Tangier, perched on the northernmost tip of Morocco, was a European outpost on the African continent right into the 1950s – a halfway world, smuggler country, a magical place that captured the imagination of artists and writers alike. Our author went on the streets, and visited bars and time-honored hotels in search of the old Tangier
Now a caress, now a whiplash, there’s always a wind blowing in Tangiers. It carried them all here, the Phoenicians and the Carthaginians, the Romans, the Arabs, the English, the French and the Spanish. It also brought the poets and the junkies, not to mention the billionaires, eccentrics and dreamers with their dreams. The eras come together like old acquaintances beside the graves atop the rocky plateau a hundred meters above the new coast road. The dead here were likely Phoenicians. They are thought to have founded Tangier in the dim and distant past, sometime between the 12th and 5th century B.C.E., but the historians lack conclusive evidence for this.
The living are families from the neighborhood, teenagers, the odd tourist. I was brought here by Mounier, a student who supports himself by driving a taxi. He was raised in the neighborhood of the Phoenician cemetery, but moved to a cheaper district long ago. Lapping below us, the hermaphrodite waves of Atlantic and Mediterranean – the Strait of Gibraltar. On the other side, Spain dozes beneath a blanket of mist. The wind toys with the ferries plowing back and forth between Algeciras in Andalusia and the port of Tangiers. In the hinterlands, pine-covered mountains with royal palaces; below us, construction sites dotted around the marina, and bling-bling apartment blocks worthy of Dubai lining the bay that curves as far as Cap Malabata lighthouse.
Before me, the perfect, picture-postcard panorama: blue sky, a blaze of bougainvillea, white city. I see Mediterranean beauty, but I see no mystery. What remains of the darker side of the city that from the 1920s to the 1950s was an internationally administered zone and the first address of decadence? Is the mystery that drew the poets of the Beat Generation still alive? Tangier, show me your soul!
On the edge of the necropolis, Café Hafa. Mounier, my guide, knows the waiter – of course. The plastic chairs at the tiled tables face northwest – just like the graves. Sitting here, your gaze is directed at Europe, if it’s not trained on your cell phone. Giggling middle-class teenagers – the boys’ heads artistically shaven, the girls’ draped in designer headscarves; interested glances; friendly lethargy. The sweet smell of smokes people have brought along. It’s always been this way. Authors William S. Burroughs and Paul Bowles would come here to drink and watch the fisher boys. The Beatles and the Stones were here, too, and recently, Mounier tells me as he rolls himself a thin, herbal cigarette, Princess Lalla Salma, the wife of Morocco’s King Mohammed VI, dropped by for a glass of mint tea.
The next morning, the wind is my alarm clock. It whooshes in off the sea and rattles the windowpanes. I awaken in Hotel Rembrandt, just like Bowles on his first visit to Tangier in 1931. Tennessee Williams was also here, and later on, David Bowie. The Rembrandt has an honest three stars. Its beds are a bit saggy, but the true luxury of this hotel is the friendliness of its staff. Its best feature is its location, right on Avenue Pasteur, which appears to meander into 1960s Europe – or perhaps into a Europe that never actually existed.
Across from the Rembrandt, there’s the Number One Bar, where I drank Flag Spéciale beer last night and met a painter, Ilias Selfati. There’s a whisper on the street here in Tangiers that the King recently bought some of his works. That kind of information is sure to give any artist’s career an extra boost in Morocco. Where would I find the soul of Tangiers, I asked Selfati. His reply was a detailed lesson in the proper way to pronounce the Arabic word for “cheers,” “bsharraha” – or was it “basaracha?” Or “bsorachah?” The difficulty lies in pushing out the sound that mutates between an “h” and a “ch” at the beginning of the second syllable. I tried all evening and failed.
Breakfast on the Petit Socco, Medina, old town. I’m sitting on the veranda of the Café Tingis. Passersby hurry, stroll, chatting hand in hand, jostle their way through the crowd, swearing, or are carried by their own murmured prayers along the Grand Socco road from the harbor to the market, or turn off toward the kasbah via Rue des Chrétiens to head in the opposite direction toward the Grand Mosque. And now, surrounded by hustlers and fake guides, here comes a group of cruise tourists, who have ventured beyond the safety of their ship. They take the same path Germany’s Emperor William II rode in 1904, on his way to ask Sultan Abd al-Aziz to be his ally against France.
Ghosts populate Tangiers. I encounter them at every turn: the German emperor on the Petit Socco; the beatniks in the boozy dives; and the painter Eugène Delacroix on the roof terrace of Galerie Conil, where, surrounded by paintings, I drink a light Moroccan gris with Olivier Conil, the gallery owner. He came here years ago with his parents and today runs Tangier’s leading gallery for Art Brut and Moroccan naive contemporary art. Two paces from the Petit Socco, he found a building that was a drinkers’ bar in the Interzone period and before that, served Delacroix as a studio. The view of the kasbah he painted here is one of the most important Orientalist works. I repeat my question for Olivier: “Where will I find the soul of Tangiers?” “Ha,” he replies, “the soul of Tangier has no address. Good luck with your search!”
