Are you sure you´re American? : Day Trip to Ceuta

My roommate and I decided to take a day trip to Ceuta during our stay in Morocco.

Ceuta is a Spanish exclave located about an hour and a half drive from Tangier. As an exclave, it is governed by Spain despite it’s location in Morocco and in order to cross the border you need an official European or American passport or a visa. Ceuta is one of the two Spanish ports in Morocco, the other being Melilla. Keep this in mind as a tell the story of our little trip.

We took a grand taxi for 700 Dirham (70 dollars) round trip from the Gare de Routier in Tangier, after a heated argument with two taxi drivers on prices, we were given a “deal”. As we approached Ceuta, we saw groups of men standing on the side of the winding road in the Moroccan heat, attempting to hitch hike. The melanin of their skin, glistening under the unrelenting sun, they must have all been exhausted and dehydrated but they were persistent in their quest to flag down cars. All of these men were clearly of African descent, and by African, I mean sub-Saharan Africa, as it was obvious they were not Moroccan by the color of their skin, which was akin to a deep chocolate.

After my talk with Joseph, I learned that many of those who try to cross the border fence at Ceuta, hide in the forest by night to escape the persecution of the Moroccan police, as those who were found out were often brutally beaten and taken into custody, left at the mercy of the Moroccan justice system, or lack of one. They only came out during the daytime to look for sustenance. So my guess was that these men were attempting to catch the attention a kind traveller who could spare them food, money or a a ride to look for both.

When we arrived at Ceuta, I noticed a few things, many of those who were waiting to cross the border patrol were either Spanish citizens, Americans, or Moroccans with a visa.  Also, I noticed that many of those who were Moroccan and waiting to be given permission by the border patrol were either old women dragging behind them seemingly empty grocery carriers, or young men with backpacks.

As we approached the border patrol ourselves, I took note of one last thing. I was definitely the only POC (person of color), there, and by POC, I mean black person. Given the circumstances of where we were, I braced myself for any possible reactions from those waiting to stamp my passport, as it was not uncommon for Sub-Saharan Africans to attempt to illegally pass the border with a fake passport, and considering my name and heritage I was prepared for anything. You would think that in the age we live in, I would be able to travel without doubt of where I was from and who I was, but we do not live in a post-racial society, and just because I was traveling with another Caucasian person, meant absolutely nothing.

I stepped up to the window and handed the border patrol my American passport. Before even looking at the passport, the guard gave me a funny look, one of curiosity. He opened my passport and once reading my name began to look between the small booklet and myself as if gearing up to interrogate me. He said something to his companion in Arabic, then began to ask me questions. “Where are you from?” he asked. I replied, “from the United States”. He then asked me, “no where are you really from?”. I looked him dead in the eye and said, “Excuse me sir, my passport says that I was born in Miami, Florida, I was born in the United States of America, I am American”. All qualms of being polite were gone at this point, I was livid, and people were beginning to stare. The guard continued to look at my suspiciously and speak to his colleague in Arabic, at this point I was about to lose my patience and had to actively stop myself from snapping at the guard, as not only was it humiliating to be stopped because my name was not your typical American name, but it was racist and unjust. Finally, after some moments of speculation, the guard stamped my passport and allowed me through.

Once we had passed the first set of border patrol guards, we had to walk through a security system much like that you would find in an airport. I wasn’t sure whether I would be interrogated again or left alone to pass. As we were passing through the security system, we were stopped by another guard. This one opened my passport looked at it, then looked at me, I prepared to be berated yet again with another set of questions about my identity and citizenship. However, this time the guard was interested in my hair. I had Senegalese twists in my hair which I’d paid to have done before I left Madrid. The guard asked me,”where did you do your hair?” I told him in Madrid in a Senegalese salon. I prepared to be questioned, but he simply said, “I like it, it’s beautiful.” and kept it moving. The incident left me angry and stunned to say the least, but I was not surprised. In the United States, this would have been considered racist and I probably could have reported him to his supervisor or such. But this was not the United States and me filing a complaint would only be laughed at, and dismissed. Considering that what Ceuta is known for, it would only be “reasonable” to question any person of color who tries to cross, as who known who I could have been.

The rest of our trip in Ceuta passed without incident. We noticed that Ceuta is much like a small Madrid which had been uprooted and planted on the coast of northern Africa. A totally different world from the Islamic, Arabic Tangier or Marrakech. Many of those who were walking the streets were obviously culturally Spanish. We noticed women dressed in Western fashion, from shorts to skirts to bikinis on the beach, a far cry from the conservative style of dress of many Moroccan women. Something that you would never see anywhere else in Morocco except maybe the other exclave of Melilla. The language spoken here was Spanish, I was finally once again able to use my language skills. We also noticed that Ceuta, much like the rest of Spain, had adopted the Spanish tradition of the siesta and not opening stores on a Sunday. As it was a Sunday, many stores were not open, and around 3:00pm the few stores that happened to be opened for the day closed down shop to enjoy lunch and lounge the afternoon away. We were able to find one Spanish clothing store which was open during the siesta time but other than that, nothing else.

As we left, I once again saw old women leaving with their grocery carriers, no longer empty but laden with goods. I asked Sadaf about this later on and she told me that apparently because Ceuta was a Spanish port, it was easy and cheaper to receive European goods through the city. Many Moroccan gangsters made their money by employing old women and young men to use their visas to go across to Ceuta and come back with Spanish goods ranging from alcohol to washing machines, as long as they could carry it, they were allowed to bring it across.

Ceuta was an interesting experience, although it was off to a rough start, it was a breathe of fresh air for me. I once again felt free and able to express myself, free from the leering eyes of Moroccan men and the cultural norms and regulations which surround women in so many Moroccan cities.

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