On March 11th 2004, a series of bomb attacks took place on Madrid’s suburban rail network, just three days before the country was due to hold national elections. M/11, as these attacks have since come to be known, was masterminded and carried out by a group of North Africans who were in Spain as presumed immigrants. The attacks placed a new and burning intensity on the already heated debates about immigration, for now, it had become plain to the Spanish eyes that immigration from North Africa, in the age of ‘ terror,’ should be seen not just as that, but also as a security risk.

The bombers, it appeared, had received their training in the area of Tetouan, not far from Tangier. As a European nation guarding the southern border of the continent, the Straits of Gibraltar became a frontier zone in the geopolitical mappings of terror. However, if we flip our point of view to the ‘other’ shore that lies south, we see that the view northward from the coastline of Tangier is one of desire and dream. For many who live in the uncertain haze of this city, caught between Africa and Europe, Tangier is the launching pad for a better life in Europe. For many, it is also a waiting place, a no-man’s land, a city of transit and a city of dead-ends.

Human migration, when triggered by economic factors, rather than forced by war, ethnic violence or natural disaster, begins, not with the crossing of borders per se, but with the movement of imagination across space. Prior to the act of migration, therefore, is the mental projection to an ‘other’ place which lies beyond the limits of the here and now. Such projection of the imaginary often occurs not only through the active determination on the part of individuals to migrate but also through incursions made into local cultures by the discourses of globalisation. The result is a displacement of the spaces and times of the present in favour of a future that dwells as yet in the imagination.

The dreams born of such displacement propels immigrants to seek economic empowerment abroad and sustain their will to face risks and struggle against the odds. In few other places is the suspension of the present in favour of an imagined or envisioned future so evident or so tangible as in the city of Tangier, in northern Morocco. Here, on a clear day, the shores of Europe are visible from the city’s Kasbah. Confronting the narrow, winding streets of the old town, with its shops selling Berber artefacts, its crumbling walls and countless tea-shops are the imagined and the real prospects of Europe, tantalizingly near and yet uncompromisingly separated by a geographic, political and economic chasm better known as the Straits. At this northern edge of Africa, the pull of Europe is felt almost physically. Equally, it is at this point that the borders of difference loom large against a common Mediterranean skyline.

In Tangier, a series of complex crossings of spaces and times, mark its location on the peripheries the west, and at the southern edge of Europe. If Tangier is viewed from the global north as a place that threatens the security of the First World, then, in fact, it is a place where life for many is lived in terms of an abiding and profound sense of risk. For risk in this city entails not the threat of an impending disaster, but, rather, life lived in the midst of and through the uncertainties of the marginal. Thus, life in Tangier is lived on the fault line, in the abyss, in the third space of the liminal, in the political and economic interstices between First World and Third.

Risk is also, of course, a key element of capitalist enterprise, the modus vivendi of late capitalism, that maintains itself by feeding off the margins. And Tangier provides rich fodder for this enterprise in ways that profoundly impact upon human lives and human security. Tangier is the intensified locus of an imaginary invention of Europe upon which the growing and hugely risky phenomenon of migration across the Straits is based. Countless numbers of hopeful migrants die in the waters here each year. The immigrant dream of a materially enhanced future projects onto the geography of Europe, turning it in the imaginary into a paradise of capitalist wellbeing, with Spain as the nearest point of entry.

Due to its position on the coast, Tangier is the geopolitical site from where the casting of this dream across the Straits into Europe becomes, for many who remain in Africa, most real, most forceful and most daunting. Globalisation is central to the construction of such dreams in the migrant imaginary. It imposes socio-political and economic practices, discourses, narratives and images that have a crucial impact on the cultural identity of locals . In turn, these influences greatly shape the mental mappings that potential migrants hold of their own futures in Europe, and by extension of Europe as the site of ‘the good life.’

What results is the drive northward, as migrants move in search of fulfilling the promised dream. Consequently, the social landscape of places of emigration is severely disrupted, as also the urban landscape of cities, such as Tangier, which undergo acute alterations. The socio-cultural triggers that lead to the migrant dream of a better life as witnessed in Tangier reveal the effects of globalisation and other economic factors on the imaginary of the postcolonial. These effects call upon historically established imbalances of power between the West and its ‘others,’ in order to draw out from the postcolonial imaginary those ingrained visions of western wellbeing and power that hark back to the days of European colonial expansion in Africa. The dream of emigration, then, is not merely a contemporary phenomenon, but one that is closely implicated in the complex trajectories of capital and power, which have been generated from Europe in previous centuries and which continue to persist, albeit in different guises, in the present day.

