Shanghai reloaded – Extracts from my travel notebook

30.03.2012 – 3.30pm
Old City, Henan Nan Lu

So, here I am, back in the old city of Shanghai, drinking my first coffee since landing in China a few hours ago. I can’t believe it’s already 3.30 in the afternoon. I woke up late today having spent most of the night half awake, half asleep. How will I cope with this jet lag? Am I gaining time or losing time? I’m not sure, I just know that it will take me a week to come back to normal and settle in. Anyway, I am back to the red country and this is all that counts! And it’s exciting. I feel the city in my bones, like old people with the humid weather. Traveling is like an addiction, it runs in my veins and the fatigue that comes with it is no price to pay.

I take a pause from writing and frame pictures with my phone. There is no way I can carry a heavy camera with me now, I’m too tired and it’s raining. Quality doesn’t matter, it’s enough to record – sitting in a cafe`, sipping coffee, recovering from the eighteen hours journey and preparing myself to the new tasks ahead… more recordings, meetings with other artists and producers… cultural and emotional encounters… diving into the depths of my own ancestral memories, resurfacing through people’s acknowledging eyes.

I feel like I am walking on clouds. I always have troubles with landing.

I feel like watching from above and hearing from afar, as if everything had already been done.

I look through the window of the café. Have these experiences already lived me? Maybe there was no need to be physically back, only tap into my memory of the place.

Old City – Yuyuan Garden

I stroll around. The sun is shining and I am not sure about my plan for today. I feel strange not having a plan. Am I losing time? What was this project about? I have to remind myself, to catch up with it again after so many months of filling funding applications, meeting producers to gather support for the final installation, thinking about social media and their potential creative impact on the art work. In short, being dissociated from the art and sucked into the hard work that goes in producing it! What is this free time in my hands? I should be doing something practical, time efficient, not walking around the old city, which I know already, seen already, recorded already. This precious time in China, I cannot afford to lose it.

Then, all of a sudden, while my mind is occupied with these destabilising thoughts, I see flashes of red colour through the crowds. Something is moving through the narrow alleyways. What is it? I get closer and see a woman throwing red brocade on a canopy, while giving instructions in a loud voice to two men assisting her. Clearly they are in a rush. It looks like some kind of ritual or ceremony is going to take place. I don’t know what it is, but I decide to stay there and wait. I have time. It feels strange, but I have time.

Some minutes elapse, people circle around, everybody is waiting for something to happen, but no one seems to know what.

Suddenly, with a high pitch in her voice, the woman commands some instructions, the men lift the carriage and off they are, running through the narrow alleyways crowded of tourists and people selling all sorts of stuff. I run behind them, not sure if I should be filming or simply seeing what happens. Finally, I turn the corner and see the group again, with the carriage left on one side of the road, looking around in search of something or someone. Nothing is happening again. People pass by, peer in the carriage, take photos, and move on. I wait. I have time. It feels strange, but I have time.

So I stand there for about half hour. The woman is getting nervous and looks at the watch every other minute. She exchanges some sharp words with another woman passing by. I don’t understand what they say, but something clicks in my mind, telling me that this is a wedding and the bride is running late. Can that be true? I ask the woman. Her English is poor, but she understands what I say and manages to communicate something like: “Yes the bride is late, very late!”

How extraordinary. In Tangier I had filmed a wedding procession in which a similar carriage, made with shining silver fabric, was used to carry a bride through the narrow alleyways of the Old Medina. Once again this project amazes me with its unexpected turns and revelations, the theory and practice of memetics, the journey of small cultural units traveling through times and lands carrying similar meanings.

Finally the bride arrives in a huge, white limousine – a mix of Saturday night in central London and tacky, spring time weddings in Naples. The crowd stops to watch, the woman gives her orders to the men, the bride comes out of the car, looks confused, asks for help and eventually gets on the carriage.

And so off they are, running through the alleyways and stalls of souvenirs, with images of Mao, traditional fans and anything else that can be sold on this planet.

I record with my old, faithful camera. My heart is full of joy. The script was there, waiting for me. The only thing I needed to do was to give it some time.

