A journey to Tangier.

International travel has felt like a pipe dream for quite some time. But all of that is beginning to change. Despite some significant hurdles, it is becoming more realistic to start thinking about that next trip.

In that spirit, let’s take a look at one destination at the crossroads of three of the languages available at the East Melbourne Language Centre: Arabic, French, and Spanish.

Tangerine Dream

A city on the Straits of Gibraltar, which separate the Atlantic Ocean from the Mediterranean Sea, Tangier is a gateway between Europe and Africa. Like all entrepôts, it is a fluid and cosmopolitan place that represents different things to different people. As such, it is a place where multiple identities and cultures interact and affect each other. From early Islamic rulers to mid-60s hippies, this city has a habit of symbolising people’s ideals. However, a diverse and dynamic city like this is constantly evolving. One dream is certain to morph into another.

As a visitor, you will observe both harmony and dissonance in this undeniably beautiful city. With its white buildings facing the sea, Tangier can be blindingly bright. Yet its cavernous covered walkways can also make it feel dark, and at times, foreboding. If nothing else, it is a city of contrasts and contested memories.

A Berber Capital?

The Moroccan flag has a reasonably strong presence in Tangier, but visitors to the port city will also notice the colourful Berber ensign. This horizontal tricolour of blue, green and yellow, plus a red letter from the Tifinagh alphabet represents the Berbers, the longest-known inhabitants of the Maghreb. While Tangier is around 2,500 years old, the Berbers have lived in North Africa for at least 10,000 years. 

A minority group in the area, they have experienced subjugation by a rollcall of foreign powers: Romans, Vandals, Arabs, the English, the Spanish, and the French. Individuals from all of these invading groups eventually settled down in the area and found their way into the melting pot that is Tangier. However, regardless of the region’s ruler, the Berbers have constantly had to fight for equal rights in Morocco, as well as Libya, and the Canary Islands. Now, there is a political movement underway aiming to promote their cultural and linguistic rights. In 2011, Tangier was chosen as the meeting place for a pan-Berber summit aimed at furthering their degree of self-determination within North Africa. Such is the importance of the port city to the Berber movement.

Visitors interested in Berber culture can travel from Tangier to the nearby village of Joujouka to see The Master Musicians of Joujouka. This band has been recording music for over 40 years but plays a form of music over 4,00 years old. One event involving the group was described by Rolling Stone magazine as ‘the oldest, most exclusive dance party in the world.’

Do you speak Darija?

While the Berber language resounds around the walls of Tangier, Arabic prevails. This language was introduced in the early 8th century, when Tangier was taken from the occupying Eastern Roman Empire by Islamic conquerors. Classical Arabic was the language of the invasion and in Morocco, this evolved into Darija, a dialect distinct from Modern Standard Arabic, which is spoken from Egypt to Oman. 

Visitors to Tangier can practice their Arabic at the many souks, or marketplaces that abound throughout the city. The beautiful old town is full of stalls selling spices, jewellery, ceramics, leather goods, silks; virtually anything artisanal you can imagine. A few words of Arabic can sometimes be the key to a better deal. But of course, commerce comes second to atmosphere; the best parts of Tangier are free. For many, the experience of walking through the medina beats anything that can be bought. The roads and footpaths wind around in all directions throughout the exquisite laneways that climb and descend like the fortunes of the city’s rulers.

Latin Returns

Language families ebb and flow like the tides in the harbour. The city of Tangier started out as a Phoenician trading post around 500 BCE. Since the Phoenicians spoke a Semitic language, the city’s founders spoke a language distantly related to that of today’s inhabitants — Arabic. However, several other language families would dominate the intervening ages. The Phoenicians and their Punic offshoots the Carthaginians would eventually lose Tangier to their rivals, the Romans, who brought Latin with them.

The Vandals, Latin-speaking Germanic people, took the city next. Then came an invasion force of the Eastern Roman Empire, or the Byzantines, who spoke Greek. The Arabs came next and created a hybrid kingdom with the Berbers. It was this conquest that arguably had the most impact, as the Arabic language and this mixed Arab-Berber culture prevails to this day. 

However, Tangier had not seen the back of Latin. Many centuries later, in 1471, the Portuguese took Tangier by force. In a sense, the language of the Western Romans was back, but now in the form of a Romance tongue. If you take a walk by the old harbour, you’ll see the Portuguese walls that were built to protect the port from foreign invasion. While fortifications might have helped keep the Ottomans out, they wouldn’t keep the city in Portuguese hands and the language never had any sticking power.

The next occupiers didn’t come by force but by inheritance. The English secured Tangier through a marriage dowry and stayed from 1661 to 1684, a quarter of a century. Both the French and the Spanish showed a naked colonial interest in Morocco from the 19th century onward. Of course, they brought their Latin languages with them.

On the eve of the First World War, the two European powers ‘carved up’ Morocco between them but Tangier was left in ‘international hands,’ just as the United Kingdom wished. As usual, Tangier bounced around between various great powers but remained a metropolis unto itself. In 1956, the White City finally became part of the independent Moroccan kingdom. It has stayed that way ever since.

All of this has had a tremendous linguistic effect on the people and place. Today, visitors to Tangier can get by in Spanish and English if they can’t speak Arabic. French is very common and if you’re studying the language, you can practice it in the souks, the medina, the new town and of course, the cafes where locals sip the world-famous Moroccan mint tea.

Tangier is Moroccan through and through but at the same time, it has always been its own polity. Cosmopolitan to the core and unashamedly business savvy, it was once described by Paul Bowles, an American author as ‘more New York than New York.’ A truly beguiling city, it will no doubt continue to change with time. 

As the world opens up and you make your travel dreams come alive again, follow in the footsteps of empires and artists and explore Tangier.