6. Papa Mazyane

The first time I came to know the landlord was just a few days after I’d arrived in Tangier, the day after the first police raid. I woke up to find him loitering above me, staring down in disbelief.

Everyone in the house calls him Papa – I think it’s a common thing to call the elders Papa and Mama, sort of like a sign of respect. I called him Papa Mazyane, after I heard an argument between him and one of the residents over rent money. I over heard them repeating over and over again ‘Papa, Mazyane. Papa, Mazyane’ which is Arabic for ‘Papa, its good’ to reassure him that he was going to be paid. And the name just stuck.

After I snapped Papa Mazyane out of his hypnosis, he turned to Baye and flipped out, speaking in Arabic at great speed. I could clearly see that he wasn’t happy to see a European in his house. It seemed like the police didn’t like it, so I imagine the same goes for the landlord.

There was some fierce Arabic shouting between them, peppered with Baye’s calls of ‘racist’ many times to Papa Mazyane’s face. Then as quickly as it had started, it stopped. Papa Mazyane changed completely, going from being insanely aggressive, to being bewilderingly friendly. He sat next to me and tried to have a conversation, offering a warm smile every time I used an Arabic word. I was amazed at this man’s array of emotions in such a short period of time.

It was explained to me afterwards that a couple of years ago a migrant had been living in this house and while doing so was also dealing drugs – selling mostly weed and cocaine in and around the Medina, but also from the house. Then one day, he got caught by the police and was forced to lead them to the house.

Shortly after, Papa Mazyane was arrested, the reasons unclear – something to do with letting to migrants. He claims he was tortured by the police before being imprisoned for three months. Being locked up for three months is true but it’s all speculation on the torture part, it wouldn’t surprise me though. So now I understood why he was a bit jumpy about having a European in his house.

I saw Papa Mazyane again around the same time that my friends from back home arrived. Frankie and Stephan also had a shock of being raided by the police on their second day and waking up to a bemused landlord on the third. This time he was coming to collect rent, which I quickly concluded wasn’t going to be paid to him easily. It was explained to him that when the police came round, they had stolen things from the house while people were being questioned outside: things such as money; electronics and merchandise that people sold in the street for rent money. Papa Mazyane didn’t care about such excuses- he just wanted his rent money.

Papa Mazyane wasn’t a bad guy to be fair. I mean, he did lease his house to Sub Saharan migrants, which is a risky business due to cops and harassment. Many migrants live in just single rooms, hidden away in the labyrinthine streets and alleyways that make the city. But this house was big in comparison, and in return was very well known, gaining a lot of attention from police and locals.

Quite often, just walking in and out of the house would result in abuse from the local mafia kids, thinking they were kings of the land. They were in a sense, it’s just that the land in question was just one small, run down street that no-body cared about. But regardless of its size, they protected their turf like a Los Angeles gang.

Young but dangerous
Young but dangerous

They would insist on sitting in intimidating groups right outside the door of the house, sometimes even daring each other to run up and down the stairs inside. Once I had to confront one small boy on the steps, he must have been about nine or ten years old, with menacing look in his eye and a big stick raised high above him. I thought if he was going to do something then he would just do it, so I didn’t say anything and walked right passed him, not giving him a reason to feel provoked.

I guess in a way, they must have felt threatened – Sub Saharans moving into their neighbourhood, mixing up the nationalities. They were too young to understand or care about the hurt caused by racism. But in the end, young or not, they were still really dangerous. Like the rest of Tangier, these kids also carried knives, and on occasion they didn’t seem afraid to use them. Even without the thought of knives, everybody in the house knew the kids held strong bitter resentment against them.

One way that people from the house tried to relieve the tension between them and the mafia kids was to offer them a friendly game of football. Surprisingly, it worked. Every few days the residents and the mafia kids would get into whatever football gear they had and head to the dirt pitch at the end of the road. People said that afterwards there was a definite change in the mafia kids’ attitudes outside the house. Instead of racial comments, they were exchanging football remarks and re-enactments. They finally had a common ground that didn’t involve skin colour, religion or knives.

Football with the local mafia kids
Football with the local mafia kids

One evening, six weeks or so after I’d moved in, I’d been out in the local market to find something to eat and was perhaps only gone for half an hour – but as I made my way back down the steep, narrow street next to the house, something caught my attention. I first noticed smoke coming up the alleyway. I didn’t think too much of it but a lot of locals were also stood around talking amongst themselves.

One woman spotted me and pointed to the house followed by a gesture with both hands that I guessed meant something was ‘finished’. I ran around the corner and saw the origin of the smoke coming from a huge fire outside the house.

Belongings and beds were flying out of the windows and some of the large crowd that had gathered were helping to put it all on the fire. Furniture, bags, bed things and other items from the house were going up in smoke. I was baffled as to what was going on.

I ran up the stairs into the house to find a few of the residents around but also an alarming amount of local people too. I thought they were police at first, but I remembered that there had been no vehicles outside and that no-one was wearing uniforms, so I presumed that they were locals. They were flipping everything over, tearing through bags and other cases; I saw that some were filling their pockets with valuables and discarding the rest. But there were far too many to confront them. They looked at me and I looked at them, but none of us tried to impede each other.

