Friday, January 27, 2012

Morocco and my work

A Pebble Mosaic Carpet I built in a garden in Los Angeles

I am in Morocco again for the second of what may be a continuing series of trips to discover and revisit all that is wonderful about this country.  For over 20 years I have been inspired by it's art, and this has been reflected in my work and my home for at least as long as that.  Several years ago I purchased the Taschen Press book 'Moroccan Interiors', and poured over the pages absorbing the rich colors and patterns that have been a part of North African history for over 1,000 years.  I painted rooms in my house to capture the ambience I saw in Yve Saint Laurent's house at the Villa Oasis and the Jardin Majorelle in Marrakesh, which is featured in the book.
A Mint Green room  in my homeinspired by the Villa Oasis with a Moroccan silk velvet tent door 
I taught myself how to cut tile and made my own zellijes emulating the style of tile work found there.  I used a selection of tile seconds from the Pratt and Larson company in Portland, Oregon to create a zellij in the kitchen of my home.  They manufacture tiles that can be assembled to create zellij like patterns.  I like the hand cut look, and only used their 8 pointed star tiles, which I gold leafed.  I hand cut the rest of the tiles using a score and snap tile cutter and hand tile nippers.  I now own a Moroccan tile cutting hammer because I can no longer use the nippers as they aggravate my tendonitis.
Moroccan Zellij behind he kitchen counter in my home
I have built a number of pebble mosaics using Arabic tessalate geometric designs that originated in Morocco as well.  One Portland garden has a long path running down a side garden.  At a halfway point, I built a small patio with a bench and a fountain that is visible from the long terrace that wraps around this historic home, with an eight pointed star and geometric patterns radiating out in a simple square frame.
Tesselate Star Pebble Mosaic
In a garden in Los Angeles I have incorporated several Moroccan inspired mosaics and a sunken garden,  inspired by the client's love of the country and it's arts and design.  The first project was to build a pebble mosaic carpet.  This elaborate design took a month to lay out and set.  I first arranged the entire mosaic in a bed of sand on site and then disassembled it and set it in mortar, using forms to break it up in to sections.

I was also commissioned to build a fountain  covering a concrete block form that was not of my design.  I was not particularly happy with the shape that I had to work with but I made the most of it.  Water flows in a sheet from a copper ledge over a 'Tree of Life' mosaic that is fashioned after a Liquidambar Sweet Gum tree adjacent to the fountain.  The tree mosaic is framed with a band of eight pointed stars and connecting bands, similar to the carpet mosaic.  The fountain is surrounded in white glazed brick to cover the sides of the concrete block form and pool, matching the white brick walls on the first story of the house.
Tree of Life Fountain
My next commision in the garden was to build a round gas fire pit for gatherings on cool evenings to roast marshmallows.  I built up bands of pebble mosaic using black and gold Mexican beach pebbles and then capped the ring with a band of eight pointed stars matching the other mosaics in the garden.  The stars are made of Turkish limestone tiles that I cut with a stone cutting blade.  The fire pit is connected to a natural gas line and has a double round metal ring perforated with holes that is covered in black gravel.  A Moroccan brass tray fits over the fire pit when it is not in use.
A elegant fire pit for roasting Marshmallows
We also erected a restored Indonesian pavilion in the garden to use as a tea house.  I recycled carved wooden panels from the roof of an old Rajasthani swing from India to use as steps, and built a landing incorporating the eight pointed star motif, and red pebbles to compliment the wood steps.
Tea House steps and pebble mosaic landing
My last big project for the garden was to remodel an area that once contained a sunken trampoline.  You an see the essay that I wrote on this project called 'A Sunken Garden'.  We removed a large trampoline and I built a sunken garden utilizing the hole that was there.  I was inspired by the shape of a Moroccan key hole door in designing the space.  We stenciled a border around the wall, and I added a fountain and Moroccan tiled table and chairs to furnish the space.
Looking down in to the Sunken Garden
The underground garage concrete pour
I was commissioned to build a cut slate roof terrace on an elaborate new underground garage for clients in Portland, to be used as a terrace for entertaining and dancing.  I used the eight pointed star design again in repeated medallions framed by colored bands of cut stone.  This was probably the most difficult project I have ever undertaken as it had to drain perfectly in to two very small drains on one side.  The terrace is quite large and took about 3 months to build.  The colors of the stone reflect those of the imposing house adjacent to it.  It is quite an elegant space, considering that there are two cars parked underneath it, and they have had some lovely tango parties on it, so that it is now called 'The Tango Terrace'.
Laying out the pattern for slate terrace
Star Medallion
The completed Tango Terrace
I've been working with a steel fabricator for several years now to build wonderful steel structures in my garden and some of my client's projects.  We cut these beautiful tesselate medallions to hang on walls and fences or trellises.  This pattern is a classic Moroccan design, representing a story from the Koran, where the Prophet Mohammed, escaping men who were pursuing him in order to kill him, hid in a cave.  A spider built a web across the entrance to the cave, so when the men came, they saw the web and decided he could not be inside as the web would have been broken.  The rays emanating from the central star represent a spider's web.
Steel Medallion hanging on the rusted steel fence in my garden
I have been collecting Moroccan lanterns over the years as I love to light my garden at night with candles.  The patterns that spray across the garden through the lattice patterns cut in the metal, and the colors of the glass are quite magical.

