9. Night Visitors

After the Senegalese house was evicted I was left with several options: I could have moved with Ebrima and others to Boukhalef, or got my own place or gone travelling. In the end, I opted for getting my own place, staying with my friend Sven in the meantime while I searched around for a place. I was looking to get a single room for as cheap as possible. I wasn’t concerned about quality, the only thing that mattered was the price.

One week or so after the eviction, I was walking through our local market when I bumped into a friend from the Senegalese house. He told me that he knew of a perfect place for me: it had cheap rooms for rent, with other migrants living there and a very relaxed landlady. I agreed that it sounded ideal and asked for him to lead the way.

We weaved in and out of the narrow streets until we finally came to a stop outside a black metal door. He gestured that this was the right house and I gave him a nod of acknowledgement, before he knocked. We were greeted by a tiny old woman who everyone called Mama. She was an energetic lady, speaking rapidly regardless of our lack of understanding.

My friend got the message across that I was interested in a place and we were swiftly shown in to a cave-like room the size of a garden shed. There was one window overlooking some steps and a concrete bench in the corner splattered with old coffee stains. I was more than happy with the place and accepted, but first I had to hang around for the landlady’s daughter to come back from work.

I was introduced to my Nigerian neighbours, Prudence and her one year old boy. Prudence immediately offered me some incredibly spicy food, mostly made of potatoes and chilli. She explained to me that her boyfriend and her sister lived in their place too. I looked around and wondered how two sisters, a boyfriend and their son could live here without problems.

The room contained a small sofa, a bed behind the sofa, a fridge, a TV and various other things lying around. Not much space was left for a functional family, but from what I’ve seen, there are very little options. Prudence held herself as her name would imply, moving around the room with practised ease and elegance, picking things up here and putting things down there, always keeping herself busy.

She told brief, sentence-long stories as she went – stories of the house and its previous occupants. I couldn’t help but admire Prudence. Although shy, she projected warmth and a sense strong motherhood. I couldn’t imagine living in a foreign country with very little money and prospects, as well as bringing up a child in those conditions.

We were interrupted by a Moroccan woman letting herself in. She greeted me in English, introducing herself as Soukiana, the daughter of the landlady. She spoke unusually good English, and explained to me that during the past ten years, while she was growing up, mainly English-speaking Nigerians had lived there and taught her the language.

I asked her about police and if they had many problems with them. I was answered with a “No. As long as you don’t cause any problems, then there won’t be any problems”. Still thinking about this slightly passive-aggressive answer, I continued with finalising the agreement. Basically, I traded 600 Dirhams for a key and a one month promise. That was all. No contracts, no advance, nothing. Very Moroccan.

So I moved in and within a couple of days I was settled. I quickly became accustomed to the daily vocal fights between Prudence and Mama, with Soukiana translating. These early-morning arguments usually involved money, electricity or visitors – but mostly visitors.

Every night, without fail, people would come to the house and hang out inside until the small hours of the morning. Sometimes, hordes of Nigerian men would come and drink whiskey or rum until they were completely out of control. They would talk and argue about life in Morocco, the life they left behind in Nigeria, and the potential life in Europe.

These arguments would often escalate to the point where a fight would break out. Things like “I’ll kill you” and “Fuck you, brother” would be heard from the room, not long before crashing and smashing would start. The fights would always be short-lived but the consequences with Mama were very much apparent. She would often switch off the power and water for several hours; she would threaten to call the police or would just put her own locks on doors, even if people’s things were inside.

All in all, the friendship between Mama and the migrants living there was thin at the best of times. Seeing Prudence and her younger sister Beth around the house, mostly accommodating for the drunken visitors every night, I could tell they had little control over the situation. They would sit in silence until one of the guys would demand something, such as another drink, food or a trip to the shop.

Although Prudence said that her ‘boyfriend’ lived there with them, I never once confirmed that any one particular guy was this ‘boyfriend’. I knew that Prudence was the one paying the rent – by what means, I wasn’t sure. I knew that she and Beth went begging on occasions, but I also knew that they couldn’t possibly rent a room, eat and generally live on begging money alone.

