Tangier’s Art And Cafe Scene

Tangier
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.

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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]

Why I Love The ‘Loin: San Francisco’s Vibrant Tenderloin Neighborhood

kiss
Having lived in San Francisco off and on for the better part of half my life, I’ve seen my share of gentrification. And, like many things, it has its positives and negatives. It’s hard to hate on improvements in housing standards, public safety and sanitation. It’s great to see economic growth in neighborhoods once plagued by social ills. It utterly sucks to see yet another crappy chain store replace the corner grocery.

I have high hopes for San Francisco’s Tenderloin, however. While it’s developed an undeniable hipster presence/street cred over the last few years, I don’t believe it’s ever going to fully go the way of, say, Williamsburg, or Boston’s Quincy Market. No matter how many Prohibition-era-style bars, or trendy restaurants populate its hilly streets, the ‘loin will, I hope, always remain more than a little bit seedy, sketchy and sleazy. Bless its sooty soul.

Historically, the Tenderloin has always been a bit rough, and folklore about how it got its name ranges from meaty references to the city’s underbelly to the haunches of hookers. Technically, the neighborhood stretches from Union Square to the southern side of Nob Hill (lower Nob Hill is now known as the “Tendernob,” and popular for its bars and restaurants).

Today, despite the uptick in trendiness, the Tenderloin still most visibly populated by crack addicts, gutter drunks, prostitutes, transvestites, transvestite prostitutes, junkies, bag ladies and assorted other ne’er-do-wells. It’s not a pretty sight, but the people watching is priceless – especially these days, when you throw in lost tourists, nuthugger-wearing club kids and suspender-clad bartenders.tenderloinI’ve been hanging in the Tenderloin since my mid-20s, exploring its innumerable dive bars and incredible ethnic eateries (Vietnamese, Pakistani, Indian, Mexican, Chinese, Korean, Filipino, Indonesian …). Back then, nearly 20 years ago, I confess it was a bit dicey walking around the Tenderloin at night, but I’ll stand by my opinion that today, it’s not a dangerous neighborhood if you’re not looking for trouble. I’ve walked, alone, at 3 a.m., with no problem. When I lived on the edge of the Tenderloin for 16 months, from 2008 to late 2009, I walked to and from work through the Tenderloin every morning and evening, with nary a hassle.

On one memorable night, it seemed every freak in the ‘hood was gathered on my doorstep or beneath my window. Asian Tranny Hooker was smoking crack in the doorway, her smeared vermillion lipstick giving her the look of a Cubist painting, as usual. A junkie was shooting up in front of my garage (I sternly ordered him to find a more private place, given my block’s populace of elderly Asian couples). As I readied for bed, the cops busted a john propositioning one of the neighborhood streetwalkers underneath my bedroom window. Never a dull moment, I tell you.

I don’t mean to glorify the ugliness that typifies the lives of many ‘loin residents. I just have a real appreciation for the grittiness of city life, as well as diversity, and a glaring dose of reality. Some of the Tenderloin’s more unfortunate denizens are living the way they are due to their own mistakes; others are merely victims of circumstance. I can’t say I’m always empathetic, but living in such a neighborhood certainly has made me more understanding to the plight of some of the residents (a term I use loosely, as I’m primarily referring to the homeless). It’s also made me more grateful for things in life I often take for granted: healthy food, warm clothes, shelter, friends, family, education, a non-addictive personality, and indoor plumbing.

Sociopolitics aside, I love the Tenderloin because I find it San Francisco’s most vibrant neighborhood for food and drink, as well as people watching. Some of my favorite ethnic dives and “casual fine dining” restaurants are there – Shalimar, Pakwan, Turtle Tower, Osha Thai Noodle, Canteen, Farmerbrown – as well as some of the best cocktails in the city.

Try a libation at temples of mixology like Bourbon & Branch, or Rye, or savor the dingy, dodgy atmosphere of classic, old-school dives like HaRa, Summer Place, Nite Cap, or Geary Club (the fact that you can smoke at the latter isn’t a selling point for me, but when combined with the aging Russian barmaids – all cleavage, throaty voices, and stiff pouring hands – it’s a treasure).
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There are some boutiques scattered about – an upscale pet shop here, an Australian specialty product store there – but mostly you’ll find corner stores of the Korean and Halal variety, pizzerias, “massage parlors,” and coffee houses, as well as the famed Glide Memorial Church. SF’s theater district is there, just around the corner from Union Square. There are dozens of hotels, too. Some rent rooms by the hour, some by the month. Others are old, Art Deco and Art Noveau gems that provide some of the city’s most affordable, eclectic accommodations (I like the Essex Hotel), but newer boutique properties like Hotel Monaco are on the increase.

You’re also within walking distance from just about every part of San Francisco worth seeing from the Tenderloin, even if the views of and from the neighborhood aren’t the stuff of movies. But if you want affordable, colorful and convenient, it’s your place.

The one serious piece of advice I have to offer with regard to safety is to stay the hell away from Eddy Street, even in daylight. I don’t know why this is the epicenter of all that’s f—-ed up and wrong in the world, but it is, and even the local cops try to avoid it. Just stay away.