I was first inspired to float flowers in water filled bowls in my garden by an article I saw many years ago about the Hotel La Mamounia in Marrakesh.  There they had strewn rose petals in the fountains, an idea I find quite beautiful, ritualistic, and romantic.
Rose petals in a fountain at Dar Donab in Marrakesh

Dahlias are my favorite flower to float in water as they look like fabulous water lilies, and last for days if the raccoons don't come along at night and shred them to bits, which they love to do.
Dahlias and chrome balls floating in a carved stone bowl in my garden
I now have a small library of books on Moroccan design and gardens.  Perhaps the finest of all the books I own is called 'Arabesques, Decorative Art in Morocco', from ACR Publications.  This incredible book takes on the daunting task of defining the mind boggling complexity of geometric patterning in tile, painting, marquetry, stucco carving, and most amazing of all, three dimensional muqarnas.

The reason I am so fascinated and inspired by Moroccan design and that I have incorporated so much of the influence in my own work is that I find the artistic expression found in that country to be some of the most beautiful and profoundly meaningful I have ever encountered.  I am forever grateful to have the luxury of exploring this magical land and to see first hand the treasures that it has bestowed upon humanity.


Berber Me
Thanks for reading this, Jeffrey

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

The Koubba El-Badiyn


Looking up in to the interior of the Koubba El-Badiyn
Marrakech is a city rich in history and architecture.  The city was founded by the Almoravid people nearly 1,000 years ago on a plain near the Tensift River in a strategic location for trading routes through North Africa.  The Almoravids were a Berber dynasty from the southern Sahara who's rule eventually spanned an area covering the Maghreb, being most of North Africa west of Egypt, and Al-Andalus.  This region of Southern Spain is known today as Andalusia, famous for its Nasrid capitol at Granada, with its palace fortress, the Alhambra.
Painting of a Berber tent camp at the edge of a walled city
Originally a tent encampment, the city of Marrakech was begun as the new capitol of the Almoravid kingdom by Abu Bakr ibn Umar but largely completed by his successor Youssef ben Tachfin.  They built a sophisticated underground irrigation system for the cultivation of date palms and crops, and the signature pinkish red mud brick walls, parts of which surround much of the Medina to this day.  Within the walls, they constructed the great Ali ben Youssef Mosque, now lost, and the Koubba El-Badiyn, which was a hall of ablutions for cleansing one's self before prayers.  It is the oldest remaining building in the city.
A Palm Oasis near Ouarzazate in Morocco
The reign of the Almoravid dynasty was a short lived one lasting a little more than 100 years.  They were an austere sect of Islam, and destained the decadent ornamentation that flourished in Andalusia, but eventually adopted a greater flair for architectural refinement over time.  The kingdom was overthrown by the Almohad sect of Islam in 1147 AD, who destroyed everything that had been built up until that time except for the irrigation system, and the Koubba El-Badiyn, which was buried over during the construction of new buildings.   The Almohads built the great Koutoubia Mosque and extended the walls that you see today.