Coming in late one night I found the house completely silent, which was rare, even for the middle of the night. I’d been at Sven’s house for most of the evening and had returned later than usual. I was as quiet as possible coming in, as I didn’t want Mama to think I was bothering the neighbours. I crept in and swung the door gently to a close until I heard the ‘click’ of the lock. When I got into my room, I saw the bed and decided to go straight into it. I immediately undressed and jumped under the covers, but I didn’t fall asleep right away as I thought I would.

Twenty minutes went by and I was still laying there awake. The silence was broken by a knock at the door, and then shuffling in the next room, followed by their door opening and a flood of light pouring through the various gaps in the walls of my cave. The shuffling continued along the corridor until it reached the front entrance. “Shkon?” a voice said, meaning ‘who?’ in a local Moroccan dialect. I heard a mumble from outside followed by the door opening, and then the same clicking sound as it locked again. The shuffling sound came back to the room, before closing the door once more, taking the light back with it.

This kind of thing was not unusual and I didn’t think much of it, so I let my thoughts wander elsewhere. I must have only lain there for about five minutes longer, before I started to hear raised mumblings coming from the next room. It was clearly a deep male voice doing most of the talking, sometimes answered by an almost inaudible tone of a woman’s voice.

The noises soon changed to heavy breathing, getting louder and louder. I realised they were having sex. The woman’s voice rose to an exaggerated moan, sounding very much forced, as though she was in pain. Another minute went by and then they went quiet. There were some sharp bangs and crashing of furniture, then their door opened again. I could tell by the heavy clumsiness of the exit that it was the man leaving. The door to the bedroom was slammed shut and immediately after, the front door slammed shut too.

I lay there thinking a lot, wondering if I had just heard what I thought I had heard. Then another sound came from the room. I listened closely, but I couldn’t make out the words. As it grew louder, I realised it was sobbing, and it was then that I knew she had been raped.

I really wasn’t sure what to do, I couldn’t be sure of anything. What I wanted to do, was to go and knock on the door and see if I could help, perhaps comfort whoever was in that room. And in hindsight, if I knew what had been going on from the beginning, I maybe would of burst in and beat the shit out of the sick bastard. But I also didn’t know what the consequences would have been, for her, for me and maybe for the migrant community. So I thought I would leave it for now and approach it with caution.

The next morning I was startled awake by noises outside in the corridor. I jumped out of bed and put some clothes on. Stepping out of the room I saw Beth crouched over the gas cooker behind my door. She looked up and gave me a timid smile. I smiled back, asked how she was and if her sister was home. She told me she was “fine”, giving me the same answer she gave me every time I saw her. She continued to tell me about Prudence being in Casablanca and how she wouldn’t be back for a couple of weeks. So then I knew that it was Beth that I’d heard sobbing the previous night.

I had read several reports from Medical Sans Frontieres (MSF) when I had first arrived. They explained stories of thousands of migrant women being trafficked. After being persuaded to take the opportunity of getting a better life in Europe, they are bought in their home country to be sold again in border towns or Europe.

On route the ‘boyfriend’ – basically a pimp who has bought them – decides everything from how they travel to whether or not they have abortions. They are regularly raped by both their ‘boyfriend’ and his friends, and are forced into prostitution. Then once in Morocco, they have to live there for years, often bringing up a family of the children they were forced to have, waiting for this empty promise of Europe and a better life.

Although I had read these reports, I hadn’t yet knowingly come across someone trapped in this life until I lived in the next room to Beth. But as a male, many migrant women were always reluctant to speak with me at the best of times.

Because of her generally quiet nature, I hadn’t spoken to Beth very much in the time I had been living there. My attempts to make conversation with her would end in short, one-word answers, before she’d continue with whatever task was at hand. I assumed she was just shy and took time to get comfortable with new people, so I thought I would give her space and let it be.

