By Matthew Félix
Doing Good or the Kindness of Strangers Gold winner of the Twelfth Annual Solas Awards
Nine hours after leaving Fez, my French friend Sophie and I arrived in Tangier. Although we had walked to the train station the morning of our departure, this time we were arriving late at night. We opted to get a cab, a ride that shouldn’t have cost more than five or six dirhams, or less than a dollar.
Past experience having left me with a strong aversion to taxis—I’ll always choose walking great distances over taking a cab in places I don’t know—my stomach was wrapped in familiar knots as we came out of the station. Continuing past a couple of drivers who approached us, Sophie and I headed instead for the taxi at the head of the line. Surely that was only fair, after all. The fact the driver hadn’t gotten out to hassle prospective customers only made him that much more attractive.
We opened the door and got in, surprised to discover a man sitting in the passenger seat. He was talking amicably with the driver, so we assumed they were friends.
We told the cabbie where we were going, making sure to distinguish our hotel by the port from one with a similar name in another part of town. The passenger up front also clarified for the driver, with whom we conducted the conversation in Spanish. Once everything was in order—including the meter, turned on and starting from the base rate—we set off on a trip that should have lasted all of ten or fifteen minutes.
Heading into town, Sophie and I shot each other confused looks as we passed one, then another opportunity to turn towards the port. There were even signs at both intersections, in the unlikely event the driver had forgotten how to get to the city’s most defining landmark.
Before I could protest, Sophie moved forward in the seat, asking why we weren’t going towards the port. The driver explained we had to drop off the other passenger first—a complete surprise, since neither Sophie nor I had realized he was a paying customer.
I recalled my experiences in Turkey, where there are types of shared taxis. Was there something comparable in Morocco? If so, was that what this was? I decided to ask.
That was it exactly, the driver confirmed. We were in a shared taxi.
Great. Except it still didn’t feel right. Our taxi looked like all the rest, and at the train station we hadn’t seen any others waiting to fill up with multiple customers. Having no way of knowing for sure and already in the cab, there wasn’t much we could do.
Turning definitively away from the port and into the nouvelle ville, or “new” part of town, we drove along its main street, passing shops, cafés, and businesses familiar from our stay a few days earlier. Making another turn, when we got to the top of a hill we let out the passenger in front, who appeared to explain something as he paid the driver. The cabbie nodded dismissively, taking the man’s money and turning his attention back to the road.
Although in reality everything had been all wrong from the moment we got into the cab, only now did we discover how wrong it truly was.
The previous passenger had paid for his trip. Yet the driver hadn’t reset the meter. Once it was clear he wasn’t going to do so of his own accord, I politely reminded him, “You’re going to restart the meter, right?”
In a shocking setback sure to baffle the most experienced of neurolinguists, the driver suddenly forgot Spanish, a language he had spoken fluently until then. In its place, a series of grunts and gestures conveyed that, no, we would no longer be using the meter.
If it had been good enough for the Moroccan, it was good enough for us.
“Hold on, why aren’t you going to use the meter?”
More grunts and gestures came in reply, this time all of them incomprehensible. It was heart-wrenching to watch someone who had been so charming and articulate only moments before lose all verbal communication skills from one instant to the next. If he hadn’t managed to keep such an unfaltering eye on the road, I would have sworn we were witnessing him have a stroke.
“If we’re not going to use the meter, then how much?” I demanded.
His condition having already advanced to the next stage, this time he didn’t even respond. He was now a mere image of his former self.
“How much!” I demanded again, not bothering to hide my frustration. I knew the further we got down the hill, the more likely he’d feel justified in demanding payment, no matter how exorbitant the price—nor the fact we had never agreed to it.
When traffic forced us to a stop, the driver miraculously recovered his speech.
“Three thousand,” he said, like a malicious child trying to see how much he can get away with.
“Three thousand!” Sophie and I exclaimed in unison. We already knew the fare should have been five or six dirhams. Five or six. Not hundred. Not thousand. At night it might have been a little more, but not six hundred times as much. In addition to being taken for a ride, once again we were being taken for idiots.
“In that case, we’re leaving.”
Turning to Sophie, I added, “Let’s go!”
Grabbing our things—which we had been smart enough not to let the driver put into the trunk—we jumped out of the car, adrenaline rushing as fight-or-flight kicked in and we hustled down a side street. We moved quickly but didn’t run, reassured by the knowledge the driver couldn’t leave his car in the middle of a traffic jam.
But then I looked over my shoulder.
