Tangier in Morocco is an interesting blend of European, African, and Middle Eastern culture. This has made it a longtime meeting ground and inspiration for artists and writers.
The city is best known in the West as the residence of many of the Beat Generation writers. William S. Burroughs wrote “Naked Lunch“ here and Tangier’s International Zone inspired his Interzone, a setting that appears in several of his novels. Kerouac, Ginsberg, and Corso passed through and non-Beat Tennessee Williams also spent time here. Paul Bowles stayed the longest, coming to Tangier in 1947 and living there for half a century.
Several hotels, bars, and cafes proudly proclaim an association with one famous writer or another. I didn’t go hunting them down as I felt no great urge to see the vestiges of a literary scene that had died before I was born. It’s the writing that endures, so instead I started rereading “The Sheltering Sky,” a haunting and mysterious novel that any writer can profit from studying. Maybe I’ll hunt down those literary landmarks next time. Tangier is one of those places that draws you back.
While I didn’t go hunting for the literary scene, that scene sprang on me quite by surprise. I heard that Mohamed Mrabet was having an exhibition at Art Ingis at 11 Rue Khalid ibn Oualid. Mrabet is one of my favorite writers, an old-style Arab storyteller whose kif-laden tales were first translated by Paul Bowles in 1967 and blew my mind all through the ’90s. He’s also a prolific illustrator, using a thick pen to produce intricate designs reminiscent of the patterns women henna onto their hands in this part of the world.
I didn’t even know Mrabet was still alive. Seeing the exhibit immediately became a top priority and it didn’t disappoint. Check out the image above and the gallery to see examples of his work. Some of the smaller drawings were affordable and one became the best Christmas present my wife ever gave me. It now hangs on the wall of my home office. With that kind of good luck, I’m sure to head back to Tangier.
Art Ingis was recently opened by a Parisian who is such a newcomer that he hasn’t had time to learn Arabic and Spanish yet. I suspect when I see his next show he’ll be coming along fine. Many of the galleries are owned by French expats who pass easily between the mix of languages spoken here.
Rue Khalid ibn Oualid feels like a little stretch of displaced France. Across the way at number 28 is Les Insolites, a friendly little bookshop with mostly French titles as well as a shelf of English and Spanish books. They serve up European-style coffee in a little terazza and the shop is adorned with photography and African sculpture, all for sale. It’s in a sleek Art Deco building that also houses an interior design boutique run by a French Algerian.
Not far away on Rue de la Liberté is Le Centre Culturel ibn Khaldoun, which had an exhibition opening of several local painters. There was also a show of the French painter and sculptor Yanik Pen’du at Galerie Delacroix just down the street at number 86.
We found all these exhibitions without really trying. There were several other galleries we didn’t have time to explore, and I’m sure there are many more we didn’t even hear about.
Being a center for art and literature, of course Tangier has a great café scene. There are two main types – the traditional Moroccan teahouse and the French-style café/patisserie. Traditional teahouses are everywhere, from little cubicles in the market to larger, dimly lit affairs on the plazas. The few women who go to them are mostly foreign and the drink of choice is tea made with fresh mint leaves floating in the water. The pace is slow. It takes ages to get your drink or even pay for it and that’s OK. This is a place for whiling away the hours in relaxed conversation.
Some of the cafes welcome kif (hash) smokers, while others don’t tolerate them. It seems that a café either has someone smoking a joint at every other table or nobody is smoking at all. As I mentioned in my overview of Tangier, public drug use is common here.
The French-style cafes see more of a mix of the sexes and no smoking. Some of these are lovely places that look like they’re straight out of a French New Wave film, although a little frayed around the edges. In addition to the ubiquitous tea, they offer coffee, cake, pastries and elaborate goopy ice cream concoctions.
All this familiar culture might make you think you’re in some far southern outpost of Europe, but that would be a mistake. The Africans discovered coffee and invented cafes long before the bean became all the rage in Europe. The art, too, is mostly Moroccan. This is an African city that has absorbed European influences like we’ve absorbed some of the best of Africa.
[Photo of a drawing by Mohammed Mrabet taken by Sean McLachlan]