04.04.2012 – 11am
Tin Ma Cemetry

What can I say, I had waited in anxious anticipation for it and now that I am here I realise it looks similar to the memorial day that takes place in Naples on 2nd November every year to celebrate the family members passed away. Everybody goes to the cemetry early in the morning to bring flowers for the dead and celebrate life with those still alive. In China, the ritual takes place during the Qingming Festival, the Tomb Sweeping Day sometimes in April depending on the lunar calendar.

Here, like everywhere else in the world, is home for me. The air is filled with the smell of incense, of paper burning in the humble metal bucks holding loving thoughts for the dead. The blinding light of the sun hits my tired eyes consumed by sleepless nights.

Danny arrived to the hotel quite early this morning to take me to the Tin Ma cemetery, one of the many in this overcrowded city. People in China are generally cremated when they die and the ashes brought by their children or grandchildren to the place where they were born. Every year the same ritual takes place: the family gathers on the tomb bringing flowers, food, drinks and the nice things the dead used to like, wishing for their eternal peace and praying for the family’s wellbeing, Danny says.

I wander around and take some video recordings, but only a few pictures here and there for the blog page. I cannot do too many things at once.


I come back to the tomb of our friend’s ancestors. I am moved by the ritual. I am not sure how I will edit this section, but I have a feeling that this ceremony is a key element for Streets of Shanghai. Yesterday I visited the Propaganda Poster Centre in the Old French Concession area. Together with posters spanning several decades, there were old black and white photos. One in particular had young people from the Tongji University with the caption saying: “During a time when there was only one voice in the air and only direction allowed people to move forward, color is fading from the life and those black and white can be the most suitable to bring the memories. Chinese history is full of stories and the Cultural Revolution has the most”.

Chinese history… passing through the intricacies of the streets, branching down the deep, unconscious level of everyday life. I see people reliving the past through their love for the ancestors, a striking contrast to the leap into the future symbolized by the vertiginous heights of the city’s skyscrapers. Mirroring and mimicking the other… moving fast, hitting even faster.

With today I should stop recording images and start with sounds. I turn my head and fireworks are exploded in the middle of the graveyard. I will start from here. I will start from the ancestors.

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Life in the city is too fast and my writing too slow

Lost in a time lapse… that’s how I feel at the moment. I have amassed quite a lot of photos and sound recordings during these last two weeks of research in Shanghai, but had no time to re-think and write about my time here. Only a few notes here and there, written on paper tissues lying on cafe tables and my tiny notebook. Would any of these make sense in a couple of weeks, when I will be back in London?

I am at Lola, the bar for expats in Shanghai. The windows on the facade of the building next door do not lead to the sky. The moon is strange tonight. Where is the opium which English merchant ships brought to Chinese shores so long ago? Where did they hide it? Where is the key to unlock the past of this city? Where is the door? Space on this small piece of paper is limited, and so is my time, like my seven minutes of video/sound work. Where do I start from? What do I put down? Expats… Sometimes I feel like Chinese taxi drivers look down on them. Interesting dynamics. Repetitions / Shanghai / Repetition / London at the other side of the spectrum. Time and space is limited. Opium.

This is such a different process from the one I went through in Tangier. Time there seemed to move at a slowerer, softer pace; history lingered in the air, filling it with its memories. Here I don’t know where to look. My camera frames run faster; light is flat; the air around me is cotton; my head feels heavy and I wake up tired. I find difficult to focus… There is no time and space feels huge.

Where should I start? The temples I visited to learn about the movements of the body bending rhythmically north, east, south, and west?

The murmuring of the priests during Buddha’s birthday celebration?

My new, young Chinese friends living in an old house in the old part of Shanghai where I stayed for one night on my arrival from Ningbo, sharing with them the pains and the joys of living conditions which are hundred years old?

Or should I take inspiration from the exhibitions and meetings with Chinese artists from Shanghai, which helped me to get the pulse of the city from within rather than without?

Back in the streets, how do I convey the feeling of owe sitting on the pavement in front of the World Financial Centre, taking photos of high scrapers in Pudong?

But then I would leave out the incessant calling of shop assistants selling watches, bags, silk and anything else on planet earth. The sound of traffic, crickets and cicadas, mixed with people’s raucous spitting and workers’ metal drilling. Ah, my endless attempts to communicate in English and then resort to my physical theatre training for basic body language. How do I express the wondrous kindness of the people I constantly stop in the streets for directions? The crazy horning of taxi drivers, scooter drivers, car drivers, and anybody on any kind of wheels in this heavily trafficked city!