House flipped by locals
House flipped by locals

I stepped into the main bedroom that also doubled as a communal room and was met with the landlord and Baye having an unsurprising vocal fight, with both shouting over each other at high volumes. Baye spots me and insists ‘You see? You see this? They are racist, the Arabs are fucking racist. They are criminals! Why is he doing this?’

Papa Mazyane was stood looking at me and repeatedly pointed to his front teeth, where I could see one had been broken. I tried to ask what had happened. Amusingly, Papa Mazyane was very good at making visual descriptions and explanations, and I could figure out the general story despite the complete language barrier.

It seems that someone had attacked him then head-butted him in the teeth. Baye filled the gaps in the story with ‘He just came in man, and picked up the gas threatening to hit him with it’, pointing to a friend named Lamine, who sat close by, ‘So he defended himself’. I pointed to the gas cylinder on the ground for Papa Mazyane to see and he just shrugged it off. It was also said that after the fight, Sayid, Papa Mazyane’s son who was also there, freaked out and called to the street for help. I guess it was then that everyone came storming into the house like a lynch mob and started to trash the place.

Frankie and Stephan came back to the house around the time the loud shouting and screaming started coming from outside. I ran past the rocks that had flown in through the windows earlier and looked out to the street. I was horrified to see that the locals were fighting with some of the residents who were trying to leave, and it had rapidly got out of control.

There were far too many Moroccans outnumbering the residents. One friend was completely surrounded by Moroccans and was being pushed and shoved about. For a minute we seriously thought that the locals were going to overpower them, causing injuries and more hurt. I couldn’t help but think the worst.

It would have only taken one over-confident kid amongst the chaos with a knife to end someone’s life, which was frighteningly possible. Knowing the level of racism and corruption in this country, it still sickens me to think that something so implausible should yet be a harsh reality.

Fortunately, the mob of locals outside reluctantly decided against any further violence, as the police were arriving. For once, the people of the house were somewhat pleased to see the police show up. As they did so, half the locals disappeared like they were never there and the rest pretended that they were just onlookers.

The police controlled the situation very quickly – all the locals respected the authorities. We were stood outside with them at this point, but we were mostly ignored by the police unless we interjected with our opinions of disgust. I could sense that the police were still keeping an eye on us but keeping at a distance. A lot of debating was going on between police, locals and migrants, with the police constantly raising their arms to quieten the crowd.

Some time went by before a conclusion was made, it turned out that some of the residents wanted to press charges on Papa Mazyane for causing harm. We advised them against it, but it was too late because for some reason, in this case, pressing charges meant that they had to spend time at the station. We watched them being taken away and told them that we would see them the next day at the trial.

I went back upstairs and had a look around to see the extent of the damage, taking my camera with me to take pictures of the upturned rooms. I passed by several rooms, taking photos as I went. Most of the rooms had been completely ruined – I could barely tell they had been bedrooms.

One of the rooms I went in still had a young Moroccan in it, going through bags and pocketing whatever he thought was valuable. Before saying anything, I took a picture of him red-handed. When he realised he left in a hurry.

Looter caught red handed
Looter caught red handed

Most of the house seemed abandoned. The few people that were there explained that they making arrangements to move somewhere else. After asking, they said that it wasn’t safe for them here anymore: anybody could come and hurt them, plus the police would come and tell them to leave the next day or the day after anyway. It was really sad to think that in a blink of an eye the house went from being vibrant and lively to being destroyed and evicted.

The only person who thought otherwise was Baye, he had made a quick decision to stay and stand his ground, and I knew he would try his best to stick by it. He protested that this was his house and there was no reason that he should leave. He paid his rent, and most others had paid too, it was only one or two people that hadn’t paid, so why did everybody else have to suffer?

I completely agreed with him, but I also knew that this was Morocco, and in Morocco, the laws don’t apply to everyone equally. Obviously, Baye understood that far more than I ever will. I really wasn’t sure why the others had decided to press charges against the landlord. I mean there were reasons to for sure, such as the fact that one of them had been to hospital for a cut leg and another for a cut head. And overall, they were being wrongfully evicted. But like I said, this is Morocco, and I know that the police will always favour Moroccans side against any Sub-Saharan migrant. It’s the brutal reality of it. In the end, everyone would have to leave regardless of what laws had been broken.

The next day, a few of us went to the court house in the centre to see if we could find out what was going on with our friends. When we arrived Frankie, Stephan, Baye and I were immediately ushered through with hardly any questions. I imagine this is because we were European and apparently unthreatening.

We went through some narrow corridors, avoiding scar faced inmates being transferred, guards with huge guns and officers carrying boxes of foot long knives to the evidence room… I assumed.

Baye was frantically talking to a lawyer as we walked through the building. Eventually, they parted ways and it was explained to us that he would represent our friends if we paid him money directly, which was strictly forbidden because it wouldn’t be official. It seems that the court of law in Morocco can be bought, just the same as everything else.

