Hiding in Plain Sight: Tetouan, Morocco

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Girls walk arm-in-arm

The taxi driver drove for an hour and 20 minutes to take me from Tangier to Tetouan.  The residency directors met me at an open area near the medina, the old town of Northern African cities.

The medina has no cars and is an intricate network of narrow maze-like alleyways filled with street vendors and people selling vegetables in piles. Chickens run between your feet and some areas smell of the raw meat being cut up in the open air. Cats slink around and eat out of cast-off bags.

When we bought tomatoes, one of them was soft and the seller’s thumb went through it. He flung the red bits onto the ground and kept shoveling the little tomatoes into the bag we were buying. Once you bring the produce home, it must be washed in vinegar or rinsed in water that has had a few drops of bleach added to it.

The street vendors outside the medina yell continuously. I hear them in the morning when I leave the riad and throughout the day while writing at the residency. The sound is soothing, like ocean waves.

Their voices rise and fall in a constant Arabic chant advertising what they have for sale: peaches, strawberries, watermelons, avocados, apricots, freshly-dug carrots and radishes, string-wrapped bunches of mint, cilantro, thyme. They sell homemade goat cheeses wrapped in grape leaves …and cartloads of Lays potato chips, sold by the single bag.

I’ve made an audio recording. Click the red circle with an arrow:

… the array of what you can buy isn’t limited to food: baskets filled with twigs from salvadora persica AKA the “toothbrush tree” (the end is chewed till it’s frayed then used to brush the teeth);  glittery stones that are ground up to make eye shadow; Western-styled pants; hats and baseball caps; outdated cell phones; elaborate tunics; boxes of tissues; baby clothes…

Why did the residency directors meet my taxi in a plaza? Because there aren’t addresses in the medina as we understand them. You have to know where to go.

I felt confused by the alleyways, which often don’t have signs. Many of them simply require memory. Those that do look like this:

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Tetouan is a metropolis of half a million people located in the Martil Valley with the Rif Mountains on one side. It’s one of Morocco’s two major port cities on the Mediterranean Sea. It’s roughly 40 km (25 miles) south of the Strait of Gibraltar.

To be here is to feel as if you’re straddling multiple worlds: young men with modern haircuts and dressed in the latest styles of jeans move through crowds of people wearing cultural clothing that dates back thousands of years. The Romans noted in their writings the distinctive clothing of the Northern Africans.

And the ever-present force of Islam creates its own kind of energy.

The calls to prayer occur five times/day. A man is designated to do it in each neighborhood over a loudspeaker system. In Tetouan, the announcement lasts for less than a minute (at least in this neighborhood) and then the sounds of the street resume.

But in Tangier I listened to the thousands of voices in homes and out-of-doors filling the air. Maybe I could hear it clearly because my apartment was located above the medina.

I made an audio recording — you can hear the loudspeakers but it takes a few seconds to notice the background voices of Muslims praying. To listen, click the red circle:

I raced to the window to look out. I was on the phone with my sister for Mother’s Day and put the phone out while standing on the terrace so she could hear. After a few seconds my perception of eeriness went away and the prayers seemed glorious, like human music.

In the beginning I simply saw Muslim clothing — women wearing the hijab and the long dresses — but later I began to notice differences. As in any culture, some women dress without fuss while others draw attention by matching bright colors and coordinating elaborately-designed fabrics.

The cultural and religious clothing the men wear are usually brown, black or tan. I’ve noticed the ubiquity of beards.

Of course in many cultures men dress to draw attention, too. But the divide here between men and women seems to have dampened that. There are mosques for men and separate mosques for women. The cafes selling tea in the evenings are filled exclusively with men. When I’ve walked through the market streets after dark from the residency (the shops are occupied until late in the evening) there are few women.

The gender roles are very strict. I’m still trying to figure out the variety of influences and how they shape Tetouanis. I won’t be here long enough to get a true understanding.

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A modern highway leading to Tetouan. In the bottom left is a “mountain woman” (the local term) wearing the distinctive conical hat with brightly-colored pompoms.
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A man wearing the white kufi and hooded robe walks along the sidewalk.

Alcohol is banned by Islam. In all of Tetouan, we’ve only found three restaurants that sell wine. The one major supermarket (yeah, only one) used to sell it but the religious leaders pressured the officials and alcohol sales ended.

How do the three businesses get away with selling it? They’re owned by foreigners. But if you’re Moroccan, then the assumption is you’re a Muslim.

Are there other places to get alcohol? Undoubtedly. I’ve been told there’s a section of town where a few bars (without signs) exist. But it’s kept quiet to avoid unwanted attention.

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This is the plaza King Mohammed VI recently renovated. His palace begins (roughly) in the middle of the above photo and continues on toward the right. The barriers prevent street sellers from moving into the area plus provide an additional level of safety for the palace.

Security is tight and I didn’t want to be seen taking photos of a sensitive location. I snapped this quickly then kept walking.

The king owns palaces in every major Moroccan city. He loves cars. One time he and his delegation drove into town in a long line of Ford Mustangs.

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On the city’s outskirts a bus rounds a corner while a girl feeds her goats on the roadside.
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Seconds after leaving the city, the terrain becomes gorgeously rural. Olive trees dot the hills in the distance. Olives are served at every meal, including breakfast.
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A local farmer harvests from his garden.
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A woman walks along the market in the early morning. All of these green doors represent individual businesses. The doors fold open like shutters to reveal shops so tiny there is hardly enough room for two customers at a time. Some of them are only large enough for the artisan, who hands things to you to look at and buy.
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Tetouan is an ancient walled city. I took this photo from the walkways at the top.

I review these observations and photos and think: I’ve hardly scratched the surface… an accumulation of details doesn’t capture it. Tetouan is the most elusive city I’ve ever visited.

2 thoughts on “Hiding in Plain Sight: Tetouan, Morocco

  1. You have only scratched the surface. It is a very strange land. It seems like one can’t relax, not knowing exactly how to be in this location. I would think one would always have his guard up because of the uncertainty. Thank you for taking the time to post about this highly unusual voyage!

    Like

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