Excavation revealing the Koubba El-Badiyn
The original ground level of old Marrakesh has risen considerably, as is the case of most ancient cities.  When the Koubba was excavated in 1953, two stories of fill had to be removed to expose the original ground level of the building.  What you see today is perhaps my favorite building in Marrakech.  This structure and the architectural legacy that was lost became the prototypes for the great architecture of the following Almohad empire.  There are many details on the building that are used in some form in later structures throughout Morocco.

The Koubba is a relatively small building, with simple but beautiful doorways with 6 cupped indentations flanking a circular scallop on each end of the rectangular base.  There are two keyhole shaped doorways on the other two sides.  The construction is mud brick covered in a smooth layer of stucco with a natural ochre coloring.

On the second level are rows of varied shaped windows giving the facade a simple elegance.  The cap of the wall is crenelated with a zig zag edge to the merlons, or raised parts, like the profile of a terraced ziggurat.  This is a motif that you see on roof lines all over Morocco to this day.
Zig Zag edge Merlons on a building in the Medina in Tangier
The central dome of the building has a beautifully patterned lattice of narrow elliptic pointed arches interlaced to frame a star shaped crown.  The interior of this dome is sculpted with an elegant 8 pointed star connected by petal like tear drops.
Upper level windows and the sculpted dome, with zig zag crenelations 
Interior view showing the different shaped doors and brickwork revealed behind a layer of stucco
Carved and pigmented stucco arch

Inside the Koubba are two arches at either end with varying simple but very elegant carved stucco arches, both incorporating 6 pointed stars.  They are painted with a red pigment that may be derived from original remnants but I have no historical reference to prove that.  What I write here is purely from observation and the extremely limited amount of information that is available to me.  If a knowledgeable historian were to read my account they might be horrified, but then I am often left doubtful of what I read as interpretation of things I have seen that tend to be taken as fact because they have been reiterated so many times.  So I will indulge my hypothesis, and you can take me seriously or not.

There is a small rectangular depression in the floor with angled sides that might have been a small pool used for washing or to reflect the beautiful ceiling and cool the air inside the space.  This might have originally been tiled.

The interior dome is square, so there is a small balcony on each end that is not accessible, but only architectural to allow for the change in form.  The openings of the windows are a different shape and smaller than they are on the outside, allowing for structural strength and architectural harmony, but allowing adequate light in to illuminate the dome.  They are angled to create the shape of an eight pointed star.  Eight pointed stars can symbolize two overlapping squares with alludes to the overlapping of time and space, with one square representing the cardinal directions while the other represents the four seasons.  It is like looking at a time piece and a compass at the same time.  The arches are beautifully shaped in a form seen in many later Moorish doorways, like a keyhole but with a pointed top.  The space in between is decorated with garlands of carved stucco leaves, perhaps those of the Oriental Plane Tree, Platanus orientalis, which is an important shade tree planted throughout the Mediterranean.  This tree is sacred in ancient Greek and Persian texts.  The garlands and a pinnate foliage form frame large scallop shells, which could be derived from Roman buildings that would have been seen in ancient Volubilis and Chellah near the royal Moroccan cities of Meknes and Rabat.
Sculpted arches create an 8 pointed star, with foliage garlands framing shells
To make the transition between the square shape at the beginning of the space to the eight pointed space, there are four corner recesses culminating in seven pointed stars.  These are rarely represented in Islamic architecture but can allude to the seven known planets of the time, which rule the seven days of the week.  They allow for a geometric connection between the shape of the square to the shape of the octagon in the form of the arches in the rising dome.  There is a smaller seven pointed star inside the larger one and a seven petaled flower in the center of that.
Seven pointed stars in the corners of the transition between the square space and the 8 pointed space
It is quite extraordinary to look up in to this dome, which takes geometric shapes and brings them in to the three dimensional form.  This is called a Muqurnas dome, where niche shapes are combined in profusion to create a dome.  The Alhambra in Granada has extraordinary examples of Muqarnas that are so elaborate as to look hallucinogenic.  The sculpting is sometimes referred to as honeycombing, because it looks like gazing in to a bee hive.
Sala de los Abencerrejas in the Alhambra, Granada, Spain
Above the eight arches is another eight pointed star, and then an octagon shape that forms the base of the cupola at the top of the building.  Inside this is the geometric form of an eight pointed star with slender rays, connected by the round petal like shapes of a cosmic flower.  The perfection of the entire space is entrancing and transcendent, like the experience of enlightenment intended when praying devotedly to Allah.  It is a magical thing to behold.  The Koubba El-Adiyn is a prototype that inspired a plethora of gorgeous buildings found throughout Morocco, a country that is a virtual treasure chest of architectural gems professing to the brilliance of Islamic mathematics and art and engineering.  My breath is taken away to behold such brilliance, leaving me spellbound with awe.
A straight on view of the interior of the Koubba El-Badiyn

