The American Legation In Tangier

American Legation in TangierTangier has some beautiful old buildings. Being inward-looking in the Moorish style, they don’t generally seem like much from the outside. Once you enter, though, you’ll find soothing tiled courtyards with bubbling fountains; elaborate latticework windows; and bright, open rooms.

The American Legation in Tangier is one of the most accessible of these buildings and has the distinction of being the first place designated a National Historic Landmark outside the United States.

Morocco was the first country to recognize the United States in December 1777, when the 13 colonies were still fighting the War of Independence against the British Empire. The present building started being used as a legation in 1821. It’s set in a narrow alley in the heart of the old city.

It stopped being used as a legation in 1956, when the offices moved to Rabat, and is now a center for Moroccan studies. Entrance to the legation is free.

The rooms are set around a quiet courtyard that feels miles away from the hectic markets and busy alleyways of Tangier’s medina. The legation displays memorabilia from Tangier’s lively art and literary scene. You’ll find paintings by Moroccan masters and etchings from early Western travelers showing life in Tangier before the age of the Internet cafe. Old maps put the region in a larger historic context.

The most popular section is the Paul Bowles Wing, dedicated to the famous American author who lived in Tangier from 1947 until his death in 1999. Here you’ll see drafts of some of his work, magazines he edited, his correspondence, and photos of his wide circle of famous expat and Moroccan friends.

Take time to study the details of this historic building, such as the intricately carved and painted doors and the fine symmetry of the building as a whole. It makes for a peaceful respite from the medina and a place of refuge from the hot Moroccan sun during the summer.

Don’t miss my other posts on Tangier. Coming up next: Ancient Tangier!

[Photo by Almudena Alonso-Herrero]

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Tangier’s Art And Cafe Scene

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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]

Escaping Christmas In Tangier

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The Christmas holiday in Spain is a classic case of too much of a good thing. Stretching from before Christmas to after Epiphany, it’s a long haul of eating, drinking, socializing and getting nothing done. I have no problem with that except it goes on for way too long. My Spanish wife agrees, so we decided to escape for five days, a sort of holiday from the holidays.

She wanted to go to Tangier, Morocco. I was skeptical. We’d been to Marrakech a few years before and found it a huckster’s paradise. While the tagines were tasty and the mosques marvelous, the constant pestering by touts made it a hassle. Everywhere else turned out to be too expensive, though, and so we hopped on the flight from Madrid and an hour later found ourselves in Tangier.

The difference from Marrakech was immediately noticeable. There was a chilled-out vibe that the more southern city lacked. I’d heard that the authorities had wisely cleared out the most annoying touts in order to encourage tourism. Walking around we had numerous young men offer us a tour but they took no for an answer, at least after two or three nos. In Marrakech it generally took ten or 12 nos. Tangier is also a remarkably clean city, with a fresh sea breeze coming off the bay and streets that lack the minefields of dog shit that I’m used to in Spanish cities.

There are two main neighborhoods in Tangier of interest to visitors. The Casbah is the old sultan’s palace complex and stands on high ground surrounded by a wall and overlooking the bay. The medina is the old city and includes a sprawling marketplace. Beyond these lies the modern city, stretching along the bay and further inland. While pleasant enough, it lacks any real distinctiveness except for some fine old cafes.

%Gallery-174508%The Casbah is the most popular place for foreigners to stay. In fact, many have bought second homes there and the population is now 60% foreign. Situated on Tangier’s highest point and surrounded by an old wall, it was here that the Sultan lived with his family and staff. Ornately carved wooden doors and window lattices decorate the whitewashed buildings. Some have rooftop terraces offering fine views of the bay and the Strait of Gibraltar. Many of the better hotels and restaurants are in this neighborhood.

A little rougher and far more lively is the medina, the old city that includes the marketplace. Here labyrinthine alleyways lead past rows of stalls selling everything from heaps of spices and fresh produce to local handmade leather and cheap Chinese imports. Bustling crowds of shoppers fill these narrow lanes. Old men in burnooses stand to one side having quiet conversations, or sip tea and play checkers in dark cafes. There are also tranquil residential side streets that are almost abandoned, the only sound being the conversation of women and laughter of children filtering out from behind closed doors.

It’s easy to get lost in the medina, but being fairly small it’s hard to stay lost for long. One trick I’ve learned in Middle Eastern cities is to think of the streets as a circulation system. The alleys are the capillaries. If you want to get out, take the biggest one you can find. This will eventually lead to a wider artery, which will take you to the heart or lungs (one of the main squares) or the eyes and mouth (the gates to the new city). When you come to a branch in the road, always pick the wider path and you’ll be out soon.

The medina has the highest amount of public drug use I’ve seen in any city, Amsterdam included. The smell of kif (hash) mingles with the turmeric of the spice stalls and in some cafes people smoke quite openly. There are plenty of junkies around too. In the main square one guy was staggering around in filthy rags, drooling as he sniffed glue from a plastic bag. Ever seen a hardcore glue sniffer on a binge? It ain’t pretty.

Like many ports, Tangier has an international feel. Arabic is the native language, and French is the default foreign tongue. Spanish and English are also widely spoken. At times they all get jumbled up and something as simple as ordering a tea can involve all four languages. It’s great fun.

Tangier is an easy flight from Madrid and many other European cities and makes a great short holiday or the starting point for a longer exploration of Africa. One bit of advice: don’t use the American Express currency exchange office in Madrid’s Barajas Airport. They ripped us off on the exchange rate. You’ll get a much better rate in the Tangier airport or from one of the numerous licensed money changers in the medina.

This is the first in a short series on Tangier. Coming up next: “The Tangier Art and Cafe Scene!”

[Top photo courtesy Almudena Alonso-Herrero, that cool wife I mentioned. Bottom photo by Sean McLachlan]

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