Tangerine Spirits – Tangier, Morocco

Tangerine Spirits
Tangier, Morocco

Tangier is a city with a reputation. Her allure is strong and will leave an imprint on the modern traveler – as it did on those eponymous miniature oranges that once passed through its ports. But she is a city living under the umbrage of a sordid past, haunted by ghosts heroic, notorious, erudite, celluloid and stoned. Derelict, she is nonetheless beguiling.

It doesn’t help that most guidebooks advise all but the most intrepid traveler to avoid Tangier. Historically, this advice was ignored – everyone went there. The tiny seaport on the northwest coast of Morocco was visited by Phoenician traders some 3000 years ago and then, at the dawn of the modern era, played host to Carthaginians and Romans. It was the Romans who gave it her name Tengris, our Tangier (in Arabic Tanjah). After the Romans came the Vandals, who swept across North Africa only to be defeated in the 8th century by conquering Arabs, who brought with them Islam. In the 11th and 12th centuries, Tangier was the hotly contested property of two successive Muslim dynasties who used the city as a base for their assault on Spain. During this period the famous medieval globetrotter (and Tangerine) Ibn Battuta (born 1304) was traipsing about the Islamic world, sightseeing, and studying and dispensing jurisprudence, surpassing Marco Polo’s perambulations by some 75,000 miles. The Portuguese eventually wrested control of the city from the Arabs and, in 1471, used her to sweeten the wedding dowry of Catherine of Braganza (who married Charles II of England).

If Roman legions, Barbarian hordes, mounted Arabs, nuptial beds and European power struggles do not evoke a sense of romanticism, don’t forget the pirates. By the sixteenth century, four pirate kingdoms had popped up along the coastline of North Africa – known as Barbary States (named after the indigenous Berbers), each with its own king. These Barbary pirates (also known as Corsairs) were composed of Berbers, Muslims and a handful of Christians, and laid plunder to merchant ships (including American vessels) who plied the Mediterranean – considered by many as the United States’ first terrorist threat. For some 300 years, Tangier was tossed about like a political hot potato between Spain, Portugal and Britain until 1684, when Britain called it a day, “returning” what had become a nest of pirates to Morocco.

The twentieth century tarred the city with a new brush: Tangier became a haven for spies, literary riff-raff and filmmakers. It was accorded special status when Morocco became a French protectorate in 1912 but, in 1923, was shamelessly dissected among nine western nations, making it a true “international zone”, hosting multiple bureaucracies, languages, and currencies (it was also a tax-free shelter). During World War II, Spain briefly took over control of the city until its later integration with Morocco. It is no wonder that the city has a schizophrenic feel to it – a heady fusion of African, Moroccan and European influences with a soupçon of international intrigue. This was the city that inspired Hollywood’s Casablanca: a pawn among world powers, a city of high-priced exit visas and nocturnal assignations. Filmmakers have been coming here since the 1940’s, embracing the mystery of its medina and disguising its Ville Nouvelle as various European cities.

Its reputation as a den of iniquity became further entrenched and celebrated during the first half of this century with the arrival of the Beatniks. Lured by the perfume of hashish, kif and cheap booze, America’s pathologically hip literary mongrels – Bowles, Burroughs, Kerouac, Ginsberg and Leary found refuge in its licentious anonymity (as did Woolworth heiress Barbara Hutton). Tangier was for the Beat Generation what Paris was for the American Bohemians a few decades earlier. Tangier was the muse for Burroughs’ Interzone (from Naked Lunch) and it was here as well that Bowles wrote The Sheltering Sky, offering enough existential ängst to last several lifetimes. Among the comings and goings of writers and artists, it was Paul Bowles who stayed for some sixty years, becoming a fixture in Tangier until his death in 1999. There is little trace of him now – even his ashes were repatriated to the U.S. Only a small room in the American Legation bears inadequate witness to his presence here.

Since its independence in 1956, the city has become decidedly less sordid and, despite (or because of) its poverty, has become a siren to travellers from abroad and day trippers from Andalusiá (the Spanish coast lies 17 kilometers away). But there are touts at the port through which hashish is smuggled and street beggars are sadly abundant. Its beaches are a springboard for boats of illegal refugees headed for Europe. But for the pilgrim on the Beatnik trail, that Tangier is still there, albeit in a faded form. The tuxedoed waiters of the Café de France – where Europe’s spies once exchanged information – still pour the best café au lait in Morocco; hotel rooms where Burroughs or Kerouac stayed can still be fetched for a song. There is much to keep you in Tangier. Whether you’re winding your way about the colonial and Islamic architecture of the Petit Socco, enjoying the ocean breezes along the corniche or climbing the 15th century ramparts to the mud-walled Kasbah and inhaling the fragrance of citrus trees in the Sultan’s palace, you will want to stay.

For those interested in Tangier’s cultural legacy there is the Museum of Antiquities, the Museum of Ethnography & Archaeology, the Museum of Moroccan Arts, the Museum de la Kasbah, the Museum International d’Art Contemporain, the American Legation, and the Grand Mosque. Food and accommodation are still incredibly inexpensive and remarkable bargains can still be found for even the most budget-conscious traveler.

Like an aging beauty who has become rather long in the tooth, Tangier holds on jealously to her former charms – a bit rough around the edges but nonetheless sultry and evocative of another era. In the languid and forgiving light that bewitched the likes of Matisse and Delacroix, she recaptures her youth. Tangier will not disappoint.


Getting there: Tangier is connected to Europe, Africa and the Middle East by several airlines but most visitors reach Tangier inland by bus and train throughout Morocco or by hydrofoil from Spain (Algeciras and Terifa). European InterRail Pass holders will pay 30% less for most ferry rides from Europe to Morocco.

Staying there: Like Paul Bowles, you may want to set up roots in Tangier.
Jobs are limited for non-Moroccans but there are volunteering opportunities. Check out Volunteers for Peace or the Peace Corps.

For those interested in teaching, see the American School of Tangier. For teaching English, see America-Mideast Educational and Training Services, Inc. (AMIDEAST) and the British Council in Morocco. Teaching positions are updated daily on Dave’s ESL Café.

Talking there: Moroccan Arabic is exceptionally dialectical and the Arabic that served you in, say, Egypt will not go very far here – you will be understood but will have problems with comprehension. Courses in Moroccan Arabic are offered widely. Be prepared to speak French as Moroccans are fully bilingual.

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