What a difference a few miles can make. From Tarifa the ferry to Tangier takes an hour to go perhaps 14 miles. By any standards, that’s a short commute. Yet suddenly there we were in North Africa, Moorish country, with all the bustle and flavors and smells and sounds you might expect.A couple quick impressions. Our hotel was in the Kasbah, the old royal enclave of the medina or old city. Narrow, winding lanes that, I assume, I would have figured out in just a year or two if I stayed there. Kids running around everywhere since, while to us it’s this atmospheric throwback to an ancient time, to them it’s home. Every few steps for the first couple of days young men would ask where we were going, trying to take us to their restaurant or shop or just to guide us for a small tip. Little sidewalk markets everywhere, piled one on top of another, selling everything you might want and even more that you don’t want. A lot poorer than what we’d seen just a few miles away in Spain and obviously a lot more Islamic.
I had the sense, though, that Tangier at least – we’ll see about Morocco more generally – was a notably optimistic place. You have the sense that people believe that there is a bright future for the city. There’s a huge new port under construction, an enormous investment with spaces for huge cruise ships along with all the freight that they expect. Across from the train station – itself looking quite new – is a big new mall going up with a huge Hilton as its anchor. The main street along the waterfront – Mohammed VI Avenue – is torn up and being rebuilt, while the city beach itself is being cleaned up. As we took a taxi out to the train station as we were moving on to Rabat, you could see more new construction, lots of glass buildings heralding a bright future.
We hope. This all begs the question of why Morocco seems so stable and optimistic and healthy while across the rest of North Africa, from Algeria and Libya to Egypt and into the Middle East, there is so much disruption. Obviously some of that is the result of the American decision to roll the dice on regime change in Iraq and the enormous problems that caused. But there’s got to be more to it than that. Why does Morocco seem to be immune to the radicalization and instead so optimistic about the future? Assuming that says something about the lack of alienation here relative to everything to the east, what are they doing right?
Questions, but certainly no answers just yet.Meanwhile, we had a lovely little stop here. One of the differences compared to all the great cities we went to in Spain is that there’s typically just a lot less to do here. No great art museums, no spectacular parks to roam in, far fewer attractive restaurants to explore. So instead we spent time just wandering around the Kasbah and medina, fully expecting to – and fully succeeding in – getting lost. We found a couple very nice places to sample tagines.
The Kasbah Museum was closed for renovation so we were spared that obligation, but we did tour the old American Legation – essentially the embassy – from the time when Morocco was the first country to recognize the new United States and when that building was the first property outside the U.S. owned by the new country. Today it is the only National Historic Landmark outside the U.S. (how’s that for a trivia question some day?). The museum has a copy of a 1789 letter from George Washington thanking the Sultan for something or other, and explaining that it had taken so long to respond because the country had recently changed its form of government (the Constitutional Convention and all that) and it just took a while before he had authority as president to respond. Very cute, especially as I was just finishing a biography of Alexander Hamilton, Washington’s closest aide over decades.Our hotel, La Maison Blanche, is a beautifully restored 18th century building in the Kasbah that had a couple great spaces for reading (I finished the huge Hamilton biography and started Alex Haley’s Roots in anticipation of going to The Gambia in a couple of weeks). Certainly one of the highlights was breakfast on the building’s roof deck with stunning views across Tangier and the port. The first morning they brought us a beautiful and practically sinful collection of pastries, crepes, Moroccan pancakes, breads, and jams, probably more carbs than I’ve had in one meal in five years. After that we convinced them to tone it down a notch or two so we could enjoy the meal without paying for it for weeks afterwards.
So that was our first stop in Morocco. The mid-November weather was wonderful, typically in the low-70s which is just about perfect for wandering around. From here we’re heading to Rabat where we’re headed strait to the Ghana embassy to try to get a visa. If we’re successful we’ll go to Ghana before heading to Senegal and The Gambia. If they say it takes a week or something to get the visa, well, we’ll do something else with our time. The luxury of time and the ability to be flexible.