It was shopping that first inclined me towards an interest in Islam, though it must be said that the lupine line of hassling touts that in the old days awaited the visitor immediately outside the old Tangier dock gates did their best to keep the secret well-springs of their faith well hidden. Indeed one could be forgiven for imagining that they were waging some small personal war against each and every one of the foreign visitors, determined to avenge the slights afflicted by the crusaders and colonists of the past. Their weaponry included a formidable range of languages and the imagination to make the best use of them, by provoking some response, be it laughter, irritation, guilt or mere exasperated anger. But they knew any crack could be opened into some sort of relationship. And above all they had persistence, those hassling, touting guides. For time they had aplenty, while the foreign tourists had all the other advantages – the freedom to travel, the passports, the visas and the money. And there was no such thing as a poor traveller coming from the north, however unwashed their skin and distressed their clothes might look, for even the dole translated into a very enviable number of dirhams. They made their money in the time-honoured way of all financial dealings, using their wit to act as a broker on a sliding scale of commissions.
I, however, seldom suffered from their multilingual offensive, for I was too young to be looking to buy either hashish or carpets, and had no backpack or suitcase that indicated the pressing need for either a hotel, taxi or train station. I was also often burdened with panniers for buying fruit (the buying of which earned no one any commission) and knew my way towards the food markets of this supposedly wicked and definitely run-down old town. But most crucial of all, I tended to use the dawn boat, and Tangier being renowned as the city of smugglers, clubbers and night-time fishermen, was unique in Morocco in that no one ever got up early. The beach strip which had once been fringed with hotels was no longer a stretch reaching out into a romantic wilderness of dunes. Surrounded by a vast new suburb, it had become filthy with wind-blown plastic bags, while the river that ran through the fine length of sand was grey with sewage, but that did at least mean that the beach had been returned from the hotels to the people. In the evening it came alive with dozens of fiercely fought football matches scented by barrows grilling sardines.