You come from the other side?” a young man later asks me, in the bar in Tangier.
On the flight from Lisbon to Morocco, I try to see where Europe ends and Africa begins. The coast must be somewhere below me, but it’s lost in the diffusion of clouds. I stare at the cabin wall opposite, where strange shapes, long trapezoids, morph; they’re projected from the late sun blazing to the south. I want to say “African sun,” but that rings false, like something said in the nineteenth century.
The iconic Tangier arrival is, of course, by boat, but these days a flight is less expensive. I bargained away seeing the continent loom from a ferry navigating between the two pillars of Hercules. The first step taken from the boat to land would have felt somehow more decisive. New rules would have applied. I would have felt it in my feet.
But up here in the air all I see, at first, is an indistinct, pale band. Then a pronounced beach, an estuary, a perimeter fence. The airplane turns, we plunge into shadow, the light disappears, then, lower, dimly, the hills are articulated, variegated in patches, and winter green. There is surprise when the view fully opens. I do not see an organic maze of a city, but an illuminated geometry, interlocking polygons of suburban housing estates, precise and planned.
I feel a twinge of disappointment. Perhaps the scruffy port, with its would-be guides and jostling taxi drivers fighting for my tender, would’ve been more reassuring than this arrivals hall. It is arid, spotless, tiled with perfect squares, and I wait less than a minute for my stamp.
I should be walking from the port up to the Medina. There should be details out of a novel by Paul Bowles, a storm, a palm pounding a wall in the wind. I should reach a hotel without electricity, with just a lonely candle in the window. I should be on my knees in the darkened hallway, searching for where I’ve dropped the key.
In Bowles’s Let It Come Down, a sixteen-year-old girl turns to look across the straits to Europe from Tangier. She shudders: “That is where they kill people.” The novel was set in the shadow of both the Spanish Civil War and the Second World War. Europe must have seemed a savage land. Now, it is the sea, below the Medina, that buries those fleeing to Europe. A graveyard lies between the two continents.
From the airport, I am in the capsule of an old Mercedes––with torn cloth walls, a silent driver––and the vehicle threatens to go dead at any time, depositing me in some suburb, aimless with my bag, looking for something I do not expect. Then the taxi picks up speed and rounds the coast of the central city. It’s past dusk. I see the Medina illuminated, white. We chug up the old alleys; men are rapping on the car windows. I find the hotel easily, just across from the Grande Mosquée. In my room, the shower drain emits a sickly sweet smell. But the space is tidy, with white walls and ironed sheets, a purple embroidered coverlet, an industrially produced kilim rug, and bronze lamp. I go out to explore immediately, into the maze. Everything is closer than I expected: the Petit Socco where the Beat poets picked up their rent boys, and then the Grand Socco almost around the corner. I had wanted to get lost here. I shouldn’t have studied the map. I should have left my smartphone in the room.
The Grand Socco is busy with night hawkers, dusty carts, lottery ticket sellers. The bar of the Cinema Rif bursts with Moroccan hipsters, men who spill into the square. The ritual evening stroll, a poorly-lit paseo, is more tawdry than on the other side of the Mediterranean. There are more shadows. I criss-cross through side streets.
Soon I find myself wandering down a very dark road along a construction site strewn with garbage, feeling nervous for the first time, and regretting walking further. I’m looking for the Hotel Muniria, where the Beat poets brought their tricks. Is it here? The stairwell looks rather well scrubbed despite the desolate surroundings, with the darkness of the port and sea below. I look up to a window. There is no light behind the curtain. I pause and wonder: what is happening inside? But there is nothing. I hastily beat my way back.
Between 1923 and 1956, the French, Spanish, and British shared this place. The Interzone was a loophole in laws, and the drug-addicted sex tourists of the West flooded in to live out their desires and write about them. Then the Interzone’s freedoms came to an abrupt halt. The world of vice was absorbed into the traditional, and oppressive, embrace of the Moroccan monarchy as Tangier joined the kingdom.
As the evening wears on, I walk deeper into the New Town and am surrounded by neoclassical façades and tree-lined avenues, the colonial buildings of the Boulevard Pasteur. It is another version of the city I wanted to glimpse. This is Africa, of course, but it would be easy to imagine naïvely that I have just traveled back many decades to a France I have seen only in New Wave films. I see men in dark coats drinking coffee, reading poche volumes on café tables before the expansive traffic. I should let my hair grow long and light a cigarette, or parade the Boulevard selling newspapers. Or don a linen suit, and anticipate my contact who will sit across from me in a cane chair, then leave behind his briefcase.
A gentleman closes his book, then puts it down with finality next to an empty cup of coffee. I turn, and follow his gaze across the street.
