The house was the first thing I saw, ominously overlooking Tangier on the countryside. It sits fat and placidly, likely mirroring the comfort of its owners. From a distance, it looks lavish like everything else. From a distance. Shortly after, we see the yellow, battered flowers dotting the scrubbiness of the countryside. I was surprised at how capacious and simultaneously scrubby it was, surprised at how fresh and clean the air was. Africa, where the house on the hill is shrouded in mountain fog, surrounded by acres upon acres of buildings yet unknown.
We exit the airplane and walk briskly to the airport, shaking the last of sleep and Parisian fog off our backs furiously, like wet dogs, and descend a staircase to the outside. To our right is an old Saudi Air Force airplane, snubbed and dusty with beige, awaiting takeoff. The arrival area is mobbed by Moroccans in colorful garments, and I walk with worry, curiosity coming in as I acclimate myself to such an endless pool. Our taxi is parked and waiting for us, our driver short and gruff with kind, watchful eyes. On the radio, Jennifer Hudson sings, likely unaware that her short-lived hit from Dreamgirls is blaring thousands of miles away from Los Angeles. The sun is bright and I stick my arm out the window.
I am gawking at how foreign it all is, foreign to me. I am in turn eyed in my fraying leather suit jacket and cracked aviator sunglasses from the taxi. We pass three-legged dogs, cows in the mud impassive to the cars whizzing by, children and mothers walking toward the fields. To our left, abandoned luxury villas as far as the eye can see, frozen in their decades of construction at the height of their grandeur. The crisp, modern lines of the 60’s bracket the needlessly colorful accents of the 90’s, which pop turquoise and pink bubbles into the classist imitation Italian stucco, all sunny and bright because they have no windows. Plastered on the walls of these exiled apartments are faded advertisements of hope and prosperity—buy a villa, see the world, 250,000 dirham! They advertise to no one but the squatters and the taxis whizzing by.
To the average passer-by, 250,000 dirham can buy you a life here, but it isn’t enough once you realize the investors couldn’t afford to finish the project in the first place.
Our driver points out the University of Tangier, squat and windowless like an office in a business park, and the Belgian, French, and Spanish embassies, respectively. I am magnetized to the unabashedness of it all, the polar opposite of curt Paris. People yell, they talk, they call into the window of the taxi not to us, but to our driver, who hollers back in Arabic and waves into the sun. The car is filled with the sweet smell of grass and smoke, and we wind up cramped roads of markets and fruit vendors, finally stopping at the villa we, too, shall call our home in Tangier.
The riad is dark and cool and shut away from the busy streets. Our room looks out toward the Mediterranean sea, perched above the ancient wall of the Kasbah. Cacophony surrounds us though we are high above it all and closed inside—the chirps of the budgies inside synch with the band of kids with drums and tambourines heralding our arrival.
Our lovemaking is fast and sweet on the cool, pressed sheets and sun-warmed tile. As beautiful as we merge, we cannot shake from our minds that homosexuality is a criminal offense. We have checked our liberty at the border, but now, now we are savage and small.
She fists me until we hear a click in the door and part our separate ways.
Fresh after a shower of dandelion-scented cream and the scent of clay in the shadowed bathroom, we descend onto the market and the streets. Our apprehension is sized up by the women frowning at our shocks of hair and exposed sleeves, matched and engorged by the men, the brash ones grabbing themselves and raising their eyebrows. The rest simply stare, mutter a “bonjour,” a “hello, miss,” or in one rare case, a “hola, chica,” as if we look like we are Spanish.
The former shrouded romance of the souk, the dusty trinkets from artists unknown has seceded to the counterfeits, the pairs of shoes, the imitation Berbere hoods and Swatch watches that seem to move quickly and happily. As the sun sets, the darker side of the world emerges. Our pace is brisk as we are herded along to the main square.
We pass a man selling passports on the street and do not look back.
A drone lows small and persistent in my ear. It is not a bug, nor is it a person, but a current of activity. I ask The Connection if someone is fixing their moped, but she points toward the sky, to the sea of loudspeakers bracketed to apartment buildings, hotels, and stores, their bells sheltering the town and its people. It is the call to prayer, and that drone is the merging of voices, guttural and echoing amidst its neighbors. It is beautiful and it is a reminder that we are not where we once were, this tight embrace, this tap on the shoulder.
As luck would have it, a familiar hotel is on the street we are on and we duck in. It is spacious and empty, and rumor has it that Mick Jagger has stayed here. We, along with the waiters and concierge, seem to be the only patrons there, and are given the run of the bar, its two restaurants, terrace, and pool-side courtyard. Drunk on Moroccan wine, we are plied with tapas and sad music in a mixture of French and Arabic sung by a young woman with eyes only for us.
Eventually, hunger outweighs us and we are escorted to a cavernous dining room, its dimness exaggerated by the sinking sun behind us. The Connection is loud but poised and lets me finish her pastilla with gusto. The waiter sees this and brings me a miniature pastilla on a plate, all to myself. This watchful air is careful, with an edge of precision that heightens rather than lulls my anxiety, to my surprise. My propensity to think ahead is foiled by their attention to detail. Another class of Carignan calms my nerves.
By ten, it is pitch-black but they assure us that we must stay for the belly-dancing. We are still the only patrons in the restaurant, potentially the hotel, and are cloistered with a tambourine player and white-gowned violinist, his head and shoulders completely in the shadows. As we leave, he nods at me and I nod back. I do not know if our eyes meet in the dark.
This time, the passport seller recognizes us and waves a soft-edged book at our faces. Almost, I pause, dragged ahead by The Connection and an impending sense of heart-thumping fear in the belly. He grins toothlessly and we walk toward the square. As we round the stairs, star-eyed cats jumping out of our way, the sky bruises and the pink tick of the gaslights come on.