A Merry Laugh in a Tangier Hideaway

International Tangier

Between the 1920s and 1950s, Tangier was a tax-free international zone isolated from the rest of Morocco and controlled by France, Spain and Britain, Italy, Belgium, Holland, Sweden, Portugal, the United States and finally the Soviet Union!  

It quickly gained a reputation for everything naughty, wacky and exotic.

I felt like a glass of wine...

Even now, it’s zany chords remain.  Early one summer evening I decided to go for a drink at the Bar Pilo. The Guide said, unlike most bars, it wasn’t a brothel.   I could have gone back to Caid’s Piano Bar at the Hotel El Minzah, but swank hotels are so passé.

The Bar’s frontage was low-key and there was a minder on duty.  I had a flashback to a revolving vinyl 78 RPM my brother played when I was a kid.  I loved the line:  Just knock three times and whisper low, that you and I were sent by Joe…

The door opened a smidgeon and in I slid, holding my breath
and there I was:

I know a dark secluded place,
        It was shady, with a long marble bar.

A place where no one knows your face,
        Well that was definitely the case.

A glass of wine a fast embrace,
        Wine, yes – but the only other patrons were a very tall handsome woman, heavily made up in a long dress with lots     of lace and I mean lots, and a feather boa; a short, middle-of-the-road man, well oiled, who I took to be deaf and dumb as he was miming madly at the bartender; and occupying the end seat, an inflatable lifesize Santa.

It’s called Hernando’s Hideaway ole!

Some places need time to absorb

My eyes rolled along the bar again, skirting the plastic flowers.  Behind a wall of mirrors, glass shelves were stacked with every conceivable liquor.  Wine came by the bottle,  accompanied by a bowl of warm chick peas with some…  tiny feet.  Hooves actually.  The barman, a small wizened man in a waistcoat and bow tie was quite jolly… “Baaaaa Baaaaa.”

“Lamb’s feet?  Really?  How tiny were the lambs?”  Let’s not go there Gill, I answered to myself.  Besides there were olives marinated in oil and lemon, more olives in harissa, crudities and crispy grilled fish.  A feast without the feet.

The large lady in lace was standing with one foot on the bar rail.  She moved closer and sat down.  I fancied the round red-topped bar stools some counters in a game, but didn’t make my move – we smiled and established a rapport in minor key.   She moved four stools back.

I looked around. The walls were deep, dark pink and the whole place was decked with Christmas decorations.  Fairy lights,  chains in coloured foil, tinsel, hanging stars guiding shepherds, a plastic Christmas tree, and best of all, the rest of the set of blow-up Santas each one smaller than the other.  On a mirror, etched with outlines of a mosque, a painted Santa paused - seemingly impaled on a minaret.

After my third glass, the sinuous Arabic music wove the bizarre seamlessly into ardor and ecstasy.  Forget the fast embrace, this would be a long drawn out affair.  There was a TV tuned to a news channel with no audio and as I drank, I could have sworn the singing voice started emerging from the perfect agile mouth of the presenter who was swaying to the melody.  Even the slightly soft Santa at the bar started to look interesting, well, really he was the only option. 

It was time for me to go – just as the night was about to start.    

Home to my hostel

I wound my way back to the Medina singing softly,
“Just knock three times and you will know, that you’ve arrived at Bar Pilo.”

 

 

PS:

Hernando’s Hideaway is a tango tune from The Pajama Game 1954.  I love it!

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lLuwyTzAQH8

As Time Goes By

Real Life Romance

It was 1971 when I met Mike in Zambia and fell head-over-heels in love. 

But when he said, “… Here’s looking at you, kid,” I had no idea why. 

I don’t think anyone of our generation escaped seeing Casablanca (1942, Humphry Bogart and Ingrid Bergman), but not all of us memorised the whole damn script.

Remember Snuggling-Up at the Drive-In? 

A month or so later I thought I was on track when I took Mike to Gone With the Wind (1939, Clark Gable and Vivien Leigh).  It was showing at the Lusaka Drive-In.  But he went to sleep until the interval when he sat upright, fired up his beat-up Ford Falcon and said, “OK. Let's go!”