The Librairie des Colonnes has a large picture window overlooking the Boulevard. From inside the bookshop, you can read the French lettering, right to left, as if it were Arabic. I am staring out to the street over the covers of books. A family, led by a woman in hijab, weighed down by plastic shopping bags, pauses, glances at me, then trudges on, beyond the glass.
I pick a travel guide from the display. It presents a mythological story: how, in Tangier, the muscle-bound hero Hercules wrestled Atlas to the ground. Look now––I should point to the nearby mountain, Charf Hill––this is where the giant’s body was buried. Hercules seduced Atlas’s widow and pushed the continents apart, grasping the two pillars of Gibraltar and Jebel Musa.
I look for a copy of Mohamed Choukri’s Le Pain nu. It was published in 1973, first in Paul Bowles’s English translation. It was then banned in Morocco from 1983 until 2000. The subject matter offended religious sensibilities, the same traditional powers that cleaned up the vice of the Interzone. It’s not hard to imagine why. Le Pain nu tells the story of an illiterate, impoverished, kif-smoking, alcohol-dependent youth who comes from the hinterland of the Rif mountains to the city. In Tangier, he learns to read, write, compose fiction, and also to sell his body to the men of the Interzone.
The whole bookshop feels like a remainder from that era. Is that because it is owned by the lover of Yves Saint Laurent? A middle-aged man tells me the shop is about to close, but then guides me past the built-in wooden bookshelves, under a rail for a movable ladder, to a table displaying narratives of local interest, to show me what I am looking for. I see Paul Bowles’s Let It Come Down, set in the Interzone, and Josh Shoemake’s literary guide to Tangier. But the shopkeeper finds the Choukri for me.
Then, taking me close, by the arm, he says, “You should go with it to a bar Choukri liked. It’s just across the street”—he points me in the right direction—“the Number One. It is full of . . . literary types.”
Literary types: have I read between the lines? Or do I mistake his subtext? Do I know what I want from Tangier? Do I know how to be careful? Do I want to be careful?
TERRACE OF THE LAZY
The Terrasse des Paresseux is a balcony to the darkened harbor below, studded with thick cannons. A clown appears, dressed in threadbare stripes. He drapes himself over one of the big guns, then humps it––a dumb show. His observers are mostly men: loitering, observing, and, it seems, waiting.
From the bookshop, I walk the long length of public space and think Tangier requires a masculine pronoun. The street alongside the terrace is full of men, as are the cafés along it. With most women in their homes in the evening, these establishments all look oddly like gay bars.
There is something male in the air. It wafts over the city. The scent comes from all these poor men in their twenties who wander the terrace. It is not only of men wandering in search of each other––as some homoerotic fantasists would have it. Conservatism, not preference, accounts for most of the single-sex gatherings. What is perceptible comes from aimless frustration. It is the aroma of unsatisfied desires. I’m sure William S. Burroughs, Truman Capote, and Paul Bowles smelled it too.
I dawdle between the cannons, meander over the checkerboard flagstones, and am distracted by handsome men sitting on a long low wall.
For many Europeans and Americans, Morocco––so close to Spain––is the first experience of the other side. Were the Beats, like me, just a subset of the clueless visitor? Were they as uninformed as day-trippers or cruise ship passengers who have never been anywhere “non-Western”?
Perhaps the Beats just had more sophisticated trappings, spinning Orientalizing myths around what was, for many, sex tourism. The literary history of Tangier is a constant flow of such visitors who dabbled with the chemical, the for-hire, and the underage. Burroughs, writing in his Notes to Naked Lunch, couldn’t distinguish between his Arab lovers and rent boys. He was confused about the identity of one he’d slept with in both Western and local dress. Burroughs wrote: “Next time I’ll notch one of his ears.”
As I come to the end of the Terrace of the Lazy, I ponder whether I too might be a white, male, colonial, sex tourist of sorts. Am I not turning my head at every other step, as these beautiful dark-haired men saunter past?
No, I shake my head, I am not a sex tourist. I am the opposite of the sex tourist. I am not drawn to Morocco to indulge in something sold to tourists that is illegal back home. Instead, I am drawn to what is illegal in Morocco. The sexual charge here comes from what the local men should not do. I want a traditional man pushed over the edge by desires he cannot admit exist because of a conservative religion, the laws of his country, the expectations of his family. And yet those desires are there. He can’t put them away. Homosexuality exists everywhere as naturally and indigenously as a common plant. I want to see his desires pursued to their end point, and to be a voyeur on that moment of climax, when there’s no turning back from the truth, when the daily lie is dispelled. I want him to break the law and never get caught.
Clutching my copy of Choukri, I have a clear idea of what I would like to happen this evening, in the Interzone. But it requires putting both myself and a person who cannot leave the country at risk.
