I got to Melilla by way of Nador, Morocco. I took a bus from Tétouan to Nador because there is no direct public transportation from Ceuta to Melilla and because any Spanish transportation would have cost a lot more. After that 7 or 8 hour bus ride, the thirty-minute drive from Nador to Beni Ansar (the neighborhood next to the border) felt like an eternity.
After crossing from Fnideq to Ceuta multiple times without any difficulties, I was anticipating a trouble free crossover to Melilla but it turned out to be the opposite. The Moroccan border patrol thought it was strange that I had a US passport but was speaking to them in Spanish, so they brought me into the booth and kept probing for information until I could satisfy their need for suspicion. They asked me if I had a camera and like any "tourist" would, of course I did.
I was taken into their office, claiming I was a reporter. They looked through my pictures, all of which were taken in Ceuta (Spain), some but few of the border and others with friends, and they made me delete every last one. While a couple of the agents left to make copies of my documents, another agent in plain clothes asked me whether I was married and why I was alone in a different kind of tone. All the officers laughed and I finally spoke up. "What's so funny? I came into your office to handle an administrative immigration process and you're making jokes? This is not professional, appropriate or even legal for you to ask me questions that don't pertain to my reasons for coming in or out of this country."
Smirking, the agent in charge dismissed the one who had asked me the questions then pretended to put on a serious face. Feeling ridiculed and hoaxed riled up my nerve. When the agent in plain clothes came back to lead me to the booth to stamp my passport, I took advantage of the moment to ask him for his name. I said, "You're going to talk legality over some pictures I have every right to take in another country, then act completely unprofessional with me, and not be held responsible? No!" He tried apologizing but I wasn't having it. I’ll admit I was upset about his treatment towards me but even more about losing my pictures, so this was a moment of revenge. We went back into the office and talked to the agent in charge again until he said a report would be written, which I highly doubted. He made the agent in plain clothes apologize again. Then, to complete his performance, he held his hand to his forehead and said I was causing him stress, which was not good for his diabetes. Wow! It was unbelievable and somehow impressive that he could get away with this behavior at any given time with his authority. “What a fraud,” I thought “you and the border you’re supposedly protecting with these little performances.”
After about 45 minutes of my continued allegations, two more Moroccan agents approached us to try to placate me with more false apologies. Getting nowhere with words, they all suddenly walked away from me like men who walk away from a televised soccer game when their team is bound to lose. For me to continue arguing would have been beating a dead horse, so I walked away too. Alas, I used the privilege of my U.S. passport for what it was worth, hoping they might reconsider the ways they treat women in the future, while also imagining how Moroccan/African migrant or working women are harassed and assaulted every day with complete impunity.*
Melilla’s Annual Street Fair
Once I reached “the other side” or Melilla, I took the first bus to the center of the city where my friend lived. He immediately told me that I had arrived during Melilla’s annual street fair and that I should get settled and meet him there. From what I had heard, Melilla is larger and more racially diverse and integrated in comparison to Ceuta. It made me curious to see how this racial dynamic would be reflected at the street fair where the whole small town would gather.
In general, the fair was racially and culturally Spanish in representation. The music, the performances, the food and the language was Spanish but in the crowds were countless of Moroccans of all walks of life: young and old families, teenage groups and street vendors. Many wore Muslim clothing; many did not, just like many people wore traditional Spanish attire, which to my growing knowledge is also influenced by Moorish culture. I didn’t see these families or groups interacting with each other too much, aside from of buying and selling exchanges, but there was a general peaceful coexistence.
I quickly took notice of the Sub Saharan African or darker complexioned people there because there were so few. There was one woman, who had a hair-braiding table where mostly young Spanish girls got their hair done, and about 2 or 3 families walking within the crowds. This was interesting to me because there are hundreds of Sub Saharan African refugees staying at CETI (Centro de Estancia Temporal de Inmigrantes) in Melilla. This is an open residency, meaning people are free to go in and out until a curfew night hour like in Ceuta. In Ceuta, African migrants weren’t necessarily integrated into Spanish social circles but they were at least visible throughout the center of the city. Suppose that in Melilla, CETI is relatively farther from the center of the city; that it takes money to get from there to the fair on public transportation; and that these simple yet key obstacles would be the only things keep migrants away from the rest of the city. That would not only relieve the city’s general fear of seeing and interacting with migrants if they showed up to the fair in groups but also absolve them from addressing the truth of racism in Melilla.
Racist dynamics were obvious at the fair in both silent and overt ways like when a Moroccan woman asked a Spanish food vendor to prepare her a baked potato without ham. Once she walked away he loudly complained about her to all his remaining Spanish costumers about the inconvenience of having to think about whether to include ham in his potatoes or not. Macro and micro-aggressions were rampant and mostly normalized as jokes. But discrimination didn’t play itself out through race only; it was evident in class as well. For example, I noticed there were few poor but predominantly Moroccan children walking around looking for food and sweets. After setting out to find treats individually, they met back up with their friends to share what they either found or people gave them. This world was completely different from the children whose parents bought them all the snacks or tickets to any ride they wanted. There is nothing easy about fending for your own food and amusement as a kid but I would almost say that for the brief moment when they gathered with their friends to share this experience, they might have had the same if not more fun than the ones fed with a silver spoon. In the end, a child’s joy is universal and a reminder that all children are deserving of the same consideration and protection.
