Drug smugglers on the ferry from Tangier

Abdulrahim had once been a famous boxer in North Africa. However, with advancing years and too many lost fights he’d given up the ring for the bottle. Andre and I encountered Abdulrahim on the ferry from Tangier to Algeciras, in southern Spain. Already quite drunk, we found him propping up the bar. He wore a threadbare suit and was tall and lanky. His battered face did not look very friendly. We gave one syllable replies to his attempts to start a conversation, and moved further down the counter, not wanting to get involved. The Spanish barman, too, was eyeing Abdulrahim warily.

The bar was not very big. It was located in an alcove of the corridor that led to the promenade deck. There were no tables and chairs; just a long counter. A little further down the corridor there was a lounge area, where you could take your drinks and sit in a comfy chair and watch the Strait of Gibraltar go by. That sounded like a grand idea, and Andre and I were just about to grab a view when two young Arabs came into the bar and ordered drinks. They looked to be in their early 20s; one tall and one short. The short one spoke English with a heavy Glaswegion accent. His name was Ali, and with his friend Hazhir (the tall one) they were travelling over to Europe on business. Both of them came from Fez, in Morocco, and Ali had learnt his rather alarming English while on a student exchange in Glasgow. Even more alarming was the fact that they were quite open about their business: drug smuggling.

Ali and Hazhir appeared to know Abdulrahim and nodded at him by way of a greeting. We were told that Abdulrahim was Algerian by birth and now lived in Tangier. Once a week he made the trip across to Spain for the sole purpose of drinking heavily in the bars and clubs of Algeciras, where he was well known and feared. Ali and Hazhir also used the ferry quite regularly, which was how the three Arabs were on nodding acquaintance.

On hearing his name mentioned, Abdulrahim staggered over and joined us. He pulled some photographs from his wallet. They were pictures of him taken shortly after winning a major African boxing tournament. The grainy prints showed a much younger Abdulrahim wearing shorts and gloves, a smile across his bruised and bloodied face. We were stuck with the older Abdulrahim, because now that he had joined our party none of us dared to tell him to leave.

The voyage across to Spain took two and a half hours. Andre and I had been bumming around Morocco for a week or two. We’re cousins, and at the time we were both in our mid 20s. Morocco is a semi-dry country; it wasn’t always easy to get a drink. Thus, once we got on that ferry we went a bit mad on the booze front. Ali and Hazhir took things at a steadier pace. Hazhir didn’t speak much English, and was a bit reserved and shy. Ali, on the otherhand, was very forthcoming and told us all about the drug business. It appeared that many other people on the ferry were smuggling drugs. From the sycophantic greetings they kept giving to Ali it seemed that he was a main man. Ali was wearing a thousand dollar suit. He pointed to the leather suitcase on the floor beside him and told us that it was filled to the brim with hashish. He said that if we didn’t believe him we could go somewhere quiet and he’d show us. We believed him.

It turned out that the tall, quiet Hazhir was still learning the trade. He was Ali’s apprentice, if you will, and this was the first time he’d been on a smuggling trip. Hazhir’s shyness and nervousness now became more understandable, because the ferry would shortly be docking in Algeciras, where the customs people were always on high alert for drug smuggling. If caught, the penalties were severe.

I asked Ali the obvious question: how the hell do you get a suitcase full of hashish through customs at Algeciras? Ali tapped the side of his nose and said in his thick Glaswegion accent that young, western backpackers like me and Andre were more likely to be stopped and searched for drugs. At that point Andre said that he had to go to the toilet. Abdulrahim also left us. The barman had finally plucked up the courage to refuse serving him any more drink. Abdulrahim was going to the duty free shop to get more booze.

Andre and Abdulrahim both rejoined us some fifteen minutes later. Andre was looking a bit ‘strange’. Abdulrahim was carrying an already opened bottle of red wine. He drank the wine from his beer glass. The barman tutted, no doubt wondering whether to call the Chief Steward. The ex-boxer was now so drunk that he was unable to speak. This didn’t bother Andre, who engaged him in excited conversation. My cousin had gone to spend a penny, but for me the penny dropped: Andre had bought a quantity of hashish while in Morocco, and now, frightened that he wouldn’t get it through customs at Algeciras, he had swallowed the lot. On top of the large amount of drink he’d consummed, Andre was flying five miles high. This seemed to be confirmed when Andre put his arm around Abdulrahim and kissed him on the cheek, my friend, my brother.

We were about half way across the Strait of Gibraltar. Ali and Hazhir were half cut. Abdulrahim’s wine bottle was now half empty and he was having great difficulty standing. Andre had left us to go and talk to a fire extinguisher on a nearby wall. Abdulrahim’s dark complexion turned a lighter shade. Only the edge of the bar was keeping him upright. Any sudden movement of the ship would throw him to the floor. Andre, satisfied that the fire extinguisher had understood, rejoined us and giggled as his shoes and most of the carpet became splattered with vomit. I’ve never seen anyone vomit as much as Abdulrahim did on that ferry. A whole days drinking, plus half a bottle of red wine, spurted out of his mouth in a yellow and red fountain. The term ‘projectile vomiting’ springs to mind. Even the long-suffering barman, standing some feet away, got covered in some of it.

Ali and a still giggling Andre half carried Abdulrahim out on to the promenade deck, where they laid him down on a bench to recover in the stiff sea breeze. Meanwhile, the poor barman was cleaning-up the mess in the bar. Ali returned and informed me that Andre was running around the deck, pretending to be a train and frightening the other passengers. I went to reclaim my cousin before he got the idea he was a fish and jumped overboard. It took me sometime to round-up Andre, and when we eventually got back to the bar I plied him with whisky in an attempt to sedate him.

The rest of that voyage is a bit of a blur. I do, though, remember Abdulrahim coming back into the bar shortly before we docked in Algeciras. The barman had now been replaced by another, who didn’t realise that it was Abdulrahim who had caused all the trouble, and he served him a drink. We all gave the ex-boxer the cold shoulder, except for Andre, who was rewarded with a sick smelling kiss on each cheek. They then went out on deck and had their picture taken together.

Ali and Hazhir said their goodbyes. I’ve no idea if they got that suitcase full of hashish through customs. I had enough on my plate trying to get my stoned cousin and his drunk, vomit splattered friend into Spain.

My friend, my brother

From When I Went Out One Summer’s Morn, Rob Godfrey’s memoir of 20 years of travels, available as both an ebook and a paperback from Amazon or Smashwordsnote: Smashwords offers a wide range of ebook formats, including Kindle and PDF.

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