Tangier has a quasi-cervical function, as the start of a bottleneck, i.e., the Straits that will open on to their ‘new and better lives.’ In Morocco, a country where over 75% of the population are still under the age of twenty-five, the socio-cultural impact of globalisation combines with a lack of economic and social infrastructure in order to foment the dream of a better life elsewhere . This, together with the physical proximity of Spain, a country whose gross domestic product is over seventeen times greater than that of Morocco, turns the crossing of the Straits into an extremely attractive proposition, especially for the young. This city is at once caught in the typically postmodern contradictions of lingering traditions and the incomplete and extremely uneven spread of modernity  and, more importantly, globalisation. A key feature of the latter is the disjuncture resulting from the co-existence of difficult socio-economic realities and the desires and dreams spawned by late capitalism.


In abrupt contrast to such images was the obvious poverty of the city – the sights of unemployed men spending all day over a mint tea in the teashops or of women with young infants begging on the streets. Visitors to the city are often accosted on the street by Moroccans who are both young and old, offering to be ‘tourist guides.’ For many, any job, however temporary, will do, for it is better than no job at all. This is so, especially in a country where high unemployment combines with no welfare from the state. The presence of tourists come to savour the long faded glamour of Tangier, once an international city, serves only to exacerbate the economic shortcomings that are present.

The dream of Europe is rendered even more acute by the imposition of unilateral travel rights, allowing Europeans free entry into Morocco, whilst prohibiting the free movement of Moroccans into Europe. From a North to South perspective, Tangier is also thus the boundary with the Orient, turning Morocco into a gateway for tourists who seek the delights of a fleeting taste of exotic otherness. Such tourists come with the purchasing capacity in terms of the Moroccan dirham that is made possible by their powerful currencies -- the euro, the dollar, the British pound, those currencies that support and sustain the global hegemony of a First World in economic, and hence political, domination over the Third. These northern tourists are seen by local inhabitants alongside the many diasporic Moroccans, often now members of the European Union, who return ‘home’ every summer from Spain, France and elsewhere in Europe, loaded with goods that cannot be purchased locally, proof of their success ‘abroad.’ Moroccans, who could travel freely to Europe until some fifteen years ago, are now barred from the secluded space of the European Union unless they have been able to obtain visas. As a result, they feel ‘cut off’ from crossing the Straits, whilst Europeans are not. Not only Europeans visit Tangier: more importantly, the European way of life is promoted through transnational enterprise that seeks to capture the wealthy minority who have purchasing power. Similarly, the large billboards and the many bank advertisements that abound in the city, encouraging Moroccans abroad to bank with them, marks out the ‘European’ from the Moroccan. The resultant contrast is stark: while the European is perceived to be a ‘welcome guest’ in Morocco, the local population, and particularly young men, are perceived and perceive of themselves at once as aliens in their own land.

Underlying such displacements are long histories of colonisation and subjugation to European powers that have shaped the colonised mind, as Frantz Fanon has so clearly shown in his work (1967), to the benefit of established structures of power. Fanon’s writings expose the psychological effects of colonisation, whereby the colonised perceive of their own identities via the discourses and narratives of dominant powers. For Fanon, colonisation is ultimately an intimately personal, and psychological, process, a rupture within the psyche, as history, and by extension, identity, is lived in terms of wound.

Needless to say, this sense of self-dislocation in the colonised extends historically well beyond the end of colonial rule. It persists in the present day in the higher valorisation attached to European languages – English, Spanish, French, for example—than to local languages, for example. Thus, the economic, political and cultural subservience of colonial times has extended in Morocco beyond decolonisation, in ways typical of postcolonial nations, to dislocate subjects in terms of imagined aspirations, allegiances and belongings, as opposed to real ones. Equally, Europe as the former centre of colonial rule, continues to exert political and economic force in the Mediterranean region, as well as global economic centrality. The result can be seen in the tension between a ‘here’ and an ‘elsewhere’ present in Tangier. This tension manifests itself most vividly through the fact that from a historical perspective, globalisation, far from levelling out difference, exacerbates differences of class, those between rich and poor, through material or economic demarcations. Furthemore, Tangier’s own shift away from its past glories as an international city gives it the tired air of having been ‘ousted’ or exiled from itself. In more contemporary contexts, then, the historical dislocation of colonisation translates into that produced by globalisation and the dreams it spawns.