But after what I’d heard that night, I thought perhaps she was too afraid to speak with me. Maybe if her visitors saw her talking with me, it would bring her problems. I imagined she was probably feeling scared, ashamed perhaps. I didn’t know what was going on, but my best guess was that her ‘boyfriend’ looked after her, but forced sex and prostitution on her, maybe even keeping all the money for himself.  The thought of him basically living off her shame and misery hung heavily in my thoughts.

Again, I didn’t know what to do. I didn’t want to bring up what I’d read about, in fear of embarrassing or hurting her. I continued to make polite conversation with her but she never gave signals of wanting help. The small talk came to an end and I had nothing more to say, so I left. I couldn’t even begin to imagine what she was feeling. I felt sick to my stomach. All I wanted to do was help Beth – take her away from this horrific situation – but I didn’t have the means to do so. I was completely powerless to help.

For the next couple of days, I didn’t speak to Beth very much. When I did, it would be pleasant but short. I couldn’t tell if she’d realised that I knew but sometimes I saw a crookedness in her smile or a glimmer in her eyes, a glimmer of recognition. A knowing look perhaps. A cry for help.

I never once saw another woman there at the house and Beth was at home most of the time, cooking and cleaning for the visitors. I knew she left the house occasionally, but I’d overheard guys talking about her begging when Mama was demanding rent money. I don’t think she had any friends, I don’t think she was allowed to. It seemed like she only had her older sister to turn to but from what I could tell, Prudence was in the same position as Beth.

A few nights went by and nothing was heard from the room. Every evening I expected something, but thankfully nothing came. I wasn’t very prepared, because I didn’t really know what to expect. I was very much torn between doing something, and doing nothing. I thought about how if I heard Beth being raped again, of course I’d have to do something.

Bang on her door? Kick the door in and demand him to leave? Beat the guy out of the house? Besides not being physically able to do that anyway, I also thought about what would happen after I tried that. What would happen to Beth? Having someone on the outside helping Beth would probably cause various problems for her. I really didn’t want more harm added to her already difficult situation and I also had myself to think about. For all I knew, it was completely plausible that I’d be stabbed outside the house because they didn’t approve of me stopping their business. I played these thoughts over and over again in my head – mostly at night when I was in bed, just waiting to hear a knock at the door.

Then some nights later, the 2am knock came again. This time Frankie was staying with me to keep me company in case of this happening. I just couldn’t approach it on my own. We listened to Beth shuffle through the corridor and let the guy in. We stood anxiously by my door, waiting for any signs or sounds of distress but thankfully, all I could hear was talking.

I began to relax, thinking that we’d made a mistake in assuming it to be bad. Suddenly though, Beth’s door burst open and I heard Beth shouting “Go! Go!” and the guy sharply talking back at her, ignoring her demand for him to leave. I quickly stood up again and returned to my door, listening to Beth’s voice. The guy’s tone became aggressive and I heard what sounded like struggling.

I opened my door and saw the guy stood in her door way holding onto Beth’s arm high above her. They both looked at me and went silent. “Look mate, I think Beth wants you to leave” I said, breaking the silence.

“Its OK brother, I am her boyfriend” he replied, then turned back to Beth and started to speak in a Nigerian language so that I couldn’t understand. Again, Beth said “Go, go”, but the guy refused. I repeated what I had just said and this time the guy let go of Beth and walked up to me. “Its OK brother, she is a whore you know, its OK”.

Beth saw this as an opportunity and closed her door. The guy stumbled back and tried speaking to her through the door but there was no reply. I looked around at Frankie for muted advice but she seemed as shocked at the situation as I was, so I suggested again for him to leave, but he just ignored me.

He began to laugh at something, I’m not sure what but it made me feel uneasy. Eventually, the guy turned and staggered back to me “You know, she is a whore and this is my business” he spat, with a strong stench of whisky on his breath. “Yeah, well it’s not my business, OK?” was all I could muster for a reply.