How will I work out the intricacies of Sunday mornings in People’s Park with its marriage market, English speaking corner and lazy, sleepy couples, the museums, archives and libraries.

I have visited antique markets, second hand markets, fake markets, food markets! I feel full. Not enough time to download. My memory card is too small…

Yesterday I stopped for a cappuccino in a French brasserie at the corner between Xiangyang Road and Julu Road, the leafy French concession area. It felt like this was the first time I stopped since I arrived in Shanghai, but then, it’s already time to go. Will I learn the Tai Chi breathing exercise before it’s too late?

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Connected Communities

This conference is definitely worthy the trip from Shanghai. Really good papers so far and the key note speakers have given me the opportunity to look at Chinese and Japanese artistic production from an interesting personal angle.

Feng Mengbo has opened my eyes on the possibilities of re-inventing the concept of video games through his aesthetic sensibility.

I have enjoyed the paper, the slides of his art works and his reflections on the possibility of employing digital technology to re-discover traditional Chinese art forms such as calligraphy. During a tea break I suggest that maybe his personal creative interest could be interconnected to the wider process China might be going through at the moment, in terms of a rethinking of its cultural values and position within the global landscape. Having now conquered the position of the strongest mass market producer in the world (and actually by walking around on a Saturday night it was clear to me that not only China now produces nearly everything we wear, drive and use in our everyday life in the West, but it also consumes a lot of these products distributed by those big brands now located here) China might now be at a point in which it needs to re-think at what is leaving behind and start counting its losses in terms of cultural roots, traditional buildings, lakes and rivers, clean air and family ties. So maybe artists like Feng Mengo are part of this process, increasing their own and others’ awareness around the now and the possible futures.


Another interesting paper is the one on networked music improvisations by Roger Mills. His exploration of the timber of musical instruments from different parts of the world in some ways echoes my own creative process as I progress in my travels for Streets of… and listen/record the timber and rhythm of my seven cities. It is with curiosity that I decide to join the others for his evening performance, which unfortunately for technical reasons will not take place as planned, but still gives us a taste of the work he carries out with musicians across the world.

In the picture:
Tao Han – Guzheng
Mao Dan Heng – Guzheng
Roger Mills – Trumpet

To listend to the sound click here:
Extract of Roger Mills concert

Paul Semon and Charlotte Gould “Urban Picnic on the Screen” is also an interesting installation piece, which links people in the UK and Ningbo in real time making them lie down on a virtual mat set up in one of the teaching rooms.

But the highlight of the conference for me is Masaki Fujihata. Such an inspiring artist and wonderful soul! I am so intrigued by his attempts to connect the cyber space and the real world of people and geographies through digital art. “Data is moving around us” he says, and so the artist is here to capture and log experiences, simultaneous landscapes, internal and external sights. And again, his words seem to resound so beautifully with those I wrote back at the start of my project in 2004. Masaki goes deep telling us that “the medium is a tool to measure the impermanence of the world”. I feel this concept can open doors which could lead me to a further space I probably have not fully accessed yet. Impermanence. Simultaneous archetypical landscapes. Sense memories. These words bounce back on the walls of my internal ears, their esoteric meaning still obscure to me…

To listen to the sound click here:
Alda’s voice over

The academics at the conference talk about “glocal”, “connectivity and intimacy” as key elements in defining the digital space today. They also reflect on the intercultural inequalities, issues of gender and class system in relation to accessing digital resources in the world today. Indeed, the most interesting discovery for me is that internet communities in China do not have access to You Tube or Facebook, because of the government’s censorship. Therefore Chinese people have created their own channels: Tudou (to upload videos) and Renren to communicate with friends. Qiu Qiu is the same as MSN for real time chat and is now really big in China. Everybody is on Qiu Qiu and the Q-Zone is used for content sharing. According to Lian Zhu, a lecturer at Ningbo university, these exemples also reflect a Chinese “We” feeling which translates in the digital space the local cultural pillars: Intimacy, Frequent interaction, Maintenance, Face-to-face, Desire for proximity.