Thanks for reading, Jeffrey



Saturday, January 21, 2012

Tragically Magic Tangier, Morocco


A film poster with Calla Lilies in the Cinema Rif
Its Friday the 13th of December and I have been in Tangier for a week now.   The prankster spirits were out in force today, and I made the mistake of undertaking the preparations for my first ever exhibition of photographs here in this very city in the midst of such a thin veil between worlds.  But that is what Tangier is all about, the junction between two worlds.  It is one of those cities you can get stuck in, like all of the odd and intriguing mix of people that have wound up living here at some point in their lives.  The stories you hear are the stuff of legends.
Two kinds of Tangerine

The Two Pillars of Hercules
The Rock of Gibraltar in Europe and Jebel Musa in Africa

Hercules kicked off the list of luminaries.  It is believed that he rested in a cave on the nearby Cap Spartel coast before undertaking his 11th labor in the quest to be granted immortality and atone for killing his six sons while under the spell of the Goddess Hera.  His task was to steal 3 golden apples from the garden of the Hesperides, the Nymphs of Evening who tended the magical trees behind a high wall.   He tricked Atlas in to picking them for him while he held up the world, giving Atlas a much needed break.  He tricked Atlas again into taking the job of supporting the World while he adjusted his cloak, and took off with the apples.  The high mountains that cross Morocco were named for the beleaguered god Atlas.  The lore of the garden and golden apples of the Hesperides Nymphs inspired the design of many Renaissance gardens in Italy imbued with a link to the divine.
Fountain of the Garden of the Hesperides in the Villa de Este in Tivoli, Italy
This garden is devoted to the God Hercules
In the 14th Century, the Tangerine Ibn Battuota traveled further than any other human on Earth until the advent of the steam engine 4 1/2 Centuries later.  He covered some 75,000 miles in 30 years exploring vast parts of Africa, Europe, and Asia as far as Beijing.  He dictated the tale in the epic manuscript 'The Rilha'.  The short title literally means 'The Journey'.  A translated quote from the story reads as this:  "I set out alone, finding no 
Tile Plaque on the Tomb of Ibn Battouta
companion to cheer the way with friendly intercourse, and no party of travelers with whom to associate myself.  Swayed by an overmastering impulse within me, and a long-cherished desire to visit those glorious sanctuaries, I resolved to quit all my friends and tear myself away from my home."  I am overcome by the same wanderlust and head out for 3 or 4 months every winter with the help of jet fuel.  Ibn Battuta's tomb is in the Kasbah of Tangier.  It is a strange tribute that the world's largest theme shopping mall in Dubai, the one with the snow skiing, is named after him.  The more widely renowned Venetian Marco Polo came in a distant second in his travels to and from China.
Pebble Mosaic Courtyard in the American Legation

