A Guide to 'Guides' in Tangier

By Jackie Spinner
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, April 20, 2003

Richard had an explanation for everything.

"I hear English voices," he said by way of introduction, when he found my friend and me wandering through a residential neighborhood in the Moroccan port city of Tangier.

Richard was a visiting music teacher from Sheffield, England, he told us. He was in Tangier for a month to teach that oh-so-popular North African instrument, the alto saxophone. Even though he has no teeth.

School was out because of a national holiday, he said, explaining his presence in the middle of the afternoon but not explaining all the schoolboys walking by in their white school smocks. He was not a guide, Richard said. He just wanted to practice his English; apparently such opportunities are rare in England.

We had been fending off the Richards of Tangier from the moment we stepped off the high-speed boat that ferried us across the Strait of Gibraltar from Spain.

Did you need a taxi? Are you staying the night? Do you have a hotel? Here. Here. Go this way. See? I told you that wasn't an exit. Why are you ignoring me? I'm trying to help. Are you American? We love your country. You will be safe here. But you need a guide. This is not America. People will bother you. You will not be safe. I can protect you. Do not be afraid. Ahlan. Welcome. Welcome to Morocco.

I came to Morocco with an open mind. I wanted to see for myself if Tangier deserved its reputation among travelers for being the Tijuana of North Africa, a place of swindlers and hustlers and shopkeepers looking to make a fast buck off the fast-spenders. (It does.) I also was determined not to be had. (I was.)

For a negotiated fee that seemed to range from $5 to $10 apiece, the guides offered to take us to the tourist hot spots and steer us to shops or eateries that we were told had the best deals in town. The guide got the best deal of all, a commission for bringing us to his vendors.

Dealing with the "guides" in Tangier can be a maddening, frightening and annoying experience. It also can be masochistically enjoyable once you master the game or learn to appreciate the fact that, as my friend Mai-Trang later observed, you're only getting hustled if you're not getting what you want.

But here is the thing about the guides in Tangier: None of them will admit he is a guide. Most of them approach you with the phrase, "I am not a guide." Even the guides know what a bad rap they have. The official guides, certified by the tourism board, have badges. Of course there are unofficial guides with official-looking badges, making it difficult to discern the real guides from the fakes.

Mosetafa wasn't a guide either. He found us in the square at the entrance to the medina, the old Arab marketplace that remains the city's base for commercial trade.

Mosetafa said he owned a restaurant in the Petit Socco, one of the markets in the medina where shoppers jostle past piles of freshly caught fish, defrocked chickens hanging by their feet, and olives and fresh fruits spilling out of their baskets in a kaleidoscope of colors and smells.

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