Quote Unquote: STREET OF THIEVES

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This week’s read is a work in translation: Mathias Enard’s Street of Thieves (Rue des voleurs in the original French). As a former student of languages, I have a somewhat conflicted view on reading works in translation. Part of me has always been a bit of a purist on the subject: if you can read a book in the language in which the author intended it to be read, why not do so? There are so many details and nuances that can be lost in the tricky process of translation – the author’s voice, for one. However, what you read impacts on what you write, and since I write predominantly in English, it always made far more sense to me to read works intended to be read in English, with the effect that I eschewed works in translation altogether. I grew up with English, therefore I must write in English. That at least was the argument I cleaved to for most of my time at university. A colleague once said to me he could destroy that argument in three words: Waiting for Godot. Unfortunately, uncultured pleb as I am, Samuel Beckett has yet to feature on my reading list – nor will he for some time, theatrical scripts not being my preferred reading material of an evening. However, I concede it a point well made, and in the years since I have relaxed my approach a little and tried dipping my toes in the water.

Street of Thieves tells the tale of Lakhdar, a young, idealistic Moroccan whose boyish desire to seek his fortune across the Strait is realised after a series of stark, harrowing underworld adventures that make Enard’s text a bildungsroman of the darker variety. There is enough of the everyman in Lakhdar to make him an instantly sympathetic protagonist, and no matter how you look at it, the sequence of events that set his journey in motion would humble even the strongest of wills.

The greatest strength of Street of Thieves is in its flawless realism. Every single event is wholly and utterly believable; some magic in Enard’s emplotment almost strips the story of its “story”, as though you are watching Lakhdar’s life in real time. Tragic events happen and caricatures come and go, but they are so very real, so human, they might as well be people picked off the street at random and given parts to play. Where there is grief, there is no melodrama; where there is rage, there are no histrionics; just the restless drone of everyday life, weaved seamlessly into the fabric of fiction.

The book’s title refers to a street in Barcelona’s Raval district, one of the seedier quarters of the coastal metropolis. Enard lived in Barcelona for a time and his knowledge of the comings and goings within the depths of the city paint a convincing picture, though even if he had no experience of his own, he could hardly have chosen a more fitting counterweight to the city in which Lakhdar’s story begins: Tangier, by many accounts one of Morocco’s seedier locales. There is a magic to both cities that draws tourists in every year – the ever lucrative vein of “pink gold” Enard so evocatively describes – but we don’t see much of it from Lakhdar’s perspective. Everything is huge, dark and dirty, as though we are seeing both cities through the eyes of a cockroach, scuttling from corner to darker corner. It is certainly an easier book to write about than it was to read.

I may not have read Waiting for Godot, but I have had the good fortune to explore both Barcelona and Tangier. I went to Barcelona earlier this year in the hope of finding material for my own writing. It was a wistful fantasy, to which I am often prone; I found little of any real value in my wanderings around the city, my interests being so far removed from the modern metropolis – say, by about four hundred years. I wandered around the Raval district a lot, carrying with me only my notebook and the card key to my hostel room, and found the place shadowy, dusty and surprisingly Arabic-speaking, but not as menacing as I had heard tell. Then again, I limited my explorations to the daylight hours: I believe Raval puts on a very different mask by night, if the stories are to be believed. All I really remember about Raval was a chance encounter at the end of a street with a flock of monk parakeets drinking from a puddle in the road, illegal immigrants of a different colour, but illegal immigrants all the same.

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Having traveled a good deal in Morocco previously, I found in Tangier a curious melange of the other cities I had seen, as though it were a human imitation of the work of Gods elsewhere. Here were echoes of Fes’ labyrinthine medina, without the medieval charm; echoes too of Marrakesh’s charming cafes, without the charm, Taroudant’s city walls, without the beauty of the desert, and the blinding white of Casablanca, stained brown and grey with age. All the same, Tangier had a far greater effect on me than Casablanca or Marrakesh, knocking both cities down in strength of character, showing that hybrid vigour that sometimes allows a mongrel dog to triumph over a prize-fighter.

