Renaissance of the "White City"

The oriental, hedonist aura that lured many cultural figures to Tangier in the 1950s has long vanished. Largely neglected in the days of Hassan II, the city is now being renovated on a grand scale – and is once again attracting its fair share of illustrious characters. By Alfred Hackensberger

​​"What a strange place," William S. Burroughs said of Tangier in an interview. The American author spent four years there during the Moroccan port's "Golden Age."

Back then, in the 1950s, it was still an "international zone," an El Dorado for millionaires, smugglers and secret agents, where every day extravagant parties took place in the villas of the high society. A cosmopolitan center of decadence and creativity.

Burroughs was not the only artist to be drawn to Tangier. The list of well-known authors, painters and musicians who spent time here is long: Tennessee Williams, Truman Capote, Francis Bacon, Samuel Beckett, Jean Genet and Roland Barthes, not to forget Paul Bowles, who was already living in Tangier in the 1940s and who achieved worldwide fame with his Moroccan novel "The Sheltering Sky."

Changing fortunes under various rulers

After Morocco gained independence in 1956, the libertine days lived out against the backdrop of oriental exoticism came to an abrupt end. The city did experience a minor renaissance in the 1970s, with hippies arriving in droves. They had been inspired by Mohammed Choukri's autobiography "For Bread Alone" and the "hashish stories" of Mohammed Mrabet, translated into English by Paul Bowles.

Thereafter, however, the "White City" rapidly sank into cultural and political oblivion. Hassan II, the King of Morocco, had little interest in Tangier; during his 37 years as regent, he did not pay the city a single visit. Despite its geopolitically prominent position at the Strait of Gibraltar, Tangier was neglected both administratively and financially during his reign.

Day after day, the glorious architecture of the colonial period and the charming traditional Moroccan buildings literally crumbled to pieces. In place of the millionaires and eccentrics, there now came day-trippers from the Costa del Sol in shorts, sun hats and sneakers, who crossed the 14 kilometers separating Europe and Africa to visit the city.

Whoever arrives in Tangier today after the 45-minute ferry ride, however, is likely to get a surprise. The facades along the "Avenida España" facing the harbor, so long decrepit, are now once again aglow in all their whitewashed glory, and in a new pedestrian zone tourists can sit in outdoor cafés, pleasantly remote from emission fumes, and enjoy the view out to sea.

Geopolitical and economic potential of the region

All of the illegally erected buildings along the beach promenade have been torn down, so now nothing blocks the view toward the sea and Spain beyond. Soon, the cranes dotting the harbor will also disappear. In 2007 the new billion-dollar "MedPort" is slated to open, not far from Tétouan and the Spanish enclave of Ceuta. One of the biggest Mediterranean ports, the facility will offer 145,00 jobs.

Young King Mohammed VI, who ascended the throne upon the death of his father in 1999, has finally recognized the enormous geopolitical and economic potential of the region. Unlike Hassan II, the new monarch spends as much time as he can at his palace in Tangier.

The renovation and restoration of the harbor town is being carried out under his personal supervision. Squares like the "Socco Grande" at the entrance to Medina are being redesigned and the parks of the city planted with new greenery. On Tangier Bay, hotels, swimming areas and large tourist complexes are being constructed. "All of these changes are important and good," commented Khalid Amine from the University of Tétouan in an interview at the legendary "Café de Paris" in Tangier. "Even if some people don't appreciate the fact that modern times have arrived here."

One can't simply continue to cling to the past and to conjure up the old myth of Tangier, the professor of postcolonial studies adds. "If people want to breathe new life into Tangier, they have to realize that this also entails a revitalization of the public space."

New immigrants

"In Tangier I can afford everything that would be impossible in Europe or the USA," says Marc Schmidtke, who spends half the year in Tangier. The rest of the year, from May to August, he grows potatoes on his farm in Wisconsin in order to finance his stay in Morocco. "In Tangier I lead a colonial lifestyle, with housekeeper and chauffeur."

Marc Schmidtke is one of several hundred foreigners who have settled in Tangier in recent years. These include prominent figures such as Bernard-Henri Lévy, the French philosopher, who purchased an extravagant villa at the seaside for several millions. Or François-Olivier Rousseau, a French writer who recently came here from Marrakech, where a huge influx of foreigners has diluted the city's former "exotic flair."

"It's interesting to note," remarks Khalid Amine from the University of Tétouan, "that the more the Moroccans strive for modernity, the more the Europeans search for tradition. They live in the old town, while the Moroccans are moving to the newer parts of the city." As a consequence, the real estate prices in the "Kasbah," where the windows of the old houses afford beautiful views of the Strait of Gibraltar, have skyrocketed in the last two to three years.

New foreigners keep to themselves

"Unfortunately, the foreigners hardly participate at all in the cultural life of Tangier," Khalid Amine laments. "Not even the great intellectuals. They keep to themselves, in a closed circle."

Now it's up to the Moroccans to launch a dialogue. "In Tangier today there are a whole series of authors, something that hasn't been seen in a long time." These include novelists such as Souad Baheshar, poet Ahmend Tribak, playwright Zubir Ben Bouchta, and Sidi Mohammed Yamlahi. In addition, a film archive will open this year on "Socco Grande," the first of its kind in the Arab world.

This project will give Moroccan film an important forum. "Tangier is well on its way," Khalid Amine sums up, "to once again taking its place as the cultural and intellectual capital of Morocco."

Alfred Hackensberger

© Neue Zürcher Zeitung 2006

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