Walking through Tangier reminds me of dream passages, in which you move quickly and slowly at the same time, up and down, are light- and heavy-footed, chasing after an idea you will never catch. Dreams are the wind of the soul, I think to myself.
The gods of Beat literature got together with their disciples in the hotel bar Tangerinn
Villa Muniria is at the bottom of a steep hill. It’s a cheap hotel that used to be a still cheaper one, known to its guests back then as “Villa Delirium.” Junkies injected themselves in its corridors, and it was in litter-strewn room number 9 that William S. Burroughs wrote his sex-porn epic Naked Lunch. A photo from 1961 shows a scowling Burroughs in the villa garden with Paul Bowles in linen suit, with tie, pocket handkerchief and arms contentedly folded. Downstairs in the whisky-lit fug of the Tangerinn, the hotel bar, these gods of Beat literature got together with their disciples, with drifters and loafers. These days, the moral tone is somewhat higher at the Tangerinn, now a techno club serving innovative cocktails to rich kids from the suburbs.
On to the Gran Café de Paris. Here, I find police officers smoking in the bar, soccer on the television, and all of the tables on the sidewalk out front occupied. Lean gentlemen, who have been pensioners their entire life, sit here, breathing in gasoline fumes and gazing into their café noir, nersa (with a little milk) or nouss, nouss (with lots of milk). As dusk falls, the windows above the café shed a muted red light onto the street below from the second floor, where raucous Berber pop music has dancers swinging their hips, while the drinkers drown their dreams.
The Terrasse des Paresseux (loafers’ terrace) also opens onto the bay, where shades dance among ancient cannons. Rue Velasquez plunges steeply into the abyss between tapas bars, antique shops and the famous bookshop, Les Insolites. A friendly mongrel stands guard over the old Jewish cemetery with its crumbling Art Deco facade. It is the death mask of the Gran Teatro Cervantes, closed since 1976. Rumor has it that plans for its renovation will finally come to fruition. Rumors, those desired certainties, sometimes even come true, as they did in the case of the Cinéma Rif movie theater, also exquisite Art Deco. The program is at least as good as the architecture: international and North African independent movies. But the best film of all airs every day outside the cinema, at the cinema’s street café, where the youngsters of Tangier with more than a ghost of intellect hang out from morning till night.
The storms of time. Decline and revival. Tangier experiences both simultaneously; destroys money, attracts money. More and more shopping malls, major construction sites alongside ruins. They say King Mohammed loves Tangier, whereas his father, Hassan II, mistrusted the city, found it monstrous. This year, a high-speed train is on track to bring Casablanca two hours closer to Tangier. Hopes are flooding the city. Renault-Nissan, Bombardier and Volvo are investing in Tanger Automotive City. The Chinese aviation technology group Haite is pumping billions into its African base, which includes an electric bus factory. Petrodollars are turning into skyscrapers, and the trading profits from the green gold of dreams produced in the city’s hinterlands, the world’s largest cannabis-growing region, are also entering circulation.
The kasbah stands high above the old town, the new town and the conceited bay. From an outbuilding of the Sultan’s Palace, I hear the quietly voiced instructions of young theater director Hamza Boulaiz, who is rehearsing with his newly formed company. The play is about corrupt bureaucrats and how limited their power turns out to be when met with insubordination – about self-empowerment. Boulaiz, 27, is the likeable, tousle-headed type and also the shooting star of the North African theater scene. Successful productions in Casablanca, a scholarship at the Sundance Institute. Now he’s had a truck converted into a mobile stage and is traveling the Moroccan provinces with his troupe. “We play in villages culture generally gives a wide berth,” says Boulaiz, “but art belongs to life.”
The city’s geographic and spiritual location enforces openness
An ecstasy of light and wind on the terrace of the Nord Pinus hotel, Anne Igou’s smart guesthouse. The owner was in a relationship with Peter Lindbergh for a long time, and some of his works grace the rooms. I meet author Philippe Guiguet Bologne here, a lean man with neat movements and a nimble mind. He loves Tangier and its people, has written three books celebrating the city, and recently brought out a volume of poetry, Treize (Thirteen), illustrated by the painter Selfati, my private “cheers” pronunciation tutor. Can the author describe the soul of the city to me? No. But he does tell me this: “Its location forces the city to embrace openness.”
Tangier lies between the Atlantic and the Mediterranean, Europe and Africa, Islam and Christianity, tradition and modernity. It would not exist if it did not connect these worlds with each other.” In other words, carry on exploring Tangier, ascending and descending its steep slopes, drawn by the light, driven by the wind and chasing dreams. Come without a plan. Forget time. Forget the search for mystery because Tangier is now.