There’s a place just outside of Tangier, a place where a high percentage of migrants waiting for the opportunity to get to Spain live and work. The reason for there being such a concentrated amount of migrants in this part of town is that the area has been mostly abandoned and forgotten. This is very apparent, but the reasons for it being abandoned are little more unclear.
Speaking with many different people in the area – migrants and locals alike – I discovered many theories as to why the place was built and also why it was abandoned. The closest, most confirmed theory, came from a guy I met who was working in a place close by named “Freezone”.
This Freezone was built right beside the main airport of Tangier, eight kilometres out of town, which is also situated right beside the Atlantic Ocean. Around the same time, it was decided to build a sea port for ferries and cargo ships close to the airport. This would create easy access for the import and export to the Freezone.
The Freezone itself is a large business park of sorts, mostly for European business’ to come and manufacture goods at a low working cost. It makes capitalist sense, really, for large European businesses to be situated right at the very northern peninsular of Africa. Only a short distance to the high sale-prices of Europe, they still have the cheap labour of African workers at their disposal. And of course, it is widely known that the king is a big business man himself.
A bi-product of this endeavour is Boukhalef, the housing complex situated in the gap between the airport and the outskirts of Tangier, built for European corporate CEO’s, staff and customers in a bid to attract more long term business and develop a tighter bond between Moroccan and European exporting. Unfortunately for the high-risk plan, it didn’t quite come through as hoped.
It seems that Mother Nature has once again foiled the plans of a money-making scheme. Two years after the construction of the Atlantic port had begun, it was discovered that the ocean is too strong: with its incessant pounding of colossal waves it would be too much for the perimeters of the port to endure. Ultimately, it would be too costly for initial construction and further ongoing maintenance thereafter.
So, with only the foundations built, the project was dropped. Instead, the port constructors looked to the less fierce Mediterranean Sea to complete their port, forty kilometres east of Tangier, aptly named Tanger Med. This in turn, rendered Freezone and Boukhalef useless for the time being, until construction of a direct highway from Tanger Med to Freezone would be finished.
In the years since the abandonment of the original venture, Boukhalef has been left mostly deserted, leaving only the half finished shells of what was meant to be. The housing complex comprises several thousand apartments – perhaps a hundred five-story blocks with roof terraces, white in colour and completely identical to one another. The place looks utterly bizarre in comparison to the rest of Tangier, a cluster of ambiguous white monoliths created in the wake of European influence. Most of the apartments are bare and incomplete, with plumbing often missing and unreliable electrics. The few shops that are outside fill some spaces but change very little of the minimalist atmosphere.
It’s difficult to determine who the apartments themselves are owned by. Many have been owned by Europeans but are looked after by locals, some are bought by Moroccans and some are completely unclaimed. A lot of these apartments are lived in by sub-Saharan migrants now. Whether they’ve paid or simply squatted the place is down to luck and the friends they know in the area.
This is an account written by Frankie, of the time they spent living in Boukhalef:
Ever since we arrived in Morocco, our aim was to open a house where our migrant friends could come over and hang out in an un-oppressive environment; a place where we could cook meals together and share lots of tea and languages. But it just wasn’t possible. Every time we wanted to rent a house, as soon as we mentioned that we’d have West African friends coming over, they all said no.
At the first house we rented, the landlord stood at the door refusing our migrant female friends and their babies entry. He promptly slid a note under our door saying ‘I don’t want any black people in my house’. We had the second house for less than a day, before police showed up and forced the landlord to kick us out for inviting our Senegalese friends over. So our third house was in Boukhalef. We hoped that this new neighbourhood would be more welcoming, since thousands of West African people lived there already.
Some migrant friends helped us try to find a house. We were shown quite a few and were happy to live in any of them, but every time for unknown reasons we were told it was no longer possible. After dragging our feet up and down staircases, becoming very confused as to who the landlords were and how it all worked, we finally found one that was possible to rent.
We exchanged a hefty two months rent and deposit in Dirhams for a set of keys and a promise of a written contract after the weekend. We moved our unexpectedly large collection of mattresses and other bits n bobs into our new house and thought: ‘Finally, we have a house we’ll hopefully have for longer than a week’.
Boukhalef is a large suburbia, full of huge towering white apartment blocks, like gigantic Lego pieces, stacked one after another in rows and rows. The streets were wide but almost deserted of cars. Usually only garbage would park up along the kerbside.
But despite its bland buildings and cracked tarmac, it’s full of life: people wandering about everywhere, going in and out of friends’ open doors, sharing tea and information on police sightings.
We would talk to so many different people, from all over West Africa, some telling us stories of the latest arrests, others asking us to come over to their house later for lunch. We would often make many friends – being the only two white people living in the suburb we stuck out a mile away.
Some of our friends from the old Senegalese house that we’d lived with when we arrived in Tangier had a house a few blocks away that we’d often visit. At our friends’ houses we would often play card games and drink lots of sugary tea in between going up to the roof on police lookout. All the roofs were six storeys high and flat at the top for hanging washing, or sight-seeing from.
Unfortunately, the sights we could see were either a construction site amongst scrub-land, or the cops driving from one apartment to another, taking new arrestees with them. My friends would sit there for hours with nothing to do, just watching people down on the streets being bundled into chequered vans, with absolutely no way of stopping it.