I met a Lakhdar, once. Not in name, but almost identical in nature. He was friendly and sincere, with that almost too sincere character common to the folk of many African countries that puts a lot of Europeans on their guard. Had I been traveling alone, I would have undoubtedly abandoned my plans and gone with him to meet his family at his invitation. As it was, I did not, and I have never felt entirely happy with myself for how the ensuing drama played out. Lakhdar, too, is frustrated by visiting Europeans who, one way or another, lead him on only to let him down, concerned or agitated by his desire for friendship. That the story takes place in the turbulent months of the Arab spring gives more than a little credence to their caution, and yet… if you were in Lakhdar’s shoes, would you see things so clearly? The gulf between Africa and Europe is only nine miles wide at its narrowest point, and yet it yawns like Mariana.

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Favourite Scene:

Tough call. Street of Thieves is not a book of standout scenes so much as it is an exploration of the difficulties experienced by a young Moroccan crossing over. Maybe his lengthy descriptions of the sordid Raval district? Enard painted the side of Raval I wanted to see but was too cautious to venture out at night in search of – the Raval one sees through the slits in the blinds. A quarter inhabited by fleshy prostitutes, circling drug addicts and lecherous men who ogle the women one day and turn a blind eye the next on their way to Friday prayers. Like Goya, the Romantics and all the Victorians before me, I am drawn to the dark, if only to better understand the light.

 


Favourite Character:

Another coin toss, though this time, it’s between two men: Sheikh Nureddin and Marcelo Cruz. The coin analogy is not a bad way to start, for in a way they are two sides of the same coin, just as Tangier and Raval mirror each other. Sheikh Nureddin is the more sinister of the two: calm and comforting, fatherly and always dressed to the nines, he exudes moral strength and commands confidence, and yet all the while he drives honest men to commit brutal acts in his name. Scarier still, even after the illusion flickers and you see the demon beneath the dress-suit, Enard has you seeing his humanity when he walks back into Lakhdar’s life, like Lucifer with his wings restored. Marcelo Cruz, by contrast, is a grotesque caricature of corruption. A twenty-first century undertaker who races to be the first on the scene whenever the bodies of the unfortunate wash up on the shores of the Spanish Mediterranean, Cruz takes an almost inhuman delight in his profession. Death has lost its meaning to him; he has become corrupted by the stink of corruption, and only the endless spiral of ever-darkening videos on the internet keep him entertained as he waits for the bloody tide. Both men are avatars of fear; one wields it, one is possessed by it, and it is hard to say which is the more fearful of the two. The devil you know, and the devil you worship. It is a wonder that Lakhdar is as sane as he is at the end of the narrative – though perhaps you might come to your own conclusions.

 


Favourite Quotes:

He spread a terrible sadness; the rotten smell of a lonely soul.

Cities can be tamed, or rather they tame us; they teach us how to behave, they make us lose, little by little, our foreign surface; they tear our outer shells from us, melt us into themselves, shape us in their image – very quickly, we abandon our way of walking; we stop looking at buildings, we no longer hesitate when we enter a metro station, we have the right rhythm, we move around at the right pace; and wherever you come from, in the end they train you like dogs.

You try acting funny or charming in literary Arabic, it’s no piece of cake, believe me; people will always think you’re about to announce another catastrophe in Palestine or comment on a verse of the Koran.

 

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The Happiness Machine

There’s a new kid on the block in my host family. My replacement, ready and waiting not twelve hours before I’m out of this joint. The expression ‘not even cold in the grave’ springs to mind… But he’s Spanish (an Andalusian, to be precise) and his name is José María and he’s more than happy to let me witter away in Spanish for my final hours in this country and therefore I couldn’t be happier.

My host family were quick to notice the change. Very quick. ‘Ése Ben que salió por la puerta esta mañana, ¿dónde esta?‘. He’s gone. The quiet, hesitant, reluctant Englishman who used to come home at irregular hours of the afternoon, sit in what he thought to be companionable silence and then retreat to his room is now mouthing off like a human Gatling gun, in Arabic as well as Spanish. He’s gone, and in his place is this loud, jokey and irrepressibly good-humored Spaniard. Talk about schizophrenia. I have a very bad case of Jekyll and Hyde when it comes to my two linguistic personalities. Never mind getting that dual nationality, I’m still struggling with dual identity.

