On the trail of writers and artists in Tangier
Zac O’Yeah | 08 May, 2019
She might be in Tangier She left here last early spring, is living there I hear
(Bob Dylan, If You See Her, Say Hello, 1975)
DYLAN SOUNDS broken- hearted in that song from his LP Blood on the Tracks. Or is he being sarcastic? In any case, he never went to Tangier, but many arty Americans and Europeans— writers, poets, musicians—travelled there in the 1900s. However, the landmarks, visited by the famous, are vanishing since there’s not much of a nostalgia industry, unlike in so many other previously culturally important cities. I realise I must see what’s left while it’s there.
Although modern Tangier is an anytown of gleaming glass façades, it retains its senior parts in splendid separation on a row of hillocks from where, on clear days, Spain is visible. Here, beyond the edge of Europe, stand colonial quarters that blend French and Spanish elegance and, separated by a petite dale, the medina, the enchanting Arabic settlement that climbs up a chalky limestone promontory topped by the Kasbah, the fort housing the sultan’s palace, now an archaeological museum.
Due to it being literally within sight of Europe, Tangier grew into Africa’s most cosmopolitan and oft-colonised city. Between the great wars its strategic importance also led to its being made a semi-autonomous, self-governed International Zone. It was, in this period, possibly the world’s most corrupt place—and this financial and political corruption had as its side-effect an uncommon moral laxity, which attracted all sorts of talent.
So let’s begin the namedropping: poet TS Eliot, playwright Samuel Beckett, novelists George Orwell, Anthony Burgess and Alan Sillitoe (who moved to Tangier to escape fame and wrote The Ragman’s Daughter here), thriller writers Patricia Highsmith and Raymond Chandler (in 1955, the same year Chandler’s drinking got out of hand and he attempted suicide), painters Dalí and Picasso (there’s even a café named after the latter), musicians such as Jimi Hendrix, Bob Marley and Donovan (you’ll hear the track Tangier on his albumThe Hurdy Gurdy Man) and Randy Weston (legendary jazz pianist who got so engrossed with Africa that he opened his own nightclub in Tangier in late 1960s). And Susan Sontag, who was one of the few who despised Tangier (according to her biographers Carl Rollyson and Lisa Paddock).
By default my hotspot becomes the medina’s Petit Socco, ‘little market’, which is barely a widening in the bazaar further narrowed by the many early- 1900s cafés that spread their chairs out— in ‘a symphony of hundreds of conversations’ to quote Tangier’s longest-staying expat novelist, Paul Bowles. The seating is arranged so that customers can espy who all come and go at the other cafés.
At Café Tingis Tennessee Williams sipped mint tea—the oversweet national beverage nicknamed ‘Moroccan whiskey’ due to its colour—and wrote his most bizarre play, Camino Real. Jean Genet preferred Café Tanger while Pension Fuentes has a balcony from where to gawk down at the other cafés and it was there that Beat poet Allen Ginsberg was seen crying from jealousy as his boyfriend was experimenting with heterosexuality. Across from it, Café Central—which in those days served wine around the clock—was where one might bump into William Burroughs who based his fictional ‘Meet Café’ in Naked Lunch on it.
The crowd that came to Tangiers wasn’t only made up of Americans and Europeans. Brazilian Paul Coelho let the confused protagonist of his bestselling The Alchemist sit ‘in a bar very much like the other bars he had seen along the narrow streets of Tangier. Some men were smoking from a gigantic pipe that they passed from one to the other.’
Out of the blue, Amitav Ghosh emails me as I’m café-hopping. I tell him where I am and it turns out he came too, back in 1979.
‘I had spent a month in Tunis, learning Arabic, and I decided that I would hitch- hike across North Africa. Tangier was my last stop before crossing into Europe. I somehow fell in with some Moroccan students who were ardent leftists and incredibly generous and hospitable. We seemed to communicate quite well. Like many Moroccans in those days, they were fans of Hindi films, which created an instant bond. Morocco is a place where one meets with a kind of ‘filoxenia’ or ‘xenophilia’ (a love of the stranger/foreigner). It was a magical place and the food was wonderful as I remember. Have you tried some b’stilla yet?’
ALTHOUGH CREATIVE PEOPLE continue to visit Tangier even today, the International Zone years between the 1920s and the 1950s are often seen as the ‘golden age’, when normal laws and norms didn’t apply. A veritable invasion of refugees, crooks and black- marketers, and deviants from all over made Tangier their playpen.