But no. How irresponsible of me. I’d have to be an idiot to even consider the possibility.
Another dusky-haired man with lunette eyes catches my gaze as I cross the street, and I almost get hit by a car.
There are images from Choukri’s Le Pain nu that are arresting, enduring. As a young boy, starving on the streets of Tangier, he eats basil stolen from graves. He thinks Christian garbage tastes better than Muslim garbage. His hungry body is lustful. Choukri hangs from a tree watching his nubile neighbor undress and swim in a pool; he hides her clothes when she isn’t looking; there is laughter in the trees. Then, as an adult, he experiences an epiphany, when his cock is sucked by a john for the first time, surprised by just how easy it is to make money (he speaks to his penis when he uses it, calling it his “blind dragon”). He eventually works for smugglers, waiting on the shore as a cautious boat appears in the gloom. He carries an unknown cargo up to a truck, and it almost breaks his back. Every muscle is in agony, while only the image of a woman waiting for him spurs him on––a woman who has had her hair and her eyebrows shaved, and her sex shorn roughly, so that she will not be tempted to wander too far from home.
I can imagine the man from the Rif mountains being of anthropological interest to Paul Bowles. Choukri’s narrative is visceral: his honest treatment of sex, whoring (he is usually the john), violence, drugs, and hunger. It cuts through the hypocrisy of conservative Moroccan society. Bowles took the handsome young man under his protection (and profited from the royalties), translating Le Pain nu as For Bread Alone.
Choukri’s novel found its way into English in an unusual way. He sat with Bowles and read in Classical Arabic from his manuscript (he pretended he had a complete manuscript, but actually composed each night before meeting Bowles). His words in Arabic were then translated into Spanish by a Moroccan chum. Bowles, understanding only the Spanish, would then translate the text into his careful and hermetic prose. In this way, Bowles’s words were more than a few steps distant from Choukri’s monologue. Some critics say that Choukri never wrote so well again. Choukri’s later publications were wistful and sycophantic adulations at the altar of Western literary culture, recounting days spent with characters like Tennessee Williams and Jean Genet, whom Choukri accosted in a café, presenting himself as a “Moroccan novelist” before he’d written a book.
The story of Choukri’s life in the Rif mountains, and then in Tangier’s criminal underworld, was shaped and controlled by Bowles, and then categorized as a monument of Moroccan literature. That Choukri was an obvious sex interest for these Western authors only adds to the story of control, giving the novel a piquant flavor of Orientalism. And if one can escape this single lens––which can in its worst form prevent Western visitors from knowing, speaking, or being curious about the “East”––one might even turn the tables on Choukri’s powerlessness and, with further study, focus instead on Choukri’s violent sexual domination of those around him.
Because, little do I know, as I approach Le Number One, I have made a mistake with my choice of book. Choukri is not the ideal canvas on which to project my fantasies, and I will be lucky if I don’t happen to meet Choukri in the bars tonight. It’s only later, when I have read Choukri, that I am a little embarrassed to have so ostentatiously displayed him in Tangier.
The book is a litany of sexual conquests, almost always accompanied by violence or money. He liked to be rough with women, something he learned from his brutal father. It created the erotic tension he was looking for. Men, meanwhile, were just a source of income. Choukri was up for anything, provided money was involved, but sometimes the maricones who pursued him would end up bludgeoned, dragging their way through the labyrinth of the Medina out of a pool of blood.
Le Number One is not a gay bar, even if everyone inside is a man. Where are the “literary types”? The room is a mystery: full of riddles written on pieces of paper hanging on threads from the ceiling or pasted ubiquitously to the walls. There are no answers provided. Pourquoi les animaux lèchent-ils leur sexe? Qui mange des carottes et vit dans l’eau? Why do animals lick their genitals? Who eats carrots and lives in water? In the bathroom, perhaps I will find a Sphinx hanging drugged from the ceiling.
I take out my Choukri and have hardly read a line before I am the subject of attention. The man who owns the bar, Karim, tells me, “I knew Choukri.” Another voice says, “We would smoke kif together.” An older man in a plum-colored suit and ashen face shakes his head. “The book is full of lies!” A man with wild hair, one seat farther down the bar, says, “That book was banned.” Another pronounces, “He was a terrible womanizer.” The old men then enter into a lengthy debate about whether Choukri’s book is a récit––a memoir––or a novel. The smell of stale beer hangs about the place, and the ensuing conversation in French becomes a cacophony.
