Years ago, approaching the coast on a French car ferry on my way to a diplomatic posting in Algiers, I shared a table with a few other passengers. One of them, a young man who may have assumed that I was already familiar with the term, told me that his profession was in trabendo. He was a trabendiste, i.e., making a living from trading in contraband. He probably would have liked me to hide some of his goods in my almost-empty station wagon. ("Is this American crazy, coming to Algeria with an empty car?").
Those crafty Algerians, inventing great new words in Arabic from French or Spanish (maybe now even English) roots. In Tangier, with its rich history of foreign influence from north of the Strait, sometimes people just say it in Spanish or French. Like contrabando.
That is what they sell in Casa Barata, where the Legation shops. Along with the rest of the population of Tangier in search of good prices, or things that you might have trouble finding in standard shops. We were there yesterday, and the place is, as the French might call it, folklo. One enterprising artist has even turned some pieces of Casa Barata detritus into works of art.
In her campaign to install new curtains throughout the Legation (if the place has some 45 rooms, how many windows – and pairs of curtains – does it have?), my wife has been a frequent visitor to the House of Cheap. Actually, "house" doesn't begin to describe this sprawling warren of shanties and more substantial buildings, criss-crossed by alleys of dubious footing (don't go there when it's raining).
Wanting to Do The Right Thing, paying and then presenting a receipt for possible (if our teeny budget allows) reimbursement, my wife asked the man selling the curtain material for a receipt. Receipt? "Sorry, Madame, but we sell contraband. We don't have receipts." Oh well, this whole job is a labor of love, and maybe my wife's free labor in sewing curtains is just part of the Loftus legacy. But we will have to recoup our money spent on curtain material, maybe with a notarized, sworn statement "No receipts are available in Casa Barata, because it all comes to Morocco semi-clandestinely through Ceuta, the tax-free paradise."
Economia, the very serious bi-monthly published by Morocco's CESEM, the think tank of the HEM graduate business school, devoted a recent issue to the informal economy, with an amazing portrait of the traffic – the word in all of its nuances – between the Spanish enclave of Ceuta and the Morocco which surrounds it. One statistic stands out: the low-cost European supermarket chain Lidl in Ceuta, with its population of around 50,000, has the same sales turnover as the Lidl's of Barcelona – with its population of 5 million.
Those cheap Lidl goods make it to Casa Barata, where we shop. And not just for curtain material. If Ahmed needs to replace a rotten door frame, he goes to a carpenter in Casa Barata with the measurements, and voilà, high-quality frame, jammed into a taxi.
We've also gone there for top-notch graphic work for some of our new exhibits. The informal economy, as Economia analyzes it, has adopted some of the same aspects of the formal economy from which it springs.
Casa Barata has even spawned a very modern website, online ads from apartments for rent to vets for your pets (image above from Casabarata.net).
Maybe this aversion to things like receipts and taxes is in the Tangier DNA. Read Major Mellor, "Holiday in Tangier" (1955), writing in the chapter on "Finance and Commerce" in the Tangier International Zone, the year before its demise with Moroccan independence:
Financially, Tangier has the freest régime in the world. There is absolutely no control of currency movements; there is no income tax; banking secrecy is inviolable. … [T]he facility of company formation has naturally attracted here a great deal of capital belonging to people intolerant of Governmental restrictions on the free disposal by an individual of his own property.
Major Mellor would, no doubt, feel right at home with the Tea Party, but I digress.
Shop Casa Barata, where the spirit of the Tangier Interzone lives! Just don't ask for a receipt.