Europe is a union, but it’s also a messy collection of countries with their own laws, languages, values, drug policies, minimum wages, national liquors and dad jokes. Life can be dramatically different depending on which side of a border you grow up – even within the EU. This first week of August, VICE.com features stories that show how national borders dividing and surrounding Europe affect the lives of the people living near them.
For many young people in Ceuta, the Spanish enclave on the Moroccan coast, the process of trying something new is often very complicated. Firstly, because Ceuta is only 19 square kilometres and enclosed by the Mediterranean sea, the strait of Gibraltar and Morocco. So no matter how hard you try, you can’t avoid bumping into the same people doing the same things at the same places – everyone limited by the scope of opportunities.
If you want to go out in Ceuta, the choice is between about eight bars, two nightclubs and a few park benches to sit on and drink. The route is almost always the same – drinking at the harbour esplanade, then on to the Tokyo bar and when that closes, drop by one of the bars at the sailor village. Come the time, it’s either the Velvet or Natural nightclub.
It’s not surprising then that many young people in Ceuta want to experience something new – go out without being seen by people they know, and just be themselves. When they do, their choices are usually limited to the north in mainland Spain, or to the south, in Morocco. I recently spent the evening with some young Ceutans who go south to have a good time.
The border between Ceuta and Morocco is a land border between Europe and Africa – and it’s only open to Ceutans and Moroccans from areas nearby. African migrants, who travel thousands of kilometres to try to reach Europe in the hopes of a different life, are kept from entering Ceuta by a border fence. The Spanish kids in Ceuta, by contrast, have the privilege to cross the border as often as they like, just for a night of fun.
Mohamed Hamid is 19. Before he was born, his parents moved from Morocco to Ceuta to find work, and he still has close relatives and family friends in Morocco. To him, crossing over to Castillejos – a Moroccan village near the border – means freedom. He says it means not being judged for wanting to do something other than “going to a park and drinking until you’re extremely drunk”.
Mohamed is from Hadú, a mostly Muslim neighbourhood, but in Ceuta he has a lot of Christian friends. He finds it hard to relate to them on a night out. “They just want to drink from 6PM till 4AM on the weekends – that’s what they look forward to,” he tells me. “I don’t mind dropping by and hanging out for a while without drinking, but I get bored after a while. As they get more and more drunk, our bond disappears.”
That’s why Mohamed prefers to go out in Morocco and hang out with his friends there. He’s known them from when he used to spend the summer with his grandparents and extended family. This is where he feels most comfortable: hanging out on the sofa in the afternoons, playing football on the beach in the evenings, and spending the nights near the sea, feeling the breeze, smoking hash and listening to music, while eating food offered up by neighbours.
It’s not that it would be impossible for him to do something similar in Ceuta. But crossing the border and getting reacquainted with his childhood is important to him.
I ask Mohamed what he likes most about his weekends. “The fact that I can just hang out and do nothing special, without feeling bad about it,” he says. “Being able to see my old friends, maybe fishing, talking about Morocco and dreaming about the future. The minute I cross the border, I feel free”. He is considering moving to Morocco because he doesn’t really see an obvious future in Ceuta. “They say there’s no work in Morocco, but there isn’t in Ceuta, either,” he tells me. “There are too many people for too few jobs. I’ve always dreamed about buying my family a house in Morocco and working anywhere for a living. But at the moment I’m happy as long as I can continue to spend weekends here, being myself.”
There are also some Muslims in Ceuta, however, who travel to Morocco just to party hard. Ilyas* is 25 and heads there every weekend to hit the clubs. Everybody knows him in Ceuta, he says, that’s why he prefers to let loose in Morocco so his family won’t hear about his behaviour. “My parents wouldn’t like it if they found out that I drink or go to certain places,” Ilyas says. “People in Ceuta end up knowing everything that happens.” Aside from that, he “doesn’t like the nightlife” in Ceuta. “I’d rather travel to Tangier [a one-hour trip from Ceuta] with my friends and do some bar-hopping there.”
“It’s not easy to meet new people in Ceuta and experience the things you can do in Morocco,” he explains. “There’s also this cool mixture of tourists, people from Tangier and people who come from Ceuta.”
“Everything in Tangier is different,” says Natalia, a 21-year-old student. “The point is to go to the sort of bars that you can’t find in Spain. The sort of dark places where you need to go down a long flight of stairs to get to the bar and can buy extremely cheap beers and listen to live Arab music.”
Natalia’s childhood friend, Gonzalo, agrees with her. “There are more party options in Tangier than in Ceuta,” he says. “Here there are discos, live gigs not only by Arab musicians, but also by African reggae singers, and young Moroccan rappers.” He adds:
“That’s what we normally do in the summer: we leave Ceuta for Tangier on Friday at noon, and in the evening, we go drinking, eat tapas and then move on to the cabarets. On Saturday we go to one of the beaches near Tangier and then we go to Chefchaouen or Tétouan. On Sunday, we go back to Ceuta.”
24-year-old Sara has been crossing to Morocco on weekends for years, especially in spring. Her parents own a beach house in Cabo Negro, a popular tourist spot a few kilometres from Ceuta. “Now it’s not so common, but at the time my parents bought their house, many people from Ceuta were able to do the same,” she tells me.
But not every Ceutan I speak to is keen to go to Morocco to let loose. Like Pilar, a 19-year-old who joined the military school in Zaragoza in northeastern Spain. As a child, she seldom crossed the border with her parents, and she didn’t have many Muslim friends growing up she says, having attended a Catholic school in Ceuta. If she ever feels the need to get away, she takes a ferry to the mainland. When she finishes her studies in a few years, she plans to move to Zaragoza officially. She’s not the only one of her kind – I met lots of young people in Ceuta who had decided to join the military, because they felt like it was their only option in the current job market.
The differences between Ceuta and northern Morocco are actually quite negligible – it’s more a question of scale that there’s more fun and freedom for young Ceutans to be had outside of their hometown. The biggest difference depends on what side of the border you were born – that decides whether the fence separating Spain from Morocco is an insurmountable barrier, or just a formality to cross during a breezy weekend away.
*Ilyas’ name was changed in order to preserve his anonymity
Don't miss the next issue of VICE Magazine later this month, dedicated to the global exploration of borders, investigating why we've imbued them with so much power, and what happens when those lines aren’t visible to the naked eye.