I look out for anything that recalls those crazy days when Tangier was the stage for westerners’ orientalist fantasies, but the infamous Petit Socco red-light district— that was portrayed vividly by local novelist Mohamed Choukri in his autobiographical twice-filmed masterpiece For Bread Alone (banned in Morocco until shortly before the author’s death)— is now gone. The brothels have been converted into respectable guesthouses, while sale of alcohol in the medina was prohibited after independence in 1956. Choukri wrote pamphlets about his friendships with Bowles, Williams and Genet respectively, although he felt that other foreigners treated Tangier as ‘little more than a bordello’, which is probably a sentiment echoed by many locals.
Apparently, homosexuals from oppressive societies (such as that of the US) found relief here. The bisexual Bowles moved to Tangier on the advice of Gertrude Stein (who in the 1920s coined the word ‘gay’ for gays) and his subsequent writings on the city attracted others. Bowles passed away in 1999 and while his ashes were flown home to the US, I see his left-behind suitcases and synthesiser at the nearby American Legation Museum, where a wing has been dedicated to him. For writerly luck I hit a few keys on his battered Olivetti.
Tangier grew into Africa’s most cosmopolitan and oft-colonised city. It was also a corrupt place—and this financial and political corruption had as its side-effect an uncommon moral laxity, which attracted all sorts of talents
Apart from Stein, Bowles, Williams, Genet and Sontag, loitering in the Petit Socco cafés, lesbian cult author Djuna Barnes and poet Mercedes de Acosta (Greta Garbo’s ex-girlfriend), jolly gents Somerset Maugham and his nephew Robin Maugham who walked in his uncle’s footsteps (he wrote The Wrong People about an English teacher falling in love with a boy in Tangier), could also be spotted. Christopher Isherwood, Federico García Lorca and Noel Coward came at various points, not to forget the arch rivals Gore Vidal and Truman Capote who brought their animosity along: Vidal doing his best to spoil Capote’s sojourn. In his travelogue Tangier from 1950, Capote famously states, ‘before coming here you should do three things: be inoculated for typhoid, withdraw your savings from the bank, say goodbye to your friends—heaven knows you may never see them again.’
Those who could afford it avoided the medina flophouses, staying a 15-minute walk away in the elegant 1930s El Minzah (85 Rue de la Liberté), an Arab mansion-turned-hotel—and the place where crucial scenes of Keith Richards’ candid autobiography Life are set. Narrating the misadventures around the Rolling Stones’ exile from UK after a drug bust, Richards waxes lyrically about a souvenir shop near the hotel, whose owner Mr. Achmed sold the best dope. So in case you ever wondered why he’s nicknamed ‘Keef’ by the British yellow press, here’s your answer:
‘[Achmed] was somewhat on the spiritual side, and as he gave you your pipe he would usually tell you some thrilling adventure of the Prophet in the wilderness… And after a few rounds of this, it was almost as if you were on acid… The Moroccan speciality was kief, the leaf cut up with tobacco, which they smoked in long pipes…’
The souvenir shop has been replaced by a cybercafé, but the celebrated hotel still sits in the middle of a shabby street, looking welcoming—until I reach the wooden gates that turn out to be firmly shut. From within comes the noise of construction work. I ask a local man and learn it was closed down the winter before after a fight between its owner and the royal family.
‘The princess got sick in stomach.’
‘Yes, so the king ordered that the whole hotel must be torn down and rebuilt, so that she will not get sick again.’
That very same hotel restaurant was where the director Bernardo Bertolucci met Bowles to discuss the filming of the latter’s bestselling novel The Sheltering Sky. A favourite writer of mine, Ian Fleming lodged in suite 52 during one cold spring as he struggled with his first non-fiction book, The Diamond Smugglers . Fleming didn’t like the city, ‘the streets are running with spit and pee and worse’, so his excursions mostly went only as far as 200 metres downhill to the 1937 vintage hole-in-the-wall Dean’s Bar (2 Rue Amerique du Sud). It is said that Rick’s nightclub in the movie Casablanca was loosely based on Dean’s.