It took a lot of persuasion to make him stay for the second half.  He didn’t believe that any film could be that long and or that turgid.  It was almost the end of a beautiful relationship!

Penance

Over the years, I made amends.  I sat through Casablanca at least three times, maybe five….  Not only that but our four daughters have indulged Mike too.

Yet as Time Goes By

I can come clean now;  I never did, and still don’t, get it.  

Ilsa tells Rick she can't think straight and he’ll have to do the thinking for both of them and Rick knows what’s good for her and packs her off without an explanation.  Sexist?  You bet!  What is the appeal?

But still...

A wave of nostalgia did hit me though when travelling solo in Morocco for I learned that the original gin joint in Casablanca was modelled on Caid’s Piano Bar in Hotel El Minzah, Tangier.

 Hotel's picture of Caid's Piano Bar

Hotel's picture of Caid's Piano Bar

I was travelling out of a back-pack and covered in a rash, but did my best to smarten-up and sauntered into the El Minzah, a sophisticated old-world hotel overlooking the Bay of Tangier. 

Think palms, orange trees and Moorish archways; courtyards and teak lattice.  The hotel was the brain-child of an English aristocrat and first opened in 1930.  It has welcomed many celebrities over the years and appropriately enough, those old Hollywood stars of the 1940s; Rita Hayworth and Rock Hudson.

It was mid-morning and the hotel was deserted but I found a waiter, ordered a glass of wine and sat in the main courtyard and enjoyed a 'life is absolutely bloody marvellous moment.' 

 My picture of the table where I unashamedly took a delicious white wine mid-morning... all to myself alone.

My picture of the table where I unashamedly took a delicious white wine mid-morning... all to myself alone.

Then I tiptoed to the door of Caid’s Bar, pushed it open, and heard Mike’s voice so clearly: “Of all the gin joints, in all the towns, in all the world, she walks into mine…”

Which is why my picture of the Piano Bar is a bit shaky...

 My picture of the Piano Bar

My picture of the Piano Bar

A Century Ago Tangier Attracted Artists from All Over the World

 Moroccan loggia, 1912 by Hilda Rix Nicholas and Quarazazte Morocco by James McBey

Moroccan loggia, 1912 by Hilda Rix Nicholas and Quarazazte Morocco by James McBey

Journeys into Art in Tangier

It’s the journeys within journeys that I love.  My own personal discoveries of history and politics, of art and authors and of music.  Each new destination, a place to pick up strays; arty people either home grown or blown-in, who I have never heard of and may well be long forgotten in the rolling coast of life.

 SELFIES:  Mrs George Mason Nicholas (Hilda Rix Nicholas) 1917 and James McBey

SELFIES:  Mrs George Mason Nicholas (Hilda Rix Nicholas) 1917 and James McBey

Two of my Favourites

Many European artists worked in Tangier in the first decade of the twentieth century.  New to me in Morocco was James McBay.    He was a Scot and his work reminded me of that of Hilda Rix Nicholas, one of my favourite Australian artists.  They were born only a year apart, and I could not but wonder if they had ever met.  They were both in Morocco around the same time, shortly before the outbreak of World War I.   

Both captured the colour and light of Tangier through intimate portraits, street scenes and the market place.  Both gave us unforgettable images of the First World War.  Both had endured great personal tragedy. 

 Camoflage by Hilda Rix Nicholas 1914 and Arab Man with a Child by James McBey

Camoflage by Hilda Rix Nicholas 1914 and Arab Man with a Child by James McBey

A Pause for Rememberance in Tangier

A Tear in Tangier

I’m not a sentimental soul so get surprised when something maudlin, corny or schmaltzy triggers a sniff.  Let’s try that again: when something nostalgic, tender or passionate brings tears to my eyes.

These occasions are not rational or even legitimate, but they signal an aliveness within us, part of our emotional heritage but part primordial I think.  We surrender to them or suppress them at our peril.