Tile Pattern in a courtyard in the American Legation

Morocco was the first country to recognize the United States as a sovereign nation after it gained independence from Great Britain.  The Sultan of Morocco gifted a house in the Medina of Tangier to the fledgling country and this house became our first foreign property and diplomatic center of the U.S. in the world.  It is also the only site within the National Park Service that is outside a U.S. territory.  The two countries have had a lasting pact of friendship that was created in 1786.  It is important for Americans to know that our first and longest ally is a Muslim nation.  The American Legation, as it is called is now a foundation for Americans to learn the Arab language.  It is also a popular cultural center where meetings and events are staged.  I recently attended the screening of a Moroccan film there titled 'A Muslim Boy growing up in the Medina'.  It was a fascinating event and I got an introspective in to the life of Moroccans during the colonial period, when there was a certain amount of segregation between the native people and their occupiers.  There are two attractive courtyards and nicely furnished rooms with a wonderful collection of  eclectic paintings in the Legation.  It is a curious blend of Moroccan and American styles.  
A Berber Rug American Flag
When you pass through the traditional front door on a narrow pedestrian alleyway, you enter an attractive pebble mosaic courtyard with a central fountain surrounded by an arched arcade.  This may very well be the only pebble mosaic in a United States government property.  The place is relaxed and I enjoy hanging out there, as nothing is roped off.  You can even sit on the furniture.  Interestingly, Pasadena, California is Tangier's American sister city.
Colorful Doorway to Vidal Sassoon's current residence
Mick Jagger and Malcombe Forbes, Barbara Hutton (Poor Little Rich Girl), Vidal Sassoon and Yves Saint Laurent are just of handful of 20th Century's most notorious people to have set up camp in this gateway to Africa.   Paul Bowles and William Burroughs were creative junkies and quite messy publicly at times from what people who have been here the longest tell me.  I stay in the Hotel Muniria when I'm here, where Burroughs wrote the book Naked Lunch.  Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac helped pull the piles of paper strewn about his room in to a publishable work the year I was born.  My friend Karla and I passed a man shooting up in the lane above the hotel today.  He was just sticking the needle in his arm when he yelled 'Hey, look!"  It could have been William reincarnated!  I have a high tolerance for the darker side of society from many years of budget travel and my own pioneering move in to the what was at that time a pretty hard core ghetto in Portland 30 years ago.  I have a nice room and a huge beautiful terrace that looks out over the bay.

Tangier became an international zone, which drew people from all over the world to this exotic lair and enabled them to stay.
Sunrise view from my terrace at the Hotel Muniria
The city was full of hippies in the 1960's, the time when most of the people I have gotten to know here moved to Tangier.  Morocco grows a substantial percentage of the world's marijuana crop and turns much of this in to hashish, which is then smuggled to Europe and the U.S.  There is an intriguing mix of Moroccans and foreigners and they all seem to have incredible stories to tell.  One couple I met last year own the Volubilis Gallery in the Kasbah.  This is where I conjured up the idea yesterday, after a nice lunch at their house, to have an exhibition of photos called 'Eccentric Morocco'.   The gallery was booked with a show for the month of February, but the woman scheduled to have her show of illustrations here called and canceled while we were having tea at the Cafe Espanol a few hours later.  So I pulled a bunch of my favorite images of Morocco from my digital files on my laptop and we took them to a printer.  I quickly learned a lot about what looks good in print as opposed to on the computer screen today and am now changing the focus of my selection.  I came up with the title 'Eccentric Morocco' after the laptop crashed 4 times while trying to send the email to the Tanger Pocket to promote the show.  The deadline was today, Friday the 13th.  Eventually we got the 5 times rewritten text and a photo sent off and I am officially committed.
Image from the exhibition of a clothes line in the Kasbah of Tangier

Then I picked up the photos at the studio that I took the disk to and later found that the trimmed ones were badly done with jagged scissors, so I will be going back tomorrow to try again.  If I sell 5 photos I will be amazed, but it is a kind of self financed manifestation of a new career, like the 4 books I have self published.  One will be the image that is on the cover of my book 'Kitty', which I took last year in Tangier.  It is one of the most magical photos I've ever taken.  I am now shooting like a mad man (nothing new really), and some of them are quite wonderful.  It should be a very fun show!
View from a plane of the Straights of Gibraltar
Spanish Colonial buildings near the waterfront
Just a 35 minute trip from Tarifa in Spain on the other side of the Mediterranean Sea, the ferry drops you off on this beguilingly seedy doorstep.  A grand group of sculpted stucco colonial buildings from the Spanish occupation period, with old signs advertising passage to ports of call throughout the Mediterranean greets you with a row of competitive fish restaurants, each with its own tout ready to drag you in for lunch.  In summer here it must be crazy with day trippers coming for a quick taste of Africa.  

