Travel – Tangier

Tangier is a thoroughly Moorish town with little that is European to modify the oriental impression which it makes upon the visitor. It has a population of ten or twelve thousand inhabitants, and less than a tenth of these are Europeans. It is the residence of the governor of the province, and of the foreign ministers and consuls who are accredited to Morocco. Its name, originally Tingis, denotes its Carthaginian origin, and it is supposed to be the earliest town in this part of Africa. It has belonged to various nations, – Rome, Portugal, England, and France. The Portuguese had it for two hundred years, till in 1662 it was given to England as a part of the dowry of Catherine of Braganza, who married Charles the Second. Twentytwo years later, the English gave it up as an unprofitable possession, after having destroyed the mole and fortifications which they had built. The city was once beautiful, and during the Portuguese occupation had a cathedral and other fine buildings. These have all been destroyed, together with the jetty which formed the port, the battery, and other defences.

The business of the place consists chiefly in supplying Gibraltar, Cadiz, and Lisbon with provisions and cattle. Twice a week the Hercules transports from fifty to a hundred beef cattle for the consumption of British soldiers in the garrison at Gibraltar, for John Bull must have his roast beef wherever he sojourns. Large supplies of fruits and vegetables and crates of poultry go also to Gibraltar and the other ports mentioned. It was an amusing sight to watch from our windows, at the Continental Hotel in Tangier, the loading of the steamships in the bay by the Moorish watermen. The stupidity and slowness and clumsiness of the operation would have driven a New York stevedore crazy, and we were sometimes very sorry for the poor animals whose torments in this transportation must have given them an apprehension of their coming fate.

The picturesque appearance of the town, with its whitewashed towers and cupolas and tiled roofs, as seen from the anchorage, vanishes upon landing. The principal street traverses the town from the Bab-el-Marsa, or Marine Gate, to the Bab-el-Sok, or Gate of the Market-place. It is thirty feet wide, steep, and paved with cobble-stones, which are smooth and slippery. On either side of the street are oriental shops, with Moors and Jews sitting crosslegged on covered platforms, surrounded by shelves, upon which their wares are displayed. These merchants usually have long pipes in their mouths, and seem less interested in selling their goods than in watching their neighbors. The other streets are only narrow and winding lanes, very dirty, and crowded with mules, asses, and horses, which are often carrying loads which make it impossible to pass. The pedestrian retreats into a doorway or an alcove to allow these beasts of burden to go by, and the driver warns freight trains coming in an opposite direction to halt at a widening of the alley, if they wish to avoid a collision. The houses are mostly of one story, with flat or terraced roofs, having windowless walls on the street and one large entrance, which leads into an inner court, around which the house is built and upon which the rooms open. Sometimes there is a fountain in the centre of the court, but oftener a rough pavement for the animals which are bivouacked there. Beggars abound; some are blind, lame, maimed, and diseased, and others are simply lazy and wicked. They squat and lie in the midst of the filth of the streets, of which they sometimes seem to form a part, or they follow, clinging like burrs on a woollen garment to the hope of getting at last a pesata or a real by their persistency. The men on foot are often tall and finely formed, with flashing eyes and sinewy arms and legs, striding along with a firm gait, in spite of their slippered feet, and giving one an idea of a powerful race. Little is seen of the women, except a bundle of white woollen or cotton cloth gathered over the head and face so as to leave one, and sometimes, two, eyes exposed. They shuffle about, or are mounted on donkeys, led by a slave or eunuch. The Jewish women go unveiled, and some of them have dark, handsome faces and beautiful eyes. There are few who would not be improved by more soap and less cosmetic and grease, but the ways of women in all countries are passing strange and beyond rational analysis. Fashion is doubtless as strong in Tangier as in Paris, and about as sensible in her decrees.