The host family were quite taken aback. I don’t think they were expecting such a drastic change in personality. The father even went so far as to show me the difference between the two Bens by means of a few crude imitations. Was I really that quiet? Did I really sit at the table with my hands by my side and say as little as possible? No me lo creo ni yo. After just an hour or two speaking Spanish to this Andalusian my whole personality has changed just like that.

I’d quite forgotten just how good it felt, just to be speaking that language again. Why? What’s the reason? How can a language make me so happy? Is there a linguistic reason? Is that why Spaniards are such jolly people, by and large? Or maybe has it got something to do with the drastic increase in body language, which makes me feel like a teacher again? Or is it because it’s the language of my grandfather, speaking through me? I’d like to think that. But in truth I can’t explain it. It’s just magic. My perpetual happiness machine. In goes Spanish, out comes happiness. It’s as simple as that. I just needed reminding.

And a good thing, too. This time tomorrow I’ll be back in Guirilandia and probably pulling into the drive round about now. No more Arabic study. No more al-Kitaab. Just one whole year with the Happiness Machine. I cannot wait.

The host father came in to bid us goodnight. I apologized for not being this way over the last two months. I’m grinning like a gargoyle and laughing and switching freely between Spanish and Arabic and it’s all because I had an hour ‘in the machine’, so to speak. It’s such an amazing feeling. It’s like the whole world is bright and sunny and full of colour. I need to be living in a country where they speak this godly language. I need to be living in Spain.

In perfect honesty, this is not at all how I expected to be ending my time in Morocco. I was expecting one last chastisement over something trivial, or a panicked search for something lost, a friendlier-than-usual dinner, or something along those lines. Instead I ended it in Spanish mode. Curious, perhaps, but it bodes very well for the future, and it’s reminded me – yet again – what I need to do to be happy in this life.

I just need to talk. Y ya que sabemos cómo se utiliza esa máquina de felicidad, no hay ninguna duda sobre mis planes para el futuro. España, vengo por ti. BB x

Lee, Martha and Aidan

Every once in a while one of those days comes around when everything that could possibly go wrong goes wrong. Yesterday was one of those days. It’s tempting fate to tell everybody you meet that it’s okay, you can stay out late tonight, because thank God it’s not tomorrow you have those extra three hours in the afternoon… and Fate is a devious little minx.

I think I got back from Martil at around two forty-five on Monday morning. It must have been close to that, as I recall the clock on my bedside table read three o’clock when I was setting the alarm for seven. I’d spent every last dirham of my small change – even those super-helpful half-dirhams – in a taxi spree over the weekend, so four hours’ sleep or none at all, I was simply going to have to walk this morning. The result was that I almost missed breakfast, zombied my way to school and pretty much sat through the morning class just blinking to stay awake. To make matters worse, I started ghosting during our preliminary discussion, cursing in my head every time my teacher came to the end of an explanation, questioned it (limaadha?), answered it, and went on to add yet another point (wa aidun). It can’t have been any longer a discussion than usual, but it seemed to drag on for hours.

Twelve o’clock was never more welcome than when it came, but five minutes before the hour one of my teachers popped his head round the door and informed me that my afternoon class – you guessed it – had been moved to Monday instead.

I didn’t have my Moriscos book. I didn’t have the necessary reading done. I didn’t have any coins for a taxi. I hadn’t had nearly enough sleep for a six-hour day. And now I didn’t even have enough time for lunch in between.

Kat came to my rescue and threw a few dirhams at me for the ride home. I made a beeline for the taxi ranks, rode home in the usual cramped conditions and collapsed straight into bed when I got back.

One hour later I was up again and motoring through the Spanish text in the Moriscos book on the Hornacheros, since I simply did not have the energy, even after an extra hour in bed, to power through twelve pages of Arabic. I barely had half an hour for that, as the host family (thankfully) insisted I have a quick lunch, which they’d sped up on my behalf.