Sitting to my left is a young man with a stub nose and long eyelashes, who has said nothing. He looks lazy; he should be out on the terrace. Perhaps he is depressed, or maybe he is just dissipated. He introduces himself as Akram, and he comes from the South, inland from Agadir. He shows me, on his phone, photographs of a sunburnt place with rough earthen walls and red roads and a landscape from which a Mars rover might send transmissions. He studied film but now is unemployed. He tells me this in a matter-of-fact way, without a ring of shame. He doesn’t make films anymore, he shrugs. He orders another beer.
The older man in the plum suit, named Mehdi, engages him energetically. He tells him to have more courage, to believe he is the best. “Only when it’s too late, when you are old, do you realize you needed to think that way to succeed.” The more Mehdi speaks, the quieter Akram becomes.
Mehdi tires of talking to Akram, and instead buys me a drink, and then another. I’ve heard of games like this in Tangier from dubious sources like guidebooks: locals buy you drinks at the first bar, then you go to the next bar with them, where you are stiffed for drinks at silly prices, and proceeds are split with the barman. I turn to Akram––now on his sixth beer––who explains softly that it would be impolite to refuse Mehdi’s offer. I feel a little guilty that I was suspicious: the nature of paranoia in this place seems to be that one even doubts oneself.
I drink the second beer in small sips, so it is still almost full when Mehdi finishes his own. He grows impatient, standing up from his stool, then sitting again, playing with the lapels of his suit. “You drink so slowly!” he complains, and then finally just pays up and leaves.
Akram turns to me, with a smile and initiative that take me off guard, and says, “How about us? Where are we going now?”
A CLEAR MIND
I think it is unwise, but I follow this stranger down the Boulevard and then off a side street to the basement bar of the Chellah Hotel, where we drink Flag beer. The Moroccans prefer it to the better filtered Casablanca. Does the barman look put out when I ask the prices before we sit down? I’m not sure.
Akram and I sit in silence. I stare at his stub nose and long lashes. I don’t know what he wants. I wonder whether small talk would give a superfluous twinge to the situation. We are sitting side by side in a sterile basement room with a few potted palms, and a man is playing the clarinet on an otherwise empty stage. So, I ask him something that I hope might be worthy of our silence: if he is happy.
Akram doesn’t move or tense or make any gesture. He simply says, “I am all right.” Then he pauses and adds, “That means ‘not happy’.”
I ask if he has a girlfriend.
He says no. He sips his beer and tells me that he prefers whores, because with them “at least you have a clear mind.”
He looks at me more intently, it seems, and I blink.
We sit in silence. The silence lasts a long time, and I am not sure whether this is the moment to suggest something else that’s inappropriate.
Here is when, in a novel, Akram walks me out of the hotel, and then down a narrow lane. Soon we reach a building. On the ground floor is a lounge, where an older woman serves gin-and-tonics. Behind the bar, there is a long hallway and a few rooms. The rooms cost fifty pesetas an hour. As long as he takes the “active” position, he’s still “the man.” I pull closed the drape and turn out the light. Perhaps someone is in the street below, looking up at the window wondering what is happening behind. My double, or a double of a double, someone who knows the plot.
But I’m in the Chellah Hotel in a country where whatever I have in mind with another man––this man––is against the law. It’s where a false move might just lead to something rather worse than an overpriced drinks bill: a cold cell, with a stinking latrine in the corner. Unlikely, but possible.
I shake my head. I must extract myself.
“It’s getting late––I better start back to my riad––”
All at once, Akram is unusually animated. He objects. He wants me to drink more and stay longer.
“I had––” he hesitates, slurring a little, “idées pour ce soir.” Ideas for tonight.
I blink and quickly reach for my wallet.
Akram objects. He at first offers to pay for everything, waving his hands. But then he quickly backtracks and says he doesn’t have enough money.
“That’s okay,” I say, “I don’t mind paying for the beer.”
“You will call me tomorrow, you must promise,” he says.
Stumbling from his stool, he tells me that he will drive me home because it’s déconseillé to walk home at this hour through the city.
I think stepping into a car with Akram is rather more déconseillé.
He looks hurt. I feel unadventurous. Driving with a drunk man to some unknown location––or to the port for sloppy drunken macho sex––doesn’t quite correspond with the fantasy I had in mind.
Now, he looks at me intently and repeats: I must promise to call him tomorrow.
I say, “I’m not sure what I’m doing tomorrow.”
“No, I will show you Tangier,” he says, this time a little sternly.
I sense the tone shifting. I have ventured into the realm of an impossible refusal. I am denying his hospitality.
“You will call me tomorrow, you must,” he repeats and looks at me, now pained, as if some delicate thread is fraying.
I do not know whether I should lie. I decide a false promise is worse than saying yes but never calling.
“It’s late, Akram,” I reply. “I don’t even know if I’ll still be here tomorrow.”