In order to observe the daily flow of cross border commerce between Beni Ansar and Melilla, I was told that I had to be at the border by 6am. It was still dark out when I arrived at 6:30am. There were little if any people around and as random as it was, I did my best to suppress my nervous energy and profess that, “I was a tourist visiting Morocco”. I had avoided crossing altogether after my first distressing experience dealing with the Moroccan border patrol but this was my only chance to witness how cross border commerce functioned.
“What is your reason to cross?” the Moroccan border patrol agent asked me after I handed him my US passport. “It’s my last day in the region and I’m just taking advantage of the day to spend some time in Morocco.” I said robotically, “maybe go shopping…” I added lightly like American tourist icing-on-the-cake. “Everything is closed,” he said “it’s 5:30 in the morning.” “That’s right!” I gasped to the benefit of my ignorant tourist façade. I had in fact forgotten that Morocco and Spain were on different time zones (even if it's one piece of land) and was internally happy to be early rather than late! “Well, I guess I’ll have to wait until things open up.” He looked puzzled, but he let me go. “How could anyone argue against something like that?” I thought. No doubt, playing an ignorant U.S. tourist lets you get away with a whole lot.
On the other side, everything was closed, except for a café on the left side of the street. I quickly walked there to get out of the shadows of these streets I had no real knowledge of or business in. The café was busy considering the time. Most of the people there were workers getting their day started with their first caffeine and sugar kick. My presence there was as random as a person going into the wrong house but I walked and talked discreetly in an attempt to dull the attention. I ordered coffee and found an empty seat at a table to quietly take out my notebook. Outside of the movement and quiet conversations in the café, everything was still, dark, frozen and abandoned in some time warp. The wide street leading into the border entrance stretched in front of me with rows of empty parked cars, lined bumper to bumper.
“What am I doing here?” I thought, but before I could twist my mind into an existential crisis, things began to move. It was about 10 minutes before 6am and men started coming out of the cuts to get into the cars and start the engines. Scattered, the sounds of ignitions began, first one, two, and then two or three at a time, some of them long or repeated, spark plugs failing to connect, fan belts screeching into even spins. Then women appeared, walking individually, then in groups, heading to form a large line towards Melilla. It was as if the movement of people pulled the sun from the ground, shinning light onto this operation, a machine with countless human moving parts. Another day of commerce had begun like clockwork, a factory as large as a city, as bi-national as this border, pushing money and products on the backs of its poorest people and their broken cars.
In the distance I saw border patrolmen coming out and standing at the entrance of the crossing, ordering people in whichever direction they were supposed to go. A border patrol agent suddenly approached a group of young men in front of me, aggressively pushing one of them and yelling in his face as he held him up by the neck of his shirt. I watched nervously as the young man asserted and reasserted in his own defense without fighting back. The border patrol must have felt my stare because he glanced in my direction, relaxing his grip until he let him go. He walked back and stood at the entrance of the crossing again but every time the group of young men grew, he’d take his club out and swing it threateningly at them. Whether the young men were getting in line to enter Melilla or waiting for something or someone on the side, I wasn’t sure but they would inevitably gather again. It became a repeated and almost futile ebb and flow, but nonetheless, a clear and violent manifestation of power between a uniformed oppressor and the working class, young oppressed.
I closed my notebook and observed border life in its full and grandiose motion while I waited for a friend to come from Melilla so we could walk along the border fence together. We walked until we reached another border crossing designated more specifically for porteador@s but the workers had not reached the Moroccan side yet. Most of the packing, loading and transporting work was still taking place on the Spanish side so we crossed back. Crossing back into Melilla with my Spanish and with very European looking friend made things easier. The Moroccan border patrol didn’t question me for any of the reasons they had done previously, even though I filled the immigration slip and presented my passport in the exact same way.
The Other Side of the Same Commerce
Back in Melilla we headed to the warehouse section right next to the border crossing. Along the streets we saw porteador@s coming in and out of warehouse gates with boxes containing every type of product under the sun: food, clothing, cleaning supplies, appliances, shoes… you name it. Most of the men loaded these onto their cars while the women tightly re-packaged products into bundles so big and heavy that they would sit on the floor to tie them onto their backs, then use the strength of their legs to lift them up. Inhumane. Then you had Spanish police directing porteador@s like traffic, telling them when to stop and go towards the crossing back to Morocco.
It struck me how convenient it is for people who don’t do this work to consider it or refer to it as illegitimate. In part this is rightfully so because there is no company that grants or guarantees them a salary or any type of benefits. It’s interesting however that Spanish police aka the government is fully integrated and complicit in the overt exploitation of Moroccan people. It was even more interesting to be chastised and have our ID information documented by Spanish police for taking pictures in this open area, as if we were the ones infringing the law or people’s rights.
It was devastating to witness such raw exploitation of people but what made it all harder to digest was how normal it seemed to the surrounding Spanish community, how nonchalantly joggers passed by in their bright colored shorts and t-shirts.
*It is locally known among socially conscious circles that Morocco/Moroccan border patrol are paid to do Spain's dirty work of keeping African migrants from crossing into Melilla and acting as the threatening force of border security. In addition to being absolved from the violence perpetrated on migrants, this also gives Spanish people permission to criticize Moroccan police and border patrol for the ways they abuse their power.