We are just back from a side trip to Tangier, Morocco. I pushed hard for this journey, as I’ve long been fascinated by tales of the various and sundry and sometimes-even-legendary creative types who have landed there through the decades, from writer Paul Bowles to The Rolling Stones to a few of the more rough-and-tumble Beat poets.
They came, mostly, I suppose, for the mind-altering substances and the whores and the general social permissiveness of the place. (Odd, considering that it is and always really was a devoutly Muslim corner of the world.) I came for the mint tea and the nostalgia, characteristically late to the party, and it turned out to have been a good thing, as this place has changed its stripes drastically in the years since all those poorly behaved artistic types recast the medina as their own personal drug den.
In fact, wandering the ramshackle streets and alleys of the Kasbah and the old medina nowadays, one tunes into a shabby-aristocratic sort of vibe. A lost vibe. A sensation of waiting.
This place is not really African. But it’s definitely not European, either, existing, instead, in a sort of dreamy, windy, dusty nether-place. Like it was dreamed into being by a flock of extravagant extraterrestrials who landed at the edge of town in a glittering spaceship, cast their hands about in a fit of decadent spell-throwing, causing fussy hotels and oakwood bars and Parisian-style cafes to appear around each turn, then dropped without warning through a trapdoor in time some three or four decades back, and everything has been moldering slowly away ever since.
That, may, I suppose, be a fairly accurate assessment. As a rule, Modern Tangier is abidingly conservative, despite the large number of quirkily accoutered expats who continue to lurk around its cafes and beaches and outer peripheries. As an uncovered Western woman visiting during Ramadan, I abided a lot of stares and glares, many of them unfriendly. I felt uncomfortable walking around Tangier by myself, although I stubbornly insisted on doing so throughout our visit.
Stopping at a streetside fruit stand one scorching afternoon to purchase some bananas and plums, I was tapped on the shoulder by a local man and instructed, by way of a pointedly pointed finger, to step down into the gutter to allow this lesser prince to pass. I was taken by surprise, and consented, my sandaled feet squishing into a swamp of candy wrappers and cigarette butts as he sauntered on his way.
We spent much of our trip loitering at Cafe Tingis in the Petit Soco, a favorite expat haunt from bygone days. By now, the paint is peeling and the chairs pinch, but the French-style service was impeccable and the snacks were legendary: sugary-sweet mint teas, crepes with house-made confiture, and cheese omelets doused in bright-green olive oil. No menu, no fuss, just a place to catch some shade and watch the action in the town square. Get a handle on the slow-boil Moroccan rhythms of life during holy Ramadan. That is to say – quiet, interminable days, followed by nights of feasting and reveling.
There is an undeniable feeling of expectancy hovering in the thick, Mediterranean air. Business isn’t exactly booming, but at the very least it is thrumming and bumping its way along. All those crumbling grand hotels are being gussied up, one by one, in the hopes, I’d guess, of attracting some of the would-be revelers who have lost the will and the nerve to holiday in sad, smoking, gutted-out Cairo, that other grand North African enclave squatting some 4,300 kilometers due east.
What else to say of Tangier? It is a maze and a puzzle and a quandary. Despite the grudgingly rolled out Magic Welcome Carpet, it felt hard to get a handle on this place. Instead, we stuffed our questioning mouths full of proud seafood tagines and buttery, flaking flatbreads and half-hearted cappuccinos and pistachio-honey-sweety-things. And I took pictures. Lots and lots of pictures.