He shakes his head at me and turns away to stare at the bar, where my pile of money is lying between him and the barman who has not yet touched it.
I walk back towards the Boulevard. Outside, the air is now thick and cold, the January fug races at me. Its movement is traced in the veils cast down from the yellow street lamps. Light races over patches of façade. Below, the street is scattered with people. Tangier is littered with random miseries, with fucked-up, drugged men. In the damp air, the smell of frustration fills me again. My mind sucks it in and I wheeze. I got it all wrong with Akram, didn’t I?
Maybe the idea that he was drinking himself into oblivion to summon the strength to seduce a tourist had occurred to me alone. It was entirely in my head. It wasn’t one of his idées. He was the closest person to become the face of my fantasy. Why should he merit more distrust, just because we are in Tangier?
The evening had seemed all indirection, misunderstanding. I find myself walking more quickly from the Chellah, passing right by Choukri’s favorite restaurant, the El Dorado. I keep thinking of the Beats. I did not need to go home with Akram, or do anything remotely physical, to feel just a little bit like a sex tourist.
In Le Pain nu, Choukri meets a djinn at the bank of a river. The apparition appears as a flicker; he is not even sure the mirage is there. But Choukri is sure of the demon’s strength and its intent to hurt him. To protect himself, he stabs the earth with a knife. His defense dispels the spirit, but it has sucked all energy from him. He is left like a shell and lies in a comatose state in his family’s house for days convalescing from the attack.
I almost believe in those djinns––or maybe in vampires––tonight. What a night: I am suspended in that thick weather, sweet tastes rising in my mouth, the vapor from the drains condensing there. A sickly green heat collects in my blankets and I tear them off. I feel pressed against the inversion coming from the port: cold, humid, achy. A rooster does not stop crowing, and the speaker of the Grande Mosquée, directly outside of my window, does not stop booming. I wake again to the gravel-like song of the elderly muezzin, electrified and solemn, at enormous volume. There are hours on end when I am awake or half-awake, feeling hot or chilled and enervated, perhaps just from the four tall glasses of tea I had during the day. But then I plunge into the most horrific of dreams, and when I wake, weak, smaller, my face is puffy. I check in the mirror for fang bites, to make sure I’ve not joined the dead.
The smell of sewage remains intense in the bathroom. It does not mix well with the egg at breakfast, served with a very dry baguette and a sour orange juice. There is again the obligatory tall glass of mint tea. “Just a little bit of sugar,” I instruct, and she holds up a bar almost ten centimeters long and replies, “Juste un petit peu,” before dropping it in. Over the minaret of the Grande Mosquée is mist. It hangs between the gap of white houses and smothers the port.
THE BLUE ARROW
A blue arrow appears above a doorway, a mirage hovering in the plaster warren. Then Google makes it vanish, and the view tilts. I slip through a lane––looking up from my smartphone––before taking the corner through a narrow gap. Burroughs writes in Interzone, “Tangier seems to exist on several dimensions . . . here fact merges into dream, and dreams erupt into the real world.” But I’m having none of that altered reality. I am in no mood for surprises, for a disorderly wander. After a night with enough bad dreams, the only parallel world with which I want to engage is the one neatly mapped by an app on my phone.
Old Tangier is built up the slope of a promontory, from the Grand Socco to the old citadel––or Kasbah––at its summit. But on my phone, there is no elevation gain; it all looks flat. You reach the Kasbah through the labyrinth of streets that passes through the Medina and its souq. Seen from above, the maze appears navigable. Guides for a long time profited from confused travelers meeting dead ends––dragging them into souvenir shops rather than their destinations. Google Maps has put an end to the guides, and perhaps too to Tangier’s promise that you will get lost.
Not far from the Grand Socco is the English Church, St. Andrew’s. Today it is locked, and women from the countryside––with straw peaked hats decorated with knotted fabric––sell astonishingly fresh produce. The winter fare: carrots, onions, cabbage, fava, tomato, melon, a variety of citrus. But wandering between their mats, and looking at how the wares are piled on the sidewalks, so close to the gutter, I feel a moment of revulsion. Maybe this food will make me ill. But then I see basil. I cannot shake away the image from For Bread Alone. Basil is the plant that Choukri collected from graves in Tangier, at the time when he was so hungry he ate garbage. And I remember how good the produce tastes here: the cucumber is like melon and the olives like meat––what I’ve been offered in each bar, as snacks with bottles of Casablanca or Flag beer.
I weave through the enormous fish market, with its blue walls and honeycomb light filtering through parchment blinds. Again, there is freshness, no smell of decay, as crowds haggle for the enormous sea beasts. Around a corner, a chicken vendor stands at his counter with a gigantic knife and a chopping board. He takes a live bird by the feet; there is a moment of furious squawking, and then only the sound of rustling feathers.
