On the landmark central square that is Tangier’s Grand Socco – the name a typical tangle of French, Spanish and Arabic – painters, plumbers and plasterers have gathered in the morning sun. Beside each man there’s a homemade contraption knocked up from what appears to be parts of old bikes, shopping trolleys, wheelchairs and bits of fishing boat. Each assembly is hung with hooks and each is being used for the proud display of paintbrushes, lengths of copper pipe, spanners, plasterers’ trowels and other tools of the trade. Their contraptions might look like modern art, but these men are actually here to offer their services.
It’s hardly a conventional start to a day’s sightseeing, but then this Moroccan port has never been one for convention, and that’s what makes this strange gathering so worth seeing: it epitomises what makes Tangier so unique and so vital. American novelist Mark Twain nailed it when he described Tangier as “thoroughly and uncompromisingly foreign – foreign from top to bottom – foreign from centre to circumference – foreign inside and outside and all around”. With even the city’s workaday artisans getting in on the act, the life-long locals (Tanjaouis) and the largely European ex-pats (Tangerines) alike certainly have form when it comes to doing things differently.
It’s a singularity fostered by an exhilarating confluence of cultures. Cosmopolitanism barely does justice to this multilingual city, the main language being Moroccan Darija Arabic, where they eat snails à la française, follow the football teams of Spain and worship at mosques, churches, synagogues and even zaouias – the sanctuary shrines of offbeat sects whose members seek salvation in dyeing their beards red, drinking boiling water and the like. In short, Morocco’s (and Africa’s) gateway port, in plain sight of Europe, stands on the edge of things; of Africa, the Atlantic and the Med, of conformity and, on occasion, even reason itself.
Since the 1920s, when Tangier was established as an international zone, one not over-encumbered by rules, the city has been a glamorously colourful and often chaotic place. In the 1950s, when the liquor and the licentiousness, the buzz and the boys drew film stars, rock musicians, socialites, artists and above all writers in unprecedented numbers, Tangier was enthusiastically billed as the world’s most sinful city.
Cue decades of memorable partying – with Ava and Errol, Truman and Tennessee, not to mention Cecil Beaton, Gore Vidal and Beat writers like Jack Kerouac and William Burroughs, how could it be otherwise? But it came at a cost. Tangier’s own hangover, in a city which has seen a few, has been a lingering reputation as a seedy, even unsafe place. Most visitors, warned off, opted instead for Marrakech.
But that is all changing. The current king has introduced a huge redevelopment plan that is transforming Tangier. A new port and luxury marina, a clutch of international hotels, and a business and retail district are being constructed. A cable car is projected for the hilltop kasbah, with its views over the Straits of Gibraltar, while a high-speed train service, Africa’s first, now links the city’s brand-new station with Casablanca via Rabat. No surprise, then, that contractors are already swooping on the waiting workers as I leave the Grand Socco.
The time has come to rediscover Tangier, because the city has succeeded in straightening up – without going entirely straight. Its particular achievement has been to rid itself of its most unsavoury habits – the late-night dens favoured by William Burroughs, the drinking holes of Ian Fleming and the brothels visited by Joe Orton are long gone – without erasing all trace of its former personality. The re-versioned Tangier, which has recently attracted a new generation of service-minded hoteliers, restaurateurs, boutique and bookshop owners, offers an agreeable mix of picturesque dereliction (the Grand Cervantes Theatre) and welcome restorations like the splendid Deco-era Rif Cinema and the Librairie des Colonnes bookshop. There’s also a wealth of period hotels and cafes which glory in their hard-won patina – as often as not backdrops in movies like The Sheltering Sky and Spectre.
At the legendary Café de Paris I take a table on the street, as Matt Damon did in The Bourne Supremacy and as, in real life, did Tennessee Williams and Jean Genet – at least whenever the people at the Librairie des Colonnes, which happened to be owned by Genet’s publisher, were prepared to advance him drinking money against royalties. The faded leather banquettes, the waistcoated waiters and the fly-choked lamps are just as they were in the playwrights’ time, and if the absence of drink has damped down the uproarious atmosphere, that’s no bad thing given the time of day, not to mention the ruinous rate at which Williams (Fernet Branca and Coke) and Genet (white rum) liked to put it away. Mine’s a thé à la menthe, steeped in sugar, and accompanied by a pain au chocolat – what passes these days for decadent.
Fortified, I plunge into the walled medina, a crowded warren of stepped walkways, adobe arches hung with washing, neighbourhood bath houses and bright-green zaouia shrines, Moorish doors shaped like keyholes and colourful murals, often depicting potted flowers which the medina’s residents paint on the outside walls of their homes where the narrow alleys do not allow for the real thing. I find my way to the museum in the old American Legation – the consular tradition is especially strong in international Tangier – where there’s a memorial display to Mr Tangier himself, the novelist Paul Bowles. In a city plastered with sepia images of international legends, Bowles’s photograph is especially prolific, not least in the faded elegance of the Hotel Continental, where Bernardo Bertolucci set several scenes from Bowles’s own The Sheltering Sky. The Legation’s august interiors are hung with rich insights into the city’s history. Among the letters on display, one details the vain efforts a 19th-century legation head, fearing for the safety of his staff, made to refuse a gift of two wild lions – “the finest animals of the kind I have seen”, as the diplomat acknowledged – from the Emperor of Morocco.
In the afternoon I climb through the medina, looking for the fabled light which inspired visiting artists like Henri Matisse, who famously painted the view from his room at the Grand Hotel Villa de France, recently restored, where he stayed in the years before the Great War. Below the kasbah sunlit lanes pass the house that once belonged to Woolworth heiress Barbara Hutton – it is said she outbid General Franco – and where the authorities widened the lane to make room for her Rolls. I rest up at the legendary Café Baba, with panoramic views over the city, where Rolling Stone Keith Richards hung out back in 1966.
A visit to Tangier is not simply a means to celebrate past glories. Just beyond the kasbah I stumble upon Las Chicas, one of a new wave of Tangier boutique-cafes. Here Yasmine Durner Hurel, born in Morocco to French parents, showcases local brands like Au Fil de Tanger’s linen blouses and tablecloths alongside vintage YSL and Dior jewellery. The city is undergoing an evolution, Yasmine concedes, but in her view Tangier remains essentially unchanged. “It’s something about the sea,” she says, “and the proximity of the Rif Mountains which attracts the outlandish, the imaginative and the irreverent.”
As the day draws to a close so music sounds deep in the kasbah. There’s an open house, as there is most evenings, at the no-frills clubhouse where Les Fils du Détroit (Sons of the Strait) have jammed for decades. I wander in to watch a handful of old-timers on oud (lute), drums and guitar knock out tunes rooted in Andalusian gypsy culture. As a man breaks from serving tea to come in on tambourine, I’m reminded that Tangier is like nowhere else on earth. That’s what Belgian Vincent Coppée learned when he first came here in the late 1990s at the beginning of the journey he meant to make through Africa. He never left the city, which has since been his home, as he explains over dinner – intensely flavoured Dakhla oysters followed by sardines in a chermoula marinade of coriander, cumin, parsley, garlic, paprika, lemon and olive oil – at the El Morocco Club, which he opened in 2012. At the foot of the stairs there’s the piano bar, all red leather banquettes and low lights, where we round off what turns out to be an animated evening. I head for bed with the welcome sense that while the sin may have gone from Tangier, something of the city’s essential sauce remains.