The Strait of Gibraltar – A Story

At its narrowest point, the Strait of Gibraltar is 7.7 nautical miles wide (or 14.3 km; 8.9 mi). It connects southern Spain in Europe to northern Morocco in Africa. More than 250 species of birds use this passage to migrate between Africa and Europe. White Storks, Honey Buzzards, Black-shouldered Kites, Booted Eagles, Egyptian Vultures, Eurasian Sparrowhawks, Western Marsh Harriers, and Lesser Kestrels among others. More than 300 million birds travel across this strait each year. Migrations happen year round, but there are two peaks: once between March and May when they travel to Europe to escape the devastating summers and again between August and October when they return to Africa for the winters. Birds will travel across the water alone or in groups that can be made up of more than 4,000 birds. It is common to see different species traveling together. The coastline around the Strait can be rugged, not great for construction, but perfect as a shelter for nesting migrants, resident species, and as a temporary home for those about to make the complicated journey. Even the critically endangered Bald Ibis has a breeding colony here.

On 4 July, 2015, I took a ferry from Tarifa, Spain to Tangier, Morocco. It took only 40 minutes to travel to another continent. It was Independence Day in my home country and it was my first time stepping outside of the Western world.

During my time in Spain just previously, I got the sense that Spaniards felt a national right to party. Not to get wasted and lose control, but to relax, be with friends, drink, eat, and be merry at every opportunity: a beautiful day, a nearby cafe, a political rally in a park, a protest in an abandoned building. Solo disfruta. Just enjoy.

As I ride in a taxi from the dock in Tangier (the emerald one just down the road, not the cream one. They overcharge in the cream one), I feel a similar right. Not a right to party, but to oasis. For home to mean a safe, sacred, and rich space. The walls outside of every house (consistent, not uniform) are impassive, mostly white or gray, but vines crawl down from the other side and lemon trees peek over the top. Bright, delicate scents of invisible flowering bushes drift into the open taxi windows as if a secret garden hides behind every wall. Simplement profiter. Just enjoy.

Some friends of mine from University had done an artist residency in Tangier and connected me with their host: a French filmmaker who rents her rooms to artists and travelers. I arrive at my new lodging: a pale 3 story house, the wall outside made up of cement and a thick metal gate. Inside, fruit trees cast dancing shadows on the cool white tiles. Someone is playing a violin. Two men with white hair on their sun-reddened heads nap in lounge chairs. I smell ginger and citrus. Something inside me loosens. I feel a familiar nagging in my head, like the one I felt an hour after I landed in Madrid: I am going to stay here longer than I planned.

I had been backpacking for the last month, but until now, I hadn’t given myself time to rest. It had been difficult because I knew that there were always places to explore, people to meet, whole markets full of goat’s cheese and fried fish skins to consume. The fear of missing out. But now I am in a country where I speak little to no French and absolutely no Arabic (apart from the always useful “La, shukran”, meaning “No, thank you”). I am sick, tired, and I need rest. My throat is ragged from a cough made worse by a few days in a moldy hostel. I am emotionally exhausted from my last week, spent with fun and inspiring people whose company became unbearable somehow. It also happens to be the middle of Ramadan: the Islamic holy month of fasting, introspection and prayer. This means, among other things, that no food or drink (including water) can be consumed between the sunrise and the sunset. It’s all so different, I’m too lost to miss out on anything.

I don’t know what to expect from Morocco. I don’t know if I need to cover my hair or fast. I quickly learn that I don’t need to change much. Since I am in a house filled mostly with Westerners, I do not need to fast at the house. Later, I learn that I don’t even need to fast in the streets. Morocco is a Muslim country, which means it has officially adopted the laws of Islam. But these seem to only pertain to Moroccan citizens. While a Moroccan citizen would be punished by law for drinking a bottle of water in the streets during Ramadan, I am  not Moroccan, so I could drink and eat freely. Yeah, it’s rude, but I won’t go to jail. I can even buy alcohol at that one shop that sells it, but I have to show my passport. It will be the only time I am carded for buying alcohol during my entire trip and it’s not to see my age but my citizenship.