It was important to be keeping an eye out, so that when they spotted the vans driving in their direction they could quickly shout out to the other residents without papers. This would give them a few vital minutes to hide or run out into the scrub-land nearby, where the police are less likely to search.
The police were mainly looking for boats, paddles and life jackets. If they found these, they’d also grab an occupant to take to the police station. There, they would photograph the migrant with the equipment and copy down their details, so they can send off the information to claim their €1500 from the EU for ‘deporting the migrant’.
But in reality, they have no intention of spending the money on the migrant, instead, leading them back out onto the street, or ‘deporting’ them to Rabat and leaving them stranded there without a penny in their pocket. The police would rely on tip-offs from some Moroccans living in the area, or other migrant informers, who’d spied equipment being sneaked into apartments days earlier. When people agree to be police informers, it exempts them from being arrested, and when people have nothing more to lose some will go to these measures.
It was always interesting being invited around for dinner – climbing up the five storeys, pushing open the door out of breath and greeting everyone. At around ten o clock someone wanders around with an outstretched hand, rhythmically tossing collected coins in their palm, this gesture means ‘If you have 5 dirham’s please add it to the cooking fund for tonight’s meal’. Then a group will wander off to the closest vegetable stall and buy an array of locally grow vegetables, rice, spices and much to my dismay, meat.
And so the cooking begins; peeling, slicing dicing, boiling, frying, stirring, waiting, watching, tasting, and waiting. So finally, 4 hours later, at around 2am, the big orange plastic bowls are laid out on the floor, and everyone would gather around, their right hand still dripping from being washed, and the feast would begin – everyone devouring steaming scrumptious rice full of spices mixed with caramelized vegetables and diced potatoes.
So flavoursome and delicious, it’s always worth the wait. After the bowls were scraped clean, we would all have a burst of energy and would resume French and Wolof lessons, or play another round of cards. Slowly our tiredness would creep back and we would say our goodbyes, then head back through the distorted Lego-land to bed.
A few days after we’d got the keys, sometime whilst I was out, police came to our house and forced Stephan to give them their passport, which they photocopied and said something in French about us not allowed to be there, and them coming back later. A little while after I came home, there was knocking on the door again, so we ignored it.
Then as I went to the kitchen, I saw a man climbing over the back wall. Next he came into the room through the un-lockable back door. He was demanding my passport too, but we shouted at him and made him climb back over the wall empty handed. From that point on we realised we needed to be far more careful, we had to always watch our backs, especially since we couldn’t blend into the crowd very easily. There were also a few particular local Moroccans that seemed to keep a watchful eye on us, following us from a distance when we went to the market.
That night, at about 3am, we were woken up to banging on our door. Stephan got up and opened the door in a sleepy haze to find two men standing there with batons. Stephan mumbled that we were sleeping, quickly shutting and locking the door. Then for the next few hours the men continuously hammered on the door, sometimes going away for a bit, but coming back to bang at it some more.
The next day, just as we were leaving the house, the same people we’d noticed following us in the past few days were at our door. They told us that we couldn’t stay at the house anymore, that they were the ‘Responsibles’ of the building and we didn’t have a contract. They demanded to know who we’d paid rent to and explained that whoever it was had told us lies. They said we had been tricked and we had to move out right then.
We phoned the person who’d we paid rent to, but he wasn’t answering. We managed to get away from the ‘Responsibles’ for the time being, and went to a local Moroccan friends’ house – one of the only people we knew who spoke good English. We explained the situation and he told us his ideas of what was going on – all of the houses in Boukhalef are run by Mafia’s.
He thinks no-one really knows who owns the buildings: some people think it’s the King and others think its European companies. But regardless, they are now all squatted. Apparently one gang changes the locks on all the doors and claims it theirs, then charges people to rent out the rooms, differing the price for different skin colours. But if the people who were at our door that morning wanted us out, then we needed to move out – these are not the sorts of people to be messed with.
We tried calling our migrant friends again who we paid the rent money to but they still weren’t picking up, and then we remembered that our promised contract never came. We decided to forget about it for a bit and went on with our day, visiting other friends houses around Boukhalef, finding out about recent arrests and trying to sort out some work for our friends who have no money to pay their rent.
We spent the next day in the city, visiting our friends from back home who lived in a different area, telling them our stories of the police scrambling over the back wall. Later we hitched back home and when we walked down the corridor to our door, we found that it had been crow-barred open. Nothing had been stolen, but it was a clear sign saying ‘Move out now!’
Some of our migrant neighbours came out and tried to help put the door back in place. They told us that the guy we paid rent to had crossed to Spain the day before. Then the two Mafia people that had been following us around town turned up and admitted it had been them whod boshed open the door.
There was a flurry of French, Arabic, Spanish, Wolof and some English. We were both trying to learn French, Wolof and Arabic, but it tends to be a lot more difficult to follow when it’s being argued in. After a lot of translating, it was made clear that we just had to move out right then, even though we’d only been living there for a few days.
Some of our welcoming friends helped us move into their house, where we ended up staying for a long time. But we were still always being watched. It was made clear to us that the police and Mafias didn’t want us to live in Boukhalef, as they all know that what they’re doing is corrupt and they don’t want the outside world to read about it.