Dancing Bare

by Rigby Taylor

Chapter 23


The beach the following morning was a wide sandy expanse facing the Straits and Spain. The wind was cold, the water probably partly sewage, but the sun was hot – a perfect cure for depression. Men sunbathed behind wicker wind breaks. No women visible. As I gazed at the view, a perfect specimen of well-endowed manhood in a tiny red bikini, headed purposefully towards me.

Handsome Spaniards are fine and splendid. Handsome Arabs are coarse and splendid with large noses, jaws, eyes, cheekbones, shoulders, hands… They often appear intense; unafraid to expose strong emotions such as delight, concentration, ecstasy, anger… especially self-righteous anger as I was about to experience. What they never seem to suffer is self-doubt.

Gazing arrogantly down he launched into a diatribe.

When he finally realised I wasn't an Arab, had understood nothing, and my abbreviated swimwear didn't mean I was touting for business on his patch, he calmed down and in sexily accented English asked if I would like to be fucked for five dirhams, shaking his head in disbelief at my refusal. He was offering me half price because he was so attracted to me. Mmm… heard that one before.

Before leaving to find someone more susceptible to his charms, he pointed out a large restaurant built on the sands a short distance up the beach, on the flat roof of which men could sunbathe naked. As a seamless tan is preferable, I wandered nonchalantly through what was clearly an expensive restaurant for well-heeled male tourists, and mounted the stairs.

The flat roof sported recliners and umbrellas and about forty pale, flabby executive-type Europeans between the ages of thirty and eighty. A dozen or so beautiful young men – slim, golden-brown, fit, and healthy, were chatting up the tourists, lounging nonchalantly around the parapet or sitting on mats oiling themselves. I'd stumbled on a few of the hundreds of sex-starved, wealthy Englishmen fleeing the cold and laws of their homeland.

At the time, however, I was as ignorant of this sexually inspired migration as I was of everything else. I'd been to school but had no education. One of the Englishmen might have been Joe Orton who, along with other writers and actors, was wont to enjoy the fleshpots of Tangiers in the halcyon days before his murder. But of course I'd never heard of him so didn't think to look.

The hospitable Tunisian labourers on the French Riviera the previous summer had demonstrated sexual flexibility, but I hadn't expected the trade to be quite so blatant! It certainly wasn't legal – Islamic and Moroccan law specifically denounced it. The big hotels never permitted Moroccan boys on the premises, to avoid being accused of running brothels, so wealthy foreigners rented luxurious villas in the better areas of Tangiers where no holes were barred, so to speak, at parties and soirées.

Today, a resurgence of Islam has resulted in the creation of the Moroccan Tourist Police, charged with stopping western decadence from defiling their pure Islamic heritage. Young men still ply their trade, but it is very dangerous for the foreigners. Those caught in 'sin' are cast into Moroccan jails and punished severely. As a result, Tunisia more or less replaced Morocco as the gay-sex venue for older, wealthy men who fancy arrogant, tough, and contemptuous Semitic men and boys. According to an acquaintance who made an annual pilgrimage to Tunis, even policemen augment their pitifully small wages by peddling their penises. Although that trade too has now become dangerous.

No sooner had I stripped and spread myself over a towel, than a dinner-suited waiter arrived with tea, a sweet cake, and a bill for ten dirhams! It was going to be an expensive tan. Reverie was disturbed by a discreet cough. I gazed up at a pair of sunburnt testicles dangling beneath a slightly flabby, but excessively well-bred Englishman. Would one pound entice me to lunch at a restaurant, followed by an afternoon in bed?

I declined in heavily accented English, because my fee was twenty-five pounds. His jaw dropped along with his breeding. "Fuck off!" he snorted, heading for a boy several years younger and superior in every way to me, with whom he left a few minutes later. Perhaps he had hoped that as I looked so pale and tired I'd be cheap.

The cake sufficed for lunch and I stayed until the sun lost its heat. As I dressed, a lean and desperate young man asked if I'd like him to go home with me – only one pound. When he learned the name of my hotel, however, he shrugged in contempt and disappeared.

I admired but wasn't tempted by the rent boys; put off by their air of superiority and derision for men who enjoy tenderness and kissing and sex with other men. Up close, even the most perfect body has flaws. If I love or like that person and my feelings are reciprocated, then the blemishes can add to their charms. If, however, my bed-mate simply sees me as a fool to be used to satisfy his own desires, then those little imperfections; mole, scar, pimple, crossed tooth or blackhead… become impossibly disfiguring and passion is quenched.

I knew from experience that rent boys usually feel disdain for their patrons. They might hide it well, but sex for cash is always a mercantile transaction; never love, mutual respect, or friendship. And for me, unless I was being well paid, sex without those things is pointless. Having been blessed with a vivid imagination I preferred to pleasure myself with fantasy companions who were both flawlessly beautiful and in love with me.

