Friday, December 19, 2008

Rain and sacrifice in Tangier

Despite many physical advantages, Tangier is not an easy place to fall in love with. Nestled under the Rif Mountains between the Straits of Gibraltar and Cape Spartel, this geographically significant city stares out to Spain, straddles the Mediterranean and the Atlantic and also forms a crucial land bridge between Europe and Africa. Yet despite all these natural advantages, modern Tangier seems mean, gritty and indefinably scary. All I saw was a poor town with a dirty beach in the rain.

Others have seen a more romantic side to Tangier when the charm was not quite so faded. It was the city the producers had in mind for the film “Casablanca” and arguably has as cinematic a name. Tangier was the wartime setting for spies and spivs. But when another movie came out in 1942 with the title Algiers, the makers switched Rick’s CafĂ© to the more prosaic financial and commercial capital of Casablanca. Tangier has long been the main European diplomatic settlement of Morocco on the fault line between French and Spanish domination. Legally it was an international zone from 1923 until Morocco’s independence in 1956. While the rest of Morocco was under French rule, Tangier was governed by the consuls of eight European nations and had three official languages. During the war it was ruled by neutral Spain but retained an anarchic quality. According to the city’s most notable ex-pat Paul Bowles, Tangier was a place where “every fourth person was a smuggler, a spy or a refugee from justice in his native land”.

Bowles spent the last fifty years of his life here and the town (as well as Fes) was the setting for his first novel The Sheltering Sky. Inspired by Bowles’s description of the city, William Burroughs lived there for several years in two stints in the mid 1950s. Tolerant Tangier was ideal for his hedonistic lifestyle and inspired him to write The Naked Lunch. Back in 1867, another American writer Mark Twain said the houses were so jammed together it seemed like "a crowded city of snowy tombs". The city was also a muse for Henri Matisse. He stayed many times at the now derelict Hotel Villa de France where he painted the view. "I have found landscapes in Morocco," he claimed, "exactly as they are described in Delacroix's paintings."

I got no sense of Delacroix’s paintings when I was there. But I was doubly handicapped. Tangier is probably not at its liveliest in the rain and my wet stay also coincided with Eid al-Adha, the festival of the “sacrifice”. The only people on the streets were the occasional gang of youths putting a ram’s head on a bonfire to re-enact Abraham’s sacrifice in lieu of his son Isaac. I was not aware of my coincidental timing until I woke up in the morning and heard a strange sound of silence coming from the street. The normal mad Moroccan hubbub was missing. All the shops were shut, the streets were empty. Even the hustlers pushing dope were quiet.

This eeriness was in stark contrast to the mayhem of the two days before. I arrived late at night after an exhausting and delayed eight hour train trip from Fes. When we got off the train, I was immediately approached by a petit taxi driver who offered to take me to the centre for 40 dirhams. Thinking the fare should be about half that, I haggled with him and said twenty. His side came down to 30 but I still shook my head in refusal. But he was unmoved and drifted off seeking more favourable succour (sucker?). Suddenly I realised the expected deluge of better offers weren’t there and there were no more taxi drivers around. I turned around to look for my guy and was prepared to accept the 30 but he had disappeared into the throngs.

That left a long walk into town. This was the last thing I needed after arriving two hours late. I heartily cursed my overly hard bargaining stance. As usual with Morocco, there were a distinct lack of signposts giving any useful information but I asked a couple of people along the way and eventually found my way into the heart of town after about 30 to 40 minutes of rolling my luggage along.

There weren’t many hotels to speak of; those I found looked closed for winter. From a distance I could see the imposing landmark of Tangier’s most famous hotel towering over the casbah. The Moorish-style El Minzah was the epitome of international zone elegance but a bit too salubrious for a grotty backpacker. Desperate for a bed, I probably would have paid its exorbitant rates for one night until I spied the more homely accommodation of the Pension Gibraltar across the road. Its seven euros a night accommodation may have lacked a sense of history, but it was much more in my price range.

From here it was just a short hop to the top of the medina and the Grand Socco. Socco is the Spanish word for souk. The market has moved leaving the socco as a meeting place and the best spot in Tangier to hail a cab. In a beautiful 1940s building (the former Rif Cinema) is the new Cinematheque de Tanger with its reputation for showing experimental and arthouse cinema. Across the road are the arched gates that lead to the small but circuitous medina. Down the hill towards the port is the Petit Socco, a supposed hive of prostitution, drug dealing and human smuggling.

Also down the hill lies the seaport linking Morocco with Spain in an hour. The tangle of fishing boats next door ply the waters at a slower pace but the neglect of the city can be seen further on at a beachfront that has seen better days. The end of the International Zone in 1956 was catastrophic for Tangier's economy as the foreigners deserted the hotels, leaving them as decaying and empty shells. According to The Independent, Tangier may be on the rise again. It says King Mohammed VI, who came to the throne in 1999, has recognised the economic potential of the city and is giving it a facelift. “There is an energy and optimism about the city,” says the English paper, “and it seems set to flourish once more.” While I did not see too much evidence of this, I hope they are right. Tangier is certainly a city with great potential. And I’m sure the old lush would have looked a lot more appealing under Bowles’ sheltering sky of sunshine.

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