Port of Shadows

Reconciling the new Tangier with the city of legend

By / May 2013

Every traveler should arrive in Tangier by sea, aboard a Spanish ferry. Gibraltar, the Costa del Sol, and Europe slide into the wake. The Rif Mountains and the white façade’s stacked along the Moroccan coast materialize through the sunglare as if from out of a reverie, some Barbary daydream. From the remove of a ship barreling toward the rocky bay, Tangier remains the surreal city of legend, a port of mystery and intrigue, cafés and camels, smugglers and spies.

Throughout the first half of the twentieth century, the shores of Tangier drew, arguably, the most eclectic and interesting amalgamation of foreign arrivals in the world. Authors such as Paul Bowles, William S. Burroughs, Tennessee Williams, Jack Kerouac, Truman Capote, and Barbara Hutton all homed to the port in search of cheap space, a degree of anonymity, and a surfeit of creative freedom. French artist Henri Matisse’s Tangier paintings, often regarded as an entrée into his mature style, show an exotic place of bright flowers, white walls, dirt paths, and open windows.

But the reality confronted upon disembarking in the port of Tangier nowadays is hardly exotic. Contemporary Tangier is a maelstrom of metal and concrete, immigration and customs, and the ever-present gaggle of aggressive taxi drivers lurking just beyond the gate, each of them intent on transporting you somewhere, anywhere, even if you only want to walk.

When I first visited Tangier, I had been working in southern Spain, tantalizingly close to Algeciras, the nearest port of call to the North African coast. One morning I gave in to my wanderlust and, on the flipside of the short the ferry ride, found myself walking aimlessly through narrow, winding alleys that led to shady courtyards and cliffside vistas. Bowles was certainly correct when he wrote that “Tangier is not a city you look at, it’s a city you look out of.”

I knew nothing of the city’s layout, only that I needed to get to the famous Hotel Continental, where I had a reservation. After negotiating a price, I hopped in the taxi, which pulled out of the port, made a quick right, climbed a hill, and halted in front of the hotel. I stepped out of the car and looked down on the spot where I had been standing two minutes earlier. I had obviously overpaid.

But I soon forgot all about the taxi. The Continental was a riot of Moroccan architecture, outfitted with copious layers of dust and worn-out rugs. It was the type of rambling old palace where one fully expects to stumble across secret passages or swashbuckling archaeologists.

Much of Tangier had that same feel. Massive ships plied the strait and steamed into port. The smells of saffron and turmeric and the cries of muezzins and market hawkers coursed through the streets. I was disoriented. I wasn’t in Europe anymore; I wasn’t in Africa either. Tangier, I remember thinking, had a delightfully unnerving split personality.

Such urban schizophrenia has deep roots in Tangier. The city’s location overlooking the sole passage between the Atlantic Ocean and Mediterranean Sea placed it on every conqueror’s wish list. After centuries of flirtation with the likes of the Berbers, Carthaginians, Greeks, Phoenicians, Romans, Muslims, and Spanish, the international community finally threw up its hands in 1923 and partitioned Tangier between the governments of France, Spain, and Britain. Effectively, this meant that no country ruled the city, and no country’s laws fully applied to its populace.

Tangier became a place where anything could, and often did, happen. The city remained in this state of liberated limbo for the next 33 years, before coming under the jurisdiction of a newly independent Moroccan government in 1956.

During those laissez faire International Zone days, the city became a haven for free thinkers, a place where artists, writers, bohemians, beatniks, and down-and-outers in general could do, think, and act as they pleased without fear of consequence. Despite the charm and beauty of the decrepit medina, it was this Tangier that had put Tangier on the map. That was the Tangier I hoped to find.

The haunts of the city’s literary crowd were immortalized in prose and became destinations for anyone seeking Tangier’s brand of shadowy freedom. I had read about these places in books like William Burroughs’ Naked Lunch and wanted to see them for myself.

To my immense pleasure, several were still there. Up along the cliffside above the bay was the whitewashed entryway to the legendary Café Hafa, founded in 1921. Although the artists and writers have been replaced by tourists and Moroccan businessmen, you can still lounge at a tile-topped table along the precipice, sipping mint tea, and watching the steamers plow through the straight.

Later, while ambling down the Boulevard Pasteur, I stopped in front the Café de Paris, on the corner of the Place de France. Back in the day, this fêted establishment spilled light and jazz into the busy square every night and its proprietor’s reputation for looking the other way attracted a distinctly seedy clientele.

Artists weren’t the only ones wooed by Tangier’s lawless freedom. The city’s porous borders, proximity to Europe, and largely unregulated port made it a hub of espionage and crime. On certain evenings at the Café de Paris half of the tables would be occupied by spies, the other half by smugglers, pirates, and vagabonds. They brokered deals. They drank themselves into a stupor.

The ochre façade and green awnings remain, but the Paris’s waiters, rushing back and forth to sidewalk tables, seemed to be porting more espresso than spirits to a clientele of harmless looking men in suits and preoccupied ladies wearing oversized sunglasses.

Similar scenes of mitigation repeated as I traversed Tangier. The jazz joints and smoky bars were, for the most part, gone, rendered collateral damage by a transition to Islamic culture that has made procuring liquor licenses virtually impossible — and if not gone then remoted to guidebook fodder: “Paul Bowles and Tennessee Williams quarreled at this table;” “Mohamed Choukri bought cigarettes here.”

Even still, everywhere I went in Tangier, I caught traces of the old city of shadows. Amid the smoke and martinis in Caid’s Bar, amid the threadbare grandeur of the Hotel Continental, I heard faint whispers of what had once been the long and steady howl.

By virtue of geography, Tangier, the crossroads of Europe and Africa, the crossroads of sea and sand, will ever be a place of intrigue. The slim streets wind as they have for ages. From their cliffside perch facing the Rock of Gibraltar, the palaces gleam. There is light and there is shadow, there in that mysterious in-between.


Chris Watts is a regular contributor to EthnoTraveler. He last wrote about how Rome contends with the selection of a new pope.


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