Legendary places seem to require legendary founders. Several if possible, to suitably buttress their grand reputations. The ancient Greeks held Antaeus responsible for founding Tangier. It was said that this giant son of Poseidon and Gaia, the earth, created the first settlement on the amphitheatre of a bay at the north-western tip of Africa, and named it after his wife Tingis. Another legend ascribes the naming to Noah. When the dove flew back to the ark with clay on its claws, so announcing that land was re-appearing, Noah called ‘Tinga’a!’, meaning ‘Land has come!’. And Hercules, too, had an indirect part to play in the town’s founding. On either side of the gateway to the sea he raised the pillars of Calpe and Abila, today known as Jebel Musa and Jebel Tariq, alias Gibraltar, so creating the imposing backdrop for the later settlement. Tangier, once called Tingis, has the longest uninterrupted history of settlement of any place in Morocco. It was influenced by the Berbers, Phoenicians and Romans early in its history, overrun by the Vandals and Visigoths, and at the beginning of the 8th century was conquered by the Arabs. Until the recent past it has been disputed by a number of world powers.
We are sitting on the terrace of the Café Hafa in Marshan, in the west of the town. Lemon trees, jasmine and bougainvillaea fill the air with the heady scents of a Mediterranean spring. Cicadas chirp and bees buzz. On the rickety table in front of us, a glass of scalding tea gives off the incomparable aroma of fresh peppermint leaves. At our feet lies the Strait of Gibraltar, brazenly blue and dotted with ships. An ideal place to celebrate our arrival and to ruminate on the curious fate of this important meeting-point of continents and seas, and on the Berber chieftain Tariq ibn Ziyad, who converted to Islam and in 711 led his trusty followers to conquer Al-Andalus, as the Arabs called Spain, after which it remained Muslim for the seven centuries until the Reconquista. And we remember two figures: Ibn Battuta, the Marco Polo of the Islamic world, who was born in Tangier in 1304 and set off from here to travel almost all the known world from Samarkand to Timbuktu, before returning decades later to die in his hometown; and Admiral Nelson, who defeated the Franco-Spanish fleet within sight of here, off Cape Trafalgar, to the south of Cádiz. The victory secured Britain’s supremacy at sea for a long period. And we reflect on the longing that people on either side of this intersection between cultures are still assailed by: for the tempting, unknown other world.
We hear from Mahi, who has been openly puffing on a fat joint at the neighbouring table for some time now and is desperate to talk, that every year thousands and thousands of emigrants pay local fishermen exorbitant fees to smuggle them to Spain on moonlit nights. It is only nine miles away. Many of them are black Africans from who knows where. Quite a few drown when their boats capsize in the dangerous currents. Most are caught by the border police just before they reach their goal. Mahi asks if we’ve ever been to Ceuta or Melilla? In their two Moroccan enclaves the Spanish have recently erected miles of wall, protected by barbed wire, searchlights and thermal cameras. Yet the stream of refugees heading for the promised land of Europe is still increasing, we are told. In 1987 Morocco had applied for European Union membership and received a polite no as an answer. Another dream may become reality sooner. At the end of the nineties drilling work was started on a thirty-mile-long road tunnel that should – inshallah – connect Cap Malabata to Spain’s Punta Paloma in the foreseeable future. On the other hand, the Maghrib has been coveted in the West for a very long time – in different circumstances, admittedly. As so-called protecting powers the Portuguese, English, Spanish and French had a foot in the ‘gateway to Africa’ for centuries. Merchants from Genoa, Venice and Marseilles, as well as bankers from Paris and London, did business with Morocco. The exotic sensuality of the port town also attracted hordes of artists. Eugène Delacroix and later Henri Matisse fell under the spell of its light and colours. Antonio Gaudí was inspired by the earthy Berber architecture, and Camille de Saint-Saëns by its weird tones and rhythms. Writers like Edmondo de Amicis and Pierre Loti in the 19th century ensured that Tangier had a literary presence as the setting for novels. Its most glittering era began in the twenties, when the colonial powers who were fighting over this strategically important town managed to reach a compromise. They gave it the unusual status of an international zone. Taxes were abolished and nor were there customs or currency controls. The town was ruled by an assembly made up of nine Moroccans and 21 representatives of nine European states. Its 70,000 inhabitants – not a tenth of its present population – came from far and wide. They listened to Pan American Radio, which at the time was the only commercial radio station in the world to broadcast daily in six languages: Arabic, French, Spanish, English, Italian and Hindi.