His bravado knowing no bounds, the cabbie had in fact left his car behind. Running after us like an enraged bull down a street in Pamplona, I couldn’t believe how fast his short, stubby legs carried his rotund body, which looked like it might burst at any moment.
“Run!” I shouted to Sophie, who was on the other side of the street.
How could this be happening? Why was the driver chasing us, as though we were the ones who had wronged him? Shouldn’t it have been the other way around? Shouldn’t he have been the one beating a hasty retreat, ideally from the police, once we’d reported him? How could he honestly feel we owed him something? It was mind-boggling.
Despite having no qualms about grinding traffic to a halt, there were still limits to how far the cabbie could stray from his vehicle. Soon he was forced to give up the chase and turn around, a discordant chorus of angry horns calling him back.
Though glad to see him abandon the pursuit, I felt little relief. He knew where we were going. And we weren’t there yet.
“Come on!” I shouted to Sophie, encouraging her to pick up the pace.
When we came to a park separating the nouvelle ville from the medina, I felt another surge of anxiety. Situated on a well-lit slope, we may as well have been onstage. We were completely exposed to anyone in the plaza below or in the night market in front of the medina gateway, through which we had to pass to get to our hotel.
It was then that a little blue taxi tore into the plaza.
Despite the hundreds of them in Tangier, I knew right away this wasn’t just any little blue taxi. My body tensed, once more seized by fight-or-flight. As I debated what to do, I noticed the driver had picked up more customers. For a split second, it seemed encouraging. He couldn’t leave them to pick a fight with me, right?
Yet again I had underestimated him.
His car screeching to a halt in front of the medina archway, the driver jumped out and came running at me, stark, raving mad. I was mortified. I would have made a run for it right then and there, if it weren’t for my misgivings about leaving Sophie on her own, the lone woman in a night market full of men. But when the driver got too close, I had no choice. I had to run.
I didn’t go far, stopping as soon as I was out of his range, all the while desperately trying not to lose sight of Sophie. When the driver began yelling things in Arabic, I panicked even more, afraid of what lies he might be telling the quickly growing mob of men surrounding us.
“You didn’t do anything for us! We don’t owe you anything!” I yelled in French, so people would know there was more to the story.
I pushed my way back towards the center to be nearer to Sophie, only to be chased off a couple of more times. When I got a little too close on yet another attempt, the lunatic lunged at me as though I’d violated his only daughter. He was insane. Although I’d successfully avoided each of his previous attacks, this time he managed to grab my shoulder strap, swinging me around as though we were figure-skating partners. There was no way I was giving my bag up. With a determined tug I snapped it from his hands.
Our little spectacle having brought the night market to a standstill, we were now surrounded by about fifty men. I was living the chaotic mob scene from so many movies, and it was every bit as nightmarish as it had always looked on-screen. What were the men thinking? Who would they believe? What if they took sides with the cabbie? And where was Sophie? I couldn’t lose sight of Sophie. Her five-feet-four-inch frame did not exactly help her stand out in the crowd.
I was immensely relieved when some of the men held back the driver, allowing me to again retreat to the periphery. When I looked back at the center, however, my stomach dropped to the floor.
Sophie was on her own in the middle of the mob, standing face-to-face with the madman.
Although being a woman hadn’t exactly been advantageous for her thus far on our trip, Sophie figured that, in this particular instance, it would be. The driver wouldn’t hit a girl.
Having no insight into what was going through her mind, I panicked even more, watching helplessly from what felt like miles away. All at once I imagined a million horrible things that could happen to her. Abduction. Torture. Rape. I had to get back to the center. I had to get her out of it.
Muscling past the men in front of me, once more I found myself at Sophie’s side, yelling for her to come with me. Before she could react, the taxi driver went for me yet again, forcing me to the edge of the mob. I didn’t know what to do. I couldn’t leave her there. But every time I got anywhere near her, the driver came at me, forcing me to retreat.
As I was about to make another rescue attempt, I saw something peculiar. For just an instant the taxi driver paused from his histrionics, distracted by one of the men in the crowd. The man then handed him something.
What followed was even stranger. From one moment to the next the huge group began to disperse. What was happening? Where was everyone going? Where was Sophie? Now that people were going in all directions, my worst fear had come true.
I had lost her.
Frantic, I searched the disbanding crowd for some sign of Sophie. But she was nowhere to be found. My mind was racing and my body was trembling, as I struggled to keep it together.
“It’s okay. It’s okay,” said a young man next to me, trying to calm me down.
