A Unique Geographic Position
According to Greek legend it was Hercules, the impetuous semi-god that created the Straits named Gibraltar who separated the European and African continents with a blow of his sword (or shoulder!) and raised the famous columns (the hills on the two sides). It is said that he left a large hole in the caves (that bear his name on the Spartel promontory, at the end of the bay to the east of Tangiers) to observe the sea and admire his work. If the legend is true, the Moroccans, North Africans or Africans in general would have great reason to be angry with Hercules, for his thoughtlessness and all the gods of ancient Greece for the little care they made of men. What a strange idea to separate the land and to create this geographic fiction that are continents ! if Hercules had contained himself a bit, history would have followed another course. Or even if it had gone as it did, the many candidates for clandestine immigration that cross the straits each day, thereby risking their lives, would only have had to climb a wall or cut the barbed wire fence to cross to the other side, as they do between Mexico and the United States.
Luckily, Hercules was not too efficient in his work: the two continents are not far from each other. At the closest point of the straits they are only 14 kilometres apart. It is for this reason that men sometimes think to repair the mistake the hero made by creating a fixed link between Spain and Morocco. Already in the 19th century there was an idea to build a bridge; thought of by an engineer full of good intentions, at the time of the realisation of other grandiose projects such as the Suez or Panama Canals. However, the idea was quickly abandoned because the project was not profitable: one builds canals to save distance and time (and therefore money) for ships, but to build a gigantic bridge was madness. Men had to continue to cross by boat as they had done for thousand of years.
It was a science fiction writer of fertile imagination, Arthur C. Clarke who first evoked, in a novel published in 1979, a bridge build on the straits of Gibraltar. The author of the famous 2001 Space Odyssey (from which the idea of a space elevator starts to be taken very seriously by NASA), described in his novel, The Fountains of Paradise, the building of what he called the “the ultimate bridge” at the start of the 21st Century. The writers of science fiction are often obsessed with planning too far ahead.
At the beginning of the 1980’s, the Moroccans and Spanish began to seriously discuss the possibility for a permanent link. A think tank was charged with the task of studying the feasibility of the project and a tunnel was increasingly thought of like that of the Channel. But the crisis that the Euro tunnel is undergoing is enough to discourage financiers from funding a permanent linking of the straits. And if all these projects are not realised we will just have to wait for a few million years for the continents to rejoin (they move towards each other by a centimetre each year, tell us the scientists who pass their time measuring the distance.
In the meantime, Tangiers still is a unique geographic position: a place of transit and meeting between the Atlantic Ocean and the Mediterranean, between north and south, between orient and western world, and between Europe and Africa, etc. At no other point in the world can one witness both such a geographic closeness and cultural distance.
A Turbulent History
Through the centuries Tangiers has seen go by so much of the world to seem blasé. At the beginning, it was seen as the end of the world, by its first visitors and probably its founders the Greeks, or maybe the Numidians, the native population, the ancestors of the Berbers. Then followed the Phoenicians, the Carthaginians, the Romans, the Vandals, the Byzantines, the Visigoths and then the Arabs. Under the Romans the first recognisable city appeared, (Tingis). Tangiers conserves some remains, badly maintained unfortunately. The Numidians had great kings (Jugurtha, Juba II) who often fought against the Romans and whose glory has been forgotten. They were a bit like the Gauls in what would become France. The Arab conquest began in the 8th century. Up to the 15th century, when it passed under Portuguese dominion, Tangiers was by turn dominated by Andalusian and Moroccan dynasties or by tribes of Berbers from Rif. In the middle of the 17th century, the city passed under English control for a short period until 1684 when Sultan Moulay Ismaïl recovered it. It was then subsequently governed by pachas, more or less independent from the authority of the makhzen. At the start of the 20th century, Raissouni, a wealthy brigand was actually appointed governor by the Sultan. From the beginning of the 19th century, Tangiers began to be slowly managed by both western powers who installed their ambassadors and the Moroccan State. She started to attract a lot of attention from foreigners. The cosmopolitan nature of the city developed even more in the first half of the 20th century with the international status of the city to then decline again after the independence of Morocco.
Tangiers, abandoned by the powers and ignored by the Moroccan State would not hold onto its status of financial centre and commercial crossroads, except in perverted forms: a reputation as an interloping city of drug trafficking and smuggling. Of the glorious past when famous characters, writers and artists were in the city, Tangiers would only keep nostalgia
The Marches of the European Empire
From the 60’s, Tangiers has been seen by the Moroccans as a troubled city. She is also without doubt the obligatory passage for all those who want to go to Europe. At the time, emigration wasn’t regulated and Europe, in the euphoria of the growth during the thirty years after the war needed the docile and inexpensive workers of the South. With the crisis and increase in unemployment, the Northern countries had to control migration flows. Visas, increasingly difficult to obtain, were introduced. Spain, entering into the European Union (EEC at the time), was made to close its frontiers as well. The Schengen Area was put in place. From the beginning of the 90’s, the only possibility to legally emigrate was family reunification. The clandestine emigration networks developed until they became what they are today: an immense traffic of human beings, benefiting at times of complicity from both sides of the borders.