I don’t leave the house much. I spend a few days in the oasis sleeping, eating, writing, and trying to pick up on French conversations. Although renting rooms is slower during Ramadan (everything is slower, I’m told), the cast of the house is diverse and ever-changing. Some people are here for a day or two, others for months. There’s the two artist-activist owners, the Moroccan housekeeper with the best recipes, Italian violinist composing a new piece, the Moroccan who has returned to connect with her country after years abroad, the German brothers using their retirement funds to never stop traveling, the Parisian photographer, the English philosopher, the Swiss cellist, the French producers, and two traveling American artists: a brother and sister. We sit around the table in the shade drinking tea and fresh squeezed orange juice, smoke seeming to plume from every mouth that spoke French (Is that a requirement for the language? If I started smoking would I finally be able to learn it?). At night, mosquitoes will emerge to pester us incessantly, but here in the daylight, we are carefree. It is a community. After weeks in hostels that hosted endless pub crawls and drinking games, teeming with more frat boys than I had ever met in four years at my University, it feels good to contribute. To help with the shopping, to make food, and to learn about these people and this place.

On the roof in the evening, I lay in a hammock and hear the call to prayer, or adhan, begin. There are five obligatory daily prayers, or salah. The times for each depend on the position of the sun in relation to the earth. This one is Maghrib. It begins when the sun sets and it lasts until the red light has left the sky in the west. At first one muezzin begins, always with the Takbīr. His speaker is loud and shrill, like a megaphone. A few seconds later, a second joins in. Then another. Soon the sky is filled with sound. Each muezzin has his own unique voice, so together they sound dischordant. It feels urgent, like a siren, using different tones so you can pinpoint where the sound is coming from, except the sound is everywhere. I feel small. Eventually it fades, leaving just one muezzin, his voice shrill and wavering, before the city is silent again. There are five adhan per day, but I’ve missed plenty of them.

I know the ocean is near, but it is impossible to see it right now through the smoke from every oven in the city breaking fast. The Moroccan flag is red with one green pentagram. The street lamps light up the smoke hovering over the houses and everything feels red right now. All that’s left of the sun is a dull hum behind the hills. There is a red neon sign below that casts its glow onto my hammock. I didn’t know I could feel so comfortable in a place so foreign. I melt into the thick red air.

In the morning, one of the owners of the house takes me and the other two Americans out. In the emerald taxi (30 Moroccan Dollars each today, or about 3 American Dollars), we pass brand new palm trees, still wrapped up, on a brand new road. The King will be passing through town tomorrow, so they have constructed all of this in the last month. Older buildings were knocked onto the beach beyond them to make room for a new parking garage. The Atlantic (or is this the Mediterranean side of the city?) laps at the tumbling rebar and bricks. Every 30 meters, a uniformed guard stands on the road. They will stand watch until the King leaves town. Tomorrow the crosswalks will be repainted bright white just before the he passes by in what I assume will be a gleaming car with tinted windows.

We get out of the taxi and walk by piles of rock and debris encroaching on overgrown remains of a brick structure. “This building is over 400 years old,” our host says. It is being used as a dumping ground for a nearby construction site. We walk over a small hill and see what we came here for. Sprawled in front of us, almost reaching the ocean (or the sea), is around 30 acres of land bisected by a wide stream. Grass and low shrubs dot the cracked, salt-pale earth. Green puddles birth algae and bugs. Two dogs eye us from the other side of the stream. Something drops into the water. A turtle? Our host tells us to watch our steps. Birds are nesting here and prefer to lay their eggs in the shrubs. Two species of birds are spooked at the same moment and rise up, two flocks dancing near each other without really mixing. One group has black heads: Black Terns. Another that is all white: maybe Slender-Billed Gulls. We see at least two other species while we walk. One bird eyes us and squawks loudly. We must be nearing its nest. Abandoned campfires in the dirt are surrounded by empty chip packages. The northeast section of the land has been carved into a dirt bike track.

