Hercules, the ancients say, in his wandering and labors came to the western limit of the Mediterranean where a great mountain, the Atlas, lay athwart his path. Not one for nuance, some say in the fury of madness, he smashed a passage through the ranges, and so appeared the straits of Gibraltar, the headlands left on opposing shores known as the Pillars of Hercules. Legend says a pair of memorial columns* once stood nearby in Cadiz warning seafarers with the Latin inscription, ne plus ultra, nothing more beyond.
But a stream of migrants from across Africa are having none of it. They believe that everything lies beyond the pillars. They trek north from West Africa and beyond, desperate venturers whose mantra is “cross over or die trying’. Standing on the bluff of Tangiers they see the shimmer of Europe whose promise has drawn them across the Sahara, past the gauntlet of mean towns, of desert furnace and wind, of smugglers, of outwitting the police, of short shrift at every turn, of hunger and sleeping rough.
As we gaze across that narrow passage, imagining ourselves on the waves, a kind Moroccan passerby takes us under his wing, pointing toward the migrants’ destination: Spanish Tarifa, and east through the haze, Gibraltar and its sister town, Algeciras. “Runaways creep out of the forest and launch from these beaches,” he tells us, “those who pay the smugglers crowd on to dinghies, others ride inner tubes and scavenged timbers. Farther on, at the port, they cling to the hulls of pleasure craft. Who knows how many are lost to the currents, overpowered by nature or by evildoers?”
Nearby we walk through the shambles of a 14th century mosque under renovation. “These artisans,” he tells us, “can neither read nor write, but they have no equals at shaping stone and laying up plaster for the ages.” Through a gap in the kasbah (city) wall we catch a glimpse of the open Atlantic, three thousand miles of wind and current ‘til landfall. The bards of old chanted of Atlantis, island of that ‘ultra’, which sank – before global warming – “‘neath the wine-dark sea”. There’s no escaping the modern resonance of the myths.
Standing in the cobblestone street, we find ourselves accosted by a fierce, scarecrow figure in traditional djelaba and skull cap, a worn journal in his hand. He browbeats for no discernable reason our passerby-friend who flees, leaving us in the hands of a psycho tour guide who introduces himself as Abdullah, a hall-of-fame predator. He demands that we make a contribution to his ‘charity’ by enrolling ourselves in his journal following which he promises to take us to a first-class restaurant and to other delights beyond the ‘Pillars of Hercules’. Sensing how tightly we are falling into his grasp, it is only with the greatest vehemence and by making a small contribution to his charity that we escape his talons, collapsing, exhausted but free, in a convenient alcove.
There’s no leaving Tangiers without a visit to a remarkable Moorish corner of the city, the Old American Legation. Morocco, in a deft maneuver, was the first country to offer diplomatic recognition to a young United States in part to escape its own perils of European colonial ambition. In 1821, the sultan offered a diplomatic outpost to the Americans which continues today as an elegant cultural center since the diplomats decamped for Rabat. The larger cultural story of Tangiers can only be described as coloratura opera. The brilliant light, the exotic Moorish air, the whiff of spies, exiles, pirates and plotters, once drew to the city a raft of talent – Matisse, Cézanne, Delacroix, Kerouac, the Rolling Stones, Tennessee Williams to name a few. In the background stands the storied Ibn Battuta, traveler-scholar who once set out from Tangiers to tramp Eurasia as no other, leaving his footprints afield in Shiraz, Samarkand, Beijing, Zanzibar and Sumatra. But a native writer who tells the most compelling story of the life of Tangiers in the warrens and hard scrabble streets, is the storyteller, Mohamed Choukri, whose master work, ‘For Bread Alone’, is still the talk of the Arab world, a drama brought to the big screen in 2005.
Choukri tells of a turning point in his life when, sent to jail, he found in the shadows and misery a prisoner who at the end of his own cruel tether, busied himself with scratching a poem on the cell walls. Choukri’s ambition to tell the truth of his own struggle began that day. This farrago of human drama, its seamy truths and its glory gather in Tangiers round those Pillars of Hercules whose brocade of story is still on the loom.
*In a fascinating further twist, it seems the double bar in the dollar sign is a vestige from Spain signifying these very ‘Pillars of Hercules’. In a secular age attuned to wealth, perhaps they, too, are inscribed with that Latin warning, ne plus ultra.