Tangier: Hidden treasure

William Cook finds magic in the alleys of the medina

16 November 2013

9:00 AM

16 November 2013

9:00 AM

‘I remember you from last time,’ said the young man on the promenade. It was my first night back in Tangier. I was alone and tired and lonely. I liked the idea of meeting someone who knew me, if only from a brief encounter a few years before. ‘Yes, of course,’ I said, though I didn’t recognise him. In his cheap suit he seemed anonymous, like a policeman in plain clothes. It was nearly midnight, but the esplanade was still crowded. On the beach below, shrieking children were sprinting across the sand. Out to sea, over the Strait of Gibraltar, the bright lights of Tarifa were winking in the darkness. The Spanish coast seemed very close, yet a long way out of reach. We’d been talking for several minutes before I realised I’d never met this man before. Was he trying to sell me something? Or was this the start of something worse? ‘I don’t know you,’ I said, and walked away, a lot more slowly than I wanted to. He didn’t follow me. He didn’t need to. There’d be another mug along soon enough, another wide-eyed traveller seduced by the tawdry glamour of Tangier.

I’ve only been to Tangier twice but it’s become embedded in my mind’s eye. I’ve been back to Morocco since, to Essaouira and Marrakesh, but neither has stayed with me in quite the same way. William Burroughs called it the Interzone. Like a lot of ports and border towns, it feels like a limbo between two worlds. It’s an intimidating place, but it has a strange -demonic energy. Maybe that’s why so many writers (and bullshitters) wind up here.

Look up Tangier in any atlas and you can see what makes it special. It’s the crossroads of the ancient world, where Orient and Occident collide. It is perched on a narrow promontory at the northwest tip of Africa, with only ten miles of open water to separate it from mainland Europe. Phoenicians, Arabs, Carthaginians, Romans, Vandals, Visigoths… Anyone who’s anyone has colonised Tangier. The English had a go, from 1661 to 1684, before deciding it wasn’t worth the hassle. ‘A hellish, torrid zone,’ complained Samuel Pepys. ‘Nothing but vice in the place, of all sorts.’ Pepys hoped God would destroy it, but Tangier is still here.

Like most layabouts, what brought me here were the lurid tales of the last century, when Tangier was an International Zone ruled by a hedonistic hotchpotch of legations. If you were white and had a little money, you could do almost anything you wanted. From high life (Barbara Hutton, Malcolm Forbes, Cecil Beaton) to low life (Joe Orton, Jack Kerouac, Jean Genet) all human life was there.

So how much remains? Well, not a lot. After decades of decline, the city is modernising at a rapid rate. The old king, Hassan II, turned his back on Tangier (it was too near the rebellious Rif mountains, centre of the illicit trade in hashish) but since 1999 his son, Mohammed VI, has revived the city as a commercial hub, and his subjects have scant interest in the louche excesses of its geriatric expats. Landmarks like the Grand Socco have been spruced up, but the art nouveau villas of the ville nouvelle are crumbling. High-rise hotels and bland apartment blocks are rising up in their place.

Yet in the narrow streets of the medina, some of the old magic remains. Wandering these winding alleys, you could be back in a Paul Bowles story. Hemmed in by high walls with shuttered windows, you soon lose all sense of direction. It’s like a maze. No wonder there are so many faux guides, eager to help you find your way — for a fee, of course. Most of them merely want to sell you stuff — a bed, a meal, a carpet… If you’re really unlucky, you might meet someone with something else in mind. A friend of mine went back to a stranger’s house to share some hash — a daft idea, especially in Tangier. ‘You’re more stoned than you think you are,’ said the stranger, revealing a knife and relieving him of his money. But for every horror story there are countless acts of hospitality — people who welcome you into their simple homes and prepare lavish banquets in your honour. The reason hustlers can scratch a living here is because most Moroccans are so kind.

Like a city under curfew, Tangier keeps its main attractions hidden. Bewildered tourists tramp the dusty boulevards, but there are hidden treasures amid the rat runs of the medina. Concealed behind a blank wooden door, the American Legation is a palatial hideaway with spectacular views over the surrounding rooftops. America’s first foreign consulate, it’s now a cultural centre full of books and paintings, a diplomatic bridge between indigenous and adopted Tangerines. Local women come here for literacy classes. The museum has a room devoted to Paul Bowles. At the summit of the old town stands the Kasbah, an ancient citadel looking out across the ocean. The columns in the sultan’s palace are Roman, but Tangier isn’t the place to visit if you want to see the sights. The city only comes alive when you accept there’s nothing much to do here — a no man’s land on the edge of Africa, where the Mediterranean and Atlantic merge.

One of the nicest places to do nothing in is the El Minzah hotel, a colonial relic of old Morocco, where Ian Fleming drank vodka tonics and wrote Diamonds Are Forever. However, my favourite spot is St Andrew’s Church, a bizarre amalgam of Maghreb and Middle England (the Lord’s Prayer is inscribed in Arabic above the altar). The modest congregation is bolstered by refugees from West Africa, seeking sanctuary from the C of E while they plan their perilous passage into Europe, across the Strait. ‘Only God can help us,’ one of these economic migrants told me, after an immaculate Anglican Mass, as we drank orange squash from plastic cups in a graveyard full of Boy’s Own heroes: Times correspondent Walter Harris; military man Sir Harry Maclean… Tangier’s glory days as a safe haven for dilettantes and reprobates may be long gone, but its unique location, on the fault line between two competing civilisations, will surely keep it in the news during the centuries to come.

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