Out front, a scene appears chaotic and unsystematic, and yet ordered. Lines of men carry long cables uphill. To skip over these obstacles, workers carrying a ladder––blue, chipped––pirouette through the souq. The light pierces through the winter fog and illuminates the moving crowd against the walls outside the market. Then the light changes and the faces emerge in relief, a haphazard ballet.
AMERICAN LEGATION MUSEUM
Deep in the Medina, not far from the souq, is the American Legation Museum. It is a house suspended over the lanes below, which one might imagine to be squalid but are in fact well swept. In the building’s courtyard, a man sells tickets from a window. Behind the glass is a gallery of American watercolors and ink portraiture of the Maghreb. Upstairs are the old offices of the government representative, with American diplomatic furniture from another era: brown leather the color of well-worn baseball mitts, and club-rounded armchairs. There is even a Christmas tree in the corner. These furnishings seem about as at home in this climate––of mosaicked tile and overstuffed cushions––as a man in a winter coat at a summer beach. If furniture could sweat, here it would.
I have come to visit the room dedicated to Paul Bowles. He first visited Tangier in 1931, with Aaron Copland, on the suggestion of Gertrude Stein, who told him, “Anyone can go to the Riviera . . . You ought to go somewhere better than that.” He then settled full-time in the city in 1947, establishing a base for queer visitors such as William S. Burroughs, Truman Capote, Allen Ginsberg, Brion Gysin, Christopher Isherwood, Gore Vidal, and Tennessee Williams. Sometimes Tangier literary history reads like an exercise in endless name-dropping.
Bowles liked Tangier because it proved not only cheap, with friendly and polite (though very poor) people, but also atmospheric. As he wrote in 1958: “it is delightful, too, to step out into the silent moonlit street, and a moment later look from a Casbah gateway down about the thousands of white cubes which are the houses of the Medina, hearing only the waves as they break on the beach and perhaps the sleepy antiphonal crowing of two roosters on neighboring rooftops.” He was, after all, glad he took Gertrude Stein’s advice and remained in the city until he died in 1999.
Bowles is the American who seems to have fit Tangier better than the furniture. At least, I think he did. Again, I can only imagine him as the kind of cosmopolitan American who left behind the parochial and the national—perhaps he was spurred by his homosexuality, that feeling of always being a stranger––but brought his industriousness with him.
An undergraduate friend, who devoured books about or by the Beats in direct proportion to his drug consumption, once wrote Bowles a letter and got a reply. I read the response when he received it in 1995. The novelist wrote in a tone obviously delighted that a young man had written him. Bowles was ill, writing from a “Moroccan hospital.” That image gave us the willies: we envisaged flies and dirty needles, and sores that don’t heal in the heat. I imagined, from Brideshead Revisited, Charles Ryder going to see Sebastian Flyte in convalescence in Morocco, appalled by his illness and his dissipation.
Now in the exhibit, I immediately recognize Bowles’s skeletal handwriting. Above the framed letter is a familiar photograph. In high school, I had photocopied this very image, by Ginsberg, of Bowles in Marrakesh, looking emaciated in a bare room. Something of that Spartan abandonment, and the look of hunger, appealed to me as a melancholy teenager ready to romanticize it. It spoke to an upbringing shielded from real suffering. When expressing my enthusiasm about The Sheltering Sky, a teacher once advised in a hushed voice, “You know he was gay?” I claimed it didn’t matter to me in the least. In fact, I was not self-aware enough to realize how much it mattered, not even during that first year in college, when I should have asked my friend for Bowles’s address, written my own letter, and received my own response.
Elsewhere in the museum, there are many more old pictures of Bowles and the Beats. You can see his old synthesizer, on which he would “improvise” but not “compose.” Large letters are painted next to the most necessary functions (such as “V” for volume). Was he going blind or technically clueless? The former, I think. There is a small exhibit on his travels throughout Morocco in 1959, in a VW Beetle, collecting musical samples on a Rockefeller Foundation grant for the Library of Congress. There are volumes of his books, posters of readings, postcards typed by agents, various correspondence. One senses a drive to creation, undiluted by time, whether it be in music, fiction, or even classical drama, which he directed at the local high school (with costumes by Yves Saint Laurent).
One cannot help but ask: why this need endlessly to create? Because it was a necessity for Bowles? Because it drove him, like some people’s desire to produce children? Was it for fame? (Fame seems the stupid reason, the one we’ve been taught to value, instead of recognizing it as an inconvenience, an infringement on privacy.) And why did he come to Tangier to create? Did he need that constant jolt of being pulled out of oneself, of being the observer? Or did he need something as simple as the sun to soak out ideas? Or maybe he created because he could not sleep well at night here. Maybe he was haunted by spirits, crushed by the winter fug, by the enervation caused by the tea. Paul Bowles once wrote that he did almost all of his writing in bed.