It’s so interesting… but then a sudden thought comes to my mind. This means that Chinese people cannot have access to the videos I have uploaded on my blog?! Oh dear, how can I circumvent the problem? I want to interact with local communities. This is so important for me! I start asking around and so somebody suggests I get in touch with some of the students who work at the campus TV station. I follow the suggestion and quietly leave the lecture room as I receive a text message on my new Chinese mobile with directions to the Students’ Union room.

The campus is a labyrinth and so I send some time to find the place. Finally, I get to the NUTS room and there I find Sherry, a very nice student whose Chinese name is Lu Li, who introduces me to a very active group of students engaged in TV , film and theatre production, editing of a newletter and many other cultural activities.

I start telling them about the project and my intention of getting young people in London involved during the final stages of the work and create connections with those in China. As we talk, we start looking at the possibility of uploading on Tudou the trailer I did last month and also at getting the students from the NUTS group creatively involved in the project. Maybe they could start exploring ways in which everyday life in Ningbo connects to memories of China before the more aggressive consumerist system of the last decade made its full entrance in local life and culture. Ye Gefan is interested and agrees to translate some pages of the blog in Chinese, so that people here can understand what the project is about and while we talk Lu Li uploads the trailer on Tudou

and creates the equivalent of a Streets of… Facebook fan page on Renren

Wow, that’s great, I’m really impressed! I love the way things just happen through meetings, human interaction and exchange of creative ideas. Let’s see what we can build with the students and young people in London. I leave the room with a mix of exhaustion and excitement. I am hungry (I forgot to eat as usual!) and also feel a bit guilty for having missed a few sessions at the conference. Still I learned so much today that surely I am forgiven. Yet I should better hurry up if I don’t want to miss the tour of old Ningbo before heading off to Shanghai again.

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Tacchi alti e gambe levigate

Tacchi alti e gambe levigate, abiti svolazzanti e frivoli, passi lenti. Le donne di Ningbo sono molto curate, consapevoli di dover piacere e vogliose di adeguarsi a modelli occidentali di bellezza. Non esistono abiti tradizionali o almeno non ne ho visti finora. Gli uomini sono piu` trasandati o meglio meno interessati a curare la loro immagine esteriore. Sono affettuosi con i figli. Le persone si sposano e hanno figli molto presto. Tra i venti e i venticinque anni le donne, fino ai trenta gli uomini.
I movimenti del corpo non sono per nulla affrettati. L’immondizia per strada e` raccolta da spazzini che vanno in giro in bicicletta. Anche loro vanno lenti, la pedalata e` cadenzata. Sono tutti molto calorosi e gentili. Ningbo e` una citta` molto ricca, le insegne colorate si illuminano con la stessa intermittenza del suono di cassa dei negozi e dei supermercati che affollano le strade del centro.

L’esteriorita` della Cina puo` essere fuorviante. Se non vivo con delle persone di qui rischio di perdermi anche io nel glitter di questo folle consumismo. Oggi chiamo l’amica di Amy, la donna cinese conosciuta in aereo, sperando che abbia una stanza da fittarmi.

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First few hours in China and memories of other places…

First few hours in China and memories of other places start to come up my nostrils. The place smells like Malaysia and the humidity in the air sticks to the skin like a jelly substance, which at once protects and irritates it.

The journey has been exhausting and the luggage heavy. Too much equipment and not enough sleep. It’s interesting how events and things have already started to overlap in my head. I am in Ningbo, but it feels like only now my mind has started registering things and events occurred since I landed in Shanghai yesterday afternoon. Sitting on the floor of the bus, which took me from the airport to the South Bus Terminal I was mesmerized by the landscape. I close my eyes and I am there again, the mist hovering upon us – a cocktail of pollution, humidity and cloudy summer light – permeates the air lifting the already tall buildings to a surreal status of post-modern totems.

The electricity towers running along the sides of the highway with their intricate wires split the pale sky in irregular slices. I sit on the floor of the bus among cardboard boxes and suitcases of fellow passengers. My eyes are dying to close on a restful sleep and yet I can feel the excitement running along my spine as it is massaged by the rolling movement of the vehicle, while the impatient horn of the bus driver keeps at bay unruly scooters and wild taxi drivers.

