The Gateway City
Why the tip of Morocco is a magnet for writers.
Dec 30, 2013, Vol. 19, No. 16 • By THOMAS SWICK
Oh, the writers! They came to Tangier in boatloads, getting—many of them—their first taste of Africa and Islam. Though over time, the great allure of Tangier for writers became other writers.
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Most people are familiar with 20th-century duo Paul Bowles and William S. Burroughs, who attracted Allen Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac, Gore Vidal, et al.—but, as Josh Shoemake points out here, Tangier has ancient associations with scribes. The great 14th-century traveler Ibn Battuta was a Tangerine and left his hometown while in his early 20s to travel to Mecca. He returned to dictate his memoirs, presaging the day when Paul Bowles would tape-record the stories of Mohamed Mrabet and Larbi Layachi. From life on the road to life on the streets.
When Joe Orton arrived in 1965, he was following in the footsteps, though not the behaviors, of Samuel Pepys. The great diarist and naval administrator came to the city in 1683 as treasurer of the Tangier Committee; nearly two centuries later, Alexandre Dumas would swing by, followed shortly by Hans Christian Andersen and Mark Twain, who, in The Innocents Abroad, wrote of the marketplace: “The scene is lively, is picturesque, and smells like a police court.” This quote appears at the end of a long passage reprinted here in chapter five: “The Medina.” Shoemake paints his portrait of the city and the writers it inspired geographically rather than chronologically. As he explains in the previous chapter on Tangier Plage—moving effortlessly from Orton to Mrabet to Kerouac to Twain to Dumas to Walter Harris (of the London Times)—“Time is constantly skipping around in multilayered Tangier.”
Its longtime appeal is obvious: It is a port city a short boat ride from Europe with international influences and tolerant attitudes that serve as an entry point into Africa, the Mediterranean, and the Arab world. In addition, its features—both natural and man-made—are like those of a fictionalized city, with all the requisite elements: port, beach, medina, kasbah, caves. Even the names of streets and institutions—Boulevard Pasteur, the Grand Socco, Hotel Minzah, St. Andrew’s Anglican Church, Pension Fuentes, Mohamed V Mosque—seem to carry a novelist’s touch. A postcard home would be evocative simply through nomenclature: Last night, after drinks at the Café Central, we caught a movie at Cinema Mauretania. Tangier appears to have been a city not simply inhabited by writers but invented by them—and in a way, it was.
If they didn’t write about Tangier (though, as this book shows, most of them did), they still sometimes managed to use it in works set elsewhere. Shoemake notes that the Petit Socco inspired the stage directions for Tennessee Williams’s Camino Real (1953). Williams had met Paul and Jane Bowles in Mexico, and they had invited him—as they did numerous writers—to visit them in Tangier. In Shoemake’s chapter on the Gran Café de Paris (what did I say about novelistic names?), he finds Williams drinking Fernet Branca and Coke, a drink “which could hardly be recommended even if the café still sold alcohol.” Those last six words tell you all you need to know about the sad devolution of the city.
In the café, Williams chats with Mohamed Choukri, “Tangier’s most famous native writer, whose life story surpassed anything a writer of fiction could imagine,” while “another morning Alec Waugh comes up the pavement clutching an egg cup. He insists on a soft-boiled egg for breakfast, and the café refuses to purchase a cup for the use of a single client, even if he’s a Waugh. And then there’s Joe Orton sitting at a pavement table with some friends on 25 May 1967, although you might want to pretend you’ve never met the man.”
The book takes the form of a Barnes & Noble café mural, in which the great writers across the decades all sit together sipping coffee. It’s a bit disconcerting at first, but in the end it works, giving the impression that Tangier was one ongoing literary salon and party—a lot more than coffee was being ingested, and sex was in the air and everywhere else—with a few permanent hosts (Bowles made it his home for half a century) and a steady flow of colorful guests.
Barbara Hutton, the Woolworth heiress, looked for love in Tangier (of all the wrong places) and wrote poetry that she self-published. Aaron Copland accompanied Paul Bowles on his first trip to the city, which had been recommended to them by Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas. The two music men (we’re reminded here that Bowles was also a composer) stayed at the best hotel, the Villa de France, from whose Room 35 Matisse had repeatedly painted the view. Drinking at a bar in town, Noël Coward told an inebriated young woman, who explained that she was simply being herself, “That’s a thing you should never be.”
Tallulah Bankhead, Claudette Colbert, and Richard Wright frequented Dean’s Bar for the “booze and steaks,” while Truman Capote spent, as he wrote in Answered Prayers, “several unsober months . . . as an habitué of Jay Haselwood’s Le Parade.”
Years later, Malcolm Forbes would buy the old Palais du Mendoub and hold his 70th birthday party there, a much-publicized affair featuring belly dancers, Berber horsemen, and Elizabeth Taylor. Guest of honor Paul Bowles later wrote in his diary: “By midnight, I’d had enough.”
“Tangier doesn’t make a man disintegrate,” said Bowles, “but it does attract people who are going to disintegrate anyway.” His attachment to the city extended to its native writers—Choukri, Mrabet, Layachi—whom he mentored, recorded, and translated. His wife Jane thought he was wasting his time with them (though many people thought he was wasting his time with Jane). They were street kids, “roaming the beach and looking for opportunities.” Of the three youngsters, only Choukri was literate. They came out of poverty and, drawing upon “superhuman reserves of determination and charm,” became writers, telling tales of Tangier that were startling even to the expats who lived there.
You finish Tangier with a list of books to feed your growing fascination with this vanished, dissolute city.
Thomas Swick is the author of A Way to See the World: From Texas to Transylvania with a Maverick Traveler.