CAFÉ À L’ANGLAISE
Just before noon, walking up from the souq, I pass a storefront marked “Café à l’Anglaise.” I sit down to a juice of cucumber and ginger and lemon, then order a meaty tagine of chicken with caramelized onion and cinnamon. It is sweet and savory at the same time, served on a white dish on a silver tray. I finish my mint tea, and even at street level think I can smell the sea. The fog seems to be lifting, light is cascading into the street. A man with a stump for one hand, and a can for coins in the other, shuffles past. Then I hear the sound of birds.
The café owner, who also cooks, approaches and asks if I am a writer. She saw me at work on my notebook. This is a question that makes me uncomfortable, but she does not ask this with the sense of surprise or irony or disbelief that we encounter in the West. Perhaps the presumptions about art are different here––an approach to artists that could be mistaken as an attitude from the past. It is still legitimate to be a writer here. Perhaps making beautiful things counts for more when there is uncertainty or squalor nearby.
She speaks an elegant metropolitan French, tells me that she is secular, that she has six children––one in Rome who also writes. She complains that many visitors––especially from France––ask if she is “really Moroccan.” They inquire: “But you must have French origins? A French education?” She does not fit their stereotype. They wonder if there is some secret being withheld. There is no secret. This is also Tangier.
She suggests I go write on the roof, with its view over the terraces of the Medina. “My son likes it up there. You can even sleep if you like,” she says. I might do that.
From atop a mountain of overstuffed cushions on the roof, I see that the light has changed. January sunlight is sharp and clean against the white terraces of the Medina, and along the long street, the rue de la Kasbah, that descends from the café.
If we are looking for some lens for this place, might it not be Tangier’s light? Bowles speaks about it. Quoting an article for Holiday magazine: “I am now convinced Tangier is a place where past and present exist simultaneously in proportionate degree, where a very alive today is given an added depth of reality by the presence of an equally alive yesterday. In Europe, it seems to me the past is largely fictitious, to be aware of it one must have previous knowledge of it. In Tangier, the past is a physical reality, as perceptible as sunlight.”
Do the past and present here exist simultaneously? Has Bowles simply been smoking too much kif, or eating majoun, those cannabis-laced date cakes? I sense a lack of sharpness. I look down from the balcony and see a woman in a business suit with a mobile phone and then a veiled figure leading a crowd of children in school uniforms. One is not the present and the other the past. Tangier presents, just more starkly, a scene we might also see at home in the “West.”
How long does it take, in the maze of the Medina below, for life to feel completely normalized, and not at all exotic? Without any “added depth of reality”? How long does it take to see Tangier without telling ludicrous stories about it? Perhaps it is comparable to the amount of time it takes to adjust to a language you have learned but not spoken for some time.
THE KASBAH’S MAZE
After my siesta on the café terrace, I walk up to the gate of the Kasbah. I turn off my phone. Perhaps, up here, I will finally get lost. I have already rehearsed the lines for the would-be guides approaching and making my life difficult. In French, I can say that I am happily lost. In Arabic, I can explain I am on my afternoon walk. But no one stops me; no one even seems to notice me. I came here prepared for relentless inconvenience––but where are the fraudsters? Have I been careful or just lucky?
It soon becomes clear––despite the occasional dead end between the plastered houses––that, even without my phone, the principle of navigating the Kasbah is simple: if you walk up, you will see the great panoramic view out to sea. If you walk down, you eventually return to the Grand Socco.
What makes these streets so different from those across the straits? Weren’t ports all over the Mediterranean, like those kastra raised by Venetians on Greek Islands, built as mazes to perplex pirates? Mazes gave practiced locals an advantage in the warren, but they were stupid pirates if they couldn’t figure out Tangier’s snarl. When I quickly reach the old Sultan’s Palace, and the square fronting it, I wonder whether I should walk to the bottom of the Medina and try a different way up that takes longer.
An elderly man in a double-vested jacket and ascot is being photographed at the entrance to the palace while giving a lesson on the Phoenicians. He makes me feel self-conscious, aware of how I have followed instructions to dress a little formally, in a velvet jacket and scarf, to avoid hassle. Perhaps I too am acculturating to the vanity of Westerners in this place, who feel they are suddenly on-stage in Tangier. Maybe when I’m old, I will look as mannered and ridiculous as this old man. Maybe I already do.