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It is already two weeks that I am in China!

I can’t believe it, I’ve already been two weeks in China! Time goes so fast that it is difficult to keep track of the things I see, the people I meet, and the wonderful food I’ve had the pleasure to eat!

It is true that this feeling of a slow catching up with things is partly due to the slow motion effect of the jet lag and to the fact that I spent the first week at the University of Nottingham in Ningbo to present “Streets of…” at the DRHA conference.

I arrived at the campus at night and it was all a bit surreal. The heat, the huge buildings which seemed to have landed from another planet on the well tended English grass, the red sky, the sound of the insects emerging from the deadly silence… Where am I? China? Can this really be true?

Artificial lights

To listen to the sound click on this link:

So here I am, and it’s summer again. It had already turned a bit chilly in London before I left and I am not sure if what I put in the suitcase will make any sense, considering the limited preparation during the hectic few weeks before taking off to China. The trip is sponsored by the British Council as part of the “China – UK Connections Through Culture” programme. So I am here to reseach my next piece “Streets of Shanghai”, see a couple of locations in the country and meet local artists to establish possible collaborations.

I am excited and yet too dizzy to make sense of the reality around me. Will I sleep tonight? Delegates will arrive in a couple of days. Will the conference help me to develop this piece? How?
Too many questions. My head cannot relax. I feel the exhaustion. I should go to sleep.

I go up to my hotel room after a short stroll around the campus. I fall asleep, but then the sound of fireworks wakes me up after only a few hours. What is it? What do they celebrate at 6am?
To listen to the sound click on this link:

I look through the window. I can’t see much. Only the dim light of the new day bathing the imposing buildings surrounding the campus. It’s time to get up and start my day.

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Back in London

20 March

It is difficult to describe my feelings at the moment. How can it be that one moment I am sitting at a café in the Petit Socco of the Old Medina and a few hours later I see Victorian houses running alongside the railway lines on my way back home?

Where is home?

My spirit moves slower than my body.

My eyes are still filled with the brightness of the sunlight, which reflects on the white walls of the old buildings facing the Strait of Gibraltar.”>

I woke up at 4am this morning. As usual the adhan was followed by the ‘alarm cock’ (as I had nicknamed my local black rooster) calling the dawn on my last day in Tangier. I got up, tumbled over my suitcases, switched on my sound recorder and went back to bed. Somehow I got used to this chant, its powerful, subliminal message which sinks down in my conscience at the spiritual peak time of the day.

I don’t want to get up.

I’m not ready to leave my room, sit down at the Café Centrale for my petit déjeuner, pay the hotel room and get a taxi to the airport! I’m not ready to say goodbye to this place. I just started feeling part of its everyday life, ready to take creative action while people protest for their rights in the streets. A demonstration has been called today and I will be on the plane…

Outside it’s still dark. My body sinks in the uncomfortable springy mattress. My inner eyes fly over the hills overlooking the city’s intricate streets.

The last week in Tangier has been intense. I met with Mohcine and Rachid, two photographers whose work reflects the many personalities of this complex city.

I had a brief meeting with Simo, a video artist, at the Cinémathèque de Tanger. I met with the representatives of cultural institutions to talk about the final installation and possible creative activities in schools in Tangier and London. Finally, I met with the Maâlem Abdellah Boulkhair El Gourd, a well known Gnawa master who lives just a street away from me in the Old Medina.

With Abdellah I spent most of my afternoons this week, talking about the city’s history, the war in the Maghreb region, the Gnawa music tradition, its rites and visual representations.

Before leaving London I had researched and discussed the significance of the Gnawa music with Simo, a film maker based in Essaouira, whom François had put in touch with me via email. From him I learned about the connections between Gnawa and the spiritual practice of Sufism and how the Gnawas are a brotherhood practicing a rite of possession, which is accompanied by music and dance. This syncretic cult bears similarities to Brazilian condomblé (which I explored during my work in Salvador de Bahia), Southern Italian tarantism (which I know through the religious festivals I saw in Italy) and African Voodoo.