Eddy Street aside, if you, too, believe all that glitters could be anything from the cap in a hooker’s front tooth to the neon of a glorious dive bar, come spend some time in the Tenderloin.

[Photo credits: kiss, Flickr user charlottz; hotel, Flickr user CT Young; cocktail, Flickr user Splat Worldwide]

Las Vegas’ hotel supervisor tells all in Reddit Q & A

An alleged Las Vegas‘ hotel supervisor, Front_Desk_LV, decided to host an “AMA” (Ask Me Anything) Q&A discussion on the online community site Reddit earlier yesterday afternoon. While some of the questions seem blunt, the answers are shockingly honest.

The following questions were posed by members of the Reddit community and answered by the anonymous contributor. You can check the thread over on Reddit for more of the vivacious discussion.

Q: How big is the hotel? Number of rooms? Are your maintenance guys in-house or contracted out? What about the gambling machines? Does the hotel have techs to work on them, or is there an outside company that fixes the machines?

A: Our hotel has around 2,000 rooms. Our maintenance guys are in-house. And, I have no comment on the last question. I am not commenting on anything gaming related. It is just one of those issues you don’t f*ck with.

Q: What’s the best story you can remember [about] throwing either a person or party out?

A: One of the first few days I was working at my hotel there was a bachelor party in town. They ended up getting a midget stripper for entertainment, which is fine by us. As long as everything is confined to the room and nothing is illegal that we know about, it is okay. About three hours later I see the midget run by the front desk completely naked being chased by four guys. Naturally we threw them out, but I couldn’t stop laughing during the eviction process. Sadly, most of the evictions are due to drunk people getting out of control and throwing things off their balconies and then lying to us when we have them on camera. If they just tell us the truth and say it won’t happen again we generally let them stay.

Q: What kind of illegal activity do you get?

A: We know prostitution and drug use will happen in the hotel; however, as long as it doesn’t disrupt our daily operations or you don’t do it right in front of us we don’t mind. We are not the moral police. I actually had a guest checking into the hotel and she just reeked of weed. During the check-in process she put her purse up on the counter and I see a bag of weed, around an ounce. I let her know I am unaware of what that flower is but tell her it smells nice. She discretely places her purse in a better spot. She invited me back to the room with her; however, I declined because I love my job, but also because she was gross. More because she was gross.Q: What professional organization would you perceive as the least professional when conferencing?

A: I am still the low man on the totem pole, so I am not involved in conference calls. I mainly oversee the front desk, bell desk, and valet services. Since I work overnight I am technically the highest authority during overnights; however, I never actually reprimand anyone from a different department; I merely send a message to their boss. Generally, engineering is the least professional in my experience because they have limited engagement with the guests and seem to get away with the most.

Q: I imagine that once the party is over, the rooms can take a beating. What’s the weirdest/grossest/best thing you have seen after the guests checked out?

A: When someone decides to trash a room all that happens is we charge them and we charge them a lot of money. Normally it’s someone having a fun time in their tub and it overflows because they forget about it, causing damage to not only their room, but multiple.

Q: Have you heard of the “twenty dollar bill trick”? Does it really work?

A: I am assuming you are talking about putting a $20 in between your I.D. and your credit card. It really depends on the front desk agent. Some will take the money and will still give you a crappy room because they are bitter, some will give you a better room, and some would have given you the best room they could have, period. Our hotel doesn’t have ANY complimentary upgrades to a better suite, so it’s really only higher floors or views/balcony.

Q: Have you ever dealt with or met any celebrities?

A: I have. I have met numerous celebrities and have yet to meet a rude one. They normally have their managers check them in while they wait; however, they are extremely nice to the staff. I have heard horror stories; however, our guests have all been nice. We have a harder time with people who are just important enough to be on our radar; however, think they deserve the world. Like “special” casino guests or a relative of someone important in the company.

Q: Any recommendations for first time Las Vegas travelers?

A: Get here early. If we are oversold on rooms, it is normally the last people who show up who get sent somewhere else. I had someone arrive at 1 AM the other night after driving for ten hours with his wife and kids, only for me to tell him he “cannot stay here and we have made accommodations elsewhere for him”. He was livid.

I recommend seeing some shows while you are here. Jersey Boys, Beatles Love Show, Mystère, and Ka, in that order. Hotwire apparently has the best rates; however, if you book directly through the hotel you have a better chance that the hotel can work with you.

Don’t see the Michael Jackson show. It was terrible. Terrible.

Q: How fulfilling is living in Vegas socially? I imagine someone who likes variety and new things would find it engaging. Does it offer general recreation or hang outs?

A: Right now I am working overnights and I dislike it. I’m not someone who enjoys going to clubs, but overall I enjoy living in Vegas. The bars have amazing specials all day long to attract locals, it is cheap to live here, and there are no state income taxes. I plan on living here while I potentially earn my Master’s Degree in Finance.

To read the unedited version of this interview, click here.

