​Stunning Tangier of past, present and future

The Medina or Old City in Tangier, Morocco. (Bruno Morandi)

The Medina or Old City in Tangier, Morocco. (Bruno Morandi)

As a writer fascinated by the Beats, Tangier was a destination full of possibility and fascination. Although literature, poetry and cinema remain as strong as the rock of Gibraltar, the city is changing fast.

Morocco is the only Muslim country with an Atlantic and a Mediterranean coastline. Myth says Hercules stood with one leg on Gibraltar and one on Jebel Musa and pushed the mountains apart to create the Straits.
Hercules then rested in a cave on the coast. The Berber people, the original inhabitants of North Africa, fashioned this cave by digging out circular millstones.

After Phoenician traders and Roman inhabitants, the Muslims conquered Al-Andalus (North Africa and Muslim Spain) in the eighth century. Great writers including Ibn Battuta (1304 – 1369) and Ibn Khaldun (1332 – 1406) came from this region. Morocco is the most Western part of the Islamic world. In Critical Muslim Volume 9, the authors point out the origin of the Arabic name, “al-Maghreb” to mean “strange” in Ghareeb. Tangier, its most Western tip, is therefore the strangest of the strange.

As beautiful as the beaches and forests are, for a foreigner it is a culture shock. People read from right to left and the Muslim year is 1438 AH! Yet, there is a typical Moroccan aesthetic and style to Tangier. The natural colour schemes imitate the ocean and skies and great iron-studded doors give way to enormous apartments with balconies and roof terraces. Artisanal foods and crafts are purchased in the labyrinth of alleyways and shops all over the medina. This experience can continue into neighbouring villages such as Asilah or Chefchaouen.

Foreign writers used Tangier as a source of inspiration. Hans Christian Anderson, Mark Twain and Daniel Defoe were early visitors and Edith Wharton and Walter Harris resident authors. Harris was buried in the Church of St Andrew, the Arabesque Anglican church painted by Matisse during his residency in Tangier 1912.

Tangier experienced its golden era during the years of the international zone (interzone) between 1924 and 1956. Under the joint administration of France, Spain and Britain, cultural diversity flooded the city.

Many young writers came to Tangier to capture the bohemian spirit of café culture. The endearing mixture of architecture, endless views of the Mediterranean and the abundance of kif (cannabis) gave birth to characterisations, conversations and Tangeirian stories. The city became associated with a dreamscape of identity seeking through unlimited freedom. The Rolling Stones’ lead guitarist Keith Richards is remembered today as Kif Richards. Jack Kerouac, who visited for a short time in 1957 to help William Burroughs, called Tangier “the city of vice”.

About visiting Tangier, Truman Capote wrote, “withdraw all your savings and say goodbye to your friends — heaven knows when you will see them again”. Paul and Jane Bowles made an enduring contribution to the magical tapestry of the literature and culture of the city by empowering local authors with translations of their works. Mohamed Choukri emerged from a poverty-stricken background to become the most famous Moroccan writer telling stories about the history of his people and the eccentric writers of his generation such as Bowles, Jean Genet and Tennessee Williams.


The Tangier fishing port. (Lionel Montico, Hemis.fr)

With funds from the Rockefeller Foundation, Paul Bowles recorded 250 styles of Moroccan music on an extensive field trip. “The entire history and mythology of the people is clothed in song,” he wrote. This work, together with his complete collection of writings, is preserved in the Legation Museum, the oldest American government property outside the United States. Stunning artwork by artists such as Scottish artist and resident James McBey is also on display.

Jajouka music from the Southern Rif Mountains is an ancient healing fusion of Berber, African and Arabic sounds with Sufi rhythms. Artist Brion Gysin was the first to popularise this music when, in 1951, he linked its performance to paganism and the god Pan. Founder of the Rolling Stones Brian Jones and Ornette Coleman made recordings with the master musicians of Jajouka.

The music of Tangier is a mixture of Andalusian, Moorish and Moroccan. They call it Nawba Andalusia, (Nubat). The city’s most celebrated musicians are Les fils du Detroit, “sons of the straits”. They have been jamming morning and night for 40 years in their 15m2, Arab-Andalusian café situated next door to the Casbah museum. The sounds of the darbuka drum, 12 string oud, lira bamboo flute and violins are heard in an open-source environment to which anyone can bring their instruments, sit in and improvise on the minor pentatonic.

But after independence in 1956, the Moroccan king, Hassan II, neglected Tangier. This drove it into an era of decay that is evident to this day. The Petit Socco square, once a prime meeting place for the writers of Tangier, is now quite grimy. For the majority of Tangaouis (locals) the saying goes: “It is bum on a rock, eyes to Spain and ears on everyone else’s business.” Young peoples are called “burners”, as they burn their identity papers in their attempt to cross to Spain, only 15km away.

The expat community, the Tangerines, are also diminishing. Many are featured in the latest picture book published by American painter Elena Prentice. London ex-journalist Jonathan Dawson is known as the soft touch for the helping hand he gives to the poverty-stricken migrants and people living with disabilities. French entrepreneur and cofounder of the Yves Saint Laurent couture house Pierre Bergé has remarried at the age of 85. He and Christopher Gibbs are philanthropists who have made a tremendous contribution to Tangier.

The landmark bookstore Librairie des Colonnes, founded in 1949 and a meeting place for many authors throughout the literary history of Tangier, was revived in 2010 through funds from Bergé. The store has expanded its output with a publishing company and support structure for Moroccan literature.

Gibbs, on behalf of the Getty Foundation, has empowered 10 charitable organisations, one of which keeps children off the streets with theatre. South African-born Noël Mostert, author of Supership and Frontiers still lives in Tangier and is famously reclusive.

The film location industry in Morocco is strong. A visit to the El Menzah hotel showcases a large selection of black and white photos of some of the many stars who have visited over the years. Scarlett Johansson is scheduled to arrive for a forthcoming film. There is also a new nine-hall cinema in the new mall in addition to the existing small cinemas Paris and Roxy.

But Cinema Rif, situated in the grand square, is the only surviving independent cinema. It was once one of 10 that included Lux, Mauretania, Goya and Alcazar. Cinema Rif is celebrating 10 years of reactivation and has archiving and screening projects. Founded by photographer Yto Barrada (based in New York and Tangier) it showcases great Moroccan filmmakers such as Jilali Ferhati, Izza Genini, Farida Benlyazid (based in France) and Hakim Belabbes (based in Chicago).

Strong economic development is shaping the future of Tangier. The current king, Mohammed VI, has embarked on a programme of economic development to revive Tangier and create pan-African links. The industrial port, a winding beach road, the Palais de Culture under construction and endless landscapes of brand-new property developments ranging from 25 000 to five-million dirham (which is slightly stronger than the rand), are changing the face of the city. Stunning ports and beach coves have great yachting potential for luxury tourism.

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