last month i was invited to experience morocco’s most northerly city, 15 miles across the straits of gibraltar from spain, a place long been mythologised as a bohemian escape and a city of extremes; a surreal crossroads where northern africa meets europe, the mediterranean meets the atlantic, and hedonism and history collide.
what had always fascinated me about tangier were – of course – the fantastical literary tales from the fifties and sixties, when the city was an international zone officially ruled by nine nations but effectively governed by none. the intoxicating sights, sounds, scent and energy of the city at that time attracted a slew of artists, musicians and designers from cecil beaton and barbara hutton to jack kerouac, william burroughs and paul bowles, and spawned a wealth of literary classics and artistic masterpieces that i’ve grown up on.
so, naturally, i jumped at the chance to visit.
after decades of decline, the tangier is now modernising at a rapid rate following a massive influx of government spending courtesy of morocco’s new king – whose father had previously neglected the area, despising its former ‘decadent’ reputation – helping to revive the city as a commercial hub. a new port and marina are being built, servicing ferries from spain and international cruise ships, while a casablanca-tangier high speed rail line will be completed later this year, the first of its kind in africa.
it is easy to see however – even with fifty years hindsight – why the area was so inspiring and influential to creatives in its heyday. while the hedonism of the fifties and sixties may be long gone the magical allure of old tangier can still be found, given the right imagination and a propensity for whiling away the hours wandering without purpose, or sitting people watching, mint tea and journal in hand…
while the swinging expat community may have largely moved on, the sights, sounds and culture that inspired them remain in every twist and turn of the sprawling medina. this is the city where burroughs wrote the majority of naked lunch and paul bowles completed his cult classic the sheltering sky, and it is easy to see wandering the narrow ochre alleys of the medina how you could easily lose all sense of direction and imagine yourself the central character in a bowles narrative.
cluttered antiques shops abound, nestled between craft stalls selling moroccan crockery, and stands peddling fresh produce from the surrounding mountains. the heady scents of saffron, fresh bread, schwarma and plump olives fill the air and around each corner another new fascinating sight to behold.
grand socco, the square between the ‘european’ part of town and the arab medina, is a hive of frenetic activity, with the restored cinema rif cinémathèque screening the latest off-beat art films, numerous coffee shops abuzz with riotous conversation, and the voices of the muezzins rising progressively from neighbouring mosques and zaouïas, the melodious chants creating a sense of introspection and mindfulness across the city.
near to the grand hotel villa de france, where henri matisse painted his renowned window at tangier (1912), we visited st andrew’s anglican church, a charming hybrid of moorish and english architecture built in 1905.
as someone who is not usually that comfortable inside religious places of worship, the serenity of st. andrew’s completely surprised me, offering a welcome tranquil sanctuary from the hustle of the nearby medina. the lord’s prayer is inscribed in arabic above the altar and behind a cleft indicates the direction of mecca, adorned with carved quotes from the quran. the intermingling and calm acceptance of two faiths, presented side by side in quiet harmony, epitomised for me the way religion ought to be.
from there it was on to the hotel continental, one of the oldest hotels in the city that stands on the walls of the medina, overlooking the harbour. the location for bertolucci’s film version of paul bowles’ the sheltering sky, the hotel may be a little shabby around the edges now but the colourful, zellige filled interior certainly captures the old-school glamour of the city.
sitting on the terrace, sipping mint tea and watching the sun set over the marina, i thought of all those illustrious names who had frequented the hotel in its heyday – degas, delacroix, matisse, kerouac – and cursed myself for not having brought a leather-bound journal along, in the hope of capturing for myself some of the artistic greatness of the setting.
according to the paris review, ‘any american who comes to tangier bearing more than a casual curiosity about morocco and a vague concern for music and literature considers a visit with bowles an absolute must,’ so it was both an honour and privilege to be invited to visit the flat in which he lived for much of his 52 years in tangier.
a fashionable parade of socialites, artists and exiles have passed through bowles’ fast revolving door over the years, with cecil beaton, truman capote, gore vidal and tennessee williams frequent visitors during the fifties and sixties. now in the care of bowles’ longtime friend cherie nutting, following his death in 1999, the three-room apartment in a quiet residential section of tangier still retains the ‘provisional look of temporary encampment’ that jay mcinerney notes in his piece for vanity fair in september 1985.
we sat around the small living room sipping red wine from an assorted array of drinking vessels as cherie regaled us with tales from bowles’ later years, when the wonderfully eccentric expat had taken to changing back into his pyjamas at midday and having his lunch sitting up in bed, where he would then remain for the rest of the day, receiving guests in his usual manner.
the following morning we stopped by the fabled café hafa to drink in the cliff-side hangout where artists and beat poets have been coming to write, socialise and smoke kif (marijuana blended with tobacco) ever since the rolling stones were regulars in the seventies. over cups of piping mint tea on the covered terraces, i sat overlooking the strait soaking in the atmosphere of it all, musing over all i had seen in tangier in the space of a few short days.
then all too soon it was time to pack up and head along the coast to asilah – but that, my friends, is a tale for another blog post…
i was hosted in tangier as a guest of the moroccan tourism board. all views and photography my own.