Saturday, November 04, 2006


What on earth does Morocco have to do with a book on being Portuguese-ish?

Actually, quite a lot.

Of course, by now you are aware that the Moors were in Portugal until 1139, having reigned there since the eighth century.

And they left behind much of their culture: agriculture, maths, navigation, the arts, crafts, fruit, vegetables and cooking.

To say nothing of its language, attitude and genes. (I worked with a copywriter at McNaff’s who possessed an ancient dictionary he had found at a market, which demonstrated the thousands of Arabic words still currently in use in the Portuguese language.)

An expression we would often hear in Morocco would be ‘Enchala’ (God Willing, or As Promised.); the Portuguese today still can be heard to utter ‘Oxala.’

The Portuguese are not good at revealing their historical Arabic roots, whereas stepping just two feet into Spain and it is evidently a national pride. (In fact, the Portuguese don’t seem to be too good at displaying any of their roots. What, weren’t the Phoenicians and the Romans good enough for them?)

In fact the Oportoense readily scoff and call anyone originating anywhere from Lisbon down to the Algarve ‘Os Mouros’ (The Moors.) and sometimes ‘Os Morenos.’ (Dark-skinned.)

I know and have seen many, many Portuguese with dark skin and hooknoses, who would easily pass for being an Arab - all they lack is the robes and the sandals.

But, I’m not so sure how many Portuguese could readily pass for being Roman.

Although it is said that if you see a Portuguese with grey eyes and a long, thin nose, they probably have Phoenician genes. (I have seen quite a few.)

In the year 2000, Isabel and I decided to take a holiday in Morocco, but when I first proposed the idea, her response was, "Ooh, I’d love to go, but I’m so scared of them. I don’t like the way they look and I’ve heard that foreign women on holiday there, are often abducted and end up in a harem, never being heard of again."

O.K. I had a very scary experience when I was there on holiday in 1986, when a young Arab youth had threatened to slit my throat.

But that could happen anywhere..couldn’t it?

After much discussion between Isabel and me, we eventually decided to take the trip and duly booked our flights.

I’ll skip the story about the wonderful flight we had and get to the other, Portuguese-related bits.

In order to get from the airport at Casablanca into the city centre and our hotel, we decided to take a taxi. We had asked at the Information desk what the likely cost was and it amounted to only a few Escudos.

As we exited the terminus we were surrounded by dozens of Moroccans of all age, shape, hue and size. (But not gender - taxi driving is strictly a males-only profession.)
I was reminded of the babble of taxistas that used to queue and jostle for fares outside Lisbon airport before the airport management were forced to re-organise them.

Taking in the hubbub and theatrics of the rabble, one gnarled veteran drew our attention more than the others - who offered such a low taxi rate that we just had to accept.

Our hearts sunk, however when he led us to his vehicle - a severely battered and panel-beaten, forty year-old Mercedes. (Actually, taxis were rarely any other make in Morocco.) I swear the bodywork was held together by the paint.

Our luggage was bundled into the boot, which eventually shut after repeated, slammed attempts.

(Some of the taxis in Lisbon similarly look like they have been around the block a few million times.)

And the driver politely gesticulated for us to slide into the back seat. Within seconds he had appeared at the wheel and began to coax life from the wheezing old diesel. Several agonising minutes later, after we had settled our vibrated and shaken bones, the Grande Taxi rumbled on its way.

The driving was erratic, but then there were goats, donkeys, camels, donkey-drawn traps, cars, mopeds, trucks, buses and potholes to be manoeuvred around. To be fair, the driver was probably doing quite a good job.

Every time the driver floored the pedal, there was an agonising lag as the old oil-burner considered its response. Each time he swung the wheel it was more as though he was swinging the tiller of an ancient dhow. And whenever he applied the brakes, we wondered if there were any.

Suddenly the driver took evasive action and we we dived off-road onto an adjacent dirt track. The vehicle groaned to a halt and the driver slid out of the car.

We looked out of the windows to see what was happening and saw that we were parked next to another, newer taxi. The two drivers became involved in heated, animated discussion and then our driver jerked the door open.

