Of myths and modernity

It was American literary figures who propagated the myth of the city of Tangiers in north-western Morocco as a den of permissiveness and danger. Notwithstanding this Western view of the city, Tangier is to this day a city that belongs to no specific culture or continent. Claudia Mende takes us on a literary tour

By Claudia Mende

Time has stood still in Cafe Hafa. The pale blue plaster is peeling off the walls. A handful of young people are sitting on plastic chairs in the open-air cafe, gazing out to sea. In the distance, container ships glide through the Straits of Gibraltar.

You can just about make out mainland Spain from here. Here, Europe is quite literally so near but yet so far, completely out of reach for most Moroccans. Instead, the young people congregate in Café Hafa, which first opened its doors almost a century ago. It was American writer Paul Bowles' favourite haunt in Tangiers. Here, he would while away the hours, drinking mint tea and writing.

Where seas and continents meet

Tangiers is situated in the in-between, at the point where seas and continents meet. The Mediterranean and Atlantic converge here at the north-westerly tip of Morocco. Nowhere else are Europe and Africa so close: only 15 kilometres separate Morocco from the Spanish mainland. Tangiers, which was also home to the Phoenicians and the Greeks, is the longest-inhabited place in Morocco, a hub of trade and exchange, but also a disputed, strategically important bone of contention.

Paul Bowles came to the city sometime around 1950 on the recommendation of Gertrude Stein. He fell in love with the easy Mediterranean life here and stayed until his death in 1999. He arrived just in time to experience the wild years of the Tangier International Zone.

From 1923 until Morocco's independence in 1956, Tangiers was under international administration. No less than nine European powers held the reins of power here. It was a golden age for smugglers, drug dealers and spies.

Many U.S. authors fled their claustrophobic, prudish homeland and flocked to Tangiers, where the cost of living was low and you could smoke kif (hash) and indulge in cheap sex of all kinds. Most people eventually left the city, but Paul Bowles remained, writing his existential stories and travel reports about growing weary of Western civilisation and the pointless search for something better.

Faded memory of Paul Bowles

In the American Legation Museum on the edge of the old Medina hang posters for Italian star director Bernardo Bertolucci's "The Sheltering Sky", the film version of Bowles' eponymous novel. Black-and-white photographs show the melancholy individualist working at his typewriter and recording traditional music. Bowles was not just a writer, but also a composer and was one of the very few Western writers to show an interest in the culture of the country where he was living. He drove around the country, making recordings of traditional music. The resulting recordings now constitute the most important ethnographic collection of Moroccan music.

Typewriter and photographs of Paul Bowles in the American Legation museum in Tangiers (photo: Claudia Mende)
Zeitreise mit Beat-Autoren durch Tanger-Interzone: Im American Legation Museum zeigen Schwarz-weiß Fotografien den melancholischen Individualisten bei der Arbeit an der Schreibmaschine und bei der Aufnahme traditioneller Musik. Denn Bowles, der nicht nur Autor, sondern auch Komponist war, hat sich anders als die meisten westlichen Schriftsteller für die Kultur des Landes interessiert. Er ist im Land herumgefahren und hat Tonaufnahmen volkstümlicher Musik gemacht, die heute die wichtigste ethnografische Sammlung lokaler Musik darstellen.

A survey of old photographs shows that not much has changed in many of the legendary cafes formerly frequented by the bohemians.

In the 1950s and 1960s, the now jaded Grand Cafe de Paris was patronised by writers like Tennessee Williams, Jack Kerouac, Truman Capote and William S. Burroughs, who discussed everything under the sun, most of the time in a fog of drugs or alcohol. Today, the clientele is very different: now it is usually groups of old men and the odd woman who sit contemplating and cogitating. A sign on the glass door leading to the cafe bans laptops. Dreaming, it would appear, is permitted; working is not.

With their works, the American writers erected a memorial to Tangiers. At the same time, however, they damned it into becoming a literary fiction. Reality and fantasy are blended, creating a narrative where the Orient is a sensual, exotic backdrop. They were barely interested in the lives of the locals. Tangiers became a dream destination for Westerners who had grown weary of Western civilisation.

The oldest bookshop in Tangiers

On Boulevard Pasteur, only a five-minute walk from the Grand Cafe de Paris, is the oldest book shop in Tangiers, which was founded in 1949. Right from the word go, the "Librairie des Colonnes" was a place where the cultural community could meet and engage. This is where Paul Bowles ordered his books. Today, things are quiet in the bookshop. Bookseller Monsef Bouali is alone and has time for a chat.