 
St Andrew's Church

 St Andrew's Church, Tangier

St Andrew's Church, Tangier

Ambling around Tangier, I came upon the charming St Andrew’s Church built in 1905.  With admirable grace its design engages with the local culture.  It has a Moorish interior, ornamented with the Lord’s Prayer engraved in Arabic together with quotes from the Koran.  

Buried in Morocco

The graveyard is almost English, lush green and shady; in it there are are buried a dozen or so downed RAF airmen.  I was caught short by five of them, an entire aircrew, their headstones lined up, side by side.  The youngest was nineteen and the oldest twenty-one. They crashed on 31 January 1945. At least sixty million people, some say eighty million, died in World War II.  So why did these graves, well-cared for in a sunny spot, make me cry?
 
Because they were so young, the end of the war only months away - they were probably already talking about what they would do after the war - and they were on a routine patrol; engine failure or weather perhaps.  

We don’t know how to mourn millions and millions, so we mourn the few and that’s all we can do, and do our bit for peace - keep trying to hold Government to account that keep wanting to make war.  That’s all we can do. 

 Lts W M Allison & J H Buxman both South African Air Force, Sgts A J Boyles, H J Hutchinson & F E Turner all RAFVR. They were lost when the 22 Sqn SAAF Ventura serial number 6455 (ex RAF FP683) crashed during a routine patrol on 31 January 1945.

Lts W M Allison & J H Buxman both South African Air Force, Sgts A J Boyles, H J Hutchinson & F E Turner all RAFVR. They were lost when the 22 Sqn SAAF Ventura serial number 6455 (ex RAF FP683) crashed during a routine patrol on 31 January 1945.

Finding Cafe Hafa in Tangier

 Cafe Hafa, founded in 1921, a Tangier icon that has avoided the dreaded developer!

Cafe Hafa, founded in 1921, a Tangier icon that has avoided the dreaded developer!

The Hafa Hunt

One of my first stops in Tangier was Café Hafa.  It’s wasn’t a long walk from the Kasbah, but far enough to get lost.  I felt foolish because a generational succession of writers, musicians and rock bands had found it without difficulty and I was stone-cold sober.  

Help at Hand

I realised I was being stalked by a women wearing a hijab on a electric mobility scooter followed by a posse in wheelchairs.  She was winning.  Why I found the combination of hijab and buggy incongruous says more about
me than her, but there was a sense of deja vu. 

My husband also uses a mobility scooter and if you get to meet him, give him a wide birth. 
It’s red and he is exceedingly good-looking, even with the beard he insists on sporting
these days.  I think he's had his scooter souped up.

In Prague he mowed down a whole covey of Japanese tourists, in Sydney, he pinned a Chinese business man
to the wall and he has caused grievous bodily harm to almost every family member.  I hasten to add he is
neither xenophobic or guilty of domestic violence, just slow on the brakes. 


So when the good woman hailed me, I kept a safe distance hoping to outpace her. 

I need not have worried - without me saying a word, she knew exactly what I wanted.  She pointed me in the
direction of Café Hafa.  

Sheer Delight with Mint Tea

The café was founded in 1921 and is a Tangier icon.  But the really special thing is it hasn’t just stood the test of time,
it’s just stayed there unmoved by time and fame. 

Well truthfully given a few rows of terraces painted blue and white cascading down a steep hillside spotted
with gnarly wind-blown trees in a stunning position overlooking the Bay of Tangier, what is there to change?

My delight was that locals still hung out there, the chairs were cheap plastic, the terraces swept peremptorily, the
service problematic.  No one had resortified it!  No plaques, nothing on the menu, no Hey Jude Orange Juice or
Brown Sugar Mint Tea.

House of Joy

 Entrance to House of Joy - a Cheshire Home in Tangier

Entrance to House of Joy - a Cheshire Home in Tangier

On the way back, I went looking for my friend.  She’d gone but I and found a few wheelchairs clustered round the entrance to the gates of a beautiful house - a Cheshire Home.  I walked in and gasped at the beauty of it - the sea blue beyond a profusion of flowers.  It was called House of Joy.  I went to Reception and left a small donation but the young lady said, not unnaturally, that I could not go further.  As I left I spoke to a lovely lass who was wheelchair-bound and had lived there for thirty-three years.