And you know what? The punchline is as predictable and as priceless as the set-up: it turns out my teacher had got a little confused and my class need not have been moved at all, as it was meant for Tuesday anyway.

He was very apologetic on the whole swallowing-up-my-entire-afternoon front, but I didn’t really mind by that point. I think I’d simply given up caring. A Texan friend of mine once told me ‘you can sleep when you’re dead’ when I was in a similar frame of mind (refresh your memory here), and this time I bought it. Besides, it was a very enjoyable topic of discussion. At any rate, I didn’t exactly have long to dwell on it: Alex shifted his departure some seven hours earlier, and so I did the unthinkable and asked to leave class early, because come Hell, high water and all the paradoxes of Jahanna I was not going to let my dear friend leave without me.

I confess that I didn’t expect to spend my last hour with Alex helping him to dry-clean his clothes with a hairdryer. If the hotel staff had actually hung them out to dry like he’d asked instead of putting them through a second wash, I’m not sure what we would have done. But that made things a little easier, I guess. We walked down the alley from Reducto and every other Tetouani going about his business gave him something akin to a farewell salute, entreating him to return one day. It was quite something to see.

Five minutes later we’d exchanged farewells, shaken hands and gone our separate ways. It was both the easiest and the hardest goodbye I’ve ever had to make. Goodbyes are like little heartbreaks, I suppose; the more you go through, the easier they get. All the same, it wasn’t easy seeing that little yellow taxi turn out of Plaza Primo. I’ve been lucky enough over the last six weeks to have such a good friend so close at hand, especially after all of nine months in Spain on my own. I was looking for a good friend. I found one.

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This post is dedicated to you, bud. To a top hiking buddy, to shouldering all of those god-awful Clarkson impressions, to keeping me afloat with my Arabic, to stopping me from unleashing my personality test on everybody I met, to hearing me out when I had only war to predict and to being an all-round friend. It may be some time before our paths cross again, but they will. I promise. Until the next time, bud. BB x

Road Rage

When it comes to learning to drive, I’ve always thought that some countries simply have it easier. The Netherlands, for example: all those long, flat roads with nobody else about. There are parts of Spain like that. They speak Spanish there, too. It’s largely for that reason that I’ve delayed learning to drive until I’m back out there next summer. That and a sheer apathy for cars.

But if you’re stuck for choice, never, ever learn to drive in Morocco. Ever.

In twenty four hours I’ve seen probably the worst driving in my life. On our way to the beach after school on Friday afternoon we almost collided head-on with a wayward van which came careering off the road out of nowhere and straight into the trees on the other side. Two seconds later and we’d have got right into it. Thank all the powers that be that our taxi driver was alert, enough at least to stamp hard in the brakes and save us from… well, a disappointing beach trip.

The driver, you may be happy to hear, was unharmed. Dazed, confused but apparently unharmed. She just tottered out of the crumpled van and went on her way.

What shocked me most, as before, was that I wasn’t really shocked at all. Scary car accident, white van speeding towards us with screeching tyres and bits of metal flying everywhere, the sweet stench of exhaust… Nothing doing. I think that’s our curse, as children of the twenty-first century (though technically speaking I’m amongst the last of the twentieth). I remember feeling similarly ruffled at being so decidedly unruffled when I saw a girl walking home from school go right over the bonnet of a car. Shocked at the lack of shock. I blame television, specifically programmes that really pushed the boat out: Casualty, Waking the Dead, Casino Royale etc. I hope my children have a better idea of what is and isn’t shocking in the future.

The return journey was easier, all things considered. But our driver was hopping mad. We had the stereo on full blast (with that vvvvvv bass quality you might expect from a taxi) and had what must have been a drag race with a fellow taxi driver all the way back to Tetouan. Entertaining, yes, but how many counts would he go down for in an English court? It doesn’t bear thinking about.