He has been working in the shop for about 30 years, he says. He has very different things on his mind and has no time to think about a nostalgic, transfigured version of the past. Like bookshops all over the world, the "Librairie des Colonnes" is struggling because people are reading less.

No one gets lost in a book in a cafe any more, says Bouali with a hint of sadness in his voice. And anyway, he adds, books are expensive in Morocco. "Today's young poets have it no easier than Paul Bowles' contemporaries when it comes to publishing their books."

During his lifetime, Bowles supported Moroccan writers. He translated Arabic texts into English and made contact with publishing companies. The works of unknown writers such as Mohammed Choukri are now considered classics of modern Moroccan literature.

Only in Tangiers could the chain-smoking Berber Mohammed Choukri have written his scandalous autobiographical novel, "For bread alone", a radical reckoning with poverty, ignorance and domestic violence. When it was first published in Arabic in 1982, it caused a huge stir. Today, Choukri and Bowles are two of the city's most famous sons. It is questionable whether such a radical novel could be published now.

Liberal cultural climate

"Even today, the cultural climate in the city is liberal," says Bouali. "Books on thorny issues such as the dispute about Islamic rights of succession in Morocco are in great demand," he says, regardless of whether they were written in French or Arabic. Asma Lamrabet, the well-known feminist, sells well, as does Abdellah Taia, an author who lives in France and writes openly about his homosexuality.

Gate leading to the old medina in Tangiers (photo: Claudia Mende)
TAnger zwischen mythenreicher Vergangenheit und pulsierender Moderne: Der Charakter der Stadt hat sich seit den Zeiten von Bowles und Mohammed Choukri massiv verändert. Der zwischenzeitliche Stillstand der Stadt ist mittlerweile überwunden, es ist heute eine neue Aufbruchstimmung spürbar. Tanger ist zu einer wichtigen Drehscheibe im Handel zwischen Europa, Afrika und Asien geworden.

Bouali considers important authors of the younger generation to be journalist Abdeslam Kadiri, who published a book of conversations with author Driss Chraibi, who passed away in France in 2007. Chraibi also wrote about outmoded and outdated social structures in his novels. He also mentions Mohammed Mgharbi, who has written a novel about his native city entitled "A Tanger dans le bec de la pie" (2018).

The character of the city has changed enormously since the days of Bowles and Choukri. When Morocco gained independence from France in 1956, the city became part of the country. Many Americans and Jews moved away. During the reign of King Hassan II, Tangiers slid into insignificance. It was the present king, Mohammed VI, who recognised the opportunities presented by a city at the gateway between Africa and Europe and invested massive sums of money in it.

The cargo port Tanger Med, the largest of its kind in the entire Mediterranean, and a free trade area where European investors such as the automotive giant Renault are now producing, have created a huge number of jobs. Investors are buying up old buildings; new hotels have been built; the seafront promenade has been redeveloped for tourists; and it is hoped that a planned marina will pull in travellers in the luxury segment. Since the start of the new millennium, Tangiers has become more Arabic and Islamic, especially as a result of the arrival of conservative inhabitants from the rural Rif region. Tangiers also has a major Salafist community.

Sense of a new beginning in Tangiers

Nevertheless, the standstill is over and there is a sense of a new beginning in Tangiers. Today, the city is an important hub for trade between Europe, Africa and Asia. "Tangiers is on the move," says Khadija al-Hemam in her memory-filled flat in the old kasbah.

The 83-year-old was one of the first women in the Moroccan film industry. She worked as a costume designer on many productions – so many in fact that she can hardly remember them all. She wasn't, however, able to work on Bertolucci's "The Sheltering Sky" because of a broken arm. Like so many residents of Tangiers, Al-Hemam constantly switches between Arabic, English and French. She is ambivalent about the development of Tangiers. She is afraid of losing the Tangiers where everyone knows his/her neighbour, where religious denominations don't play a major role, and where people keep an eye on their elderly neighbours to make sure they are managing alright.

She was a young woman during the era of miniskirts and rock'n'roll. Today in Tangies, many women wear headscarves. Nevertheless, she is convinced that Tangiers will remain a liberal city. "A strict Islamic lifestyle will never conquer the heart of Tangiers," she says.

Her daughter, Soumaya Akaaboune (46), agrees. Akaaboune is a well-known actor in Morocco. After living abroad for years, she has returned to her native country. In March of this year, she was a member of the jury of the International Film Festival in Tangiers, which took place just before the coronavirus crisis began. She also believes in the indestructible character of Tangiers, that special something that does not belong to any one culture or continent. "For us," she says, "everything is always open. Tangiers is still a place of transit where people are in perpetual motion."

Claudia Mende

© Qantara.de 2020

Translated from the German by Aingeal Flanagan