“Exactly!” he said, and left. I stood there shaking for a minute, trying to pull myself together before finally stepping back into my room. I found Frankie stood in the doorway, and I guess she could see I was shaken up from the confrontation; she wrapped her arms around me, giving a comforting hug.

I imagine that this had been going on the whole time, but now that I had noticed, it seemed so blindingly obvious and to be happening more often. One time after Beth shut her door on someone and I’d persuaded them to leave, I stared at Beth’s door for what seemed like forever, before finally gathering the courage to knock.

“Beth? Its OK, it’s only me now”.

The door unlocked and opened a fraction. I stepped in and found Beth sat in the middle of the sofa, staring at her feet.

“Are you OK Beth? Are you hurt?”

“It’s not what you think you know, they’re drunk and talk too much”.

“Don’t worry about what I think Beth, it’s not important”

There was a long silence and I was close to leaving. But I sat on a little blue plastic stool next to the sofa instead.

“Do you know why I am here Beth?”

“No” she looked at me for the first time.

“I…I know other people from Nigeria… and Senegal and Gambia…here in Tangier. I…I lived with some Senegalese people, in a big house just down the road from here…”

She stared blankly at me.

“..And well, if you ever need anybody to talk to about… anything. You can speak to me… or if you prefer, I also have a friend, who’s a woman, and well… I’m sure that she would be happy to listen”.

Another long silence.

“Erm… when does Prudence come home?”

“Soon”

“Are things better when Prudence is here?”

“Yes”

“That man before, he wasn’t really your boyfriend was he?” I finally asked.

“No”

“Are there more men that call themselves your boyfriend?”

“Sometimes”

Beth was fiddling with something in her hands and seemed to be getting nervous, so I slowed down with the questions.

“Beth, I’m sorry that this happens to you…”

She looked up at me again with her huge dark eyes.

“…Please tell me if I can help you in any way”

She slowly nodded her head in acknowledgement. She gave me another smile and I gave her one back, then left.

Deep down though, I knew then that she would never say anything, and she never did.

A couple more weeks went by. Some nights I kicked people out, some nights I wasn’t able to. I understood that Beth was too scared to not let them in, so if there was a knock at the door at some ridiculous hour, I would try to catch the door before her, and tell the unwanted visitor that everyone was asleep.

Beth sometimes said a quiet thank you if she was still in the corridor, but mostly she didn’t say a word about what was going on. I didn’t care about a thank you; I wanted her to tell me that she was ‘fine’, like she always did, but for once to actually mean it.

I woke up one morning to the sound of Beth singing. I guessed she was preparing food or another one of the many jobs she does throughout the day. I lay in bed listening to her. She had the most beautiful voice and she really opened up when she thought no one was listening – singing what I assumed was traditional Nigerian music, filling the rooms with nostalgia in her alone time.

One night I was woken up by a routine late-night knocking. I began to get up to catch it before Beth, but she got there first. I lay back in bed trying to stay awake so I could keep an ear out for any situations. I heard the usual drunken mumbling from whoever, followed by the shuffling of feet, then the closing of Beth’s door.

I must have fallen asleep because I was suddenly startled by a loud crash. I sat up in bed, feeling a bit confused. I heard another crash and realised it was from Beth’s room. Jumping out of bed, I went straight for my door and pulled the latch open. Doing so made a loud screeching noise. I guess this must have spooked whoever was inside, because Beth’s door opened before I got to it.

Facing me was some guy with dreads who I’d seen in passing before. Both the guy and Beth seemed shocked to see me and I froze in the corridor, unable to say anything. Beth thawed me out by pushing the guy lightly and adding “Now go”.

The man turned to her and laughed in her face, forcing Beth to take a step back in intimidation. “I heard Beth say go, so I think you should do as she says” I managed to say, with an obvious waiver in my voice.

“Ah, white boy wants me to leave eh?” The guy turned to me and took a couple of steps forward. “You hear that Beth, white-boy wants me to leave”. Beth didn’t answer. Her door was closed and locked faster than he could say ‘white-boy’ again.