The taxi ride to Akchour the following day wasn’t much better. We were stuck behind a lorry for some distance and there was a good deal of illegal overtaking, until the tail up simply got too much to control and some James Bond wannabe tried to schuss through the gap between two trucks. By some divine prank he made it, but the result was that all traffic ground to a halt and the drivers all got out of their respective vehicles to yell at each other for a full five minutes. Not that we were in a hurry, or anything. Morocco is still very much a country that operates on an argue-first-ask-questions-later kind of system. Maybe that’s one more thing that bled through into the Spanish culture over the years. In part, anyway. BB x

Go with Peace

Jimminy. One more week and it’s all over. This year abroad, at times both the fastest and slowest year of my life, is drawing to a close. The old tablecloth analogy is back in force: somebody gave the table a tilt back in April (or was it September?) and now everything’s sliding towards the edge at an increasing rate (which is a real shame, because Tetouan was beginning to feel like home). As has been the case throughout the rest of the year, I’ve a fair few goodbyes to make, though as any frequent traveler will know, these get easier every time. So I’ve one last farewell to make before the end.

Or not. Because it’s not just goodbye to the team at Dar Loughat. It’s a bigger step by far.

It’s goodbye to Arabic studies.

Hey, now, don’t give me that look. If you’ve been reading carefully throughout the year, you’ll have seen this coming a long way off. You might even have cottoned on sooner, since I didn’t really make up my mind until the last days of June.

The blog, however, speaks for itself. It tells a tale of depression and despair in Amman and the golden friends I found there; and perhaps, the beginning of the end. It tells the story of how I fell in love with my grandfather’s country all over again; how Spanish became more than just a language, but the key to happiness itself; how I found in Extremadura the paradise I’ve been searching for for so long. Of the One-that-could-have-been and the opening of my eyes to the rest of Iberia. And in amongst all the musing posts in between, it reveals a slow but steady swing towards the heart of the matter, a realignment with the most important thing of all: finding where I belong. In retrospect, it’s obvious. It was always going to happen. It was simply a question of when. And in one of life’s great paradoxes, that realization came when I was more confident with my Arabic than I’ve ever been in my life.

Happiness was the key. I had to be truly happy to see the truth.


I reckon I still have a fair amount of explaining to do. I built up a bit of a reputation for myself in first and second year as the keenest Arabic nut alive (though I outright refuse the term BNOC). Granted, all of that time spent juggling societies, subjects and a social life in second year wore me down a bit, but at heart I was still a bloody keen bean. Always on time, always ahead of the game… Almost always optimistic. (Seriously, I was insufferable in first year, just ask any of my classmates). As a result, this is probably still a shock move for those of you who know me. Well, I’ll do my best to explain my decision.

  1. Spain happened. Specifically, the British Council assistant placement. We were warned; I didn’t listen; I fell in love. Because if you seriously want to push ahead with two languages, it’s absolutely essential to balance them, especially when it comes to…
  2. …the Year Abroad. Ya3ni, at least half of the class will have spent a minimum of six months in an Arabic-speaking country by October. That’s two more than me, and considering the speed at which I advanced in Tetouan, I’d be tempted even to discount any and all ‘progress’ I might have made in…
  3. …Amman. And in all honesty, I don’t really want to use Amman as an excuse, but it is. My time in Jordan was certainly eye-opening, full of highs, lows and plenty of laughs, but I don’t think I’ve ever been more drained in my life. This is honestly the least of reasons, but because of the effect it had on my attitude towards Arabic, it’s a reason nonetheless.
  4. Career paths. My companions have such noble ambitions with Arabic. Not me. I’ve mapped out the next five or six years of my life and they don’t stray very far from a homely little village somewhere in Spain. In light of this, improving my Arabic further seemed a little pointless.
  5. Priorities. A lot of people learn languages to travel, to communicate, for work, for business etc. the list goes on. But I don’t want to learn Spanish. I want to master it. As in, not just to speak it like a native, but to be able to write it as though it were my mother tongue. That’s going to take commitment, drive and serious levels of focus, the kind you can’t share with an Arabic degree.
  6. Simple credit-crunching. With 80 credits from Arabic last year, the language is already going on my degree title, so I’d be gaining nothing by moving on. If anything, I’d be risking…
  7. …a shot at a potential First. Arabic 2B, brilliant though it was, cost me dear last year and brought me crashing down to an overall 67. A First-class degree at Durham is something even my own mother never managed, so to achieve that… It’d be nothing short of legendary.
  8. The book. I started learning Arabic, amongst other reasons, because I needed it for my book. How could I ever hope to write convincingly about the Arabs if I couldn’t understand their language? Well, I’ve got to the stage where I can speak, read and write Arabic with respectable fluency. I’ve even learned calligraphy along the way. My work here is done. Which reminds me…
  9. …I never actually intended to take Arabic beyond the first year of university. Looking at my plans from school and the gap year that followed, I apparently meant to go on with French. It looks like Arabic simply took French’s place in my heart. And that’s completely, wholly and unashamedly down to…
  10. …the group vibe. Durham’s Arabic class of ’17 is no more and no less than the most wonderful, capable and hilarious bunch of people I’ve ever known, and they have been the lifeblood of my degree thus far. But in perfect, mercenary honesty, that’s not the best reason to jeopardize a First. I applied to Durham partly because of the fantastic college system, but to be honest, I never really fitted in at Aidan’s. I made a few unforgettable friends there, but it was in my degree that I met the people most important to me. And isn’t that how it’s supposed to be?

