Feb 6th, 2020, 01:14 PM

Tea and Cosmopolitanism

By Sal McLongstreet
Mint Tea in Tangier
Mint tea with a view of the Spanish coast across the sea, Image Credit: Maureen Blennerhassett
Lessons from Tangier about finding balance in a multicultural city

For the outsider immersed in a foreign culture, everyday tasks of communication and navigation can prove deceptively difficult. Missteps and momentary confusion are inevitable, so efforts to maintain control need to be balanced with a willingness to accept the unforeseen. When I visited Tangier in December of 2019, I encountered a people whose constant interactions with different languages, faiths and nationalities has made them masters of mediating ambiguities.

Entering the winding passages of Tangier's old town market, The Medina, is a journey into uncertainty. Attempts to keep my bearings were useless as an overwhelming mosaic of sights, smells and sounds enticed me this way and that. At one moment I was drawn towards a display of ornate carpets and pottery, but before I could get closer, the aromatic heaps of cumin and coriander in a closet-sized cutout drew me in a new direction. Suddenly, hungry for one of the city's famous steaming savory tagines, I started to peek through windows of the elaborately decorated restaurants sprinkled through the melange of shops and street vendors. Another collection of handwoven carpets forced me to question my memory. Is that the same one from before? Am I walking in circles? With so many variations of similar shops, it was all but impossible to know. The thought of using a map is almost laughable. It would have no straight lines or right angles, but instead would resemble a tangle of string resting on the page. The pathways here feel just as transitory, subject to move with a passing breeze. The stone streets and multicolored walls curve and bend inward around the bustling crowd to suggest a city on the move, ceaselessly adjusting to its changing populous.

A passageway in Tangier, Image Credit: Maureen Blennerhassett

To stand still in this frenzy is to oppose its nature. It invites the attention of locals competing for tourists' dirhams and euros. Enthusiastic men approach disoriented visitors and offer their services as a guide with the implicit understanding that money will change hands down the line. In The Medina, every interaction is a negotiation, and bartering starts the moment someone sizes you up to guess your language. My white skin, denim jacket and wide-eyed gawking made me an obvious tourist, but my nationality and my language proved more difficult to guess. Emerging from the chorus of Arabic and Berber dialects, I heard Spanish, French and English greetings with equal regularity. Most residents seem to have a strong grasp of at least three languages, though fluency in more is not uncommon. The resulting communication pattern is exciting and unpredictable. Conversations regularly jumped between tongues several times in a single sentence. Much like the ephemeral familiarity of the architecture, phrases seemed to appear and vanish as I struggled to isolate sounds I could attribute to a particular language. The pace only slowed when participants shared a goal of understanding one another, and then essential words might be iterated through several multi-lingual synonyms before everyone was in agreement.

In traveling to Tangier, I had unwittingly participated in a recent increase to the region's tourism. Several infrastructure projects, including improvements to the airport and harbor and a new high-speed train have made the city more accessible and inviting to foreigners, but the comingling of cultures here is nothing new. Its ethnic and linguistic diversity can be attributed to its important role as a point of contact between Africa and Europe. Dominant empires of the Mediterranean region as far back as the Berbers and Phoenicians of ancient history have competed for control of the valuable trading port. Through alternating periods of conflict and stability, the city spent time under control of Romans, Arabs, Portuguese, Spanish and British, among others, before attaining its sovereignty in 1956. In the context of this mottled history, Tangier's cultural plurality can be recognized as a result of movement patterns that encouraged people from all across Africa and Europe to converge at the narrow connection between the Mediterranean Sea and the Atlantic Ocean.

A view of the neighborhood from a rooftop terrace, Image Credit: Maureen Blennerhassett

The international flow of people to and through Tangier can almost give the impression of standing in a traffic circle in the middle of an enormous intersection. The frenetic noise and movement of the marketplace does little to dispel this feeling, but there are moments of respite in the mayhem. Most apparent is the ubiquitous mint tea. The drink is prepared patiently and usually served with plenty of sugar. The tea glass is packed with fresh mint leaves, and sometimes sage, marjoram or rosemary are present as well. The sweetness gives tired spirits a revitalizing boost of energy while the herbaceous aroma centers the mind on the present. More often than not, tea was offered (or insisted upon) by the owner of a shop or restaurant, who would show me to a terrace populated with other drinkers sharing a collective moment of stillness. The interactivity of the experience is essential. As much as the ritual encourages introspection, it serves to remind drinkers of their participation within a community.

Another daily event with similar results is the call to prayer. Even for non-Muslims, the broadcast that echoes across the city every few hours demands a moment of reflection upon the place and its inhabitants. In this sense, particularly for the large Christian and Jewish populations in Tangier, the siren represents yet another compromise in a city that relies on balancing its differences. One merchant, who kept his prices fixed to avoid the confrontationality of haggling, said that what makes Tangier special is the people who get along even with their apparently disparate values. He told me, "I have neighbors who are Jewish, who are Christian. I am a Muslim and we get along. It's fine. It's why I love it here!" Like the other vendors, he called out to passersby, but his pitch was different: "More languages! More cultures! We need more diversity! More cooperation!"

As a visitor in Tangier, I learned about the necessary give and take of cohabitation. For the region's residents, inhabiting the middle ground is a deeply embedded practice. Their daily bartering mimics larger historic concessions made by a city at the focal point of centuries of international movement and competition. This push and pull can become tiring, but the city offers a solution. The way to survive cultural plurality is not with resistance, but with resilience and adaptability. Share a moment of stillness with your peers. Reflect on where you are. Take a deep breath and then go back into the fray.

Sunset in Tangier, Image Credit: Sal McLongstreet