Perhaps the first stage of this dislocation is the perception of abjectness in the here and now. In her Powers of Horror (1982), Julia Kristeva considers the importance of the abject in the construction of difference. The abject, she states, plays a crucial role in this process, for it always hovers on and demarcates the boundary of the self. The abject threatens the subject’s body, so that the latter wishes to distance itself, but cannot. Equally, it serves as the border against which the self is defined. Kristeva’s analysis works at the level of individual subjectivity; when extended to include the social, and particularly when considered in the light of the history of colonisation, the demarcations between the self and the abject become blurred.

As Fanon has shown, the abject, for the colonised, is projected within the self, and not without.  In ironic reversal, therefore, of Kristeva’s normative theorization, whereby the abject at individual level lies outside of the location of the self, in Tangier what is experienced is the abject, not at the boundary, but as part of the here and now where the self is located. Only the imagination can move beyond the abject of the present towards a future that is hopeful, and it is for this reason that even the prospect of grave risk to life in the form of crossing the Straits illicitly is not seen as untenable. In the dichotomy between topographies of the mind and of space, the imaginary is seen to play a crucial role in determining human movement. Furthermore, shaping the imaginary are factors that are not solely psychological, but may also be economic, cultural or ideological. In the case of Tangier, these same narratives turn the city into a barren space where hope hovers on the horizon, but cannot take root.

This perception of the abject as part of the here and now clearly leads to a disavowal of the present among would-be migrants. In his book, Lahrig du Maroc, l’Espagne et l’UE (2002), Abdelkrim Belguendouz explores the concept of lahrig, a key aspect of the migratory phenomenon afflicting Moroccan society. Lahrig is an Arabic term that means ‘to burn.’ Ironically, it is a term that also carries connotations of liberation. Used frequently amongst Moroccan youth with reference to the act of migration, lahrig signifies both the burning of an existing identity and the subsequent release or freedom obtained through such destruction of traces of identity. In real terms, lahrig consists of destroying one’s documents of identity, challenging frontiers or boundaries and crossing illicitly into the centres of capitalist enterprise. In the same way as immolation equals liberation, so risk and insecurity mark the route of the displaced in their journeys towards a better place.

The impact of lahrig as a cultural phenomenon on the spatial perceptions held by potential migrants in Tangier is immense. Tangier becomes the last point before the destruction of identity, a point of no return opening onto the Straits and beyond. By extension, the Straits unfold as the dramatic scenario where the struggle for this new life, till now only envisioned in the imaginary, is first played out. The winners make it safely to the Spanish shores, though some will then only find themselves returned after capture by the Civil Guards. Others will make it inland. Yet others sink to the depths of the hostile Straits, their hopeful lives all too often lost in this tragic dream of migration.

Neither Morocco, nor Spain, nor the European Union can ever come up with figures of deaths in the Straits. The illicit nature of such crossings defies by definition any control or calculation. Equally, and while numerous non-governmental bodies work to avert it, there is no overwhelming drive amongst either the Spanish or the Moroccan authorities to control this tide.  The would-be migrants of Tangier are well aware of the risks they would run if they were to emigrate so. Nevertheless, this does not deter them. On the contrary, the number of hopeful émigrés mounts annually in tandem with the lives that are lost at sea.

The physical proximity of Tangier to Spain combines, therefore, with its enormous economic difference from Europe to produce a space of troubled geopolitical complexities, ones that, in the last instance, translate at the level of the individual into questions of personal risk. It is easy to understand therefore how the sea, stretching out before the inhabitants of Tangier, acts as a shifting landscape of desire that unsettles them from their sense of belonging.