The lecturer disappears––perhaps he just walks off set––and I enter the Kasbah Palace. Inside are manicured seventeenth-century gardens, with citrus trees. The blue of the Atlantic and a dim trace of Spain are visible through a half-open gate. Paul Bowles wrote that he never took visitors to the Sultan’s Palace, because “it is not very interesting.” But soon I come to a tiled courtyard, with a silent fountain, where I am interested.
THE SULTAN’S PALACE
I stand in the courtyard and stare at the geometry. A ribbon runs around the top of the enclosure, a floral band of black, green, and red. The walls are cut by white Corinthian columns. Around a fountain are tiles in muted colors. This neat ensemble is divided by a shadow. It is as if there were a fold in the box.
At each end of the quadrangle I find two almost identical interiors, like those I’ve seen in religious spaces––indeed, they feel sacred. Walking inside, I look up to the intricate woodwork: cedar ornamented cupolas, and niches with hollowed-out scales. Intersecting stars are carved above, from which a trapezoidal iron lamp is suspended. I am surprised by how many geometric shapes mingle in the space, by the level of detail that never feels busy. The lower wall designs are simpler: the complexity recedes in alabaster and the bottom section is plain and blank.
Often, when I am looking at Islamic art, Christian representations of the divine strike me as primitive. We think god must be in our own image, even when we tell ourselves we are in god’s. Spanish churches are crowded with porcelain children, blue-veiled maids, and downtrodden saviors. They seem like rude ornaments in a curiosity shop compared to these scrolling vines, leaves, and flowers, which are of nature, but not so directly representational to be nature itself. The arabesques, intertwined stars, and polygons suggest a greater hand, even when drawn by ours. These artists––conceiving of the divine as only understandable through geometry––must have felt, like some mathematicians, that their shapes and equations exist even without us.
I grow small, sitting on the ground, staring into the voids of the sculpted roof. What do the hollow spaces of the honeycombs and lanterns, which I have also seen in mosques, suggest? These negative spaces are most difficult to fathom. Simply air around which we can spin patterns? It is, for some, the void of meaning. For others, it is the unseen. One must believe in the latter to feel reassured here. But perhaps even those without faith can admit that the temples of Islam are most successful in suggesting this fiction.
THE CALL TO PRAYER
Outside, the remaining clouds have vanished. Tangier is clear, bright, glass-like. I walk in the brilliant sunlight across the square fronting the Kasbah Palace, possessed with a numerical zeal. The palace has me parsing shapes in the pavement, counting windows, measuring balcony railings. I feel the opposite of opiated. I know Tangier without the taste of majoun in my mouth.
At the far end is an arch and a terrace facing the sea. I pass through and look for where the Atlantic and the Mediterranean meet. I expect to see conflicting currents, but the sea stretches as a single blue band. Depending on your position along the walls, or how high you climb, you can look out in more than one direction. Peering down from this height, I see levels of city descending to the Medina and Socco. The Kasbah bleeds organically into the lower town and not according to an intricate plan.
There is a sudden shift in the air. Above, one voice soars, and then another, until they mingle, tracks played antiphonally, until more prayers join in the now mesmerizing cacophony. The song is transporting; it lifts me. I feel the air expand with verses I cannot fully comprehend. It is the call to prayer.
Listening to the sounds interlacing, I feel exposed and stripped of my organizing principles. The layers of conceit I used to understand this city as a new arrival—pathetic fallacies, literary hypotheses, oppressive theories, projected desires—are torn from me. They have all unraveled into the air. Don’t I need them? What do I do when they fail?
I cannot parse Tangier. Its geometry is not divine, its urbanism not exotic. No more than the Boulevard and avenues of the New Town, or, farther away, the new building works and corporate glass constructions I can now see near the train station. Tangier is looking ahead. Those who would gain wisdom and eroticism from poverty must be just a little disappointed.
Turning back out to sea––the mixed messages of the salāt still crowding the air––I observe Europe, heavy on the horizon, across the straits. And I feel a moment of familiar, deep longing: to be somewhere more predictable. It is close, just thirty-five kilometers. If I reach up, I can almost touch it. With one arm raised, I have a sudden desire to get the hell out of this place, to race back to the “West.” I want to be on the other side of visa control, behind my fence, looking back at Africa with relief. It is as if I am out-of-bounds here, through the looking glass, on the wrong side.
Someone catches my eye from a nearby window. I see an attractive figure pull the frame closed and disappear behind a curtain. I tug at my shirt. It’s that smell again. Of men, of a desire still unsatisfied. The muezzin’s song reverberates, and a group follows it, women trailing separately towards a mosque. I glance around, cautiously. For a moment, I feel uneasy and afraid.
If I had not left the other side, it might have been easy to tell you why.