It wasn’t an easy decision to make. In fact, it took all of three weeks to fully sort out, in the end. But I worked my way this far and I succeeded. I can speak Arabic with almost the same confidence as Spanish, even though my vocabulary is only half the size. I can discuss Barbary corsairs, Tuareg mythology and Andalusian heritage with my teachers at speed. Gone are the days of Assad drinks milk, fathers that work in the United Nations and being fa3lan wahiid all the time. I’m walking out with my head held high.

I’m really going to miss sharing class with these wonderful folks!


Next year isn’t going to be drastically easier. Far from it. What with a short-fat module, the dissertation and the inevitable music commitments, the first term alone is going to be a serious uphill climb. But Spanish is my weapon, my Tizona, and I am determined to make this work. I know, at last, where I belong. BB x

Two Men Skilled in Climbing Mountains

We did it. We conquered Ghorghez. It’s been staring us in the face for all of six weeks but now I can put my hand on my heart and say with all honesty that the beast has been vanquished. Call it the human desire to tame the wild in me, but I could never have left Tetouan with my head held high if I’d never managed to tackle that mountain.

Fortunately, Alex was of a similar opinion, so at nine o’clock this morning we hailed a cab and off we went.

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King of Tetouan (or that obligatory tourist photo)

We didn’t have the best of starts. My host father very kindly gave me the use of his topographic map and took me up to the roof to explain the route we could take; he would have come with us, if his wife was not still hospitalized from the accident. But when he asked how many of us were going, I had to lie and say five. If I’d told him the truth – that Alex and I alone were going – he’d probably have tried to stop us. The last time he went on a fossil-hunting excursion up in the mountains, he was attacked by a group of thugs and severely injured.

In that knowledge, Alex and I arrived at Ain Bou Anane and set off on our journey.

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Don’t be fooled… It wasn’t anywhere near as easy it looks

For the first ascent we had it easy, as there was a reliable, well-trodden path to begin with. Emphasis on ‘begin with’; after a hundred metres or so it vanished into the sea of thorns and scrub that covers most of Ghorghez and we were forced to resort to free-navigating the mountainside, cutting from goat track to goat track with the occasional wayward boulder as a bridge between the paths. And just as well: the tracks often vanished into thin air like fireflies in the night, leaving us stranded in the scrub.

The mountain wasn’t entirely wild. What I took at first for bird calls turned out to be the Ghorghez shepherds out on the slopes with their flocks. I’d quite forgotten how far sound travels in the mountains. More than once I thought we’d been followed, only to see the source of the noise sitting atop a boulder watching over his goats on the far side of the valley. I must admit, due to my host father’s tales, I was more wary than usual around these hill-folk. Seeing their silhoettes appearing and disappearing between the rocks set my teeth on edge. More than once I let slip that we might have to make a break for it if they ‘came back with reinforcements’.