Leonard Cheshire was an RAF Group Captain who started the charity in 1948 and has left a marvelous legacy. 

All Over Tangier in a Rash

 Watching the world go by in Tangier   

Watching the world go by in Tangier

 

Normally...

Normally I read travel advice on health and am sensible because I’m reluctant to miss out on anything, waylaid by some avoidable affliction. 

Had I read it, I’d have known that sand-flies and ticks and fleas run riot in Morocco.

A Mighty Rash

When I left the Atlas Mountains, the rash that started after I was accosted by tiny black mites in a filthy eco-gite in the Mid-Atlas, became ferocious.  It ran, not just across my cheeks and forehead, but over my eye-lids, across the bridge of my nose making it difficult to wear my glasses, around the edge of my ears and all over my hands, especially along the sides of my fingers.

Sand-Fly Central

I changed my travel plans because I seriously doubted if immigration in Spain, my next destination, would let me in.  Instead I got the night bus from Marrakesh and, in the early morning, arrived just outside the Medina in Tangier.   I avoided the Petite Socco, once notorious for pimps and hash, but now a tourist hub, and walked further into the Medina until I found a simple and clean guesthouse.

I spent the first couple of days sitting on my laptop increasingly terrified by the list of diseases I might have picked up: Leishmaniasis, Tick Bite Fever, Sand Fly Fever, Mediterranean Spotted Fever, West Nile virus, Filariasis, Typhus and Scabies.

 A rash of signs in Tangier!   

A rash of signs in Tangier!

 

The Ancient Landlubber...

I presented at every pharmacy I could find.  They all asked me if I had had a fever, did I feel dizzy, and when I said no temperature, only supreme anxiety, they sold me creams and seemed remarkably unmoved by my plight - although keeping their distance I noted.

No matter what I applied, the rash persisted.  I was embarrassed to speak to anyone,  swathed my head in a scarf, keeping out of the sun which exacerbated the itch and mooched around shoulders hunched, so even the hawkers avoided me.

Some days I'd blink back tears, imagining I’d slope around Tangier evermore, never to return to the bosom of my family, some kind of Ancient Landlubber, accosting Aussie tourists with my tale.  They’d shrink back in horror and I’d beg them to take messages to the other side. 
 

Tangier; a City Not To Be Missed

 My early morning cafe outside the gate to the Medina in Tangier

My early morning cafe outside the gate to the Medina in Tangier

I have a fairy godmother, celestial patroness or maybe my muse is some male diviner.  Whoever.  Lady Luck is on my side when I pack my bags and invoke the traveller in me to come to the fore.

For without that damned rash I’d never have visited Tangier, now on my short list as one of the most delightful cities in the world.  In the end I didn’t want to leave. 

Within days I had my favourite early morning cafe just outside the Medina.  It was frequented exclusively by men, the elders.  I might not have sat there had the owner not smiled and welcomed me.  Each morning he'd see me coming across the square and my coffee would be ready at my table.  I'd take my book but seldom opened it.  It was a rare spot for me; a place where I just sat and, with a sense of supreme contentment, watched the world go by.

 

Keeping Solo in the High Atlas

One of my most memorable trips travelling solo
in Morocco was into the High Atlas Mountains
by Grand Taxi

On the lower mountain slopes, exuberant swaths of green and pink oleander bushes traced the paths of numerous streams and rivers; lustrous against a backdrop of biscuit-coloured mountains. 

Higher up the bare-rock cliffsides swirled, tilting and tumbling.  Gigantic scribblings that diarised colossal upheavals.  A work that echoed still with latent power.

Tabant to Zaouit Ahansal

My destination was Tabant, a small town with a school for mountain guides, that served hill-walkers and climbers. 
In the town I hired a guide with a car as I wanted to visit a woman’s cooperative in the village of Zaouiat Ahansal
some distance away.  

 Tabant and the local petrol station...

Tabant and the local petrol station...