According to Simo Gnawa is a mix of Muslim religion and African animism. Although the subject is still studied by anthropologists, it is accepted that the members of the cult, the Gnawas, perform a complex liturgy, called lila or derdeba. The ceremony recreates the first sacrifice and the genesis of the universe through the evocation of the seven main manifestations of the divine demiurgic activity. The lila is animated by a maâlem (master musician) and his group who perform a special form of music which brings the followers to ecstatic dancing and possession. During the whole night ritual the musicians perform a swirling acrobatic dance, while playing the krakebs. There are still many lilas organised as private functions by the masters, which retain the sacred, spiritual status of the music testifying of the continuous presence of this syncretic cult in Moroccan cultural life.

In his last email Simo had warned me that i have to “take care with what it’s written on the Internet and even in books, as there are many stereotypes and a narrative untrue in connection with gnawas being descendants of slaves”. According to Simo “their ancestors, which were spread everywhere in Morocco, came in their majority from the armies Haoussa /Bambaras primarily to reinforce the royal guard at the time of Moulay Ismail, the famous Black Guard, which was the vastest army in Africa durung the 17th century. They had promised fidelity and allegiance to the dynasty of Alaouites on Coran from which came their nickname Abid El Boukhari, the slaves of Boukhari. They ensured the peaceful transition from the royal dynasty and their presence was at the service of the Palace. When their army was relieved in his great part, the Gnaoua families which chose to remain in Morocco practiced artisan trades (they were blacksmiths, but also carpenters, tailors, etc.) or became musicians and healers. As skilful musicians they preserved their musical tradition”.

For this reason Simo suggested that it was important to visit Mâalem Abdellah Boulkhair El Gourd founder of Dar Gnawa, a kind of establishment for the instruction, practices and the promotion of the Gnawa culture.

Following Simo’s last email I was waiting anxiously to meet Abdellah in person. So it did not take me by surprise that Abdellah came into my picture of Nadia, the young woman who I photographed a few days ago, while he was walking down the narrow alleyway to his house. This was a couple of days after my arrival and well before our first introductory meeting.

Abdellah entered my camera frame to become part of the project even before I knew it.

Is this Gnawa?

Is this the essence of the microscopic movement which is kept intact within the walls of the Petit Socco and I have learned to love so much?

Am I really back home?

What is home?

Click on sound: Extract of Gnawa music by Maalem Abdellah El Gourd

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Staying in the Old Medina


I’ve arrived in Tangier at the crucial time of the people’s revolution in the Middle East. It’s 7.30am and I can hear the roaring of the Arab masses crying for their freedom from the corrupt regimes of Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Mamlakat al Baḥrayn (Bahrain), Yemen. Their voices are running along the alleyways of the old Medina. Has the revolution kicked here as well?

Click on sound: News from Libya

The sounds of the TV sets from the small cafes in streets come up to my room through the closed window mixed with the banging from the construction site of the port. I find out about the latest news when I get down to the Café Centrale. The TVs are all tuned on Libya. People are glued to the screens, making comments and shaking their heads to the images of demonstrators being killed in the streets of nearby states.

So, here I am, sipping my coffee and trying to make sense of all the things learned in the last 48 hours. Mohamed, the young man working as waiter at the Café starts chatting in French. He shows me a paper with the news of Moroccan people who were repatriated from Libya on the same day of my arrival.

I ask if it is possible to go to the new port and take pictures there. He says that I need a special permission and it’s not easy. Why should I want to film there?

I am not sure. I think I do… but then, as if cradled in my chair, I get trasported somewhere else, my eyes fixed on the slow, constant movement of people passing through the narrow streets and squares of the old Medina. I just need to be here.

Mohamed comes to sit next to me and shows me an article in the local paper adding another bit of information on Tangier.

I learn that this is the first city in Morocco with a telegraph, a telephone centre and a post office. I say to Mohamed “this is a port of communications!” He nods smiling and draws me a map of the city to help my orientation.

I have been sitting for hours and and I start feeling the urgency to take my camera and do some visual research.

I walk around and is fine, but I can sense people’s resistance if I get closer with my camera.

There is somethings about this process I am not sure…

I think I need to relax. And maybe it is better to continue listening, to remain with the sounds. The images will come. We need time…

Click on sound: Kuran

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The many before me

I look at the list of people who have been here before me. So many writers, painters, musicians, politicians, kings and queens, sultans and sailors have been through Tangier that it makes my act of recording sounds, movements and actions a complex task.

