Tangier Casbah / Tangier, Morocco / May 2016
On the fabled gateway to Africa, the interzone period, and the creative energy of Tangier.
“…how is it that Tangier escapes becoming an aesthetic nightmare? Its topography, more than anything else, I think, saves it; the city is built along the crests and down the flanks of a series of small hills that stand between the sea on one side and a low slightly undulating plain on the other, with high mountains beyond…the intensity of the sky, even when cloudy, is such that wherever one happens to be, the buildings serve only as an unnoticed frame for the natural beauty beyond. You don’t look at the city; you look out of it.
… Since I returned here in 1947 I have spent a good many hours wandering through these passageways… busily trying to determine the relationship between Tangier and myself. If you don’t know why you like a thing, it is usually worth your while to attempt to find out.”
– Paul Bowles
I liked Tangier almost immediately, despite the chaos we emerged into when we alighted at the Grand Socco. The Grand Socco is a massive circular plaza lined with palm trees and flanked by an art deco cinema, a mosque, several yellowing buildings, and a queue of loitering ancient beige Mercedes taxis. It is the crossroads from which you can enter the old alleys of the medina or the ordered boulevards of the new city. The whole scene exudes the faded glamour of an old movie set; it’s possible I’m biased by everything I’ve previously read about Tangier, but the scene had immediate mystery and intrigue. While I may have forgotten the French phrase for “across from” (which unfortunately proved to be crucial to explaining our location to our AirBnB host), I did remember all the artists, writers and actors who had one flocked to this city and in whose footsteps I was now attempting to follow.
Perhaps it was because, en route to and approaching Tangier, we rolled down the windows and I could already smell the sea air, a saltiness in the breeze which serves like a quick-acting relaxing tonic. Perhaps it was because, when we reached our rented place in the casbah, it was a four story house filled with sitting rooms and stairs and a duplex roof from which the crescent beach and all the crenellated tops of the surrounding fortress were visible. As we walked onto the roof, a seagull was perched on an awning and looking at us quizzically. “Your neighbor,” said the host. At dusk, we sat on the roof as the white walls around us took on a blueish cast and watched the gulls riding invisible air currents around us, diving and swooping upwards while barely flapping their wings.
Though the medina and casbah are adjacent to each other, the casbah area is all peeling whitewashed walls and cool cobblestone alleys to the medina’s hot and colorful winding corridors. Tangier, of course, is fortified with a casbah and walls for good reason. It strategic location on the Mediterranean, serving as the so-called “gateway to Africa”, has meant that it has in its history passed through Greek, Phoenician, Carthaginian, Roman, Vandal, Byzantine, Arab, Portuguese, Spanish, British and French hands. By 1912, the major world powers of the time had agreed that Tangier should become an international zone, a neutral headquarters for European diplomacy, and it stayed this way until Moroccan independence in 1956. During the interzone period, France, Spain, Britain, Portugal, Sweden, Holland, Belgium, Italy and the US all had interests in Tangier and the place became a thriving expat hub.
As the new “next frontier,” Tangier also gained a lawless and wild reputation, which perhaps proved a self-fulfilling prophecy as spies, exiles, criminals and artists arrived in droves. The Beats passed through, including Jack Kerouac, and William S. Burroughs wrote part of Naked Lunch here. Matisse integrated the vidid colors of the city into his work and painted several striking vistas based on his travels to Tangier. Paul Bowles, perhaps the city’s most famous expat (because he stayed), arrived, as he tells it, because Gertrude Stein told him that Tangier would be better to check out than his preferred choice of the French Riviera.
All of these ghosts, drawn to Tangier like moths to a flame, are still present. You pass by them while admiring DIY splatter-painted flowerpots in an alley of the medina, peering into a dim store filled end to end dusty and precious antiques, or sipping a coffee in a cafe overlooking the Petit Socco. Or, while playing cards atop a roof in the casbah as the sun sets, just to soak in the vibrant creative energy that hums in Tangier.