Literary City: Tangier

All of life is a foreign country ~ Jack Kerouac

Originally published at Writer’s Bloc

It started with one: a single stomach churning and stirring as the ferry bounced and dipped its way across the Strait of Gibraltar. We had left Spain’s Port of Algeciras twenty minutes earlier and we were already ricocheting off the waves, landing with a dull ‘thwack,’ over and over. Inside the express ferry, one became many and while the staff handed out damp towels and paper bags, they served little purpose to the cabin of motion sickness. So we arrived by dusk, a choir of heaving and retching, coughing and spluttering as the ferry steered its way into the Port of Tangier.

Perched on Morocco’s far northern coast, where Europe and Northern Africa stretch towards one another, Tangier, I was once told, is where people go when they want to go elsewhere. Without Marrakech’s romanticism, Casablanca’s convenience and Fez’s donkey-laden medina, it is arguably nothing like the rest of the country — which is exactly why it’s famous. After the Second World War, Tangier became an ‘international zone’ loosely governed by nine foreign countries. With that came an eccentric crowd including the Rolling Stones, Truman Capote, and my reason for being there — the Beat writers.

I was on the sort of literary pilgrimage you take when you are barely 20 years old and would like to believe you are some sort of modern day bohemian I hoped that in Tangier’s landscape, or its people, or its quality hashish, I would find the muse of Beat lyricism that would somehow give my writing that particular feeling of being both alive and indifferent. Of course, Jack Kerouac never waxed poetic about spew on a boat. But details are wasted on the young. So I finished writing in my journal — thinking that someday, these long-winded anecdotes would serve a purpose — and disembarked the ferry under a dark sky.

During Tangier’s ‘interzone’ period, the ethos was that money could buy you anything, and for the city’s mix of spies, criminals, businessmen and artists, this meant that you were able to buy everything. For William S. Burroughs, an American Beat fleeing the murder of his wife while drunk in Mexico, the combination of money and the depraved Eden of Tangier could also buy you time. And for myself — playing a game of charades with a taxi driver at the port to explain that I had no local currency — even the prospect of money, it seemed, could buy something.

A week earlier, from an internet cafe in Rome, I had swooned over the Majorelle Blue walls, small wooden tables and bright sea views of the Hotel El-Muniria. Once known as Villa Muniria, it was Burroughs’ home for more than four years and in room nine, he was joined by Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg and Peter Orlovsky. During this time and depending on your opinion of his work, he either descended into a drug-induced madness or uninhibited genius ending with his infamous novel, Naked Lunch. I had imagined ‘Burroughs was here’ scrawled on a wall somewhere but when I arrived at the El-Muniria, I was met by a young guy in slippers, smirking from a half-open door.

“No room,” he said. “Try across the road.”

By 1958, American author and longtime Morocco resident Paul Bowles declared that “in Tangier there is nothing left to spoil”. But when I met my tour guide Ibn, in his camel djellaba — a traditional Berber robe — and muddied Nikes, it seemed that all was not yet lost. After waking in the Hotel Magellan — the guesthouse across the street — I made my way down the sandstone fenced and Bougainvillea lined, Rue Magellan. The route to the Grand Socco and medina was a mix of modern and decayed, with makeshift clotheslines and rusting satellites, hanging out of open apartment windows.

It was early and so I sat on a bench, snacking on walnuts and a round, flat bread that someone had called ‘ksra’. Ibn approached me with a smooth ‘Bonjour.’ He was 70-something with a bushy and greying beard, a Stella Artois beanie pulled over his head and a penchant for languages, speaking seven in total. Funny, interesting and endearing, he was the perfect Dean Moriarty to my Sal Paradise, and with a contagious enthusiasm I was soon chasing him up the steep and dusty streets to the ancient Kasbah.

We climbed higher and higher, stopping at some of Tangier’s existing eccentricities: an ornate mosaic chair where the hands of thieves were once cut off (“We don’t do that anymore,” Ibn added); the large house of the late Barbara Hutton, which had “seven doors for seven different husbands”; and Cafe Baba, where the Rolling Stones once came to smoke hashish “when it was still very good”. The Beats were mentioned, but only in reference to the Tangier American Legation Museum — a Moorish-style building that I would visit the following day to look at yellow-tinged photographs of Burroughs fully clothed on a beach and dog-eared copies of On the Road and Howl and Junkie.

When we reached the Kasbah, Ibn and I sat on one of its crumbling walls, looking towards the mountains of Spain’s southernmost point. In a few days I would board a much smoother ferry back across the strait, passing the hours on a blue couch in front of a large television. I thought the film would something Spanish, maybe North African, or most likely a three-hour long Bollywood flick. Instead it was Troy, the Hollywood version of Homer’s the Iliad. Like the Tangier of old, it was a mix of myth and madness, of testosterone fuelling the passions and ambitions of characters hopelessly lost at the hands of something they could not control. For the Greeks, it was the Gods. And for the beats — with their cocktail of drugs, drinks, adventure and addiction — it was perhaps their own recklessness.

Ibn and I were, of course, no Dean and Sal. My personal currency was cash and after tipping him about eight dollars, he disappeared as quickly as he arrived, bounding down into the Medina’s market lanes. I was alone. And in this moment I wondered whether the beats, always flitting about the city like fireflies glowing in the night, had experienced such a quiet solitude in Tangier. From the top of the Kasbah I watched as the Atlantic collided with the Mediterranean, over and over — and saw in its swell and in its stillness, the hope of my next crazy venture somewhere beyond the sea.