It was one of those rare journeys where I truly shifted to a spectator’s seat; the backdrop so endowed, it took on a cinematic quality.

The first part of the journey took us along the Ait Bougomez Valley, past many Berber villages and the towers of ruined kasbahs that looked as if they had hatched out of the mud. 

Irrigation schemes instituted half-a-century before had transformed the valley floor and it was gorgeously banded with orchards and fields of bright green and gold.  On the hillsides above, ancient mud-brick terraces were abandoned - built with so much effort, sweat and tears, they were gradually returning to the earth.

 Ait Bougomez Valley

Ait Bougomez Valley

The car made heavy work of the climb and we had to stop frequently to let the engine cool

My troubles didn’t start until we were far above the villages, when Mohammad pulled off the road to take a last look over his valley before we swung over the Tizi’Tirghist Pass. 

“Let us look at the view,” he said, but Mohammad had something else in mind for our stop.   “Kissy kissy now?” 

I looked at him in amazement, primly adjusted my headscarf,  and stared him down.  “No.  No kissy, kissy."

He was an agile little spiv, his verdant mustache fanning with his enormous grin.  He was agitated and hopped
from foot to foot.

“Just little kissy kissy,” he repeated, reaching to take my hand.

I snatched it away and took a few steps back.  

“Absolutely not,” I said in my best English accent.  I was taller than him and I hoped, rather imposing.  A sort of Maggie Smith moment.

But I didn’t feel that confident.  I was, after all, standing on a precipice, we had seen one other car in the last two hours and in any case we were off-road.
 
I gave Mohammad a withering glare and walked resolutely back to the car.  

I was surprised and unnerved, but it didn't take much thought to know it was too ridiculous to be menacing.  I was at least twenty years his senior, a grandmother, short-sighted, seriously deaf and rather grubby - I had been backpacking for weeks - and I had a horrible rash from mites I had encountered earlier at an so-called eco-gite.  I was hardly hot stuff. 

I thought about imperiously demanding a return to Tabant, but whatever I had got myself into, I was halfway there.  Past the point of no return.

Back in the car, I talked of my husband, daughters and grandchildren.  He remained determinedly unconvinced.  The stops on the deserted road for sight-seeing were frequent and he repeated his offer at each one.  Back in the car, he’d reverse with his arm along the back of my seat, touching my shoulders.  As he drove, he constantly adjusted the car windows, pinning me back as he reached across to mine. Even tilting his rear-view mirror he managed to brush my forehead. I squirmed to keep out of his reach and pulled my headscarf tighter, my sleeves lower.

“Kissy, kissy?”  

“No kissy, kissy!”

“Kissy, kissy?”

I grew more confident too, until I just rolled my eyes and tossed my head like a recalcitrant old grey mare. 

Little did he know, I thought, focusing my glare on his mustache, how I loathed facial hair.

The Tizi'Tirghist Pass

The Pass, the highest in Northern Africa at 2,629 metres, was well defined.  The rough road was originally built by the French in the 1930s and it there that the last wild Barbary Lion, Africa’s largest cat, was sighted and sadly shot in 1942. 

Once through the Pass, mountains stretched forever, turbulent, earthy, wild and harsh.  Patches of snow were still about, shrinking in the spring thaw.  There were a few stunted trees scattered over the taupe landscape, but mostly the vegetation was ‘hedgehog’ clusters - greenery that had adapted and grew stunted, bunched together in pincushions clinging to the steep rough terrain.  Many were in flower and made a puffy patchwork of mauve, yellow and white tussocks while some remained shades of green with a velvet sheen.    

 Taupe landscape that rolls on for ever and ever...

Taupe landscape that rolls on for ever and ever...

Nomad Tents Made of Camel-Hair

At first I gazed unseeing at the spectacular and grim mountain slopes until Mohammad pointed out black camel-hair tents of nomad camps and in some places, stone built kraals and low huts. Gradually I too was able to pick out a flash of washing or a group of camels, but it was the black tents that really thrilled me.