It is estimated today that there are 100.000 hopeful emigrants that try to cross the straits every year and the phenomenon increases. Each day, ferrymen pile on the candidates at the start of the journey (who also often include women and children) on illegal boats “the boats of death” as they call them here as despite the short distance that separates the two continents they are never sure of reaching the Andalusian coast safe and sound. Regularly the Moroccan and Spanish press talk about the dramas that occur in the straits, the bodies thrown overboard or fished out by the navy. A sad end for the young people who leave in poverty full of dreams about the European Eldorado. Instead of Eldorado, those that survive are intercepted by the Spanish civil guard and make happy the Spanish farmers in the greenhouse regions, as occurred around El Ejido. The clandestine immigrants were parked in huts in the country and were perfect workers, paid just enough to survive and not able to protest without being denounced to the authorities. The racist events of El Ejido in 2000 highlighted this new form of slavery that modern agriculture is hiding and that still prospers in Spain.
For a few years now, the phenomenon of clandestine emigration is aggravated by the arrival of more and more emigrants from the sub-Saharan countries. They come mostly from western Africa and cross in the south (in Mauritania).There are some that install themselves in the towns of the Sahara to cross to the Canaries, or those who go to Algeria to then go north. They stay for a certain time on the Mediterranean coasts, creating real camps in the forest regions, near to Nador, waiting for the occasion to enter Melilla. Or else they arrive as far as Tangiers and rent miserable rooms in the hotels of the Medina, near the port, and wait to get in contact with the ferrymen.
The phenomenon is the cause of a lot of tension between Morocco and Europe, above all with Spain, who reproaches the Moroccan state for its lack of control. Morocco is giving as a pretext the length of the Mediterranean and Atlantic coasts, impossible to control with the little resources available. It seems that for a while now, collaboration has grown between Morocco and Spain to tackle the migration flows, above all when possible links emerged between international terrorism and drug, contraband and human trafficking. More and more one gets the impression that countries like Morocco or Turkey, on the other side, and in general all the countries of the southern Mediterranean are destined to play a role as “Marches” of the European empire, as it was the case in some regions in the High Middle Age. Morocco will assume this role of the ancient ‘marquis’, a sentinel that ensures with its armies the security of the frontiers of the Empire. To the North, there is little awareness of the excesses of the regimes in the southern countries and even less to the situation of their peoples, as long as these vassal regimes are efficient. All the same, it is often the present regimes, the nature of the relationship that Europe has with these countries (relationship or economic interest above any other consideration) and the miseries or problems that they engender that are the real causes of the migratory flows.
The events of the last few months tend to confirm this point of view : Morocco, with the support of the European Union, has started to control its frontiers more effectively and has hardened its legislation regarding the stay of foreigners in the country. Up till now, it resisted sending back African candidates so as not to be a thorn in the side of friendly countries with whom they have economic relations and who sometimes support Morocco in the question of the Sahara. The trend today is to criminalise clandestine emigration. Increasingly, the sub-Saharan candidates are rounded up by the police (operations widely publicised by the official media and surely to inform their liege lords that they are doing a good job) in order to be sent back to their own countries.
To Leave Whatever the Cost
But what do about the millions of Moroccans that dream of leaving, these tens of thousands that do it each year, putting their lives at risk? Faithful to its geography and its history, Tangiers that sits nonchalantly on the bay offers an ideal place to observe the other side. The town is itself a metaphor of elsewhere, a permanent invitation to leave. Is it not surprising that all those who observe the sea dream of the other side?
What strikes a foreigner most when walking through the streets of Tangiers, is the abundance of places where one can see the other side, the Spanish coast. It is as if the city amused itself by obsessively multiplying the viewpoints and observation sites. On whatever part of the bay you just have to look up to see the sea and beyond: going down the streets, one sits in the cafes and even the hotel rooms and one can see the Spanish coasts when the sky is clear. One can even see the towns, Tarifa in front of you and further away to the east, Algésiras.
But there are places that seem made for observation, like the Place des Paresseux (Square of the Lazy Ones), a sort of promontory on the boulevard Pasteur where onlookers gaze at the magnificent view of the bay. There are old canons there, no one knows why, most certainly to indicate the direction that one needs to look at. The place however that is the most loved by the people of Tangiers to observe the Spanish coasts is a cliff at Marshane, at the end of the Medina, to the east of the Qasbah. Young couples go there to court or have fun, families to picnic while looking at the horizon. The place is, in fact, an old Roman necropolis where you can still see the tombs excavated out of the rock. When one knows that among the people sitting next to these tombs there are perhaps potential candidates for clandestine emigration, the spectacle becomes a morbid and premonitory metaphor. It sends a chill down the spine to know they are sitting there unconcernedly next to a tomb. Paul Valéry used to write about the soft and tumultuous peace of the “Marine cemetery”. What poet could write about the enormous cemetery of the straits that devours the dreams of so many young people? The unlucky emigrants who die in the sea and that are washed onto the Moroccan coasts are given back to their families. But those who are washed onto the Spanish coasts are rarely repatriated to Morocco. The transport costs too much and the families are often poor, and therefore they are buried in Spain, in anonymous graves marked with an “X”.