11. Street Cleaning

There are many different ways for people to get money in Tangier: hustling tourists into hotels and cafés, buying and selling different things, or just plain begging. One that works well for me, especially in Morocco, is to make origami doves out of paper or old maps and sell them on the streets for a Dirham.

Often people would give me more, five, ten Dirhams, sometimes even fifty or a hundred. Food and clothes have been given to me this way too. I did fairly well, enough to get by anyway. I never really felt that it’s important to concentrate on money so much.

In Tangier, the place to go for this kind of work is The Boulevard. The Boulevard is the richer part of town; the commercial center is there with all the shoe-shops, clothes-shops, money exchange places and banks. People that walk around there usually give you the impression that they can spare a Dirham or two. And I was starting to run low on money.

A few days before, I’d stupidly left a taxi in a hurry and forgot my rucksack with my passport inside, and I’d spent the last week or so trying to sort it out but that was a whole other story. So with just a few Dirhams left I decided to go to The Boulevard for the day.

I hitched into town and got dropped right by the cannons. I sat at my usual spot opposite a café that sometimes gives me a free coffee. I set up my piece of fabric on the ground in front of me and pinned five paper doves around it with paper clips. I put the remaining Dirhams i had in the middle to make it clear as to why I was there.

It was not uncommon for people to come by and ask questions, or sometimes even sit with me for a while. I got lots of smiles and nods too, everyone were generally quite welcoming. I think they found it quite strange that a European could be penniless in their country. They would say things like “Why don’t you go to your country? There is lots of money in your country” or “Telephone your family, they will send money”.

I always found it difficult to get it across to them that I was just fine the way I was and that it’s possible to be poor and still be happy. But none of that mattered now, because I didn’t have a passport to get home with anyway, even if I wanted to.

There I was, on the Boulevard, like I had been a few dozen times before. There’s always many people there, all kinds of people. Some people are unmistakably wealthy, and some are clearly poor. Some are in their traditional Arabic attire, others are in quite westernised clothes with hair uncovered and some are just in ragged clothes that they’ve worn unwashed from the day they found them. Tangier is like that, everyone is mixed together.

I’d been watching one guy in particular; I had seen him a few times before begging on the streets. I could see him from where I was – he was sat with his back against the wall of a bank across the road. He had his knees up to his chest and an arm outstretched in front of him with his palm facing upwards, the universal sign for begging. I was watching for some time and he never moved, never changed his expression. He was always looking down even when someone dropped some change into his hand.

After some time watching this guy, I noticed a plain white van pull up in front of him and a couple of officers in Surete Nationale uniforms get out and approach the beggar. Within seconds they grabbed the guy by the arms, pulled him up and shoved him into the back of the van. I was quite stunned at how quick it all happened. The beggar didn’t even look up at what was going on.

Before I knew it, the same officers were walking across the street towards me.

Like an idiot, I didn’t grab my things and run away in time before they caught up with me. The three of them surrounded me, one in front asking me questions trying to figure out where I was from and two behind me, making sure I didn’t get away. Very quickly, they got bored with the language barrier and just hooked their arms under mine, tightened and pulled me towards the van.

I was shoved in and was greeted by two more officers, the driver, four more street dwellers and an over powering smell of glue. After being told to kneel on the floor next to a guy who could barely see, I was made to empty my pockets. I pulled everything out and showed it to them and then put it all back.

“Papers, papers, your passport, where is your passport?” the officer who’d thrown me in said. I didn’t say anything back, just handed him the photocopy of my passport.

“What is this, where is your passport?” He repeated, noticeably annoyed.

“It’s in a taxi, I lost it in a taxi” I said raising my voice to the level of his.

I had a moment of panic when I realised I still had my scissors in my back pocket. I thought that if I left them in there and they found them later they might think I was concealing a weapon. So I slowly swung my hand around and pulled the scissors out, being careful to hold them by the tips of the blades and letting them dangle.

There was a sudden roar of shouting from the officers after they spotted what I had in my hand. I tried to protest that I was just trying to hand them over to them but I guess they didn’t understand. The scissors were snatched from me and thrown into the front of the van. The same officer immediately went for my bag with all my origami stuff inside, I guess he was looking for more hidden gems.

Another officer proceeded to ask me questions in French and broken English, irrelevant questions, like “Do you have a boyfriend?”

“No… a girlfriend, yes” I replied.

“Ah yes, a girlfriend” he repeated, seemingly satisfied.

We drove around town for a while, picking more people up along the way. One guy they threw into the back was forced to empty his pockets onto the van floor and leave it there. The guy was clearly high, possibly on glue. They pushed and shoved him around, once hitting his head on the side of the van almost falling onto me and crashing to the van floor where he was held down.

One of the officers asked the rest of the passengers something in Arabic. Everyone in turn, replied with a name of towns in Morocco, “Tiznit”, “Ouazazate”, “Tetouan” and so on. I guessed it was where they were from. Some were dropped off at one part of town and others at another, I think it was where they get deported back to their home town.

I had heard of this happening in Morocco. When there’s an important person coming to town, such as The King, they ‘clean the streets’ of all the people they deem undesirable.

When the van finally stopped for me I was moved quickly into a building, where I found more identical officers stood around in an almost empty room. I was taken straight to a holding cell of about fifteen feet squared. The cell was already full of people, probably about twenty or twenty five men were crammed inside this small space.

When they closed the door behind me, I just stood and looked around at twenty odd pairs of eyes staring back at me, all with intimidating scars around them.