One evening we went with our interpreter to a cafe concert. It was held in a courtyard, over which a temporary roof had been thrown. There were divans around the walls, on which the performers sat cross-legged in the costumes of the East. A few English and Americans were seated on chairs near the entrance. Coffee, with the grounds in the cup, and pipes of tobacco were furnished to the guests. At intervals the musicians made dreadful noises upon rude banjos and tambourines, and sang with a nasal twang a monotonous refrain in the minor key. Wind instruments were occasionally introduced, and the resemblance to a Chinese symphony or the cat concert on a back fence was remarkable. We were glad to retire early from this musical soiree, and stumble through the lanes and alleys back to our hotel, guided by our interpreter, who was himself guided by a turbaned Moor, dressed in a white cotton shirt and slippers, and carrying a small lantern. We usually made fresh acquaintance with various familiar specimens of insect life on each of these excursions.

In the streets of Tangier there is a constant stream of human and animal life. Sometimes the crowd is so great that movement is difficult, and it is wonderful that no one is hurt. Huge camels swing along with creaking loads; dozens of men ride on mules, which go right on without reference to what they carry; asses, loaded until the ass is obliterated and only animated bundles of grass, straw, or merchandise can be seen, wobble about on the polished stones; while slave women with water jars on their heads, water-sellers with skins of the precious fluid across their shoulders, jingling their cups and crying out to passers-by in harsh guttural voices, and fruit-sellers elbow their way along. On handsome animals one will see swarthy Moors, their flowing robes hanging down to the legs and feet of the animals, and veiled women, jostling, ragged Arabs, who are sitting solemnly on donkeys or driving the wretched beasts in front of them with prods and exclamations. Truly we have, by crossing the Straits of Gibraltar, come into another sphere! How far away the rest of the world, its civilization and its customs, seems! Here, too, is a different religion. The muezzin’s call to prayer from the minaret is heard three times a day, and the faithful stop all work, if by any chance such a thing should be going on, and facing towards the tomb of the Prophet they bow and prostrate themselves and pray. We cannot enter the mosque, for nowhere is fanaticism more violent than in Morocco, and there is no toleration for a Christian except that which comes from wholesome fear. Yet there is a little iron church in Tangier and an Episcopal rector, who is protected by the British embassy; and this wedge may ultimately split the hard and fast Mohammedanism into which it has been driven.

The time passed pleasantly at Tangier, ” the city protected by the Lord.” The sky was turquoise blue, and cloudless. The atmosphere was clear and dry, and the sun was warm and bright. It was a joy to live and breathe, to mount a quiet mule or an ambling donkey and ride beyond the town to the curious marketplace, or out among the hills where foreign residents have beautiful villas and gardens of delight. It is not safe to go far without an escort, for the people hold all life cheap, and the life of an infidel dog is of very little account. Fear of reprisals for violence, or of the prison where many of the captives starve to death, since the government furnishes no food and the wretched captive is dependent upon chance charity, and of an unexpected revolver, – these things keep down the murder record; but it is better not to go about alone in the Barbary States. There are special reasons for this in Tangier, for it receives into its bosom every year several hundred Spanish convicts who escape from the penal settlement at Ceuta, further east along the African coast. With a native or armed companion excursions for hunting or botanizing may be made, with gratifying success.

The market is always a scene of interest and amusement. Our visit was during the Ramadan, just be fore the Bairam feast. All the Mohammedans were fasting from the time of the morning gun till sunset; they ate no food and drank no water, neither did they smoke, and these deprivations made them quarrelsome and cross, instead of meek and pious. It was Wednesday evening when I first went to the Sok, or marketplace, and a hundred loaded camels were just coming in from their long journey. The treeless and dirty hill where the market is held was covered with tents, of the most ragged and filthy description, and extempore booths, where all sorts of things were for sale. Crockery and brass trays, skins of animals, vegetables and fruits in baskets, with nets over them to prevent thieving, cotton cloth and fez caps and weapons and ornaments were lying around W the dirt, with braying donkeys and kicking mules and shrill-voiced women in great abundance. Picturesque groups of squatting women enveloped in their white haiks were gathered together in one place; in another were a company of tall and straight men from the mountains between Ceuta and Oran, draped in the hooded arba, their heads smooth-shaved with the exception of a, single lock. These men are called “reefians,” and are said to be oftentimes ruffians and robbers, and of pure descent from the Berber race. Into this motley crowd the clumsy camels came, their great spongy feet spreading out and trampling over everything, their huge loads swinging from side to side as they walked, the drivers and leaders prodding them and yelling in coarse Arabic, making them kneel here or stand there till a place was cleared for unloading. The ugly beasts would bite and blow great bladders of red, foamstreaked skin out of their mouths, and try to roll on the ground, uttering disagreeable sounds, adding to the confusion worse confounded of the scene.