[flickr image via Pocheco ]

Opinion: Dutch khat ban smacks of racism

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The Dutch government recently announced that it will ban the use of khat, a narcotic leaf widely chewed in the Horn of Africa and Yemen.

I’ve written about khat before. I’ve spent four months in Ethiopia, especially Harar, a city in the eastern part of the country where chewing khat (pronounced “chat” in the local languages) is part of many people’s daily lives. It’s a mild drug that makes most people more relaxed, mildly euphoric, and talkative. It also helps concentration and is popular among university students.

Of course there are side effects. Short-term effects include sleeplessness, constipation, and for some people a listlessness that keeps them from achieving their potential. Long-term use can lead to mental instability and heart trouble. I met one western researcher in Harar who had been there two years. He’d stopped using khat after the first few months because he was afraid of the long-term effects. If I lived in Harar that long I’d stop chewing khat for that very reason.

So the Dutch government seems to have a good reason to ban khat. Or does it? This is a country where marijuana, hash, herbal ecstasy, and psychedelic truffles are all legal. And if we’re talking about long-term health effects, we need to throw in alcohol and tobacco too.

So what’s different about khat? It’s almost exclusively used by the Dutch Somali community, numbering about 25,000 people. According to the BBC, “a Dutch government report cited noise, litter and the perceived public threat posed by men who chew khat as some of the reasons for outlawing the drug.”

Drunks aren’t noisy? Cigarette smokers never litter? The last reason is the most telling: “the perceived public threat posed by men who chew khat.” In other words, black men. In Europe, khat is a black drug, little understood and rarely used by the white population. This ignorance and the fear it generates are the real reasons khat is being banned.

While there are some valid health and social reasons for banning this narcotic plant, they also apply to the narcotic plants white people like to use. But we can’t expect white people in The Netherlands to give up those, can we?

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A Traveler in the Foreign Service: Can a guy who didn’t get high get a security clearance?

I was sitting at my kitchen table with a former law-enforcement official feeling nervous about the fact that I’d never taken any illegal drugs.

“In the last seven years, have you illegally used any controlled substance- cocaine, crack cocaine, marijuana, hash, narcotics, stimulants, depressants, hallucinogens, steroids, inhalants or prescription drugs?” the man asked, reading from a list of prepared questions.

“No, not at all,” I answered.

The man looked up from his yellow legal pad and put his pen down.

“You never smoked marijuana?” he asked, squinting his eyes as if struggling to see me.

I had no pony tail, I wasn’t wearing a tie-dyed t-shirt, and there were no half eaten cartons of Cherry Garcia in sight. Was my story really so unbelievable? I half-considered concocting some recreational drug use just to be a bit less boring.

I had passed the Foreign Service written exam and the oral assessment and had received a “conditional” offer of employment from the State Department. The offer was contingent upon being able to pass background and medical examinations, and having the good fortune to be invited to join an A-100 class, which is an introductory class for incoming Foreign Service Officers.

My kitchen table non-confession was with a contract background investigator who had been retained by the Office of Personnel Management to delve into my background to ensure that I wasn’t a spy, a terrorist, or a drug addict.
After the series of questions on drug and alcohol use, he asked me if I had any plans to overthrow the U.S. government by force. He was reading from a prepared list of questions, so it wasn’t like he’d sized me up and thought I was a radical jihadi, but I couldn’t help but wonder if anyone had ever answered yes to that question.

I sailed through the rest of his prepared questions without a raised eyebrow until we got to a section on my prior foreign travel and foreign contacts. I did my best to compile a list of my foreign travel over the prior seven year period, but had no idea who I should list in the foreign contacts section. I’d made dozens of foreign friends in my travels over the years but for the sake of simplicity, listed only a few as “close and continuing contacts.”

I assumed that the State Department would want Foreign Service Officers who had traveled extensively and had foreign contacts, but in the context of a background investigation, foreign travel and contacts are viewed with suspicion, and each foreign trip elicits a litany of additional questions.

After speaking with me, the investigator started knocking on the doors of my neighbors to ask about me each of the many addresses I’d live in during the previous seven years. After several of my former bosses and co-workers were interviewed, I was warned that the investigator needed to interview my current boss.

The State Department recruiter had specifically warned us against giving notice at our current jobs because our employment offer was merely “conditional” and not a done deal, so I had to inform my boss that I was quitting. Probably. But not really giving notice just yet. They were understanding, but it made me a bit of a lame duck months before I was to leave and the day the investigator came to our small office, the place was buzzing with gossip. I had to tell everyone that I was “probably” going to join the Foreign Service. Sometime soon, I hoped.

More than a year after I passed the Foreign Service exam I finally had my security clearance and a concrete offer to join the Foreign Service. A week prior to leaving for training in Washington, I asked my girlfriend to marry me. She said yes, but we had no clue what country we’d be in the next year and that suited me just fine.

Next: The List, The Call, The Flag- Assignments in the Foreign Service

Read more from A Traveler in the Foreign Service here.

[flickr image via Wiros]