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My Grandfather in Tangier

From the November 2012 issue of National Geographic Traveler

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Morocco, 1963—A boy guides his sibling along a narrow street in the Tangier medina.

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From the November 2012 issue of National Geographic Traveler

My earliest memory is of an overpowering scent of orange blossom and of sunlight filtered through palm fronds, in my grandfather’s garden in Tangier. It’s one of those memories that formed the bedrock of my childhood, something so powerful that it’s nailed to my soul.

My grandfather was an Afghan writer and savant who moved to the north of Morocco in the early 1960s. His wife had just died of cancer, and he yearned to be in a place where they had never been together. With a panorama out over the Strait of Gibraltar, and a hazy view of Spain, Tangier was a crossroads between East and West and the perfect place to escape.

There was a sense of danger, of faded grandeur, and of immense possibility. Back then, Tangier was a haven for stoned beatniks and hippies, for draft dodgers, fugitives, and philosophers.

We would visit my grandfather often, swapping the sedate security of the English countryside for the enchanted lanes of Tangier’s labyrinth. Clasping his hand tight, I would stumble along beside him, wide-eyed and spellbound by the frenetic stew of humanity. He would take me to the bazaar, which he said was a keyhole into another time.

And it was.

There were fishermen laying out the morning’s catch, their baskets of glinting sardines circled by expectant cats. And there were melons as big as cannonballs, cages crammed with frantic chickens, and heaps of contraband from across the strait.

On the way back through the twisting lanes, we would pass the magicians’ shops. I liked them best of all. Dried chameleons were being weighed out, sold in twists of newspaper to a huddle of veiled women who couldn’t get enough. And we would pass the endless cafés, each one packed with a clutch of grizzled old men in hooded djellaba robes. They’d be playing cards, telling tall tales, or drawing slowly on slender ceramic pipes, oblivious to the world outside.

My grandfather’s villa stood at 71 Rue de la Plage. It was small and elegant, with a pair of twin staircases spiraling to the second floor. The gate to the street was rusted iron, a canopy of fragrant honeysuckle and blazing bougainvillea running between it and the house. We would sit in the courtyard garden’s shade, intoxicated by the heady scent of orange blossom, my grandfather telling of his journeys in Arabia half a lifetime before. From time to time he would get up and saunter into the house, reemerging with a random object. One day he opened his palm and showed me a nugget of twisted bronze, the size of a hen’s egg. “Here’s a piece from a Spanish galleon that I picked up down there on the beach. Keep it safe always, and it will always keep you safe,” my grandfather said.

Three weeks later, while he was fumbling for his key at the rusted iron gate, a Coca-Cola truck that was backing up knocked him down. He died instantly, leaving me feeling hollow inside.

Last April I drove up to Tangier with my own children, from our home in Casablanca. Those first memories of Morocco had worked their spell, luring us to move to the kingdom eight years ago.

We took a chance and knocked at the iron gate on Rue de la Plage. As I was pulled inside the courtyard by an elderly maid, I caught the pungent fragrance of orange blossom and honeysuckle. My eyes welled tears, not from the scent but from the memory. In my pocket was the lump of twisted bronze my grandfather had given me 40 years before. As I crossed the threshold, I held it tight.

We toured the house, and I pictured the silhouette of an old man sitting in the garden, palm fronds throwing shadows over whitewashed walls.

My little son, Timur, asked why I was so quiet. “Because I have come full circle,” I said.

Tahir Shah is a British travel writer and novelist who lives in a haunted mansion set in the middle of a Casablanca shantytown.

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