Once a wonderland of drug-fuelled hedonism and bohemia for Western artists and writers, today’s Tangier has developed its own cultural identity beyond the legend. By Louise Omer.
Push through tight medina streets, between peeling blue walls, patterned teal tiles, past tiny curio stores and Berber women guarding blankets laden with coriander and mint; turn left, then right, left again, climb multicoloured steps above the labyrinthine suffocation and stop, panting, at the kasbah’s doorway.
Here, seagulls float above deep-blue ocean as the Strait of Gibraltar glimmers beneath Morocco’s sun. If it’s a clear day, the mountains of Andalusia rise like blue mist across the water, and gazing at this vista are Spanish tourists who arrived on this morning’s ferry, dresses flapping. Idle young men lean against the kasbah wall smoking fat spliffs and a spindly grandfather wearing a djellaba pulls a wallet from the folds of the ankle-length robe to show me a 40-year-old photograph.
“Here is me. And here, Jim Morrison,” he rasps. “The Beat poets, Paul Bowles, I met them all,” he rears his head back, nose scrunched, a pah motion. “Come! I will take you to the cafe where the Rolling Stones smoked hashish.”
Danger, scandal, vice. Tangier’s popular mythology stands on the bygone legacy of junkies and poets. Balancing on the northern tip of Africa, the port city was once a strategic Berber town at the meeting of the Mediterranean and Atlantic, then a Phoenician trading point. Romans took it, then the Byzantines, Visigoths, Arabs, Portuguese, Spanish; in 1923 it was declared an international zone with French, Spanish, British and Italian administration. Stories say Tangier became an outpost for spies during World War II, after which the Spanish military held the port until Moroccan independence in 1956.
This varied governance created a reputation for lawlessness, a respite from the conservative West, despite its pious Muslim inhabitants. Tangier became an oasis of hedonism, a smorgasbord of hashish, kif, opium, majoun. Paul and Jane Bowles – married but both gay – lived here from the late 1940s and pursued their own sexual interests. A cocktail of writers – Jean Genet, Jack Kerouac, Truman Capote, Allen Ginsberg – followed, lurking in bars and the bookstore Librairie des Colonnes. In 1953 William Burroughs arrived. He wrote Naked Lunch in a drug haze in El Muniria Hotel, cementing Tangier in the Western consciousness as the Interzone: wonderland of depravity, pleasure and filth.
History may glitter but today shines. Come down from the kasbah to the Grand Socco, where art deco Cinéma Rif holds court over halting taxis, teenagers in djellabas and sneakers, and women in lavender, mint or cream headscarves. The 1938 building is home to Morocco’s only arthouse cinema: Cinémathèque de Tanger.
Inside its cafe, hipsters hunch over laptops, smoking, hands curled around glasses of black coffee, arguing beneath globes and vintage posters in Arabic and French. Staff and regulars joke loudly in Darija. Today the cafe vibrates with a particular buzz: Mashrou’ Leila, an indie band from Beirut via New York, are doing a sound check for a fundraiser tonight.
“This place was imagined for people from here,” says Mohamed Lansari, director of the cinematheque, his palm tapping the table. We sit on white cane chairs at the cafe’s sprawling outdoor red, navy and mustard tables. Black ringlets and cynicism crown Lansari’s concentrated intensity and deep commitment to the organisation, which he has run since January.
Founded by French–Moroccan artist Yto Barrada in 2006, Cinémathèque de Tanger promotes international, independent and “weird” cinema to a local audience. While other cinemas in Morocco show only American and French blockbusters, the program here places special emphasis on features and documentaries from Arab countries and the Maghreb region.
“We program films from everywhere to break this cultural imperialism,” Lansari says. “To show how people from Palestine can be great and talented, and at the same time, from Senegal and Nigeria, or Poland. We treat all the art in total equality.”
He hopes to promote local emerging directors, as well as video artists and photographers, to a regular audience – not simply the city’s Francophone “bourgeoisie”. Full-price tickets to screening at Cinémathèque de Tanger are an accessible 25 dirhams, the equivalent of about $A3.70.
The cinematheque also has an archive to preserve and digitise films from Morocco and the Arab region. Lansari lights a cigarette. “Because we find in our countries, as you can imagine, we do not have a lot of initiatives, and we are forgetting our memories,” he says. “Our history.”
The cinematheque regularly partners with Librairie des Colonnes, the bookshop on Boulevard Pasteur, with its famous red columns and shelves of books in Arabic, French, Spanish and English. It not only hosts authors such as Moroccan writer Tahar Ben Jelloun but, since 2010, has had a publishing arm. Run by Simon-Pierre Hamelin, Librairie des Colonnes Éditions produces Nejma literary review, and books in Arabic and French.
These cultural entities become places of resistance, sharing and reinventing language and identity. Most recently the cinematheque screened Arabiyet, a year-long program that highlighted the talent of women filmmakers in the Arab region, dedicated to feminist Fatema Mernissi. This illustrates the concurrent desire of Cinémathèque de Tanger: to be a progressive, safe space for women, as well as the queer community.
It’s an ambition of the cinema and also its cafe, which stays open late into the night, and attracts not only international faces such as Daft Punk, but locals including filmmaker Farida Benlyazid and artists Abdel-Mohcine Nakari and Omar Mahfoudi. The sort of place where you never know who you might meet, clutching perspiring cans of Spéciale on a hot Moroccan night.
A tourist finds herself with a conundrum: how much to engage with a commodified mythology of place? I take a shower in my room in El Muniria, known locally as “The Writer’s Hotel”, and it’s as though I hear the echo of Burroughs’ fingers pounding typewriter keys.
But, louder, beyond the window comes the evening call to prayer and dusk draws heavy eyelids over the city. The lights of the new port flash on, orange dancing on waves. Swifts circle the palm tree that towers over The Tangerinn, where inside, Kerouac’s words plaster its walls.
I could have followed the old man in the djellaba to visit Cafe Hafa to inhale rockstars’ ghosts but the Rolling Stones are now decrepit and so is that damn legend.
In the cinema, crimson seats rise up before a dance floor, blue and orange stage lights pushing through smoke. Mashrou’ Leila arrive wearing caftans but quickly discard them in the 80-year-old building’s heat. Lead singer Hamed Sinno, love child of Freddie Mercury and Rabih Alameddine, tells stories of love and fear, of being outlawed in Egypt after audience members held up pride flags.
It is a mistake to follow only stale white breadcrumbs of American and Eurocentric art through Tangier’s medina – a doomed quest for romanticised exoticism. Turn instead to the story of this city now – its tension of colonial legacy with cultural exchange, its electrifying reinvention of North African, Arab and Maghreb identities.
On the dance floor, the band’s biggest fan, Mahmoud, in a pressed white polo shirt and tight faded jeans, says he travelled from Rabat to watch Mashrou’ Leila play for the second time in a week. “You know the 1968 Paris cultural revolution?” he asks. We are sweaty, waving hands in the air. “It began at a cinematheque.”
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on November 2, 2019 as "Myth en scène".
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