“Morocco is a place where one meets with a kind of ‘filoxenia’ or ‘xenophilia’ (a love of the stranger/foreigner),” says Amitav Ghosh, who hitchhiked across Africa to Tangier in the 70s
I’ve heard it’s right by the Grande Hôtel Villa France, where in the 1910s Matisse painted several masterpieces in his suite 35, such as Landscape Viewed From a Window. One can buy postcards of it everywhere in town and the suite has been preserved in Matisse’s honour. But when I finally figure out which door belongs to Dean’s, the metal grille is firmly locked. The bar shut four years ago and its brass signboard was stolen by a relic hunter.
At Dean’s, according to Andrew Lycett’s in-depth biography, Fleming ‘downed tumblerfuls of vodka’ while cribbing about the company he was keeping as ‘nothing but pansies’ and oh how he was ‘fed up with buggers’. Ernest Hemingway’s signed photograph hung behind the bar next to that of Humphrey Bogart’s, artist Francis Bacon’s boyfriend played the piano, and the joint was crowded with journalists, spies, soldiers or as Burroughs put it, a ‘horrible vista of loud-mouthed, red-faced drunks, falling off bar stools, puking in corners’.
A SHORT STROLL UPHILL, I encounter Dean himself. The near-mythical barkeeper, possibly half-African, half-European, half-whatever— nobody knew for sure—who overdosed on drugs and is buried under a humble stone which simply says ‘missed by all and sundry’. It sits discreetly in the palm grove graveyard of Saint Andrew’s (50 Rue d’Angleterre), a 114-year-old Anglican church whose architecture is distinctly Moorish. The sexton is a Mr. Yassin and as it happens he has missed his Friday prayers, so instead he unlocks the church for me to inspect. He’s a sensational source of gossip about everybody who lies here—some of whom seem to have written books before ending up six feet under, such as globetrotter Walter Harris who, amongst other things, wrote a story that was filmed with ex-James Bond actor Sean Connery as The Wind and the Lion.
Apart from creative people, the graveyard seems filled with dead spies. Quite a few spy novels and espionage movies have Tangier locations including a couple of James Bond films and the blockbuster action picture Bourne Ultimatum . And it was a few streets away at the casino (now shut) that Peter O’Donnell’s wildly popular female ‘James Bond’, Modesty Blaise, started her fictional career as an international Lady Fix-It.
My hotspot becomes the Medina’s Petit Socco, ‘little market’, which is barely a widening in the bazaar further narrowed by cafes that spread their chairs out
Still in business is Gran Café de Paris (Place de France) some 90 metres from El Minzah and its spic and span 1920s interiors retain the cosy brown sofas litterateurs would sink into. Fleming could be seen here shooting espressos and playwright Joe Orton—who coined the phrase ‘until I was 15 I was more familiar with Africa than my own body’—would sit and utter outrageous statements that made other café-goers blush.
Among bars Dean’s had one supreme competitor when it came to moral corruption, Le Parade. I never find it since it’s unclear where it was located—and it anyway shut down some years after its American pimp owner drank himself to death. But for a while it was considered Tangier’s #1 hangout for expats, described by Capote in his autobiographical Unspoiled Monsters as a ‘swanky little joint’ that was ‘dispensing proper martinis and jumbo burgers to homesick Americans’ and where he spent ‘several unsober months’. Here, Capote would have witnessed ‘Jane Bowles, that genius imp, that laughing, hilarious, tortured elf’, a noted litterateur in her own right though overshadowed by her husband Paul, drink daily as her mental health and marriage started to break down.
Burroughs usually dined at the bar and so this sleazy joint inspired the fictional ‘Hassan’s Rumpus Room’ in his Naked Lunch (incidentally 2019 marks the celebrated novel’s 60th anniversary), described thus:
‘Gilt and red plush. Rococo bar backed by pink shell. The air is cloyed with a sweet evil substance like decayed honey. ’
He fictionalised Tangier as the City of Interzone, or Zone, while spending four exiled years here after accidentally having shot his wife while attempting a Wilhelm Tell-like party trick in 1951. In letters home his inspiration shone through: ‘I used to complain I lacked material to write about. Mother of God! Now I’m swamped with material.’ Living off monthly cheques posted by his dad, Burroughs stayed mainly at the cheapish El Muniria, which I hear might still exist.