But they didn’t, and Alex smiled and waved at them, and some of them waved back. I think we could all do with a reminder from time to time that, at the end of the day, everybody’s human. A smile and a wave could change everything.

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Now that’s what I call a hike!

As for their fences… Seriously. Fuck fences. The amount of backtracking we had to do to find a way around the vast sections of the mountainside that had been cordoned off was unfair, unhelpful and unnecessary. Who even builds fences on a mountain anyway? I guess they’re for the few cows we saw munching through the scrub, but what kind of a sadistic individual drives their cattle up into the mountains and then fences them in with barbed wire and brambles? Fuck those fences.

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You’ve got to hand it to Maroc Telecom. Fully functional 3G up in the mountains is impressive

Delaying our hike by one day was one of my better decisions. Not only was Alex fully recovered from his late late Friday night, but the weather couldn’t have been better. The sun shone out from behind the clouds all morning, and the wind, though strong, was cool and refreshing. Compared to the Azla trek, it was a much easier ascent. Which is jammy, for double the height.

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Ghorghez’ summit in the clouds

Alex had a run-in with a rather large snake on the way down. I know because one minute I was powering ahead with my trusty bamboo cane, and the next he was racing past, raving about snakes and putting about as much distance as he could between the cliff and himself. ‘I don’t like snakes. No one likes snakes. There isn’t a culture in the works that likes snakes. There’s just some things that nobody likes. Donald Trump, snakes… Oh, it was more than a metre long, easily.’ Ladies and gentlemen, Indiana Jones. ‘We don’t even have any antidote’. True, when I was packing this morning, I didn’t really think about preparing for a snake attack. I was too busy filling up five water bottles.

Five. I’d like to emphasize that five. Ben’s clearly learned his lesson from last year’s Dana disaster (you can read about that here).

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The coolest overhang in geology (or possibly the Wall from Game of Thrones)

Not sure about the snakes, but the cicadas were absolutely massive. Blood-dripping-from-their-fangs massive, as my parents would put it.

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Who needs Pokémon Go? I found a Ninjask without my mobile, thank-you-very-much

Besides the creepy crawlies, the mountain was spectacular for wildlife. That’s probably my favourite thing about mountains: the wonderful creatures it brings you into contact with. Mountains are some of the last truly wild bastions on the earth. Especially for birds, and birds of prey in particular. For a city, Tetouan’s got its fair share of wildlife, namely the local kestrels and cattle egret colonies, as well as the flyover storks and kites, but if you want a really wild experience, you have to go out into the sticks. I watched a pair of booted eagles wheeling and diving and whistling overhead from the summit, as well as clocking a flyby peregrine, a couple of kestrels, a few buzzards, five or six kites, ten ravens and an Isengard-level swarm of choughs. Saruman the White couldn’t summon such a flock.

The scenery up at the top might have been taken from that very scene from The Fellowship of the Ring, strewn with jagged rocks and sparse bushes. But if Saruman was indeed watching our passage south, he must have tired of his vigil before long and gone for a coffee break because, as is the way with mountaineering, coming down was three times harder than going up.

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‘Let’s not throw ourselves to our deaths just yet.’

Finding our way up the mountain had been easy enough, since the next crest was always in sight. You’d think that the same might be said for the descent, but mountains are fickle. Not only do they play with sound, they also throw your perspective off frequently. More than once we followed the latest road/path/goat-track/dry river to its end only to find ourselves staring into abyss as it plunged fifty feet down over the edge of a cliff we’d never seen coming.

The resulting backtracking led us back into bramble country, which didn’t bother me and my long sleeves too much, but it ripped Alex’s exposed limbs to shreds. By the time we made it to open country again he looked as though he’d been mauled by a particularly savage beast. We couldn’t even use the wild boar we’d seen as an excuse, as it took off into the scrub as soon as it heard us coming. Nope, that’s just the bush at work.