I was left alone in the corridor with him and he clearly seemed unhappy about it. He stepped forward until his face was inches from mine, “White-boy wants me to leave eh?” he repeated with cheap whiskey on his breath, his voice lower and far more menacing. I was scared. I really couldn’t predict what was going to happen next.

“Hey Beth, you hear, white-boy wants me to leave!” he repeated, shouting over his shoulder at the locked door. I imagined Beth behind her door listening out. I guess he did too. At that, he turned and walked up to Beth’s door again and put his face against it. He spoke quietly in a Nigerian language, opinions obviously not for my ears.

“Come on man, please just go, Beth wants you to leave and I wanna sleep” I said, speaking over the guy, but he ignored my plea and continued regardless. At that, I thought better of it and left him to deal with Beth’s locked metal door.

“Just let yourself out when you’re ready mate, good night” I said, not really caring if he heard me or not. I stepped back into my room and locked the door behind me, turned out the light and got back into bed. I lay there, listening to him try to persuade Beth to open her door for him, but I knew it was futile. Eventually he gave up and mumbled to himself as he stomped his feet down the corridor and left, making the final ‘click’ of the lock before silence took over.

When I left the house the next morning, I was faced with the same dreaded guy from the night before. He was sat on the steps opposite the entrance of the house with a couple friends I recognised. I was hoping that perhaps he’d been too drunk to remember our confrontation, but when he spotted me I could feel his eyes burning a hole on my back all the way down the steps to the main street. I glanced back at the last second before turning the corner, and met his eyes with mine. From his icy glare I knew for sure that he’d remembered me.

How could I help Beth? I sensed that if her ‘boyfriends’ realised that we knew what was going on, then it might cause serious problems for her. I explained the situation to some migrant friends that work for Caritas and they said that funding to help someone relocate and start again was too much, and due to masses of cases to deal with, they’re renowned for slow responses.

Basically, it was a big risk for Beth. If people started to help but couldn’t help her fully, then she could have been taken away and abused, beaten or worse.

Unfortunately, with my own increasing risk from the local Nigerians, I also had to think about myself. I couldn’t possibly help anyone, let alone Beth, if I ended up hospitalized or worse. So – reluctantly – I decided it was time for my exit, going away to the south of Morocco to think about what I was going to do next.

In my place, Stephan agreed to take my room. I hoped – as a woman – she would be able to approach Beth better than I ever could. It was obvious that, as a man, there was only so far I could go with conversation before Beth would close up, which wasn’t very far at all.

Stephan took my old room and became friends with Beth quickly. They spent many hours preparing food together while talking about many things. And I really hoped that Beth started to feel the support she was lacking.

When I came back a few weeks later I moved in with Sven again, five minutes from Beth’s house. Stephan was still living in my old room and talking with Beth. The rest of the rooms were being organised for people to stay for short periods of time. Mama was very accommodating and had warmed to us quite well by this time.

I visited quite often, mostly to help out with the visitors, but also to see Beth. Unfortunately, whenever I bumped into her, she would act like I was a stranger and become very shy and timid. I would try to ask about how she was and how her sister and family were, but she would just answer in short one-word answers. This made me quite sad, but I guess things had changed.

Until one day, Soukiana, the landlady’s daughter, told me that everyone in that room was moving to a different house. I knew there had been a lot of difficulties between them, with lack of rent money and the constant drunken fighting between the Nigerians late at night. So I guess it had finally come to the last confrontation with Mama.

Within a day, they had packed everything and left. Many of the men that I had thrown out in the past were there helping. We all barely said a word to each other, just an occasional glance. I did ask one of the friendlier ones where they were moving to and he confirmed ‘not far, we just have to get away from Mama because she was racist’.

After they were gone, I saw Beth once or perhaps twice in the busy market street. We would give each other pleasantries, but it would never go any further. Then after some time I never saw her again. I still wonder about Beth, how she is, where she is, and what she’s thinking. I wonder about the things she might still have to deal with in Morocco. And I wonder if she’s ever going to have any hope of leaving.

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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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