Northern Morocco has some protected lands: Complexe du bas Loukkos, the Embouchure de l’oued Dr’a, and the Embouchure de la Moulouya among others. This is not one of those. This is just a field that birds breed in. It feels sacred and full of life, a haven for winged travelers and those with dirtbikes. As travelers ourselves, we return to where we came from.

From the small hill, facing the opposite direction now, we can see an apartment building. Our host tells us we are going there next. As we walk along the side of the building, children peek their heads out and run to the fence, laughing. They know he has brought something good. He comes here to give presents to these kids. They are Syrian refugees, he says. All of them are orphans. Some were taken out of hospitals when they evacuated. They have been in Morocco for three years, waiting for something to change, to go back home or to find residence somewhere else. For now, they stay here, in limbo. The Moroccan government provides money for shelter and food, but not for fun things. Out of his backpack, he pulls out notebooks, pencils, and slide whistles. I am given charge of a bag of hard candies. After he mentions that they are orphans, I steady myself for an air of sadness, of mourning, of anger, and of gaunt little faces covered in flies, but they are fiery and bubbling with laughter. I pass my candy-saturated hand through the bars to a boy with no hair on his head or eyebrows, but with a bright red jacket and aviator sunglasses. The Cool Kid. Some fall into the tall grass as he grabs the candies with his small fingers, but he doesn’t seem to notice. They aren’t suffering. They are just kids trying to maximize their sugar high. We talk in any way we can. Some kids know English. Some know French. Sometimes we just laugh over how delicious sugar is. استمتع‭ ‬فقط, Just enjoy.

I catch eyes with a boy who just stepped out of the building, probably about 15. It’s hard to explain what happens next, but maybe you’ve felt it. I connect with him. It’s as if this stranger can see inside of my brain. I can’t seem to break our eye contact. He comes to the fence and asks for the camera so he can take a picture of the four of us visitors behind the fence. We press our faces between the bars for the photo. He looks at me with a small smile. I offer him a handful of candy but he shyly shakes his head no. “He’s fasting,” I’m told. I don’t know why this surprises me so much. It seems like this building should be an oasis like mine is. That the rules didn’t apply to refugees, that orphans would get a pass from Ramadan, that they would want a pass. But maybe Ramadan isn’t like homework, where you’re looking for ways to get out of it. This is just life.

After unloading most of our presents, we leave them and walk to the beach. I think about that boy. I still feel that connection. He was wearing a ball cap but when he got close to the fence, I saw that he also did not have any hair. He seemed unapologetic, bigger than he was. He is a mystery. I know hardly anything about the crisis in Syria that he fled from. I know nothing about the daily lives of Syrians, about the culture, pop culture, food, or music they consume. Who had he lost? Is he sick? Are any of those other kids his siblings? How could I forget that life always goes on, no matter what has happened? I walk slowly among the fallen apartment buildings in the sand. The fruitful ocean water is just beginning to cover them with seaweed and baby barnacles. The sand beneath me is half-wet and perfect for walking. Up ahead I see a stream of figures running to the water. The kids have joined us on the beach. Some go straight into the water, but most would like more candy first. A young girl jumps into the waves, headscarf and dress and pants and all. The Cool Kid with the sunglasses runs to me with a smile. His pockets and his hands are at maximum capacity before he runs off, leaving a ring of candies on the sand.

I catch eyes with him again: that boy. We walk towards each other like old friends who fell out years ago, though by now, both of us have forgotten why. We are silent for a moment. It’s like I had already asked him about everything I could think of. Who were his parents? Does he miss his home? Where does he want to be? “Hi” I say. He seems ashamed. He doesn’t know English. I don’t know Arabic, let alone Syrian Arabic, which is different from the Darija form spoken in Morocco that’s been in my ear all week (and out the other). Still, we introduce ourselves.

