Tan Lejos y Tan Cerca / by George Bajalia

Listening to a song, the Spanish phrase “tan lejos y tan cerca” kept reoccurring in the chorus. As a rough equivalent to the colloquial phrase “so close, yet so far” the song referred to an unfulfilled dream. Jokingly, I asked, “how can something be tan lejos y tan cerca at the same time?” My friend pointed out the window and immediately answered: Spain is tan lejos y tan cerca.

It’s true. For most people here, Spain is the closest place, yet one of the most unreachable. A privilege of the American passport is the ability to walk to the port, purchase a ticket and half an hour later arrive into a part guarded by the welcoming, sword yielding arms of a statue of Christ. This ability presents an uncomfortable reality in my life here. Where do I get this right of ease? Many of my Moroccan friends speak much better Spanish than I do, without a doubt. They eat Spanish food more often, and cook it much better. There is really no comparison. 

Earlier this week I spent a day in Tetouan, a neighboring city, in order to observe a workshop held by American Voices and funded by the U.S. Embassy’s cultural affairs department. I’ve passed through Tetouan before–it’s less than an hour from Tangier and could easily be considered part of the same metropolitan are–but this was the first time I spent any real time there. Even entering the city borders, the Andalusian influences are astounding. I met up with a fellow Fulbrighter who lives there at a central plaza in the city. As I checked the time, it was 7:00 sharp, I caught myself realizing that something was very odd, though I couldn’t place what. Eventually I realized it: I was standing outside the courtyard of a church and the bell was striking 7 above me. The soundscape of the city, in my experience kept lively by the call to prayer, mingled naturally with the tolls of the Spanish bells.

The workshop itself was fascinating, and incredibly for more than one reason. In my time here, I’ve yet to see such a gathering of artists, young and old, all interesting in theatre and the performing arts. As I keep in touch with contacts I made there and attend performances held by various amateur troupes and associations represented there, I’ll have much to say in future posts here. However, this post is about something a little bit different. It’s about borders, both natural and imposed. Whether we realize it or not, borders determine a huge part of our daily lives. In Morocco, I’ve found this even more pronounced. From sitting in a police station in Oujda, on the Algerian border, while the police verified my identity so that I could stay in a hotel to the ever sensitive subject of what to call to vast portion of desert in the southwest of the region (Algeria? Western Sahara? Spanish Sahara? Moroccan Sahara?), borders are ever-present. Here in Tangier, it’s impossible to pass a day with gazing out across the Straits of Gibraltar. Last night, my taxi driver was tuned into Radio Gibraltar in the cab to catch the final minutes of the Madrid/Barcelona soccer game. On a clear day, I can distinguish the colors of the mountains of Algeciras and Tarifa.

Next month I’ll be traveling to Jordan for a Fulbright conference. When I arrive there, I’ve been instructed to purchase a $25 visa at the airport. And I can. To go to Spain, I can buy a $40 round trip ticket from Tangier to Madrid, on a whim, or I can simply hop on a ferry day of. At night, though, as I stare out across the sea my thoughts of its beauty are tainted by the barely visible shadows moving across the Straits. The images themselves don’t taint the beauty. This border is a natural one and, physically, is very easily crossed. The barely visible shapes, ships without lights, paddled by hand or with motors muffled represent the informal, underground, economy forced into existence by human borders. Smuggled goods, yes, but just as often a more precious, human, cargo. As someone just passing through, after all, no matter how long I stay, that’s all I am, it’s beautiful, and perhaps important, to look out across the border and see the lights of Algeciras, but it’s even more important to think about what I cannot see.