Eggs never tasted better

We reached a mud house that had turned one room into a cafe where a smiling Berber girl boiled us eggs in a kettle.  She deftly sliced them, sprinkling salt and spices, before dousing the dish with oil.  Served with hot mint tea and flat bread, it was absolutely delicious. 

Making it Plain in a Pretty Gite

From there it wasn’t far to Zaouiat Ahansal, a village clustered around a river-crossing in a gorge.  I had specifically asked Mohammad to drop me at a gite that was run entirely by women.  He said yes, but took me elsewhere to his friend’s gite.  It was charming and clean overlooking a rushing river tributary with pink hollyhocks in the garden. 

A girl showed me to a room with four mattresses on the floor and I choose one and dropped my backpack beside it.  Within moments Mohammad was there too dropping his bag by the mattress next to mine.  

“No way Mohammad, you are not sleeping in this room.”

He feigned surprise, shrugged and said it was the only room.

“Well, you can sleep in the car.”  I picked up his bag and slung it unceremoniously out the door.

I got on well with the family although I felt the father, the proprietor, took a dim view of me.   After dinner the three of us sat in the little lounge,   With solemn disapproval on one side and crazy man approval on the other, I excused myself and took a walk up the road.

I was soon joined by my ardent friend.
 
“Kissy, kissy?’

“Fuck off!”  I growled.   I was out of patience. 

He licked his lips nervously and I wondered if I might have made a mistake.  Maybe he liked rough talk.  Istrode back to the village.

That night I stuck a chair against the door of my room, it’s back under the handle.  From my mattress, I watched the handle move up and down in the candlelight but my improvised door lock held and had it not, I was ready to do a fair impersonation of a banshee that would have summoned the entire village. 

I didn’t want to drive back with Mohammad but when I spoke to the proprietor there was clearly little alternative.

 Weaving centre and a hollyhock outside my bedroom window at the gite.

Weaving centre and a hollyhock outside my bedroom window at the gite.

Delightful Zaouiat Ahansal

In the morning Mustafa, the son of the household, took me down to see the small Atelier du Tissages de l’Association du Zaouiat Ahsal - a women's weaving centre.  I would have liked to have bought a rug but they were too heavy.  I watched the girls at work and took mint tea with them.  To my dismay were very enthusiastic about the artificial colours they were starting to use. They didn’t fade, were so bright and cheerful and easy to prepare. 

Mustafa told me about the Association he had set up to control the rubbish in the village because trekkers were discarding plastic bottles and other garbage that the village had no way to deal with it.
 
The highlight of the morning though, was not the women’s weaving that I had travelled so far to see, but Mustafa’s tour of the village’s magnificent ancient kasbah.  He led me through a dark passage, up a staircase so black, I had to feel my way slowly as he scampered ahead.  We emerged onto a precarious roof space and mounted a wooden ladder to access an imposing tower and then he took me down again by a different route, using steps which were no more than axed notches in heavy wooden poles.  Villagers used the lower rooms to stable their donkeys.  The site was being restored with money from Government; a casual process.

 The kasbah at Zaouiat Ahansalwhere the local leader lived and where the village would gather when under attack.  It is being restored with Government funds and is quite magnificent!

The kasbah at Zaouiat Ahansalwhere the local leader lived and where the village would gather when under attack.  It is being restored with Government funds and is quite magnificent!

Homeward Bound

The journey back was punctuated by Mohammad’s protestations of infatuation which by now didn’t even get a rise out of me.  I was glad to part from his company but wished him well for after all he had taken me safely on an extraordinary odyssey.

Ahhhhhh....!

A week or so later I met some seasoned Moroccan travellers who asked if I’d had any difficulty travelling alone. 
No, I said, for the Moroccans were genuinely warm and delightful hosts.

“You didn’t you have any trouble with Moroccan men?”

“No, well not really.”

“We wondered because, you see, it’s well established that mature German and English women come to Morocco travelling solo looking for toyboys. They pay good money to have a fling.”

“Not my kind of travel!” I laughed...  but then I thought about poor old Mohammad.

“Ahhhhhh……,” I added, “Well that might explain one particular encounter.”

Footnote:  I have changed the real name of my guide.  He was not called Mohammad!