Its an architectural time warp around every corner, with a blending of styles spanning centuries and numerous cultures.  The French, Portuguese, and Italians have tried to run the show here.  For decades it was an international zone with many fingers in the pie.  The waterfront is undergoing a massive redevelopment scheme under the royal patronage of the King of Morocco.  They are building a huge new marina and luxury condominiums, as well as a congressional palace, a museum, and large public area.  There will also be a gondola cable car that will take you over the city, a rather peculiar and invasive scheme that will change the look of the skyline and no doubt invade the privacy of many residents.
Conceptual view of the new waterfront marina for the city of Tangier
The heart of the city is called the Gran Socco, which is Spanish for Big Market.  This is an expansive plaza with a large fountain in the center that has been refurbished from its former market place status.  It was more like a smaller version of the famed Jma el Fna in Marrakesh, a place where musicians and snake charmers lured money from foreigners and vendors spread their blankets.  It is more like a European plaza now and is surrounded on one side by the walls of the Medina, and on others by more contemporary colonial period buildings.
The Gran Socco
The Cinema Rif is the primary land mark, and popular cultural center today.  While many of the old theaters of Tangier and throughout Morocco have fallen in to decay, the Rif has a regular screening of international films and live theater, and has a popular tea house where people gather to chat or use the free internet access.  I saw the wonderful silent movie 'The Artist' there last week.  They also just showed 'Cat on a hot tin roof' with Elizabeth Taylor and Paul Newman as part of a series sponsored by the American Legation.  The Gran Socco is the link between the old city Medina and the Ville Nouvelle, which has an interesting mix of colonial era shops, cafes, tea houses, and night clubs indicative of a port city.


The Piano Bar in the Hotel El Minzah
People have been coming here to party for decades and there are plenty of lurid options to be had.  Tangier has an active night scene with a number of dark clubs catering to drinkers and prostitutes.  I walk through a rowdy area to get back to my hotel with loud Arab  music pouring out from behind tasseled curtains screening the view inside these smoky dens of iniquity.  Stout bouncers keep an eye on the door and make me less inclined to take a look inside.  A more civilized cocktail can be had in the bar at the Hotel el Minzah, the grand 5 star haven in the heart of the Ville Nouvelle that has a fair number of its own stories to tell.

The stairway down to the Bar Monocle
Drinking tea is a Moroccan passion practiced on the grandest scale in Tangier.  It is said that there are some 800 tea cafes in the city, and many of them are opulent in their scale and decor.  Most are filled with men, who all face the big screen TV's when the local football team is playing.   They are busiest in the mornings and evenings.  A large part of the day is spent hanging out with friends with pots of mint tea or small Spanish style coffees.  Patisseries offering delicious French style pastries also serve tea and coffee, and are more likely to be frequented by women.
Salon de The' Metropole, where I often meet friends for coffee
Many of the streets in the Ville Nouvelle are like stepping back in time to the 1950's, with wonderful neon signs and businesses that have become lasting institutions in the city.  Rachid's, where I had my photos printed is one of them.  There is a great sense of trust here, and when I didn't have enough money to pay for a printing Rachid would tell me to just bring the money later, without having even a written receipt.
The Borsalino Club's sign has sadly been replaced by a plastic one since I photographed it last year
Just behind are the fortified walls above the vast old Jewish cemetery lies the Medina.  The Cemetery is crammed with above ground coffins from the once thriving Mellah or Jewish quarter of the city.  Most of that community has since moved to Israel, as is the case throughout Morocco, though some families remain.  Jews and Muslims were both expelled from Spain after Ferdinand and Isabela the Catholic conquered the Moorish kingdoms there in the 15th Century.
The Jewish Cemetery

