"Travel makes one modest. You see what a tiny space you occupy in the world." -Gustave Flaubert
Though the continents of Spain and Morocco are separated by the Strait of Gibraltar, a small piece of Europe is actually located in Northern Morocco.
Ceuta and Mellila are Spanish cities located in Africa, but are technically still a part of Spain. The region has been a spot of dispute in otherwise friendly relations between Spain and Morocco, as Morocco would like to make the port towns a part of Morocco once again. In the meantime, this border has become a haven for the smuggling of illegal goods and people. Moroccans who live in the bordering Moroccan cities are allowed to work in the Spanish cities, and will also often bring goods back and forth between the two countries.
In mid-October, we had a chance to see what it is like to cross an international border, and see some of these issues in person. The procedure was simple, but the experience was layered with observations on who is allowed to pass from one continent to the other.
We got on a bus in Fnideq, the Moroccan city that borders Ceuta. Fnideq is a bustling, typical Moroccan city: as we drove we passed signs in Arabic and French, a large ornate mosque, local shops selling street meat and bread as we entered a main road. On the trip we were handed a white immigration paper to fill out by our program director. A name, country of residence and reason for visiting is all I had time to write before we got from downtown Fnideq to the border to enter Ceuta. We parked on the side of a wide road that narrows to one lane in the span of 100 yards, as cars and people were funneled toward the border that separates Morocco from Spain.
From a distance, the border entrance looked unnatural, like a plastic Lego block forced between a rocky foothill of the Rif Mountains and the cerulean Mediterranean Sea. The blue and white painted immigration building and fences look more like the entrance to a county fair than the line between two countries. But the mood was far too tense for a carnival. It was the morning rush hour. People scrambled down a rocky foothill cliff next to the border entrance (where some camp overnight to be closer to the border earlier in the morning) to the road below, a colorful stream of clothing against the sandy rock. An awkward combination of gravity and unsure steps allowed them to zigzag to the pavement below. At the base, some Moroccans sold goods off blankets and carts to the commuters and recent border crossers, but most people reached the road and headed straight to border. Many ran to get in line, even a hunched elderly man with thick glasses, aided by a cane and a younger man at his elbow, pushed his crippled joints to their maximum speed in a strained shuffle to get in line.
As we neared the border, the bottleneck thickened. Cars, motorbikes, buses, bicycles and people swarmed together and self-segregated to the appropriate line. Blue American and red Spanish passports denoted the line of tourists with suitcases, who spoke into blue ticket booths covered in thick glass about their white slips of paper that allow them to stay in Ceuta as long as they want. Green passports denoted the citizens of Fnideq with daypacks, or nothing at all: these are the people who are allowed to stay in Spain for the day, but no more. They are Moroccan citizens born into a special region who’s ID cards grant them access to Spain for 24 hours at a time. However, most didn’t even need the pass; they go through the border everyday to work. The police officer knew them by face, and nodded as they passed through the gate in clumps of four or five. The air was pungent with exhaust fumes and cigarette smoke.
The people in the line were mostly middle-aged women and younger men. They were mostly alone, but a few made small talk with one or two friends. But they kept pressing forward. No one looked or moved backwards.
We got our passports back from the immigration desk and lined up in a queue separated by a steel gate and a blue cement wall. The wall, once a pleasant shade of Chefchaouen indigo
was stained with dirt from thousands of hands brushing, and backs leaning on the structure of what separated them from the other side. Through a square cut out in the wall, I saw a man sitting against a cement wall thumbing through his green passport. He closed it, and looked to the border, but remained seated. We said goodbye to our Moroccan program director: since he doesn’t have a visa for Spain (which Moroccan citizens have to get through an application process), he couldn’t join us on our afternoon across the border.
Slowly we made our way through the line, several women in djellabahs impatiently push past us. As we got closer to the policeman checking our passports, it became clear the only thing separating the two countries were four police officers and a few metal gates. Some officers joked and smoked cigarettes as they checked passports, and waved people through. Our officer took about two seconds per passport to let us through; no eye contact was even made.
Once we were through, the signs were solely in Spanish. On the left side behind a blue chain link fence, a busy market was in full swing, cheap goods sold in tax-free Ceuta are a booming trade. Along the sidewalk just 100 feet from the border, people were lined up with massive shopping carts of merchandise, carting it off to sell for the day.
We boarded another bus and begin down the Mediterranean coast to the center of Ceuta. Bustling Moroccan streets were replaced with couples and joggers, local shops with chic boutiques and mosques with Catholic churches. Though we went less than a mile, and remained on the same continent, we entered Europe.