Another Sentimental Journey

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Denise and I embarked on another of our sentimental journeys Wednesday of last week. We resolved soon after our arrival this trip that we would try to take at least one day “off” each week, recognizing that during the past few times we were here it appeared we became stressed and frazzled by the time we left. That resolution lasted about as long as our annual attempts at the beginning of the year to be more disciplined and intentional in our daily routine. As a corrective action, we decided to spend a couple of days relaxing in the northern Moroccan city of Tangier.

Tangier has a remarkable history. This abbreviated summary from a tour book we purchased in 2008 reveals a stunning story: “Perhaps the oldest city in Morocco, Tangier was active as early as 1600 BC, with a Phoenician settlement. . . . At one point, Rome made it a capital of the empire’s North African provinces, its people receiving Roman citizenship in AD 38. Rome controlled the city until AD 429. Later the Vandals and Byzantines struggled to control the region, then the Muslim Arabs took the city in AD 706. . . . Tangier was conquered by the Portuguese in 1437, became Spanish in 1578 and Portuguese again in 1640.” For about forty years, beginning in 1923, Tangier was recognized as a tax-free International Zone, replete with intrigue, espionage, and stories of the international jet set who used the city as one of its playgrounds. At the end of the colonial period in Morocco in 1956, Tangier was reunited with Morocco.

Our family visited Tangier a number of times in 1986-87 but have been unable to visit that area of the country since. That’s approaching almost 30 years now. However, the nostalgia fueling our sentimental excursion was rooted in an event that occurred many years earlier.

Denise and I arrived in Kenitra, Morocco in January 1971. I preceded her by about two weeks since the policy of the U.S. Navy at the time required non-career personnel to receive command approval before the spouse could accompany the service member. Part of the approval process included securing a place to live. I worked hard to ensure that I had everything in place quickly so that she could arrive as soon as possible. Within a few months, Denise had secured employment as a Purchasing Agent, a GS position in the Supply Department of the U.S. Navy. With the additional income to supplement my lowly wages as an enlisted man, we were able to purchase a car, a new 1971 Simca 1204. However, we had to travel to Tangier to pick it up, a daunting trip for us at that time; our first overnight trip in the very unfamiliar environment where we then lived. We traveled by train, and stayed at the Rembrandt Hotel, the same place we slept Wednesday and Thursday night last week. I might mention that the car served us well: in the twelve months from then until we returned to the U.S. in April 1972 we put about 17,000 miles on the odometer, including three trips to southern Spain.

In the last two decades of the twentieth century, Tangier suffered from what appeared to be neglect on the part of the central government. We drove through the city in 1998 after spending a few days on the Mediterranean coast. The appearance and visual impression the city made at that time was very depressing. We were pleased with the changes we observed upon arrival last week. The present king has taken a lot of interest in rebuilding Tangier’s image, and there has been significant commercial investment and development, especially by Spain and the United Arab Emirates. Of particular interest is a large Renault/Nissan consortium that fabricates automobiles. By the end of 2015 the factory hopes to be manufacturing 250,000 vehicles per year.

Denise had a migraine headache on Thursday so we modified our plans to travel to Tetouan, another coastal city about an hour from Tangier by bus. Five hours on the train Wednesday, and a similar time obligation on Friday convinced us that staying in Tangier with a more relaxed schedule would be more beneficial.

Denise checked with the concierge at the hotel to see if he had a recommendation for a guide with transportation that might spend about three hours with us giving a tour or the city. He made a couple of phone calls and told us the guide should arrive in about twenty minutes. I went upstairs to retrieve a camera and when I returned I saw a stranger talking to Denise; our guide had arrived. His name was, wait for it, wait for it, that’s right, Mohamed! Actually he didn’t have a vehicle himself, but he had an arrangement with a Grand Taxi driver so we were able to get outside the city to see a couple of attractions.

Included among the tourist sites we visited was the Cave of Hercules, a series of caves or grottoes created by the surf. Also, from a promontory point overlooking the Straits of Gibraltar we could see the so called meeting of the Atlantic Ocean and the Mediterranean Sea. That location is called Cap Spartel and the water, beach, and shoreline are quite beautiful.

Coming back into the city we went to the Grande Socco, the entrance to what is usually referred to as the “medina” or old city. You can imagine that a city as old as Tangier has a large medina, with narrow passages and serpentine streets. Daily activity in the medina often reflects similar activity that has gone on for decades and even centuries. One sees a lot of the handicrafts being practiced and can often view the actual products being made that are sold in the shops located along the very crowded streets.

Thursday happened to be one the days each week that the tribal women from the Rif Mountains nearby bring in the agricultural products for the “souk” or market that is held on Thursday and Sunday in Tangier. The women are referred to as Jabalis, and they wear a distinctive traditional straw hat that is easily recognizable.

Mohamed got us back to our hotel within the time frame we had envisioned and our reacquaintance with the city and the opportunity of seeing some new sites made the transaction with the guide well worth the time and expense.

That afternoon, I spent my exercise time walking along a new sidewalk next to the beach. It is a remarkable improvement to what existed there before the effort was begun in the early part of this century to upgrade the overall appearance of the city. The pedestrian pathway is very wide, with extensive landscaping including hundreds of “palmiers” or palm trees. The cool breeze and the pure air provided a revitalizing effect and I resolved that we would try to get back to Tangier when we come next spring.

We left early afternoon on Friday, departing from the new train station, itself a worthy addition to the city’s collection of building improvements. Directly in front was a 20 story or so Hilton Hotel nearing completion, with a shopping mall attached at one end of the hotel structure. Billboards announced there would be more than 80 shops there once the mall opened. At the other end of the hotel, a Hilton Garden Inn will soon be operational.

I am uncertain as to why I should feel a certain amount of pride in what we discovered in terms of the present condition and what appears to be a future that is brighter than many of the other cities in Morocco. Maybe that feeling is a result of our long history here and our wishes for the very best for the Moroccan people.

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Pictures by Denise (except for one)
October 28, 2015

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