Saturday, January 21, 2012

Tragically Magic Tangier, Morocco

A film poster with Calla Lilies in the Cinema Rif
Its Friday the 13th of December, 2012 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 ski slopes, is named after him.  The more widely renowned Venetian explorer 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 look 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, expressing 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 on 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 downstairs in Room #9.  Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac helped pull the piles of paper strewn about his room in to a publishable work in 1958, the year I was born.  They smoked a lot of marijuana kif and hashish and consumed lots of the intoxicating sweet called majoun, made from ground dates and dried figs, butter, spices and hashish.  Beatniks and Hippies flocked to Tangier to experience the fabled atmosphere cast by Paul Bowles writing and recordings of Moroccan music.

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 at the age of 27 in to the what was at that time a pretty hard core ghetto in Portland 30 years ago.  At the Muniria I have a nice room and a huge beautiful terrace I can climb out the window on to that looks out over the bay.  There is a famous little bar called the Tangerinn on the street level, and the old house Bowles lived in for a time is across the street.

In the first half of the 20th Century, Tangier was divided in to districts run by the Spanish, French, and British and was designated an international zone in 1904.  This drew people from all over the world to the exotic, freewheeling, port city connecting two continents, and enabled them to stay.
Sunrise view from my terrace at the Hotel Muniria
The poster for my show at the Volubilis Gallery
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 Español 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 city's culture guide, 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.  I'm such a Ludite.
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 is also a proposed 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 the fortified walls above the vast old Jewish cemetery lies the Medina.  The Cemetery is crammed with above ground coffins of the deceased 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, the threshold to another world.

Sitting on a tile zellij fountain in the Kasbah of Tangier
Thanks for reading my ramblings, Jeffrey

The tent door panel from the entrance to Majid's shop hangs over my bed in Northeast Portland


  1. What a fantastic post! This was such an interesting and eye opening piece. I had not known of the history of Tangier, or its present day troubles. Your photos really captured the beauty and mystery of this place. Thanks for sharing such an intriguing tale with us.

  2. Ramble on my friend. I will look forward to the next...

  3. Thank you for writing this fantastic article. We will be in Tangier on February 2nd and 3rd. Very excited to see your works, it is our first time, so your insight is very appreciIated. Nora and Scot

  4. intrigue, mystery, adventure. Life creates more possibilities as it engages with opportunities.
    Best of luck with your photography show.

  5. I felt like you were in the room talking during a slide show. What a service you provide to us all. Thanks

  6. Jeffrey, this is simply amazing travel writing and photos. I knew a bit of Bowles and Burroughs in Tangier but didn't realize the expat tradition continued on with Forbes, Sassoon, etc. Thank you for a marvelous read.

  7. Hi Jeffrey. Just stumbled on your blog. I have a project afoot and I'm looking to connect with any Moroccan bloggers or artists. It's explained here...
    If you can give me any leads I'd be very grateful. Nice piece. Thankyou.

  8. It has been 30 years since I was in Tangier and I just found myself thinking about it . . . again, wondering if the places . . . . As you say, gone are the green hills. I stayed at the Hotel Pasadena on the Route de Tetouane. Much has changed but I still find it calling me.