PHOTOS: Lunch on the Port of Tangier, 'Naked Lunch' Style

We travelled to Morocco to follow in the footsteps of William S. Burroughs.

by Florian Domergue; translated by Meredith Balkus
Mar 23 2018, 6:30pm

All photos are by the author unless otherwise mentioned.

A version of this article originally appeared on MUNCHIES France.

It’s 1 in the afternoon at the fishing port in Tangier, Morocco. I’m on the docks, sitting at the table of cheap restaurant and trying in vain to clean my fingers, which are as greasy as a bicycle chain. What’s left of a fried fish dinner lays in front of me, devoid of all temptation: My stomach and my camera are already well-filled. I came here with visions straight out of Naked Lunch in mind—an Interzone in Northern Africa, shrouded in scents and vibrant colors.

After a morning at sea, freshly caught fish are transported back to the port in multicolored crates. Once they've arrived, they're immediately taken to "the cleaners."

Ryanair flight FR7744 dropped us off on the tarmac of the Tangier airport the day before, late in the afternoon. We were greeted by a warm, comforting sun—a welcome we appreciated, having come all the way from snowy Paris. This morning, we woke up to the muezzin’s song, the call that summons Muslims to the mosque for prayer.

The entrance to the fishing port is marked by bright colors.

We take to the street. The sea and Spain are directly in front of us, guiding us towards the port and its fishers. We walk along the docks and zigzag through nets filled with the morning’s catch, under the watchful eyes of a cat who seems more amused than interrogatory and fishers who are hard at work.

Cats seem to be the real owners of the port. Whether sprawled out in nets or weaving between the legs of the crowd, they're on the lookout for the smallest morsels of the fish that will soon arrive. Photo by Jean Christophe Roy

You can see Spain when you look north along the horizon; it’s a mere 15 kilometers away. The port of Tangier acts as a link between the African continent, the Mediterranean Sea, and Europe. It also feeds Morocco with tuna, moray eels, and other fresh fish. Between its famous blue and white walls, Tangier gives way to an entire network which moves to the reeling in of the nets, the unloading of the daily catch onto the docks, and the patching up of old boats—everything from the initial sorting of the fish to their gutting, sale, and packaging for hungry customers.

Nabil gutting mackerel during the hustle and bustle of the morning market. Around him, people negotiate sales for kilos of tuna, which dominates all of Tangier's food stalls. Photo by Jean Christophe Roy

For the majority of the participants, this morning ballet—lulled by the sweet scents drifting from hash pipes—ends with the food stalls adjoining each market vendor’s stand. Surrounded by plastic picnic tables and billboards converted into makeshift roofs, everything that has fins and bones gets fried. It’s a no-frills operation: Trays of fried fish are served with a lemon wedge and a paste-like salad made from beetroot and raw onions.

At the fishmonger's table, we eat with our hands. A monumental tray of fried fish—which usually contains a sizable dozen—goes for about 60 dirhams, or approximately $6.50 USD. Photo by Jean Christophe Roy

Even the napkins are optional and need to be purchased from Houcine, who weaves between the tables offering tissue packs and lifesaving finger wipes. Seated with their elbows on the table and woolen hats fixed firmly to their heads, the fishermen talk loudly and give the impression that they haven’t yet debarked their boats. We park ourselves on plastic patio chairs in mismatched colors. The server who comes to greet us doesn’t bother with fruitless explanations; when we ask what the spot is serving, he replies in Arabic that "everyone gets the same thing." That’s good by us, so we don’t ask anything more.

Photo by Jean Christophe Roy

Unfortunately, this bustling hive is headed towards its last seconds of life, as the construction of a new, more modern port threatens to displace the historic fishing port that’s currently here. After Mohamed VI took to power, Tangier has been gripped by frenetic modernization, which has resulted in the installation of 51,000 square meters’ worth of storage to house all the equipment necessary for a contemporary fishing industry (such as a fish market, ice factories, refrigerated warehouses, stores for shipowners and whole fish merchants).

Along with the fish restaurants, scorpionfishes of all colors are classic symbols of the Port of Tangier. These coastal fishes are line-caught, not netted.

Bearing that in mind, these picturesque scenes slip before our eyes like vintage, dog-eared postcards, each one a fragment of time, a precious moment sure to evaporate. We tried to carry as many as possible with us. Here’s a few gems we took with us, accompanied by captions, just in case.

In preparation for tomorrow's day at sea, the fishing lines are unfurled and the hooks are carefully stored in old tires. Photo by Jean Christophe Roy
"Welcome to Tangier," says Ahmed, a 32-year-old fisherman who greets us in Spanish. Spain lies on the other side of the Gibraltar Strait, just 15 kilometers away.