I head down Boulevard Pasteur, the main drag which looks like a colour version of old French movies, but I soon get distracted by the Librairie des Colonnes (54 Blvd Pasteur). A quaint bookshop founded in 1949 by two eccentric lesbians, it stocks mostly literature in French and Arabic, but has an English shelf in which I discover a pamphlet on the bookshop. It explains how writers ‘experienced a psychological release in Tangier, which one might compare to an intellectual orgasm’.
Today the elegant shop is owned by designer Yves Saint Laurent’s ex- husband, Pierre Bergé, but in those days Burroughs lurked about reading without buying, dressed flasher-fashion in a dirty, smelly trench coat. Genet dropped by to cash his royalty cheques. The gay-as-any- male-writer-in-Tangier, Jane Bowles, had her nervous breakdown in the shop in 1968, after which she was shipped off to an asylum abroad, only to die five years later in Spain. The Bowles’s tempestuous life is chronicled in The Sheltering Sky and while watching the saucy Bertolucci adaptation’s Tangier scenes, I spot an elderly Bowles doing a meta-cameo, sipping mint tea at the atmospheric Café Colon (Rue de la Kasbah), quoting from his own novel, admiring the handsome actor— John Malkovich—who plays him, and in the end asking Debra Winger who plays his wife, ‘Are you lost?’
A customer I bump into at the bookshop, a visiting Swedish musician named Stellan Wahlström, considers Bowles great, but he’s also read the lesser so-called Tangier novelists and quips that they all tend to use the same tropes: An outsider gets into town fleeing some unspecified trauma back home, drifts aimlessly and moves frequently between habitations described in rich detail, takes drugs, witnesses somebody dying and this new trauma chases him out into some desert— either literally or metaphorically.
When I finally figure out which door belongs to Dean’s bar, the metal grille is locked. The bar shut four years ago and its brass signboard was stolen by a relic hunter
Halfway down a steep alley, across from a bomb crater-like empty plot, I find El Muniria (1 Rue Magellan) which remains a charming white-washed guesthouse with blue-painted window sills, not as seedy as I was led to believe. A friendly caretaker shows me the rooms—spartan but clean and spacious. Burroughs stayed in #9, Jack Kerouac in #5, and Ginsberg in #4. The latter two were hanging out for a couple of months in 1957 while helping Burroughs make sense of his unruly manuscript, the pages of which lay scattered across the floor. It was typed on an ‘old upright Remington [that] looks like a dinosaur from another age’, as mentioned by John Hopkins in The Tangier Diaries. After Kerouac and Ginsberg split—the former was getting increasingly disturbed by Burroughs insanity and so went back to the US where On the Road started making waves later that year, hailed as the voice of a new generation, the latter drifted slowly towards India (as described in Deborah Baker’s brilliant A Blue Hand: The Beats in India). Afterwards, Burroughs met British- Canadian writer-artist Brion Gysin who shared with him the cut-up technique idea which turned Naked Lunch into a seminal literary experiment.
The rate is only 250 dirhams and I am tempted to check into Kerouac’s room, where he must have made notes for his books Desolation Angels and Lonesome Traveler. But instead I climb down to the dark basement of the hotel that houses one of the last literary bars—the trendy Tangerinn which used to be a watering hole of Kerouac’s, who complained in letters home that the ‘gal situation here is worse than the boy situation, nothing but male whores all over, & their supplementary queens’. He spoke dismissively of ‘the cool girls with long thin legs in slacks, the men with goatees, all an enormous drag after all’ — and I’m surprised to see that tonight’s clientele more or less matches what he saw. The youthful crowd totally ignores my presence and I begin to feel how Burroughs may have: he was known in town as ‘the invisible man’. Now of course the late-night bar’s walls are adorned with photographs scribbled on by Burroughs himself, alongside cool quotes from him such as ‘your mind will answer most questions if you learn to relax and wait for the answer.’ I leave after two beers, as the techno is too loud for literary musings.
Inevitably the era of mad crazy creativity, and that city of sin where tens of thousands of foreigners lived in what the British tabloids called ‘Sodom-on- Sea’, vanished because soon after the country’s independence from France in 1956, Tangier merged into free Morocco. This was followed by a 1960s gay sex scandal—a Moroccan artist tried to rape the son of a former Nazi hiding out in town—and the king decided that the city must sober up.
So in the end, I spend my days in the Petit Socco, drinking that wondrously potent Moroccan coffee and fantasising about all the strange conversations that must have taken place here. It’s a place made for imagining the past and I just love it.