You climb up steep stairs to arched gates and enter the Medina, a warren of pedestrian streets lined with hidden houses, cheap pensions, and small shops carrying products that are often made on site.  There are stalls selling fresh produce, meat, and eggs, and communal bakeries where families can bring their dough to be baked in wood fired ovens.  Hammans are communal bath houses for residents who don't have indoor plumbing in their homes, and there are public fountains to fill jugs with water.  Many people embroider elaborate kaftans in their shops, or have looms for weaving cloth for robes in Fondouks, which are a kind of collective with affordable housing for craftsmen and nomadic traders.  The walls and doors of homes facing the street give little indication of what lies behind them.  If the door is made of fine cedar there is a good chance that a grand old dar, or riad lies behind them.  These are large houses of well to do with inner courtyards paved in fine tile work, with beautiful carved stucco columns and painted ceilings.

Carved and painted dome in the Dar el-Makhzen, now the Museum of the Kasbah

A Berber Amber necklace in Boutique Majid
There are plenty of shops in Tangier filled with Moroccan treasures for the foreigners that cross the Straights of Gibraltar to cart home.  One of the best of them is Boutique Majid.  I spend a lot of time in this grand old house, sitting on a comfortable divan beneath silk velvet wall panels, listening to my friend Majid tell tales of grander times in Tangier.  I met him last year when I came to Tangier with an actress friend of mine who had made a film in the Alhambra in Granada, Spain 33 years ago.  She used to come to Tangier to party on the weekends and hadn't been back since then.  I lured her to come visit by sending her enticing photos from my travels.  Once you visit Morocco it remains in your blood for life, and she couldn't resist the opportunity to join me.  She hadn't been in contact with any of the people she had befriended here since, but amazingly to us we were able to find all of them, and it is of course a fascinating group.  I myself had to come back again and see them.  They are that good, and so the story goes...  Majid's shop is filled with beautiful things from North Africa and collections from his travels in Asia.  He specializes in Moroccan embroidery and fine textiles.  There is a building filled with doors and architectural pieces that would make you want to rebuild your house.  The ceilings are covered in lustrous canopies and hanging with colored glass lanterns.  You could spend the entire day hanging out drinking fresh mint tea and visiting with interesting people from all over the world who come to admire his wares.

The beautiful couch I hang out on in Boutique Majid
When I leave the shop I go in various directions.  Medinas are like mazes, without an organized grid system to guide you, so its very easy to get lost.  Because you cant see the horizon or the direction of the sun it can be disorienting and I have gone in circles a number of times.  Children are always ready to give you directions for a dirham or two, although if you do know where you are going or just want to wander this can get annoying.  The old cities of Morocco grew organically, fitting to the topography of the land.  They are surrounded by defensible walls that are pierced by ornamental gates like medieval cities in Europe, so sometimes it is easier to go outside and around to another gate rather than trying to navigate from inside.



There is a strong influence from Spain mixed with the Moroccan style in Tangier, as is the reverse case on the other side of the Mediterranean Sea.  As the modern world drew people to the outlying neighborhoods and their modern conveniences, buildings in the Medina began to crumble with age.  Many of them are is poor condition, but there is great charm and marvelous patina in the decay, and if I lived in Tangier I would want to be in this area, because it has the most magical quality.  It is like passing through a different era.  The streets are narrow so you have to make your way around people, and that contact is engaging and social, as opposed to driving in a car, where you are completely isolated and are polluting the air and consuming fossil fuels at the same time.  If we are to survive as a species we very well may have to make a return to this pedestrian lifestyle.  And we will be all the better for it.  I know this because I feel excitement and vitality when I am walking around the Medinas in Morocco, where as I am often stressed or utterly bored when I am driving around the city at home.
A wonderful conglomeration of colors revealed in a peeling wall
At the top of the hill above the Medina is the Kasbah.  This is a separate walled compound where the Sultan's palace lies.  This is now the beautiful Museum of the Kasbah.  There are narrow twisting streets, as in the Medina, with a mix of rich and poor.  The views from the roofs are wonderful, looking out over the sea and the sprawl of the new city.
View of the Medina from the Kasbah