However, the unregulated economic freedom did not attract only honest traders. Swarms of profiteers, prostitutes and black marketeers arrived, and spies whose role, it seems with hindsight, was largely to keep each other in check with a supply of rumour and intrigue. Tangier became a flourishing den of iniquity whose cosmopolitan flair had an irresistible attraction for bohemians too, especially those from puritanical America. Visitors included Tennessee Williams, Truman Capote, Gore Vidal and, inevitably, Gertrude Stein, as well as Evelyn Waugh, Albert Camus, André Gide, Joseph Kessel, Paul Morand, and the beat authors Allen Ginsberg, William Burroughs and Jack Kerouac. They all came, drawn by the promise of exotic impressions, alluring boys, and kif, the abundant local hashish. But sooner or later they all left to recover from their excesses, perhaps even having been cured of many a florid Eastern fantasy.
The only one who stayed, and who until shortly before his death in November 1999 would be seen now and then drinking a glass of mint tea in Hafa, was Paul Bowles. The great chronicler of Tangier’s legendary past, he arrived here in 1931 for the first time, at that point still a composer. Ten years later he settled in Morocco for good and wrote the novels that brought him worldwide fame, such as The Sheltering Sky, later filmed brilliantly by Bernardo Bertolucci. He also researched the Berber peoples’ musical traditions, as he travelled the land with a tape recorder in his hand. Why did he stay? He once wrote that North Africans were at peace with themselves, content with their lives. They were satisfied because they didn’t ask questions. They were calm, not driven. The American dream, he added, was the dumbest drug.
A pale reflection of those decadent, international years still lingers in some corners of this overcrowded town, whose outskirts could now be those of any town. When we have a café au lait on the Place Mohammed V in the Café de Paris where tout Tanger once met, we find that a good number of tables are occupied by elderly gentlemen – pale Europeans with graceful gestures and overly white linen suits. In their practiced boredom they seem oddly distant from the present, enmeshed in old, velvety dreams. And the indefatigable Rachel Muyal in her small, nicely cluttered Librarie des Colonnes on the Boulevard Pasteur, where she has kept who knows how many literary legends supplied with reading matter, is holding the fort for a fifth decade. A few hundred yards further on, Adolpho de Velasco, the doyen of Morocco’s art and antiques dealers, still runs the shop where his clientele, without a financial care in the world, come for more deliveries of artfully carved chests, expensive brass lamps, antique faience and glossily painted mirrors.
Most of the old hotels down at the beach are also still standing. We discover the Cecil, where Michel Foucault would put himself up, and the Solazur that Samuel Beckett preferred, the Rif, the Continental, and across from the train station the bizarre Gothic pile Renschausen, where the world-weary protagonist Port (played by John Malkovich) stayed in The Sheltering Sky. A handful of that age’s evening sanctuaries also still exist: Guitta’s Restaurant, for example, Marquis and Negresco. You could even imagine that a few stranded exiles sit among their grey-haired customers – shrivelled colonial officers perhaps, reprobate sons of millionaires, SS thugs in hiding or Vichy collaborators. All of these haunts, and the run-down villas of the Europeans in Marshan and Vieille Montagne, are irrevocably of another time.
The bar of the El Minzah, the most exquisite hotel on the square, still conjures up the sophisticated past. It did, after all, serve as the model for Rick’s Café in Casablanca. But recently an extra storey was added to the distinguished establishment and the proprietors have already had cause to regret the expansion, because it hasn’t led to the hoped-for increase in guests. It is not by chance that no investors have been found for the desolate grand hotel Villa de France, where Matisse once painted a number of Morocco masterpieces. Southern Morocco, Marrakech, the Atlas mountains and the desert have replaced the north as destinations for tourists and adventure seekers. ‘An unloved woman, seduced but not understood, forgotten by her lovers,’ as the author Tahar Ben Jelloun, who was born in Fès and became famous in France, described Tangier a few years ago in an essay that he titled ‘Le grand réveil’, ‘The great awakening’.