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Tangier, for a Taste of Muslim Africa

Tangier, Morocco

From Tarifa, Spain, a short ferry ride takes us to the vibrant, revitalized port of Tangier, Morocco. Rather than take a packaged tour, we hire a guide who shows us traditional artisans at work, colorful markets in action, and daily life in the fascinating old town.

Complete Video Script

For me, Tarifa's top attraction: the fast boat to Morocco. Several boats a day make the inter-continental trip in about an hour. Tickets are easy; all you need is a few euros and your passport.

The Strait is Gibraltar is where seas, continents, and cultures collide. Fishing, shipping, and movement of peoples, this narrow stretch of water has seen it all. And it's here that Islam and Christendom come together like cultural tectonic plates.

Over the centuries, this narrow passage has witnessed lots of turmoil: eighth-century Muslim Moors sweeping north, then in 1492 those same Moors retreating south making this very same voyage. Today, wealthy Europe has invited back the people of North Africa to harvest its crops and do its low-end work. And today, as anywhere, with all this back and forth there are both challenges and opportunities.

Independent travelers walk right off the boat and into Tangier. The busy port seems to pump life into the city. It’s an intense scene.

Tangier had long been considered a charmless and dangerous place. But today that's changed, and this city is becoming a proud showcase of the new Morocco.

Like so many Moroccan cities, Tangier is split in two: its old tangled Arab quarter, and a new French colonial quarter. While new-town buildings feel distinctly European, it's immediately evident that this is North Africa.

Tangier's new town faces its fine beach. The broad stretch of sand is treated as a park by locals — ideal for a quiet stroll or some exuberant gymnastics. And what better place for some barefoot soccer?

A grand boulevard parallels the beach. It's named for Morocco's popular king, Mohammad VI, the man whose policies have given Tangier its new vitality.

Throughout the mid-20th century, Tangier was considered too strategic to be controlled by any one country. It was therefore jointly governed by the European powers. It attracted playboy millionaires, spies, romantics, and scoundrels. Because of its western orientation, the previous Moroccan king essentially disowned the city, leaving it dispirited and neglected.

But when the king was crowned in 1999, this was the first city he visited. His vision: to make Tangier a leading city once again. And it's well on its way. In the early evening, Moroccans hit the streets and stroll as people do across the Mediterranean world. Amid all the new, old ways do persist. Café-sitting and people-watching remains a mostly old boys' pastime.

Once Tangier's main square, the Grand Socco, stands like a referee between the new and old towns. A few years ago this was a pedestrian nightmare and a perpetual traffic jam. Today this smart square is emblematic of the new Tangier.

Visiting this revitalized city lifts my spirits. I see a society that’s neither pro-West nor anti-West. It's just people… making the best of life. It's becoming more modern and affluent on its own terms.

From the Grand Socco, a medieval wall encircles the old town. Passing through the gate, you enter a labyrinthine wonderland.

The old town is delightfully disorienting. When exploring on my own, I just wander knowing that uphill will eventually get me to the castle (or "kasbah") and downhill will eventually lead me back to the port. I expect to get a little lost… going around in circles is part of the fun.

You can visit Tangier on your own or you can take a tour. Most visitors take a tour, day-tripping in from Spain for a predictable series of experiences: They get their shopping opportunities and a few set-up photo ops. Snake charmers turn on the charm… hustlers hustle for tips… and folkloric musicians strike up the band.

For lunch, tour groups sit together in Ali Baba elegance to enjoy a meal with more local music.

And then they follow their guide, single file, back down to their waiting ferry past one last gauntlet of merchants hungry for a sale.

Once the day-trippers are back on their boats and heading home to Europe, it seems there's hardly a tourist left in Tangier. That's why I like to spend the night.

Wandering is fun. But to enjoy it with maximum understanding, you can hire a local guide. I'm joining up with my friend and fellow tour guide Aziz Begdouri.

Aziz: These guys are day workers ready to work: a painter ready to paint, a plumber ready to plumb, electrician ready to wire. So the community works together. If you don’t have a phone in the house you use the phone centers. And we use the community baths which are called "hamams" and here’s the community oven. It’s a bakery.
Rick: It’s like a bakery, OK.
Aziz: This is the oven for the community. So families make bread every day in their home and bring the dough here to be baked. They pay him for a small fee, depends on loaves of bread they bring, so they pay him for a day or for a week or a month. This way they have fresh bread every day.
Rick: And it’s more than just bread. I see there’s some fish…
Aziz: Yeah apart from the bread they bring fish to be roasted, also they bring tajis, who are the stew of lamb or chicken, and bring homemade cookies. And also to roast the peanuts, almonds, sunflower seeds, cashews, all that. How’s it taste?
Rick: It’s very good.

The old town is spinning with traditional artisans. And Aziz knows just which passage to duck into to witness cottage industries trapped in time.

Aziz: Here are the weavers. They’re still working the same way as their parents and grandparents. So this is real craft and art that these people had learned from generation to generation. They’re very happy to continue doing it. They have the patience, they have the skill and they do it from their heart.

And mosaics are created the same way: by hand and without the precision of modern machinery.

Rick: So how does he know where to chip?
Aziz: He has a design in his head and he’s working on it. And that way he knows what he’s going to create. And all the designs are geometric designs because the Muslims we don’t do faces and images. And that’s very Islamic art. For the Muslims only Allah is perfect. For us the fact that it is not perfect is part of the beauty.

In the market wander past piles of fruit, veggies, olives, and stacks of fresh bread. You'll find everything but pork. Today, the Berber women have come in from nearby mountains with wheels of fresh goat cheese wrapped in palm leaves.

The fish market is clean, slippery, and full of life. Because Tangier is a city on two seas — the Mediterranean and the Atlantic — fish is a big part of the local diet.

And it's no surprise Aziz is taking me to a restaurant that serves only fish. There's no menu. Just sit down and let them bring on the food.

The sink in the room is for locals who prefer to eat with their fingers.

It's fish soup, tangine spinach with shrimp, baby calamari and swordfish, and the catch of the day: John Dory.