Return to Tangier

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Status: In Progress  |  Genre: Non-Fiction  |  House: Booksie Classic

After years of absence, an English teacher returns to his native Tangier and discovers what really counts in life.

Long Way Back to Tangier

I had recently arrived from the United States after a long absence from Tangier. And Despite it being my native city, I was somewhat of a stranger to the place and knew very little about it. I left it as a ten-year old child. Now, thirty years later, I am back to live and work here.

A stranger in a familiar place. For this and other personal reasons, I set out to discover the old Medina, considered the soul of the city, and from which history’s lanes extend as far back as the phoenicians. Even Hercules, according to Greek Mythology, came to Tangier to rest at Achakar’s grottos after separating the continent of Africa from europe.

To learn about the Medina, with an old map in hand, I strolled its narrow alleys and streets; frequented its numerous cafes and restaurants, took interest in its labyrinth byways, ancient communal bakeries, its markets, mosques, and surprisingly, lush gardens at the back of out of the way cafes and Bazaars.

In the course of my wonderings, and over time, I learned something unique and extraordinary about the Medina of Tangier: its peculiar sounds and noises. Perhaps because of the cramped spaces and narrow alleys, strange sounds seem to come out of nowhere. You can hear a sardine seller loud and clear, or people laughing, but without ever seeing any of them. At night, the sounds took on a whole otherworldly dimension. Ghosts without apparitions.

One day in October of 1996, on a bright Tangier afternoon, I nearly stumbled upon the small steps at the entrance of the Restaurant Ahlen, located near the American Steps, and not far from the Old Port. This, in a serendipitous way, changed my original goal of walking the Medina. What unfolded next, became, pele-mele, the real subject of this narrative.

Whether it was because I nearly fell at the entrance, or the bright light that came from within, I decided to go inside. It also helped that by the doorway, there was a large pot of Harira slowly cooking under a low, but constant wood-fire.

The place was nearly empty, except for two old women speaking Spanish and arguing over cafe noir and cigarettes. I took a seat in the small blue recess, surprised by the sense, that unlike the typical dark shadowy shops in the Medina, the Ahlen restaurant was relatively large and bright.

And, in contrast to the cacophony outside, within the restaurant, an unexpected sense of calmness prevailed. Even though noises and voices came from the alleys, they were somehow muffled, faint, almost like echoes.

I was greeted by a young waiter. He was attentive, courteous, well-mannered and professionally dressed. He told me his name was Rachid. I asked for a plate of Loubia, a common tomato-based bean dish in Morocco, which, by the way, I highly recommend.

When Rachid brought the steaming Loubia, he found me busy reading the International Herald Tribune. He put the food on the table slowly and deliberately, and then looked at me in a curious way. Surprisingly, and without much context, he asked why I was reading a newspaper in English and not one in Arabic. I replied that I was an English teacher, and so it was somewhat part of my job to keep in touch with the language.

He quickly understood, and then, Rachid asked an even more surprising question: would I agree to teach him a little English? He said he wanted to learn English because many of his customers are foreigners. They generally speak English, even if they are from China or Greece, and that English is important for the future of the Ahlen, and even for the future of Morocco. “ It is the the universal language, you know,” he said.

Lingua franca.

I coud only agree.

As to my payment for teaching him English, we had a tacit understanding that, in exchange for the lessons, I would eat gratis at the Ahlen. In this fortunate way, and very rapidly, I had the great pleasure of sampling nearly the entire menu, but for some reason always returned to the curiously savory Loubia. What a Treat! Even if Rachid politely disagrees, I still believe after all these years that I had the better end of the deal.

After that first meeting, I came by the Ahlen occasionally and helped Rachid with his English. The lessons were brief and sporadic as we mostly (my fault) ended up speaking our own local Moroccan Darija.

As the years past, and with the advent and wide propagation of the internet, the Ahlen Restaurant, under Rachid’s hard work and excellent food, was recognized, attracting a wide range of customers and devotees.

Before the COVID-19 pandemic, The Ahlen had become a place to go among certain local connoisseurs. The charm and food of this ramarkable place did not escape the international foodies crowd either; they too showed up regularly to enjoy the cuisine and ambience of this unique restaurant.

The French epicurean Brillat-Savarin said, “Tell me what you eat, and I’ll tell what you are.” This is quite apt for the food at the Ahlen. It is quintessential Moroccan of the Rif genre. Simple in a sophisticated way. The mildness of flavors linger and somehow brings you back home. And it doesn’t matter where you come from, there is something about the food at the Ahlen that evokes the familiar. Perhaps that is one of the secrets of the Ahlen, and to a a larger extent, the Medina of Tangier and its people.

What began as a walk to discover the Medina, turned into an unexpected experience. I gained a new friend who has now become an old friend. And if you wish, you can still see Rachid at the Ahlen Greeting his customers now hailing from every corner of the world.

As to my initial goal of knowing the Medina, it was somewhat in vain. I think it will remain an enigma to me; and that is not a bad thing at all. Many have come before, visited Tangier, and found it a mystery-a white city, millennial in its history, dangling from a high rock on both sides of two immense waterways.

Mashpee, Massachusetts, Land of the Wampanoags.

May 2021


Submitted: May 18, 2021

© Copyright 2021 M. Ouriaghli. All rights reserved.

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