We finally got halted at the end of a thin corridor, made narrower by a wall of box files from floor to ceiling. At the end, it opened out a little into a room with benches, where I presume people awaiting trial were being held. There was a little desk with a couple of guard officers mostly ignoring us but ultimately, stopping us. On the other side of the small room was an iron barred cell door, clearly for the more dangerous inmates to be held. Through the bars, I could see the four friends from the house. They’d also spotted us from inside and were waving out to us, still with gallant smiles regardless of their situation.

We began asking the guards about our friend’s situation and what might become of them. But the guards quickly became bored of us and realised that we were only a nuisance, so we were ordered to leave the corridor and wait in the main waiting room with everyone else. Five long hours went by, all of us without a clue as to what was going on.

All we could do was watch the people come and go from the court, occasionally catch a glimpse of the large court room as the doors opened and closed. People would walk through with a wide range of expressions and emotions: smiles and laughter; tears; anger – but most people just looked confused and bemused. I couldn’t blame them: the whole place looked a complete mess; the guards did nothing; the metal detectors weren’t switched on; the queues led to nowhere and nothing seemed to move forward.

Eventually, we were signalled to come and join the court proceedings, or so we thought. When we arrived back in the box file corridor, the only difference was that Papa Mazyane suddenly showed up out of the side door, which I realised was for the court room. As he stepped out, he was talking at great length with a police officer and before finishing, he gave the officer a firm handshake and a customary one kiss on each cheek, like they were old friends.

He spotted us and drew a broad smile across his thick face, forwarding a hand attempting to shake mine. Without thinking and allowing reflex to take over, I shook his hand, immediately regretting it and feeling quite dirty for it too. I watched him walk past us, squeezing through the tight corridor, shaking each officer’s hand as he went. It was disgusting to see him behave in this obviously smug way, strutting around like he was the king himself.

It didn’t look good for our friends either, it was clear that the outcome was not in their favour. There was even a chance that they could be deported to the desert to add to their discriminatory misfortune. Even though the case was clearly over and Papa Mazyane had left, our friends were still locked up in their cell.

We tried to ask about what was going to happen to them but, like before, we were just shoed away or simply ignored. Baye seemed to think they would just be released in a few hours or the next day. Bizarrely, our friends were released before being taken back into the same station. Baye and I left while Frankie and Stephan waited for another few hours, bringing them food but having to quarrel with the guards to give it to them.

When released, our friends were escorted to be taken to another station. Frankie and Stephan got inside the van with them but got immediately thrown out again, so they began demanding the officers to tell them where they were being taken to. They finally showed up back at the house, with the news that the house had to be empty by the end of the next day. It was said that Papa Mazyane was coming with police to ensure that everybody was leaving as ordered.

With the threat of police coming the next day, people didn’t hang around to find out. Arrangements were being made, bags were being packed and things were moving out of the house so quickly that it wasn’t long before half the house had gone. It was a mass exodus, thirty people forced out of their home.

Everyone expressed a depressing amount of normality and casualness towards the fate of the house, showing the level of familiarity and most of all, numbness to their primitive treatment from the Moroccan law system. Basically, they were unrecognised as human beings, even by the allegedly unyielding judicial court.

Packing and moving went on through to the next day. Whatever could be carried was taken away to Boukhalef and elsewhere. All the large things though – such as all the beds, bedding, rugs, kitchen things and electronics – had to be stored for the time being. Half the people of the house made light of the situation and took the opportunity to move to another city like Rabat or Casablanca.

The remainder of the residents were planning to move to Boukhalef, but with such short notice they didn’t have the time to sort a new place out. Fortunately, Frankie managed to make arrangements with our friend Hassan to hire a van and a place to store everything.

Throughout the day, everyone managed to gather everything and pack it onto the van to be taken away. We delivered the packed van to an underground car park where, for a small fee, things can be kept. It didn’t seem very safe at all though and we later found out that the gas and some kitchenware was missing.

Later that day, Papa Mazyane showed up at the house again, luckily without police escorts. For some bizarre reason everyone gave the impression that nothing had happened, as though this little fat man hadn’t just managed to get everyone kicked out of the house. There weren’t many people left, but those that were left, laughed and joked with Papa Mazyane as if everything was fine. It felt completely unnatural for me to act like that. If they did feel bitter and resentful towards Papa Mazyane, they weren’t showing it.

It finally came time to leave. More or less everything was out of the house apart from a few unwanted items. As we were leaving, Papa Mazyane called to me and gestured to take a crate of tile pieces that I’d left behind. The tiles were for making mosaic pictures to sell in the street, but it wasn’t worth taking them along, so I gestured back that I didn’t care about them.

I’m not sure if he understood because he gestured for me to take them, but a little more sternly. I hesitated, and then went for the crate, watching Papa Mazyane while I did so. He smiled and gave a nod of approval, but as I picked the crate up, I tipped it upside down, scattering the hundreds of little tile pieces all around of Papa Mazyane’s feet.

The look of shock on his face was priceless; his hands went frantic, pointing down at the tiles in disbelief. Everyone behind me roared with laughter, his face quickly changing from shock to smile, whether he felt defeated or he genuinely found it funny, I’ll never know.


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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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