The old city and Kasbah are densely populated but not large in area. I never read guidebooks before going anywhere; they destroy the sense of adventure and discovery. Suddenly entering the forecourt of an ancient mosque, the huge, studded gates of the old fort, or peering into the courtyard of a sultan's palace are memories that stick with me because of their complete unexpectedness. The rest of Tangiers seemed relatively modern, dull, and not worth seeing. I didn't traipse goggle-eyed around the villas of obscenely wealthy ex-pats such as Barbara Hutton – the Woolworth heiress – or hang around the cafés and expensive yachts in the harbour.

My major interest when travelling has always been to discover how I would have lived had I been born in that place. I was lucky to have been among the first of the young European back-packers to travel to North Africa and experience extraordinary generosity, kindness, and hospitality; both on this visit and when hitch-hiking from Morocco to Egypt a couple of years later. It was a hospitality I never sought, was at pains not to abuse, and for which I was hugely grateful. Today, anti-Arab propaganda has been so successful it's difficult to convince Europeans of the inherent kindness and generosity of those much-maligned people, which I'm sure continues despite the religious extremism that has arisen as a counter to western hegemony.

By 1970, swarms of penniless youths, having heard tales of wondrous hospitality, were cadging their way around the southern Mediterranean and across the Middle East as far as India, deliberately bludging off the inhabitants whose hospitality soon curdled to hostility when they realised they were being used by the relatively wealthy youth of Europe who would return home boasting how they had stayed in someone's house, been taken everywhere and treated like a prince – and it hadn't cost them a penny! That same generation is responsible for skewing world trade for the benefit of 'the West', to the disadvantage of African and other 'developing' countries.

Needing to buy something, I asked directions of a young man who took my hand and led me through a maze of alleyways to my destination, waited till I'd finished, then invited me to mint tea in a café where we sat holding hands while swapping experiences in French and English. He was a student in mathematics hoping for a scholarship to the Sorbonne. Holding hands was not considered sexual – it was friendship.

Later that afternoon, my chestnut-haired pimp also took me by the hand through even more densely packed streets to buy some hashish – an essential rite of passage, so I'd been told, for all Europeans when staying in Tangiers. A green wooden door in an inconspicuous lane opened into a courtyard surrounded by three tiers of wrought-iron-decorated balconies belonging to a dozen apartments: a 'termite hill' of mothers, children, old men and older women.

Washing hung from lines strung from balcony to balcony. Shutters gave privacy to darkened rooms. A gnarled fig tree shaded a central well. Braziers glowed in darkened interiors, cooking food emitted odd odours. A radio blared Arab music. Children cried, called to each other. Mothers scolded…

An unpainted, ornately carved door opened into a long narrow room containing men in traditional dress sitting on cushions around a hookah on a low carved table. After an animated discussion with the owners in which Chestnut had to assure them I was 'safe', I was sold a small quantity of dark brown sticky stuff and an elegant little turned-wood, hashish-pipe stem and three little terracotta bowls. I was then ushered to a cushion and given a fresh mouthpiece, so I could join the men at the hookah and draw the cool, rose-scented smoke into my lungs, hold it, and slowly exhale as they did.

The room began to revolve. I shook my head and things cleared. By the time I realised Chestnut had gone, I was wobbly. Gravely, I shook the hands of my unsmiling companions and left. It took an hour of increasing panic to find the hotel. I knew it was illegal for foreigners to smoke hashish and had been told it was the eyes that gave you away by remaining more or less fixed and unfocussed. To conceal this, I flicked my eyes around constantly – must have looked demented. A deep breath would clear everything for a few seconds, enough to orientate, then the world folded up again and I drifted to the next corner where another deep breath would give me a few seconds of sanity.

Back at the hotel, I collapsed and slept till evening. There was no hangover, but it was an experience I had no desire to repeat, so went out into the square and gave the packet to a delighted Chestnut who took me to the men-only Dancing Boy Café where an obviously bored and far too succulent pre-pubescent lad wearing yellow harem trousers slung low enough to reveal a deep navel, and coin bracelets around wrists and ankles, performed a belly dance. I didn't find it erotic and said as much to Chestnut.

We sipped tea and applauded modestly, like the other locals. Foreigners were not welcome in that café; thankfully, I passed as a local. However, four Americans somehow bought their way in. They were raucous, loud, and destroyed the ambience. Why do people travel in groups? They insulate each other from reality and experience little of value. When alone, sensations are magnified, casual acquaintances are possible, and life becomes a vivid experience. The occasional bout of loneliness is a small price to pay.

