Window Into Tangier

Window Into Tangier

“You cry when you leave Tangier, and you cry when you arrive there as well”. This local saying encapsulates the paradoxical, brutal charm of the Moroccan city by the sea. Founded in the 5th century BC, Tangier is a place one visits to discover and be discovered. Its borders, streets, and neighborhoods have been forged by cross-cultural and civilizational encounters-Carthaginians, Phoenicians, Romans, Arabs, English, Spaniards, and Europeans in the mid-twentieth century- and just as the multiple histories mapped themselves onto Tangier’s urban life, they too have shaped its people and their practices.

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In 1912, the French established a Protectorate in Morocco while ceding the north and the southern Sahara to Spanish power. January of that year, a ship docked on Tangier’s harbor, bringing on it French painter Henri Matisse. He installed himself in the Hotel Villa de France in Tangier, but the grim weather on his arrival prompted him to complain in a letter to American novelist Gertrude Stein, “Shall we ever see the sun in Morocco?” When the clouds had passed and the sun shone on the coastal city, Matisse was inspired by Tangier’s colors, reflecting on his work in shades of green, blue, yellow, and pink.

Though the artist spent only a few months in the city, the vibrancy of the colors he witnessed and painted left an indelible mark on his oeuvre. Matisse attempted to paint the city in a manner different to French orientalist artists, whose work oscillated between the picturesque, barbaric landscape and the pornographic harem. Yet Matisse was not the only artist who fell for the Moroccan city’s charm. Tangier’s unique history and multiple encounters with the “West” positioned it as a prime site for identity struggle and colonial re-imagination.

Tangier's literary history is one of the most intriguing and exciting in the Arab region, if not the world. In 1923, Tangier became an international zone that was politically neutral with an open economy, controlled by a host of foreign colonial powers. This political-economic arrangement attracted ِspies, painters, politicians, poets, and, finally, writers who fashioned a loosely-governed Tangier into a world of their own. The city was a blank canvas awaiting experimentation, its suspended sense of identity, home, and exile allowing writers to challenge their own notions of these terms.

Paul-Bowles

One of the most famous American artists to live in the city was Paul Bowles, an American composer, author, and translator who settled in Tangier in 1947 and lived there to the end of his life in 1999. While working on his writing, Bowles also composed music for the American School of Tangiers and in 1951, he was introduced to the Master Musicians of Jajouka, a Moroccan band led by Bachir Attar who produced music of the Sufi genre. So inspired he was by what he heard that during later years of that same decade, Bowles traveled throughout Morocco to record traditional music from various regions in the country.

Many intellectual encounters and artistic roads crossed Bowles’ tiny apartment in Tangier, located beyond the Mohamed V Mosque. From Truman Capote to Allen Ginsberg, Bowles inspired and entertained a host of discussions that sparked Tangier’s fascinating literary scene. His attachment to Morocco as a whole, and Tangiers more specifically, was reflected in his various artistic forays; however, Moroccan professor Khalid Amine notes that Bowles himself began to feel a sense of alienation in Tangier as he perceived the magic light of the city dimmed by encroaching Europeanization.

Despite his deep attachment to the city, many scholars saw a deeply colonial relationship between Bowles’ art and his perception of Tangier. Amine argues that, to an extent, Bowles did not write for Moroccans but wrote them over. Did he truly grasp Tangier- the essence of the city and its people- in an authentic manner or did he grasp little more than his deep-seated Orientalist fantasies? Whether one believes the answer is “yes”, “no”, or a veritable grey zone, there is no doubt that Bowles was one of Tangier’s most prominent expats.

Alongside his work as writer and musician, Bowles translated for Moroccan authors like Tahar Ben Jelloun and Mohamed Choukri. The bilingual Ben Jelloun chose French as his literary language, publishing his award-winning L’Enfant de Sable (translated as “The Sand Child”) in 1985. Choukri, on the other hand, is one of the most well-known Arab writer associated with Tangier. He lived an extraordinary life from childhood to adulthood, growing up in the rural Rif areas of Morocco to an abusive father and crippling poverty, then relocating to Tangier where he worked odd jobs, selling items to tourists and was exposed to the less charming side of the city: prostitutes, drugs, and alcohol. He enrolled in school at the age of 20 to learn how to read and write. In a few years’ time, Choukri was able to write poetry and prose and his first autobiographical novel Al-Khubz Al-Hafi (For Bread Alone), was a literary success.

In contradistinction to Bowles, Choukri’s work paints a layer of social realism to an otherwise “magical city of the Orient”. He points to Tangier’s wounds, writing about the stark differences between western expatriates’ living experiences in a “cosmopolitan” Tangier benefitting from a capitalist market economy and the Moroccan working class who often experienced harsh economic conditions. In her essay on Choukri’s work in Al-Khubz, Mona El-Sherif notes that rather than paint “ Moroccans as silent vestiges of poverty”, Choukri grants them agency. He paints “the character of the street boy” as a complex one, whose life was “saturated with sexual exploitation, physical abuse, and moments of incarceration and introspective solitude amid an urban culture subsumed in the spheres of monetary circulation and indifference”.

Thus, Choukri granted a literary citizenship to a part of the population that was overlooked in Western depictions of Morocco. Moreover, he granted Tangier- the city that was a marginal sociopolitical experiment- a voice.

Perhaps what is most incredible about the literary scene during the 1950s and 1960s is that these experiments in writing- pregnant with tales of drugs, sex and rock ’n roll- occurred in a Muslim country. Such a dynamic was rare to find at the time, and is becoming seemingly more scarce in our given day and age. By the 1970s, Tangiers began its downward spiral. The International Zone that had welcomed artists from all walks of life had exhausted its experimental capacity.

Today, the city is undergoing an urban face-lift. A new port is set to be built along with Africa’s first high-speed train line and the Moorish medina and its colonial counterparts are being renovated. A neoliberal tourism economy is pushing for more quirky cafes, music festivals and boutique hotels aimed at increasing tourist foot-traffic and catering to changing global tastes. That said, many of the old landmarks that so inspired Bowles, Choukri, and their companions remain for wandering souls seeking inspiration.

Perhaps a walk down Boulevard Pasteur and its art-deco buildings can recall a colonial-era Tangier; a stop at Gran Cafe de Paris for a cafe au lait can evoke the spirit of the writers who frequented it; or a traditional mint tea at the open-air Cafe Hafa, a century-old institution overlooking the distant Straits of Gibraltar, can rekindle dreams of a lost Andalusia.

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