Extract from my notebook, September 2005 - Tangier, Morocco
Sitting quietly in a flat in Morocco, I stare out of the window onto a busy street with the incessant urban passage of pedestrians and traffic audible on this clear, sunny but chilly morning. The flat is located in the Rue El Alantaki in the centre of Tangier and was built in the heyday of the 1930s when the city basked in the approval of the world as a free port where a sybaritic lifestyle was close at hand. The main door of the block is fashioned out of glass and confident artistic metallic swirls that betray a curious mix of creativity tempered by an economical approach to a European Art Deco style. This opens into a pretentious but not unattractive hallway and a dark wooden stairway that then lead to the flat on the first floor. All the doors were made for very tall people and everything gives the impression of being solidly well made like a sturdy piece of Victorian machinery.
The design of the building engenders an impression of bygone colonial grandeur but with cash-strapped overtones that was maybe the style of those European occupants who lived in the flats when they were first constructed some 70 years ago in this French enclave in north Africa. Inside the flat, it is cool and bathed in light, thanks to the marble floors, white interiors, generous windows and very high ceilings. In deference to local culture, there are Islamic flourishes throughout with an internal arch in the sitting room and paintings of local artist, Hamrani. The ambiance is peaceful and pleasant. Local furniture and pottery are the evidence of shopping trips to Assilah and Tetouan – towns within an hour’s drive of Tangier where prices are cheaper for such wares. It’s an atmosphere that invokes memories.
Looking outside again, I notice that people are going about their business in that purposeful manner their body language betrays early in the morning. A spotless, electric-blue sky predominates and reminds me so vividly of winters spent in Salonica in northern Greece some 25 years ago when I lived there. Jazz singer, Stacey Kent plays languidly on a CD in the background and fortified with some strong coffee I nervously embark on a journey: a journey of memory.
For quite a while, I’ve wanted to make an attempt at writing my autobiography but have procrastinated. It’s as if I’ve been afraid of re-visiting the past – a period that strangely holds a certain fascination for me as I feel it acts as a kind of infinite reservoir of comfort for my existence & for the future – and have filled my time with a multitude of activities that somehow (in)conveniently deny me the chance of writing. These activities that take up so much of my time are worthy enough in that they provide an income for one's existence but to some extent they prevent me from quiet reflection – something that it is undeniably required if considering the writing of one’s autobiography. But in truth perhaps, I have used these income-generating adventures – successful though they’ve been – to act as a shield from what has been burning inside me for quite a while now. At long last, I am ready to confront this mountain range of memory that has been sitting patiently and ever watchful – but perhaps a little dourly – in my subconscious for quite a while now.
Now that I’ve crossed this mental Rubicon, where do I begin? I am also reminded that I shouldn’t attempt to write anything unless I’ve got something to ‘say’ – the admonishments of parents, teachers and editors spring to mind where so-called creative writing is concerned! And anyway – if you’ll excuse a minor sideswipe at life today – in this celebrity-ridden society of ours, who wants to read the (tentative) autobiographical musings of an unknown stróinséir.
Rather than start with a narrative from birth, I’ll just plunge in and to some extent take a leaf out of ‘a stream of consciousness’ way of thinking and get underway – with my humble apologies to literary luminaries such as James Joyce and Nagib Mahfouz. The first thing that comes to mind is that I’ve always felt a ‘foreigner’ wherever I’ve lived. Over the years, it’s something I’ve got used to it. Growing up in Dublin, the capital of Ireland, for the first twenty-four years of my life, I frequently experienced an unsettling feeling of cultural gaucheness as I was neither truly Irish, Roman Catholic and Celtic in the caighdean oifigiúl sense of the term as applied to Irish people in the mid-1960s or truly British, Protestant and Anglo-Saxon in the Oxbridge sense of the term as applied to people emanating from the ‘right’ background in the Home Counties. Thanks to my parents and the differing cultural spheres they originated from, I was the result of a ‘mixed marriage’ and to some extent fell into that much-maligned category of Anglo-Irish. And yet at the same time while growing up in Ireland during the 1960s and 70s, I learnt to live in both of these worlds and managed to assemble a suitable armoury of skills so that I could move effortlessly between them. In time, I came to enjoy being able to slip easily into the vernacular appropriate for either ‘universe’ and it was during these formative years I developed a heightened sensitivity to the importance of cultural orientation points – the unseen and unwritten quick-reference identifiers that we regularly use without thinking when interacting with a range of people in our daily lives. As a youngster, I quickly found out that careless reference to the ‘wrong’ item of news plucked from the airwaves or a newspaper, e.g. a casual comment on the then Archbishop of Dublin’s latest pronouncement (Protestant) to a Catholic audience would be met by bemused stares or even an incorrect usage of a common term denoting religious worship on Sunday, e.g. ‘mass’ for Roman Catholic or ‘service’ for Protestant would culturally ‘mark one’s card’. It was as if parallel but separate paths of social development had taken place within the same geographical surroundings each with its own tribal affinities and an amazing number of cultural tripwires set to trap the unwary. And woe betide you if you got it wrong.
But what of the term, “a mixed marriage”? You look at this innocent, innocuous phrase and without knowing the grim, Irish historical context, you’d think that it was a throwaway example of tautology. And anyway, aren’t ALL marriages ‘mixed’ in the sense that when a couple commit to one another aren’t they two different people who have decided to formalise their relationship – usually, but not exclusively, a heterosexual one? But in Ireland, this euphemism has punched out a sound-byte value with enormous social and emotional consequences far in excess of its inoffensive positioning on a printed page. Even today, such reverberations can still be detected very much in Ireland. The actual term itself describes the marriage of a Catholic and a Protestant within an Irish setting and, in some ways, is akin to a social iceberg that has covered up a multitude of sins.
 stróinséir: Irish for foreigner or stranger, a term that was sometimes applied to me while I lived in Ireland – usually in jest, but occasionally as a none too subtle insult – pronounced ‘stroneshare’
 Nagib Mahfouz: Egyptian author, said to have been influenced by Joyce’s stream of consciousness style of writing. Back in the early 1980s, my former Programme Controller at Radio Jeddah (English Service), a warm and wonderful Palestinian by the name of Yusuf who had at the time just completed a PhD thesis on the Anglo-Irish influence on Arabic literature, opened up exciting new vistas for me in the Arab world. Yusuf and I talked incessantly and excitedly about literature and I’m grateful for what I learnt from him when living on the Red Sea coast.
 caighdean oifigiúl: Irish for official classification when referring to the ‘correct or acceptable version’ of the Irish language in use in Ireland in official documents, the media, education or general use. One can consider this as the Irish equivalent of ‘RP’ – Received Pronunciation – as used in the UK. However in this case, I am taking poetic liberty & ascribing a social nuance in addition to the linguistic meaning – pronounced ‘kydawn ifigewel’.