good-looking Moroccan customs officials. Burgundy European passports stamped, and a final queue at the Exchange bureau – Euros for MAD (Morrocan Dirhams).

Haggling with desperate taxi drivers was impossible. I was told what to do, where to stand and who to go with. My taxi was allocated to me, and I was forced inside with an angry and hateful wave of the arm.

The hotel name was printed on an online booking form. The taxi driver thrashed the air with irritation once more. The look said it all;  the hotel wasn’t in the right part of town, obviously.; the hotel wasn’t elite enough, obviously; the hotel – if anybody really wanted to stay there, said everything about the occupant of the taxi, that the said occupant was light on the Dirhams and no great big tip could be expected.

And dirhams weren’t welcome; euros not much more; it was American dollars that were the sought-after cash and the occupant of the taxi had none of these. This the taxi driver had correctly deduced in the flash of an eye. I couldn’t have cared less.

The flight from Madrid to Tangier and its bumpy landing was nothing in fear terms compared to the taxi ride into Tangier city centre. Stomachs rode in mouths, fists gripped filthy upholstered seats. But arrived we did at the Hotel Rembrandt for an extended stay which turned out to be an exercise in divine and beautiful anti-planning.

Tangier, Morocco had always been in my mind a shrine to Paul Bowles, the American writer, of The Sheltering Sky fame. I had had dreams of Tangier, visiting the city in search of Kit, Port and Tunner, joining them for an existential vin rouge in the Cafe de La Poste, but my planning had failed me, as it always does, when I had forced the plans.

The Hotel Rembrant tried hard to make happy but it failed due to its dust-encrusted window sills and tired heavy atmosphere. The room that was supposed to shelter me was at the side of the building situated along ‘dagger alley’ (my quotation marks), and the bed linen which felt cold and damp to the touch.

Mohammed, the ageing receptionist had the look of an old librarian, wanting the softness of books in front of his eyes, instead of the harshness of people, demanding this and that and more.

His balding dome with its age spots and wisps of white hair combed this way was a deep chocolate colour; his myopic coal-coloured eyes appeared sore and tired, and his mouth was permanently tilted with welcoming fakery. But I grew fond of him for the few hours I stayed at the Rembrant.

I went off in search of the Medina and walked and walked past Moroccans with tired, scared, distrusting faces. No one smiled, all eyes were down-turned, everyone rushed, on foot, on mopeds, in their cars, and then I arrived at the Medina, via the back entry where I tried to engage the help of two Moroccan women, speaking to them in French, but they did not want to speak to me.

Finally, a short man with a neon-white smile came up to me at the entrance to the old city, my  third Mohammad in an hour. He offered me his services (I hadn’t asked for them). The man, I regretfully say, was younger than me (he told me his age, proudly, wanting respect), and not good-looking, and so he was tiring to look at. He was a shrivelled-up little creature with the sort of undentable arrogance possessed of by southern European and Middle Eastern men, their cloak of self-entitlement finely woven into their skin from birth.

Mohammed number 3 took me to a dimly-lit cafe, serving only peppermint tea, and welcomed me to smoke Kif with him. We shared conversation about cultures – him always more knowledgeable – so he thought – about the ins-and-outs of the many tourists he had had the pleasure of ripping off over the years.

Tunisians are bad, bad – he said, in league with ISIS, trying to penetrate Morocco, liars, cheats, terrorists, to which I tried to correct him, but he wasn’t listening. The Scottish (his term) were good, good. By that I assumed they spent money on him. Mohammed number 3 spoke Spanish, French and English fluently he said (I did not argue).

Have Kif, he said, it relax you, he said. I said no, and then no, and then no again. It no is drug, he said in his perfect English. It like Marijuana, he said. It calm you, he said, again in his perfect English.

After fifteen minutes, I had started to bore him., that much was obvious. I was not a willing receiver of his ancient form of bullshit. I was laughing at him. I couldn’t help it. Two Euros, he said for the mint tea. Extortionate even by skin-tax standards –  (across the water in Spain, a cortado coffee was one euro; mint tea the same.

Now I take you to see my friends, Mohammed number 3 said. Plenty of nice things. Orders spat at me in his ‘perfect’ English.

Mohammed number 3 was true to his word. I walked with him, planning my get-away but in doing so, I was welcomed into some sweet little cave shops, stuffed with products from China, cheap and nasty but architecturally sweet all the same. Quaint and heady, with their scent of manufactured Oud – plastic Oud, produced in a Chinese factory, as opposed to resinous Oud, produced in the depths of Asia.

I admired but I bought nothing. Mohammed was growing tired of the charade. Now you pay, he said. Twenty-five Euros. I laughed in his face and swore at him nicely under my breath, as payment in kind for his aggression and his racism and misogyny (you white woman, you wait until I speak, his eyes had said on many occasions, you wait while I extract your hideous tourist Euros from the wallet that should be in your husband’s hand, not yours). His face changed. The fakery gone, the colour of him, a wizen shade of latte coffee turned to angry red.

Five Euros, I said, that’s absolutely all you’re getting, and I threw the note at him, turned and marched off. Tangier was now getting on my nerves.

I walked back to the hotel, dreading spending the night there in between the damp and weird-smelling sheets, slipped down a little side-street and stumbled upon a grand looking hotel, romantic, in the manner of Kit and Port and Tunner.

I’ll call it The Sheltering Sky Hotel because that is what it became that night. It was immaculate, huge and centred around courtyard after courtyard of Spanish style design. I ate a heavy meal – not having eaten since Madrid, and ordered a bottle of red wine. The tagine was excellent, the wine divine and the atmosphere washed away all memory of Mohammed and the souk and the grime.

My waiter was called Mohammed – my fourth Mo – and he was young and still possessed the energy of youth and a desire to simply make a nice impression on anybody who came into his eye-line. He was used to dealing with Europeans, that much was obvious. He waited in the manner of any experienced in the art of the profession. I liked him and scrambled in my writer’s wallet for a nice tip. He deserved it.

I’d booked at the Rembrant for an extended stay, seduced by online photos seen in the freezing cold of a Scottish afternoon, but left the next day, dashing down to the port to get a ferry across to Spain and Tarifa.

I had prepaid the Rembrant and lost my money but what I gained was the thrill of the art of anti-planning, a feeling that to me produces an euphoric buzz of bliss, being free of routines, timetables, expectations and lock-in contracts.

My fifth Mohammed waved me through customs at Tangier port as I ran to make it to the departing ferry, as anxious as I was to leave Tangier and get back to Europe, free to roam unquestioned. I waved back at him, at his name tag actually, counting my Mohammeds and logging them in my mind.

I took a bus to Cadiz in the province of Cadiz, Andalucia with no plan and nowhere to stay, and fell in love yet again; not with Port or Kit or Tunner this time, but the aching beauty of the city. More about that soon……….

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