"Please." He ushered us out and gesticulated at the other taxi.

"Is alright." The other younger driver re-assured.

"Please." The old guy repeated with a grin.

"What the f*ck is going on?" I yelled as Isabel and I exchanged concerned glances.

"Is this a kidnap?" I demanded.

"No, please, is OK. This taxi no go Casablanca. My taxi go." The younger hustler replied.

So reluctantly, we boarded the other taxi, feeling rather like we were being abducted by some radical gangsters.

Suddenly my system went into adrenalin overloadand I began to be hyper-aware of the vehicle, the driver and every single event and detail outside the vehicle.

Were we being taken to the destination of our choice, or something more sinister?

"It OK meester. Ole man taxi have license for airport, no license for city. This taxi have license for city, no for airport." He explained with a mouth and a half of teeth.

We relaxed...slightly.

We quickly learned that taxis in Morocco are great fun, mostly honest (as far as any taxi driver is ever honest with cash-rich tourists) and very reliable.

There were four modes of public transport in Morocco: The bus, the train, the petit taxi and the grande taxi.

We took a bus once, on our way back from Al Jadida. (We had gone there to see the famed Citerne Portugaise, which was a Portuguese-built reservoir. This was contained in the Cité Portuguese - a self-contained city within fortified walls. The street named Rue Mohammed AhchemI Bahbai had recently been visited by the then Portuguese Prime Minister António Guteres, who made a donation to the rebuilding of the street on behalf of his nation.)

There is similar evidence of Portugal’s previous conquest of Morocco at Asilah where inside the walls I found a ‘Portuguese village’, complete with typical Portuguese architecture and azulejos (tile-work), which had been there since the mid fifteenth century.

A very strange feeling being one minute inside the walls in a Portuguese village, then the next, stepping outside the walls and being in Morocco.

The bus ride was an eye-opener and almost identical to another trip we had once made between Lisbon, Mafra and Ericeira, in which some locals boarded and an elderly farm- working couple began to argue at the top of their voices about his lack of ’Tomates.’ (A comical reference, not only to their lack of that same vegetable, but also his inadequate ’balls.’)

In the Moroccan version, we sat amongst a busload of agricultural locals, together with their loads of produce, chickens and goats. An ’Hostess’ boarded carrying a cardboard tray of cakes and sweets for sale and then we were off.

Some miles down the road, we stopped to allow more passengers to alight, but as all the seats were taken, the driver removed several fold-up deckchairs from the overhead rack and set them down in the aisle.

Thank God, there weren’t any emergency stops made, because I could imagine that these ’jump seats’ and their occupants, would have shot though the windscreen at the speed of sound.

Our experiences with trains were pleasantly surprising. (Apart from the difficulty of making ourselves understood at the ticket office, which we muddled through, with a combination of guide-book phrases and gesticulation.)

The first trip was from Casablanca to Rabat and resembled the smooth suburban ride from Lisbon to Cascais. The second trip was from Casablanca to Marrakesh and more resembled the service between Lisbon and Porto before the new ‘tilt’ trains were installed.

This service was faultless: On time, clean, quiet and very cheap.

Not dissimilar to that of the 'Linha' from Lisbon....

(Ferias, feriados, festas e feiras)

First things first. If you go to any of these don’t wear jewellery, don’t flash your mobile, or your camera and keep your wallet in an inside, buttonable/ zipable pocket.
And girls - keep that handbag over the shoulder and fastened.

Seriously, there are always thieves about, although Portugal has, at the present, a lower crime rate than many countries.

In Portugal you will encounter various types of holiday (Ferias).

There's the big one, once a year, which can last as long as a month and is usually July/ August. It can be taken anytime in this period. If you are a Lisbon resident the first sign of this occurrence is that every road south, to the Algarve will be blocked for several days. And there will be the accompanying toll of accidents and deaths as impatient and frustrated maniacs try to overtake where they shouldn't.

You will similarly find that, unless you have booked several years in advance, that all hotels and restaurants outside of Lisbon are solidly booked.