Yto Barrada’s photographs exemplify such imaginary dislocation as it disrupts the here and now of Tangier. In ‘A Life Full of Holes: The Strait Project,’ this photographer, born in Tangier and now resident there and in Paris, portrays the dreams of migration that colour the imagination of young Moroccans as they contemplate crossing the Straits into Europe. In turn, the here and now of Tangier is rendered absent, irrelevant, turned into a space of transience as the imagination stretches beyond the confines of that which is physically inhabited. Her images do not represent the steep, teaming alleyways of the Kasbah or indeed the houses of the rich, with their private swimming pools that can be found on the city’s outskirts. Instead, Tangier, in her images, is a city of open stretches, wide strips of empty beach or dusty football fields, devoid of promise, where inhabitants appear stranded, alienated and removed from the pulse of life. Her subjects often look outward, as if entranced by some distant vision that only they can see. They appear suspended in time, dispersed spatially, perpetually in waiting. Importantly, many of Barrada’s subjects are children. For them, and despite their youth, Tangier appears as a wasteland, where their futures are dashed. They look out, as if past the photographer’s lens, countering the viewer’s gaze in search of a beyond. Their lives appear tattered, in rags.


Barrada tells us that: The word strait, like its French - and as chance would have it,
Arabic - equivalent, combines the senses of narrowness and distress.
The collapse of the colonial enterprise has left behind a complex legacy,
bridging the Mediterranean and shaping how movement across the
Strait of Gibraltar is managed and perceived. Before 1991 any
Moroccan with a passport could travel freely to Europe. But since
the European Union's (EU) Schengen Agreement, visiting rights have
become unilateral across what is now legally a one-way strait. A
generation of Moroccans has grown up facing this troubled space
that manages to be at once physical, symbolic, historical and
intimately personal. (2005)

For those who are too poor to make it to Europe under the pretext of studying at universities or other institutions, too poor even to make it as tourists and too unimportant to be considered politically threatening and thereby seek asylum, the only solution is to cross illicitly, handing their lives over to the care of traffickers who treat them as chattle.

The taking up of risk becomes inevitable. Looking out from Tangier, the shores of Spain are just visible on a very clear day. On a moonless night in summer, the time of year when most illicit crossings take place, the sea appears like a deep pool of ink, its waters still and motionless. For many who embark crammed into flimsy pateras, the drama of life and death will be played out here. Facing Tangier in the heart of the night lie Spain and the European Union, hovering now in the murky horizons of the imagination.

There are many young people in Tangier who look out onto this scene night after night. Tangier’s open spaces, parks and sidewalks are often home to numerous young Moroccans, displaced, homeless and prey to the dream of Europe. They come from as far away as the southern Morocco, hoping to break into a truck going into Spain or to slip into a ferry across the Strait. Two of these were Qassim and Abdallah, boys of fourteen and sixteen respectively, who had travelled together to Tangier from a small village outside Ouarzazate, near the Sahara desert. They stated that they had arrived in Tangier after weeks of hitching rides on passing trucks. They had no clear idea of exactly how long they had been in Tangier. They slept at night in parks and spent the day sitting somewhere in the souk, usually near a baker’s or a restaurant, in the hope of being given some food. Both of them appeared malnourished and underweight. Their clothes were torn and dirty. Qassim’s matted hair had begun to take on the classic copper tones of malnutrition and, though he said that he was fourteen, he looked only twelve years old. Sometimes tourists gave them money, they said. Occasionally, shopkeepers allowed them free drinks or access to a telephone to call someone in their village, so as to pass a message to their parents that they were well. Their aim was to make it to Spain. They had neither money nor papers, but they believed that with time, they would see Europe. ‘It’s better there,’ Qassim told me, ‘everyone knows that.’ Abdallah was more explicit: ‘There, they have more freedom, more money, more things to do. Here we have nothing. The government does not help us. We have no jobs, nothing to do.’ I asked them how they planned to make the trip. Did they know anyone in Spain? Did they have an idea what their life would be like after they crossed the Strait? Neither Qassim not Abdallah could answer these questions in any significant detail. No, they did not know anyone, but they would make friends on the way, just as they had gotten to know shopkeepers in Tangier. They would try to get onto a ship, perhaps or maybe a truck – many people had travelled so. As for what awaited them, they were sure it would be preferable to being in Morocco: ‘It’s better there. Someday, we hope to be in Europe, in the west.’ I asked them what they would do if they did not manage to get across despite their best efforts. The answer was succinct: ‘we will keep trying.’