The following afternoon while returning from the beach, I collided with a young man carrying a crate of fruit. Together we gathered them up and he invited me back to his house – a green door in a blank wall opened into a courtyard surrounded by many rooms, with a small fountain and several orange trees in pots. His bedroom was on the left of the entrance where he left me to go and speak with his mother, returning with lemonade and cakes.

He worked for his father, a fruit merchant. Would I like to go with them to an orchard the following day? I would, so he took me back to the hotel, cancelled my room, obtained a refund and carried my rucksack back to his place. We ate with his father, sitting on cushions around a low, beautiful table in a room decorated only by a large panel of Arabic script. Food was served by his mother, yashmak firmly in place. She ate with her daughters in the kitchen.

That night, and for the next two, I slept in his bed; he on mats on the floor. There was no way I was allowed to sleep on the floor and, sadly, for he was a most agreeable young man, he exhibited no desire whatever to share the bed.

The trip to the orchard was through bleak and inhospitable hilly land, cut through by stony dry riverbeds. Occasionally we passed a fertile patch with a few houses of the most primitive kind – mere adobe huts like something out of a western movie. I couldn't see how anyone scratched a living from such aridity. The orchard was in a fertile valley. Several acres of magnificent fruit trees in full flower.

Craggy, lean workers ignored us. The owner was fat, self-important and garrulous. Business concluded, we took a different route home, eating in a roadside restaurant. In the evening my friend took me to an outdoor café with his friends where I was shouted soft drinks – no alcohol, of course. It took a great deal of persuasion before I was permitted to also shout everyone a drink. The simple presents I bought for his parents were received with embarrassment. I was a guest and it was their duty as good Muslims to treat strangers well. They neither expected, nor wanted a reward. That would come from Allah when they died.

Too soon it was time to board the ferry for Gibraltar, which looks exactly like the photos. The town was a narrow street lined with English tea houses, English shops, and English commercial establishments jammed between the western side of the rock and the naval base, where a cricket game was in progress, watched by elderly men in slacks and reefer jackets and their sun-frocked wives sipping tea in the shade of a marquee beside a grandstand.

Most workers, shop assistants and so on were Spanish, adding an exotic touch to the dull, whey-faced Englishness of the place. At the far southern end of the main street was Toc H, a series of bomb shelter bunkers that an enterprising fellow had converted into a youth hostel. It was cheap and friendly, but one day in that outpost of empire, during which I shared a taxi tour of the sights with four Canadians, was quite enough. Early the next morning I walked the mile to the Spanish border.

Spain claims Gibraltar as its own (never mind that Spain refuses to relinquish Ceuta, a tiny bit of Morocco). To underline their displeasure at the continuing English occupation of its territory, the border across the narrow neck of the peninsular was regularly closed to create annoyance. Only Spanish passport holders were allowed through so the workers who kept the tiny colony functioning could keep their jobs.

I waited all that day with aircraft taking off right next door – the airport traverses the peninsular virtually on the border, and sensible people fly in and out to avoid the inconvenience I was experiencing. That night I slept on the ground behind the guardroom in case the border opened early the next morning. As he was going off duty, one of the guards, a sad Welshman, brought me some sandwiches and a mug of tea and warned me to be very careful if I ever got to Spain, because Spaniards weren't Europeans but a bastard race – mongrels of Arabic, Moorish and gypsy blood; thieving, lying brigands who carried knives and would stab you for a few pesetas.

The following morning at eight-thirty the border opened for half an hour. Many commercial vehicles left the colony but only three cars, all English, all heading for London, all turning their heads away in silent disdain when I asked for a ride. I walked the hundred yards to Spain, was frisked, interrogated, searched, and dismissed as an idiot.

A few minutes later a Spaniard took me on the back of his motorbike to the nearest town where my luck ran out. It took three days of busses and trains to reach Port Bou, just south of the French border.

All the way up the Spanish Mediterranean coastline, signs of the horrors to come were visible. Miles of high-rise apartment blocks being constructed right on the beach. Soon, the Spaniards wouldn't have access to their own beaches. Again, I had to walk across the frontier – no one wants to take a hitchhiker through border crossings; if they're carrying contraband everyone suffers.

The French were difficult when they saw Moroccan stamps in my passport, so I was glad I'd not kept the hashish. Rain, cold and storms right through France persuaded me to jettison parsimonious principles and take trains, sleep in pensions, and eat in restaurants.

I arrived in London with one and sixpence in my pocket; re-born, refreshed, and raring to go despite the damp drabness of everything. I'd only been away a few weeks, but it seemed a lifetime in which I'd regained my enthusiasm.

The usual chaos surrounded Alwyn and Edgar. Jeremy had been accepted for RADA (the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art) and left. Hal had been offered a part in Coronation Street and was now in Manchester hoping for more roles in TV soaps. Terry had suffered a heart attack – a by-product of steroids, according to Edgar. With our first show in a week, we had to find three new players.

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