I come after the paintings of Matisse and Delacroix, the music of Paul Bowl, the words of Allen Ginsberg, Peter Orlovsky, William Burroughs, Jean Genet, Roland Barthes, Gore Vidal, Tennessee Williams, and Samuel Beckett. This is the city where Churchill, Onassis and many others stayed because of its key role on the international political and financial chessboard.

I have two weeks to read about Tangier’s history, its culture pre and post colonial independence, pre and post its status of international city, to make ‘rational sense’ of the images and sounds in which I am immersed. I walk along the narrow alleyways of the Old Medina, and visit a couple of museums in search of clues.

Click on sound: Voices in the Old Medina

It is early afternoon and my helpless look must have convinced Francois that we need a long conversation to pick up the fragments of the polyphonic narration, which like a shawl covers the contours of the city, as it lies languidly on the sea. We go up to the roof terrace of the hotel which overlooks the port and I let the wind carry away my anxieties and insecurities.

The sound of the adhan, the Islamic call to prayer from our local mosque fills the air. It is mixed with the clucks of a vociferous cock perching on the balcony of the house next door.

Click on sound: Adhan

The terraces of the old buildings around us with their hanging clothes remind me of Naples. I feel at home. We sit down and talk.

With his soft voice François starts telling me about the many myths of Tangier. I listen entranced as he talks about the links between the history of Noah and the creation myth of the ancient Tingis, a land coming from “la boue”, the mud that was formed after the deluge. This is “la terre originelle”. According to the Old Testament the city was founded by Shem, one of Noah’s sons, and founder of the Semitic people also known as Middle People

But then again following the Greek myth it was the giant Antaeus, the son of the God Neptune and the Goddess Gaea, who founded Tingis.

The story says that Antaeus was defeated by Hercules during a wrestling match. Hercules had traversed the sea between the European continent and North Africa to fetch the golden apples from the garden of the Hesperides, hence the pillars marking the confines between these two parts of the world.

Francois says that we need to visit the cave of Hercules, an archaeological site with Paleolithic inscriptions to feel the power of the myth. We will take a “grand taxi” to reach the site.

I listen with concentration, while taking notes. The wind softly blows away the clouds hanging on the horizon. I loose track for a moment, but then François takes me back to the legend of Atlantis. According to Plato the mythical city was located right beyond the Pillars of Hercules before disappearing around 9,600BC.

I look at the sea in search of signs. The seagulls are circling around the antennas. They are looking for food. The adhan starts again. I can’t believe that two hours have already elapsed. François moves quickly through the centuries, when Tangier becomes a Carthaginian port and then part of the Roman Empire. There is a long series of invasions, the Vandals, the Visigoths, then the Moors rule the city and in 706 AC Tangier becomes the base for the conquest of Spain. He continues with a long description of movements, migrations, conquests and defeats, up to the time of the French colonial power, independence, the international status, and finally the incorporation within the Moroccan state.

How many steps before mine have inprinted their marks on the old pavements of the white city? I feel the thin layer of ancient dust filling my nostrils. It’s chilly, I’m tired, and I need a cup of tea. We get down to the Café Central.

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I landed in Tangier a week ago, on 6th March 2011. I had three hours sleep before heading to Stanstead Airport in a mini cab early in the morning. Although I had checked the train timetable the night before and all seemed to work fine, Tottenham Hale station was closed. So I had to call back the driver who took me the station and asked him to drive me to the airport. As this is a self funded research trip, I was worried that the costs would start escalating even before I left the country. But this project has its ways to catch me by surprise and in the end Seyit, with whom I had become friend during the 45 minutes drive, did not want any more money. So there I was, queuing up at the Ryanair check in desk, half asleep and already thankful for the helping hand that guides my steps in my journey across the continents.

3.00pm. Ibn Battuta Airport. François is waiting for me. I am happy to see him, definitely too tired to face this first encounter with the city on my own. Preparations in London were frantic; as usual I had too much to do before leaving with no time to check the weather cast and prepare my suitcase accordingly. And now I find out that Tangier it’s a bit chilly and rainy in March. After all it is on the same meridian of London, I should have known…

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