“You should find your friend,” added another, as though it hadn’t occurred to me. Again all I could imagine was Sophie being dragged off to some dark alley and subjected to all sorts of unthinkable abuse, only to then be sold into the sex trade.
“That’s exactly what I’m trying to do,” I retorted. I didn’t look at either man, for fear of missing what could be my last chance to see Sophie before she was taken away for good.
“She’s over there,” said another man, approaching me gently, like someone afraid of startling an abused animal.
Sure enough, there she was.
Apparently having escaped her would-be captors, Sophie had walked into the park. She was scanning the crowd for me, like I was for her.
Our eyes met. We ran to each other like long-lost lovers and embraced—but not for long. Turning towards the medina gate, we made a beeline for our hotel. It seemed we were out of danger but, given that neither of us knew why the driver had left, we couldn’t be sure.
Unable to hold back, the whole way to the hotel we gave voice to our outrage. At the same time, we prayed the driver wouldn’t be waiting for us when we got there. All we wanted was to be safe and sound inside, the rest of the world held securely at bay.
A few minutes later, we were back at the hotel.
The driver was nowhere to be found.
Still shaking from the trauma of the ordeal—our nerves not yet able to trust we were out of harm’s way—Sophie and I broke out leftovers from the train ride and sat down to a late-night snack on our little balcony facing the bay.
The night we now looked out upon felt like an entirely different one from what we had left behind on the street. Other than the occasional rustling of a nearby palm, there was almost no movement or sound. Even the port parking lot, normally active at almost any hour, was quiet.
As we cracked pistachios and passed the water bottle back and forth, Sophie told me about her experience.
“I was confronting the taxi driver, and he suddenly only wanted 14 dirhams.”
“Instead of 3000?” I asked incredulously.
“Yeah. A guy next to me explained the price of 3000 was in cents, not in whole dirhams.”
“What? As if we were supposed to know that! Besides, 3000 cents still equals 30 dirhams, which is six times what the price should have been,” I calculated. “He knew we didn’t know the price was in cents—it was all part of the scam.”
“Of course it was. That’s why, when I was talking to him, he cut the price in half. He knew the original price was absurd, but he still wanted something. When I asked why he suddenly only wanted 14, he wouldn’t say. I had a bill in my pocket I almost gave him, just so he’d leave us alone, but I didn’t. I should have. It wasn’t that much money.”
“That’s not the point! He was a liar and a thief, and we shouldn’t have had to pay to shut him up. It might have been easier, but it wouldn’t have been right.”
“Well, right or wrong, it doesn’t matter, since for whatever reason, he finally decided to leave.”
I told Sophie about the exchange I’d witnessed between the driver and the man in the crowd.
“I really think he gave him money on our behalf,” I concluded. It wasn’t right that he had felt compelled to do so, but I was touched he had. “That stranger had our back.”
Upon our return to the hotel, desperate for a shoulder to cry on, Sophie and I had wasted no time telling the men in reception about our ordeal. Not only did they adamantly confirm the driver should have used the meter and that the price he asked was exorbitant, they also urged us to go to the tourist police. Books were kept with photos of every driver in the city. If we could identify ours, his license would be revoked.
As much as I would have loved to see the shameless brute punished for what he had done not only to us but no doubt to other tourists as well, I hesitated. It was already well past midnight, and we were leaving first thing in the morning. What’s more, despite the hotel manager’s assurances to the contrary, all I could imagine was having to pay my way out of a Moroccan police station. I just wasn’t up for it. I was too shell-shocked. I couldn’t trust anyone so soon after what had happened.
“It hurts us, too,” regretted the hotel manager, attempting one last time to convince me to go to the police. “It’s a constant struggle.”
I knew he was right, and I felt bad for letting him down. In the morning, a little shaken up but otherwise unharmed, we would be going back to Spain. He, on the other hand, along with countless others who made their living from tourism, would be suffering the consequences of not only what had happened to Sophie and me, but many other similar incidents throughout the country. They would be witness to few, if any, of them; but, they’d feel their impact, nowhere more so than in their pocketbooks.
A longtime resident of San Francisco, Matthew Félix has also lived in Spain, France, and Turkey. Adventure, humor, and spirituality infuse his work, which often draws on his time living in the Mediterranean, as well as his travels in over fifty countries. Matthew’s debut novel, A Voice Beyond Reason, is the story of how a young Spaniard’s awakening to his intuition gets him out of his head, so he can follow his heart. Matthew’s collection of travel stories, With Open Arms, recounts his humorous and harrowing experiences on two trips to Morocco. See more of his work at matthewfelix.com.