A special crowd excited my attention. In the centre of an eager circle a fiendish-looking man was prancing about. He had wild, rolling eyes and an open mouth, in which a few huge and lonesome teeth contrasted with the dense blackness of his face, around the edges of which and on the upper lip was a thick growth of wiry curling hair. He wore a skullcap studded with silver coins, from which hung wool len tassels ornamented with similar coins. A ragged brown ” gehab ” covered his body. His bare arms were brandished aloft One hand held a bag of charms, and in the other he clutched a huge snake, which writhed and hissed and thrust out its tongue and tried to strike with its fangs. As the horrid man danced to and fro, and around the circle, which gave way at his approach, he would bring the snake’s head to his own mouth and thrust out his tongue till it touched the serpent’s fangs. The reptile seemed to bite the tongue, and blood would flow. Thrusting his hand into his bosom he drew forth another and larger snake, which was from four to six feet long, twisted the two together, and teased them, and seemed to control them as he chose. The exhibition was going on bravely, till another snake-charmer appeared upon the scene, when a sudden and violent quarrel arose, in which the snakes of the combatants were thrown about in such a lively manner that the crowd scattered in every direction and left the contestants a free field for their conflict. The faces of both men were scarred with snake bites; but though the reptiles are said to be venomous, the exhibitors seemed to have no fear of serious results from their bites. It is said that they take antidotes, and also that the poison is sometimes removed from the serpents’ fangs.

With difficulty we made our way through the throng of beasts and men and women, and by devious ways reached the door of the hotel, which admitted us to comfort and repose. The next morning being the regular market-day, we again essayed the Sok, where the scene was indeed an oriental picture, worth crossing the Straits of Gibraltar to see.

The crowd was dense, the din terrible, the dust thick; men, women, and children, camels, horses, mules, donkeys, dogs, flying fowl, and creeping things contributed to a scene of unequalled confusion. Bundles of green grass and piles of yellow oranges, cackling hens and crowing cocks which were singing their own requiems, baskets of eggs and tubs of olives, heaps of nuts and strings of dates, candies and fruits of all sorts, household goods and utensils, gaudy shawls and cloths, and yellow and red shoes of all sizes were strewn in wild disorder upon the bare ground. Through this mass of men and things now and then a proud official would ride rapidly, careless who were knocked down or what damage was done. Both horse and rider were as regardless of 11 the masses ” as the rich Christians of America are said to be; but 11 the masses” managed to look after themselves pretty well, and few serious mishaps occurred. The dress of the women in the market is much like that of the Irish emigrant on a rainy day, a short skirt, and a clumsy woollen shawl drawn close over the head. Sometimes, instead of the shawl, the head and face are covered with a handkerchief; but only Jewesses wear their faces exposed.

The dirt of the market-place was indescribable, and the swarms of greedy flies made a stay in the midst of it impossible. There is a street-cleaning department in Tangier, to which I was invited to contribute by a printed circular; but I think the officers must have been taking a vacation at the time of my visit. We rode to the shops where braziers were making brass trays out of thin metal plates. The work was done rapidly, and with some degree of elegance, the only instruments being a hammer and chisel. Other trades were in full operation, and my idea that all Orientals are indolent received a decided shock as I rode past these busy workshops.

There were multitudes of children and beggars, all very dirty, many of them loathsome from disease, and some lepers among them, who are not confined to a special quarter, as in other cities. After learning this we were not so anxious to perambulate the crowded streets, but made our way to a bazaar, where a plausible Jew endeavored to make us buy Moorish dresses, and old linen rags with dirty embroidery on them, for curtains and portieres and chair covers. I am so stupid as to prefer clean and new and nice things to the infected and rotten old ” bargains ” which are to be had in junk shops, and so I reached the hotel with a few shekels still in my purse.