Then there are ‘Feriados.’
These are little holidays that occur throughout the calendar year, that can be in celebration of anything from Religion (usual), to the commemoration of a battle, or the day when the Salazar dictatorship ended. (I'll drink to that.)

If you look on the calendar, you'll see that these holidays are usually only one day, but most Portuguese will take the ‘Ponte,’ that is the bridge between one weekend and the next.

So they end up taking a week.

The calendar is replete with such opportunities and as a result many people are either away, or companies are reduced to skeleton staffing, quite a few times in the year.

Sunday used to be a ‘Day of rest,’ but the church no longer holds so much sway over the population, whereas ‘Shopping’ does.

I would say that 90% of Portuguese holiday at the beach and that probably jumps to 100% for Lisboetas.

Lisboetas are always at the beach anyway. At weekends you have to buy a ticket and stand in line to get into the water. There are so many bodies on towels at Carcavelos that you are only allowed to stay for three hours.

If you live and work near the beach there’s no real reason for going away on holiday. (Unless you want to look for a different beach.)

The summer and holidays for the Portuguese are when they get to stop looking like Europeans and regress to looking like Arabs, as their tan gets darker and darker.

I was once on the beach at Cascais and noticed a girl lying there, asleep, with almost purple skin - she was so burnt. I couldn’t help myself and assuming her to be English, decided to go and warn her about her condition.

But no, she was Portuguese and not the least bit worried.

I saw her the next day too, topping up her tan from the day before.

Holidays are also a non-stop orgy of eating, drinking and insulting your best-friend’s wife.

Top, wealthy, jet-setters, VIP's, poseurs and media stars all go somewhere exotic and get Hell-o magazine to do a photo-editorial on them.

'Pedro and his lovely wife Mafalda beside the pool in Rio,' or 'Maria Manuela revisits her teenage love-nest in Monaco and shows off her new implants.'

Or something along similar lines.

You may then be treated to a dozen nauseating pictures of bling, more bling, cheesy smiles, embraces, shots of the gold-plated taps in the bathroom and group-shots of drunken, night-club revelry.


I don’t doubt that you are wondering how I have the credentials to critically write what I have.

After all I am a nobody and not known, in any major way, in any sphere.

I was born into the military, my Father was a pilot - shot down over Holland whilst I was still in my Mother’s womb. My Father was injured and spent time in a prisoner of war camp and reported as ’Missing, presumed dead.’

I have also had my own experience of military life, although nothing like as extreme as that experienced by Dad, I still found my school’s army cadets, a shock to the system - all that ‘square bashing,’ all that standing to attention in the blazing sun, all that endless rifle and kit cleaning. All of it seeming pointless in peace-time.

And as a kid I must have seen hundreds of hours of war-film footage, including that of the horrific Nazi work-camps.

So, it is hardly surprising that I evolved into a person who dislikes and deeply mistrusts the military and authoritarianism.

Common sense and decency are virtues that grace all of us, in varying amounts, but it doesn’t take the brain of Britain to understand that the present day situation in Iraq has been engineered and is immoral.

I have lived in a number of countries, which have given me the opportunity of studying different cultures, particularly those with a mixture of cultures.

In my childhood I came to understand that the blacks in Africa were treated like slaves and were not afforded their rights as humans. Later in South Africa I saw this taken to the extreme with the heinous laws of Apartheid.

In Britain I saw plenty of tolerance and I grew up to become tolerant of all races, creeds, religions and gender.

The only thing I can’t tolerate is stupidity (in all its forms of treatment towards people, animals and the environment), although I am prepared to moderate that view when I know that I am dealing with ignorance, lack of education, or mental deficiency.

As a child, in London I recall how difficult life was. Food was inadequate and rationed. The climate was cold, wet and smoggy - which caused a severe downturn in my health and death to thousands of others.

On moving to Rhodesia we were blessed with a marvellous climate and a simple life in the country, but a life which had no luxuries. We initially had no electricity, no hot water and commuted to town on bicycles.....


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