Momo's Tangier

As I fell asleep that first night in Tangier, I couldn't help but think how much more I could enjoy the city if I were invisible. Unfortunately, to my knowledge, they don't sell invisibility cloaks - not even in the old medina - but when I left my hotel after breakfast the next day the streets were blissfully empty. There was a young man at a viewpoint overlooking the old port who asked if I needed directions. I said I didn't; here you need to do everything with conviction, even getting lost, otherwise who knows what you could get sucked into. So I left after snapping some photos, only to bump into him again shortly after, when I truly was lost.

In America cynicism is instilled at an early age. Don't accept candy from strangers on Halloween; don't get into cars with strangers; don't even talk to them at all. We're so conditioned to be distrustful of people that approach us in public that it's a hard habit to break. And, yeah, it can be risky and dangerous to engage but, as I learned, the benefits can also be completely worth it.

The second time this guy, whom I'll call Momo, offered help, I accepted because I was trying to get to the Kasbah and he seemed to know where it was. He guided me toward the museum, where he paid for my ticket, and explained some of the artifacts better than I could glean from reading the accompanying texts. Afterward we finished our tour of the Kasbah, and he asked if he could continue to accompany me. Again, I said yes. Momo seemed courteous, not creepy, and I disliked the thought of being jeered at like the day before.

For the rest of the afternoon Momo essentially acted as my tour guide, leading me to the Place 4 Avril 1947, the English church and cemetery and through the hectic souq in the medina, sharing some of the history behind the buildings and monuments. As we stood near one of the souq's entrances, two men passed toting a wheelbarrow full of animal organs. As they lifted it to carry it down the stairs and into the bowels of the market, a large, slippery chunk slithered out and onto the ground like a bloody eel trying to wriggle its way back to the sea. A third man picked it up and they continued on their way.

"Welcome to Morocco," said Momo laughing at my disgusted expression, adding, "Don't worry - they'll rinse it off."

Particularly in the medina, I noticed how much of a difference it made having Momo around as compared to my leisurely solo stroll. The staring persisted but I got almost no cat-calls. Not to mention, as a native Arabic speaker he could comfortably converse with shop owners in ways that I couldn't.

I wasn't entirely surprised when, later, he invited me home to meet his mother and brother. I followed him away from the old medina to the modern part of the city, and a working-class neighborhood where, because the individual apartments had no ovens, the community shared one. Momo was impressed at my restraint from drinking water in public - because I didn't want to offend the fasters - but as I accepted a glass at the house he assured me that it was okay; that people were used to it. He, in turn, confessed that I was the first Asian he had ever met, confirming the theory I had formed based on other Moroccans' behavior around me. Both he and his brother had many questions, often talking over each other, and I think their mother would have gladly joined in had she also spoken French.

As Momo prepared to walk me back to my hotel, the family made me promise to return later that evening to join them for iftar, the fast-breaking meal that occurs at sunset.  

*** 

Several hours later he returned to pick me up (I should note that this was a lot of walking, on a hot day, for a person who cannot drink any water). The city was buzzing now, in the early evening, with people making last minute purchases for dinner meaning slow progress through the streets but good people-watching.

By the time we made it back to the apartment the food was almost ready. And in addition to all the traditional iftar fare his mother had also prepared a delicious tagine, just for me. After the iftar siren ended we dug in to the feast. To drink there was mint tea, the Moroccan staple, and a blended smoothie of bananas and milk. Eating commenced with dried dates and a hearty tomato soup with chickpeas, lentils, meat and noodles, but after that it was a free-for-all and I was encouraged to try everything. There were several types of cookies, flavored with sesame and soaked in honey, two types of bread, one crepe-like that we brushed with a mixture of butter and honey and another more like European loaves, as well as a sort of almond-based paste spiced with anise that tasted good but made your mouth very dry. Everything was delicious and made from scratch; I would have eaten more if I could but by the end my stomach was stretched to the limit and I could practically feel the food baby kicking.

When I left later, both the mother and brother seemed genuinely disappointed when I said I wasn't planning to return to Tangier during the course of my trip. Next time, they promised, there would be couscous (which I had earlier expressed a penchant for but that also takes a long time to prepare). In return I said I would prepare a cake. 

*** 

Instead of going directly back to the medina, where my hotel was, we took a roundabout path out towards the beach. By this time, around 10 or 11 at night, the city had truly come to life. Stores and cafes that had been closed all afternoon were now full of people drinking and smoking. We even passed a metal workshop where the artisans were hard at work, sending sparks flying out onto the sidewalk.

As we walked Momo talked at length about the state of things in Morocco, which was much worse than in France where he had previously been living. Here there were lower wages and less social benefits, just to name a few. He seemed frustrated and weary with the way things were in his home country - derisive, at times, like when we passed a giggling group of boys all clutching plastic bags. They were getting high, he told me, off fumes from paint and glue. They couldn't have been more than ten years old.

When we finally parted ways, it was with some irony that he warned me not to be so trusting as I continued my tour around the country. The hospitality can be incredible, but not everyone is so genuine. I suppose that day I just got lucky.