Sub-Saharan Africans too come to Tangier to wait for as long as it takes to get to Europe. As Sorius Simura’s documentary Exodus (2003) shows, the trajectory from sub-Saharan Africa is arduous, expensive and fraught with danger. Simura follows the story of Osas, who is determined to make it out of Africa and into Europe in search of a better life. Africans from various different countries and ethnic groups can be seen to gather in Mali, the last major town where they can purchase necessities before the extremely hazardous crossing of the Sahara. Countless migrants die here, unable to withstand the extreme conditions of the desert. Those, like Osas, who make it across into Morocco carry on northward, until they reach Tangier. Here they wait for Moroccan traffickers to take them across. Some wait for months, others for years. Inevitably, they will need money to get across, for the traffickers charge hundreds of dollars per person. The wait can be long and frustrating; yet, the dream of Europe does not wane. Unlike migrants in Tangier who are Moroccan, the Africans are extremely vulnerable to more than homelessness or hunger: visibly distinct due to their racial traits and already illicit immigrants in Morocco, they are liable to being expelled from the country,  or detained. Nevertheless, they arrive in Tangier in growing numbers.

High up in the Medina are the numerous pensions (Pension ‘Amar, Pension Latine, Pension Al-Watan) where the Africans live. Often specific traffickers made deals with the hotel owners, so as to house one group from a specific town or country in Africa. Occasionally, the police made raids. They were well aware of the African immigrant presence, but in general it was too big a problem for them to deal with. However, rumours abound of the occasional rounding up of Africans, who are then driven all the way to the desert and then abandoned to their fate.

Few of these migrants, whether African or Moroccan, contribute positively to the city’s economy, which is already sagging due to high unemployment and other problems related to the Moroccan economy. Ironically, though, what financial hope as exists in this city at present continues to rely as in the old days on illicit practices: the growth and export of hashish or cannabis from the surrounding Rif mountains, and the income generated from the illicit trafficking of migrants across the Straits into Europe. The two sources are mutually implicated, as both rely on traffickers and ‘mules.’ Certainly in the case of migrants, displaced, unrecognised and vulnerable as they all too often are, what makes their situation at all bearable is the knowledge that out there, beyond the waters, lies a globalised, rich and powerful Europe.

Tangier, for those who wish to leave, looks incessantly out to sea; though a port and one of Morocco’s main cities, it is for many an in-between space, a dangerous and confounding third space, where identity is on hold, life itself in suspense, between the Maghreb and Europe, between the global south and the global north, between the spaces of the poor and those of the rich. Similarly, the Straits stretch out as far as the eye can go to appear as the passageway to an imagined life, a perhaps fatal challenge in the mappings of capitalist prosperity that often claims the lives of those who dare to venture into it. In this sense, Tangier becomes a space poised in deference to ‘other’, more enhanced, more empowered spaces, a non-place of passage that both sustains the northward-looking, migrant imaginary and negates itself in the process. Risk, in such contexts, does not come from outside but forms the very fabric of life in this city, poised on the brink of the unknown.


  • Yto Barrada, A Life Full of Holes: The Strait Project, Photographic Exhibition, Liverpool: Open Eye Gallery, February – April  2005 (images and notes)
    Abdelkrim Belguendouz, Lahrig du Maroc, l’Espagne et l’UE, Casablanca, LEditorial Boukili, 2002
  • Néstor García Canclini, Culturas híbridas: estrategias para entrar y salir de la modernidad, Mexico, Grijalbo, 1990
  • Driss Ben Hamed Charhadi, A Life Full of Holes, translated by Paul Bowles, New York, Grove Press, 1964
  • Frantz Fanon, Black Skin, White Masks, New York, Grove Press, 1967
  • Frederic Jameson and Masao Miyoshi (eds.), The Cultures of Globalization,
  • Durham and London: Duke University Press, 1999
  • Julia Kristeva, The Powers of Horror: an essay on abjection, translated by Leon S. Roudier, New York, Columbia University Press, 1982
  • Doreen Massey, John Allen, Philip Sarre (eds.), Human Geography Today, Cambridge, Polity Press, 1999
  • Tarik Sabry, ‘Emigration as Popular Culture: the case of Morocco’, European Journal of Cultural Studies, 2005, Vol. 8, No.1, p.5-22
  • Sorius Simura, Exodus, video, London, Insight News Television, 2003


  • Abdallah and Qassim, Tangier, July 2003
  • Ahmed, Tangier, July 2003