Hanging out in the Kasbah
Many of the old houses have been restored to be comfortable and beautiful homes.  One of the most spectacular, and for a long time the residence of hair care mogul Vidal Sassoon and his family, has partially collapsed after being undermined by excavations on the steep slopes below.  It is now a bizarre, cracked ruin filled with trash and excrement that I went inside for the first time with a guide just a couple of days ago.  I revisited it again on my own later, drawn to its macabe atmosphere.  It is rather mysterious, and looks as if it were hit by an earthquake.  I'm glad they left it in its precarious state rather than demolishing it, although the heaps of trash can be disconcerting, and it might be a little dangerous to walk around.  My friend Karla said she used to swim in the pool there before the house collapsed.
The Collapsed Palace in the Kasbah
As the Medina grew to be exceedingly crowded, the affluent of Tangier began to build grand new houses in the area to the west called the Marchan.  While several of the stately mansions are inhabited by the rich and famous, they sit amidst swaths of decay, and many of the houses are abandoned and collapsing, while others are being restored by the King of Morocco and his family, as well as wealthy families from other Arab countries.  This is the site of the infamous Cafe Hafa, a steeply terraced tea house where men come to smoke hashish and marijuana kif while looking out over the Mediterranean Sea. 
Cafe Hafa



On a bare rock crest above the sea lie the remains of ancient Roman tombs.  The rectangular tombs were cut directly in to the rock and are now filled with water and trash.  The views are spectacular and people gather here to look out over the sea towards Spain.  Below the tombs is a dilapidated old neighborhood that is fascinating to explore, though few tourists ever venture here.  It reminded me of the favela slums in Rio de Janiero in Brazil, without the menace of danger.  If you go with a guide, people are quite friendly.  Sadly many of these houses are being torn down to make way for future hotel development along the coastline, which will dramatically change the character of the area for the worst if they look like the ones being built along Tangier's beach front.
The Roman Tombs and a Spanish style house in the Marchan

Things are rapidly changing in this city along the same lines as the overdeveloped Costa del Sol across the waters in Spain.  Much of the beauty that makes Tangier so incredible is being stripped away to make way for big ugly hotels and residential buildings geared towards a wealthy foreign clientele.   The pine forested hills are disappearing at an alarming rate and being replaced by luxury cookie cutter villas, each with their own swimming pool, or nondescript high rises.  One of the only remaining old buildings along Tangier's beach has been converted in to a McDonalds, complete with a Ronald McDonald play structure.
Modern High rise development along Tangier's beach
The beach is littered with a broad string of trash, mostly plastics from a disposable consumer society.  The way we treat our beautiful oceans is appalling.  A foul smelling open drain empties in to the middle of beach helping to make the sea unsuitable for swimming.
Garbage carpets the beach
Many of the people who have lived here a long time speak with some melancholy about how wonderful Tangier once was.  They talk of the old days when there was pageantry and the spectacle of the Sultan's entourage, Barbara Hutton's amazing limousines and Malcombe Forbes grand parties.  The hills were still carpeted in thick green forest instead of construction cranes.  The houses were proud and well maintained.  A rich and varied culture thrived in the Medina.  As one man told me, "You have to turn a blind eye."  That is unfortunately impossible for me to do.
A ruined mansion in the Marchan
But when I ask if they still love living here they always answer yes.   A young woman who moved here from Casablanca a few years ago told me that when she goes home to visit her family, she doesn't stay long because she has to get back to Tangier for reasons she doesn't fully understand.  I had to come back myself, and I hope it happens again as many times as I can pull off during the remainder of my life.  Tangier is like a drug, magic, tragic, and addictive.


Sitting on a tile zellij fountain in the Kasbah of Tangier

Thanks for reading my ramblings, Jeffrey