The officers outside were just wandering around with the photocopy of my passport, looking quite puzzled. Sometimes I would hear a mispronunciation of my last name or birth town. At this point, I really had no idea what was going to happen to me. Was I about to be deported? And if I was, then where would I get deported to? England? Spain? Oujda?

I was in that cell for about an hour. In that time, only one guy spoke to me. We made some small talk about the police being really shit and the King being behind all of this bullshit oppression that happens to the locals. Everyone else in the cage just sat or stood in silence, some were staring at me, making me feel uncomfortable.

I couldn’t even begin to imagine what they might have been thinking of me right then. They most likely thought that I was just another stupid tourist locked up for some drug offence or a victim of corruption.

After an hour, I was brought out of the cell and told to sit and wait. I could see that some more official looking guys in suits and also informally dressed guys too had arrived. One of them I recognised – he was at the Senegalese house one time during a police raid.

I remember him shouting at me when he saw me filming them from the roof, and his partner was threatening to throw a rock at me. I also remember brushing them off with ‘Safi, safi’, which means ‘enough’ in Arabic, they seemed pretty angry at the time but I had just laughed it off. I kind of regretted it looking back now; I certainly wasn’t laughing at this situation.

“What organisation do you work for?” one of them said in perfect English.

“I…I don’t work for any organisation. Why?” I said, already knowing the answer.

“We see you with the Africans, at the house, we see you. Why are you with the Africans?”

“Yes, some are my friends; they are some of my friends OK?” I stammered nervously.

“The camera, the camera, I see you, I see, I see” the one I recognised said to me, then to the suited guy. The suited guy nodded in agreement and gave me an inquisitive stare.

“Look, I’m just a tourist OK? I’m visiting friends that I know and that is all” I sharply stated to the suited guy, who just gave me a quick look of acknowledgement and then walked away. I was left with the guy I recognised. He was scrutinising the photocopy of my passport.

“Hey” an officer said to me softly. It was the guy that asked me if I had a boyfriend in the van earlier. He walked around the others and sat close to me.

“Hey” I said back with a smile.

“One question, this is a difficult question also, how do I…”

“Just ask” I said, I little surprised at how well he spoke English.

“Are you a… homosexual” he said with slight theatrics.

“Erm… no, I’m not a homosexual, I have a girlfriend… why, do you like me?”

“No, NO, I am not homosexual man, I am Muslim man” he replied, shying away from me.

I didn’t see him again.

The suited guy had returned and I had barely noticed.

“You have phone number for your girlfriend?” he said to me as he was looking through my bag.

“Erm… yeah I have a number” I pulled my phone out and handed it to him. He fiddled about with it for a minute or two but gave up with it and handed it back.

“What is this?” he said, holding up an origami dove.

“It’s my work, I don’t have any money, I have to do this so I can eat” I protested.

“Why are you with the Africans?” he said again.

“I have friends here, they are my friends. Before, I stay in Senegal house, but the house is finished now”

“And where are you now, where do you stay now?” he said while looking at my photocopied passport again.

“I stay in town, just here in town” I pointed in no particular direction.

“And where is your passport?”

“I said before, I lost it in a taxi. I left in a hurry and forgot my bag inside”

“You have to go to your embassy to get a new one” he said, as a matter of fact.

“Yes I know, but I need a declaration paper from the police first, to give to the embassy in Rabat. I’ve been going everyday to the station…” he cut me off with a raised hand.

“You have to go back to your country; it is good for you to go back to your country”

“Is there a problem, have I done something wrong?” I said trying to get to the point.

“Err…yes, there is a problem. You are here, you see things and it’s a problem for us”

I didn’t reply to that rather incriminating statement.

Just then, another guy stepped in from outside and spoke a few words of Arabic to the suited guy and got a few nods of understanding in return. The suited guy turned to me, giving me a good look up and down.

“OK, you can go” he said, breaking the tension.

“Really?” my face beaming with a smile.

“Yes, but you have to go back to your country, it is good for you, OK?”

Again, I didn’t answer, I just grabbed my bag from the ground and stood up; I looked around and gave smiles to the officers that were hanging around. They gave nothing back.

I took a few steps forward and passed through the door I had come in through before. The sun was bright compared to the light inside. I was only detained for a couple of hours but it felt good to be out. It’s different where I’m from, I know most of what I can and can’t get away with, but here I’m a foreigner in a foreign land and I don’t have a clue about the laws.

As I started walking away, I looked around and noticed that I had just come from the Coliseum, a huge disused bullfighting ring, known as ‘Plaza Toro’. I couldn’t believe it. Not only is the place not empty as I’d previously thought, but it’s also some kind of detention centre for locals to be kept before they’re sent back to their respective towns. I looked around and saw the suited guy stood by the door watching me. On impulse I turned and walked back to him.

Plaza Toro
Plaza Toro

“What was the problem before? I have no money, I was just making business!” I said to him.

“It is forbidden to make public business in Morocco” he replied.

“Forbidden? People make business everywhere here. Those people…” I said pointing inside the building “…What were they doing?”

“They are forbidden to be in Tangier” he answered me sternly.

“Forbidden to be in Tangier, but why?”

“Because it is the will of the king” he finished, giving me a gesture to leave.


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An autobiographical novel documenting the struggles of Sub-saharan African migrants in the EU border town of Tangiers, Morocco. Content note for rape, trafficking, police violence, murder and racial abuse.

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