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Ain Zarqa at the feet of the Great Pyramid and Saddle Mountain

Seven hours since setting out from Ain Bou Anane we found our way back down the mountain to the village of Wargane, completing the arc that had taken us around most of the Ghorghez ridge. I left my trusty bamboo cane at the side of the road (again) and Alex flagged down a cab to take us back to Tetouan. Three mountains in one. All in a day’s work.

Ghorghez is down. Mission accomplished. BB x

Tetouani Wanderings

It’s another regular Saturday in Tetouan. I’m chilling on the roof of Alex’s hotel doing sweet F.A. in the afternoon sun with a book and a blog and a map for tomorrow’s hike. Today’s a day for doing nothing and not feeling guilty about it. The others went to Chauen en masse. The Alegría music festival is on and they went to check it out, though I don’t half wonder whether they spent most of the day admiring the town itself. Apparently it’s shot from obscurity to one of Africa’s most visited municipalities over the last five years. Oh, to have visited it before the boom…

Tetouan’s Hotel Reducto has some simply gorgeous rooms…


I’ll keep today’s post short. Just a few observations I’ve made over the course of the day in elaborated bullet form. That ought to keep the ideas concise.

  • The wind governs life in Tetouan. Seriously, it exercises a power greater than the beloved King himself. When the Levante is blowing, and it almost always is, the world slows down. People sit out the sun and the maddening wind. The minute the wind changes, the city is suddenly full of joggers and movement. I’m serious about the joggers. That one afternoon when it rained back in June, every other man in town was out running.
  • Tetouan’s a great place to be in summer, even during Ramadan, but this place must simply shut down in winter. With the King out of town, and no tourists, and precious little commerce, not to mention the total absence of desire for the beach… why, it must be like Durham in summer. Or Mérida in winter, perhaps.
  • The Turkish First Army staged a failed coup in the early hours of the morning. Erdogan crushed it. It may not look like it, but the world is chomping at the bit for a war. All these proxy wars, migrant crises and terrorist attacks are the signs of a world that’s been held back from all-out war for too long. Globalization and the atom bomb might have saved us from further conflict, but it’s been over seventy years now since the last global war: seventy years removed from something that has been our oldest and most persistent tradition as a race. There’s a slow creeping back towards the far right across Europe. Britain has severed its ties with the European Union. Trump is within a few months’ reach of being allowed a shot at the nuclear codes. And all the while the terrorist strikes are increasing, striking randomly at civilians the world over like sharks biting at a whale. The centre cannot hold. It’s only a matter of time.
  • Pokémon Go has taken the world by storm… and yet, I have absolutely zero interest in getting in on this fad. And that’s despite being a PokéNut until I was twenty-one at least. I caught them all, all 720 of them – twice – and I must have spent several months’ worth of my life staring gormlessly at those little pixelated monsters along the way. I was just playing at David Attenborough, I guess. Pokemon was perfectly suited to a budding, obsessive, studious little naturalist like me. It’s less that I’ve grown out of it now so much as reading and the novel have taken its place. A well-deserved revenge, perhaps, since they were both ousted for hours of Pokébore when I was ten. No, I’ve already got a world of my own to jump in and out of, and it requires no technology whatsoever, thank you very much.
  • The girl behind the counter in the stationary shop is kinda cute. Buying a couple of 2B pencils and a pen turned into a scene out of one of my novels where I wound up talking to this lady through the glass as we picked out the right kind of pen. That was also a lot of eye contact for a little transaction (I tend to get to know the stationary shop staff far better than the people who work in cafes or restaurants. Hey, I have an insatiable appetite for a certain kind of pen and a certain kind of notebook, alright?). I do wonder, though… If I don’t find Her on the road, or in a park or concert or wherever, I might just end up finding Her in a bookshop. There’d be a kind of divine justice in that.

That’s all for today. Early start tomorrow. After weeks of staring up at those peaks, Alex and I are finally going to tackle Mount Ghorghez. And none too soon; another two weeks from now and I’ll be back in England and all of this will be a thing of the past. Fa3lan, time is running out… BB x