“Safi” he says. He tries to tell me something, but I can only smile apologetically. He holds my hand when another boy runs by and takes photos with the camera. I point to his necklace as a question, it is a bullet on a black cord. He takes it off and hands it to me. I look at it, but he refuses to take it back. He wants me to have this. The gesture is so sweet it hurts. I close my eyes and feel this moment. I feel like I have so much, like this isn’t fair. I reach into my bag and pull out a few coins. His face falls instantly and he begins to back away. I try to make him understand it’s not what he thinks. I motion for another kid to come translate. “My family makes these,” I tell the new boy, “They are art. It’s not money.” It takes the boy a moment before he looks closely at them and understands. He translates. Safi softens, but I understand why he was upset and I’m embarassed. Begging is a profession in Morocco. He may have to beg sometimes to survive like other refugees. For me to give him money would be to drive a wedge between us. Beggar and Not. It would separate the two of us onto the islands we always thought we were on until the instant we met. Him down there me up here.

I prepare to leave, back to my oasis. Safi takes my hands and says, “I love you.” It feels true somehow. This may be the only thing he knows how to say in English, but I believe he knows what it means. I’ve felt magnetism like this a few times before, but never to someone so truly foreign. We share so little. Not language, nationality, religion, age, race, or gender. I would include life experience, but I do not know anything about his life. This is the only time we will ever meet. And yet. Looking into his brown eyes is intense. I have a difficult time maintaining eye contact with others, but I hold his gaze. My heart races. It’s not like falling in love. Or maybe it is. It’s like walking towards the edge of a cliff, knowing that you will find a dark abyss. You brace yourself. But when you arrive, you find that you are instead at the edge of a lush forest, black-hole-dark because it is so dense with growth and life and stories that you will never know, but that will always be there if you want to hear them. “I love you,” I say. In my own way, I mean it.

Later on that summer, months after I leave the secret gardens, someone will earnestly ask me, “Why don’t the refugees just go back and try to fix their country?” It seems simple to me. What events would have to happen for you to leave where you are? To leave where your family lives, where your friends live, where you have been building your entire life? When the options are survive or die, what do you choose? We all want to be happy, we all want to be home. No one wants to be a refugee, braving the cold European winters of Arctic breezes and frigid strangers. But maybe it’s better than the devastating African summers and simmering dictatorships.

Right before I leave Tangier, our host gives me some photos of our day at the beach. There are all the kids that Zach picked up and swung around and around until he couldn’t stand. There is the girl who hugged Jess tight and repeated “Thank you, thank you,” when we were leaving. And there is Safi holding my hand. I still have the bullet necklace he gave me. I thought it might have been a sobering relic from his war-torn home. It was actually from the anime One Piece.

I was told that in Tangier there is a “registered” population of one million people, but an actual population of around three million with refugees. Many are just waiting to make the crossing to Europe somehow. Refugees planning to cross into Europe will gather in Tangier and save money until they have enough to pay a smuggler their fare to Spain. But living is expensive and organizations claiming to help refugees are often rife with corruption, not to mention  corruption of the smugglers. Many refugees will never be able to negotiate or afford the trip and will stay in limbo.

The strong winds and powerful currents in the Strait of Gibraltar make for a dangerous trip. On 2nd November 1988, 17 bodies appeared on Los Lances beach in Tarifa. That beach is just 15 miles from where I stepped on the ferry and had my passport stamped. According to the UNHCR, more than 3500 refugees died or went missing in 2015 during their journey to Europe. There was a definite peak in October when more than 220,000 refugees attempted to cross the Mediterranean to escape the devastating climate of home.

Because of its unique geography, the Strait of Gibraltar has curious weather patterns. Strong winds blow from either the east or the west. Only two or three days in a year are there no strong winds. If the wind blows strong enough from the east, migrating birds can be pushed over the Atlantic with little chance of returning to land, so they don’t fly. Instead they amass on the shores. Terns, Buzzards, Eagles, and Storks mingle. They look for food, squawk together, and wait until the wind calms. Then they will climb high together on warm updrafts that only exist over land and glide down to the other side over the water en masse.

Maybe there will be a day when the winds are calm and it will be a good day to travel. Even for refugees that don’t have wings.


Safi and Me, 2015