The Gran Teatro Cervantes. Photo: Apurv Tyagi
The Gran Teatro Cervantes. Photo: Apurv Tyagi

Paul Bowles’ Tangier, lost and half found

More than Orhan Pamuk's Istanbul or Naguib Mahfouz's Cairo or Jorge Luis Borges' Buenos Aires, what I could see most clearly in my mind's eye was Bowles' Tangier

It was in a sixth grade social science textbook that I first came across Tangier, in a chapter carrying a brief history of the seven islands of Bombay. When princess Catherine of Braganza married King Charles II in 1662, the Portuguese handed over two of their coastal possessions—in two different continents—as dowry to the British: Bombay and Tangier. 

In our classroom, further information about Tangier was not forthcoming or necessary—in the finest traditions of Indian middle-school scholarship, it was confirmed that this nugget was not part of the “portion" for the upcoming unit exam.

Tangier, timeless sin city

However, the name stuck. Perhaps because Tangier appeared to be inextricably tied to the city of my birth at the moment of its own birth as British Bombay. A couple of years later, Tangier re-entered my consciousness in a more substantial way. I read Paulo Coelho’s The Alchemist, as middle-class hobby readers were doing then. The protagonist, an Andalusian shepherd boy named Santiago, arrives in Tangier after making the short crossing over from Spain. He is on a journey to the Egyptian pyramids where, according to a Romani dream interpreter, there is a treasure waiting for him. 

It was in The Alchemist that I was first introduced to the Tangier tropes that Western authors and travellers have had to contend with, largely to romanticize further: gateway to Africa, bazaars symbolic of the mystical Orient, narrow lanes filled with tricksters and other no-hopers who do not “belong" anywhere else. 

During my second year of law school in Bengaluru, I tried to read Jack Kerouac’s On The Road because many others seemed to be carrying a copy. It was that setting and stage in the life of a person of privilege where he begins to entertain the possibility that he might be a “citizen of nowhere". I could not get past the first few pages. In the circumstances, I decided to do the next best thing. I read about Kerouac rather than read him. 

From the high priest of hipsters, it was but a short hop to the Beat Generation and the hallucinatory, non-conformist world they came to represent. Again, the novels were hard going, but the narrative of their own lives seemed to fit in nicely with the countercultural experiments some of us innocently believed ourselves to be teetering on the edge of at the time, such as taking the overnight bus to Hampi wearing charsi pants, dreaming of travelling the world. Someone should have told us then that the world is too big to truly find a way out. Yet, there is no denying that the subsidized idealism of young adulthood is the purest.

Recurring in the narratives of the Beat figures was the city of Tangier. It was where they landed up in the 1950s after, to borrow a phrase from Allen Ginsberg’s poem (and the unofficial Beat manifesto) Howl, they “took ship to Africa". Tangier was in its last days as an international zone which had been jointly administered by the European colonial powers and the US since 1924. In the days following the end of the Second World War, the “Interzone"—as William S. Burroughs came to call it—was the last utopia of permissiveness. 

There was no forex control (a dollar fetched three times the francs it would in Paris), visitors could stay as long as they liked without bureaucratic interference and some of the best cannabis in the world (from the nearby Rif Mountains, called kif) was openly available and consumed in the cafes of the storied walled city, the Medina. 

Tangier was also the home of Paul Bowles—a man more famous as the definitive Tangier expat (mostly due to his chronicling of the city’s belle monde) than as a novelist, translator, music composer and ethnologist, with a substantial creative output over the course of his life. 

Paul Bowles: golden man, enigmatic exile

Almost as soon as the Beats got off their boats, they sought Bowles as moths would a flame. He, “stereotypical golden man, the enigmatic exile" (from Paul Theroux's description of how Bowles was typically viewed), a child of the Lost Generation, would observe this new generation of “young Americans" with his characteristically dry eye, letting them make their own mistakes and construct their own little triumphs. They came in search of “the boys and the drugs", and he—bisexual and a lifelong kif user—was hardly one to judge. 

I came to Bowles not via Morocco, but his other enduring love: Sri Lanka. It was October 2011 and I was on a bus going from Matara to Galle on the road hugging the country's incredible south-western coast. Near Weligama, from the window, I spied the top of a whitewashed Latin-style house through the tall palms crowding a small island just a hundred metres into the ocean. We were past it in a flash, but I was intrigued. What was this place, cradled by waves, peeking out like a Mediterranean promise under the gleaming Lankan sun? 

In Galle, I found some answers. The house was Taprobane, constructed by a Frenchman who had purchased the island in 1925, the self-styled Count de Mauny-Talvande. In 1952, Bowles had bought the island for $5,000, his obsession with it sparked by photographs sent by a fellow Tangier expat. 

Bowles had written the opening chapters of his novel, The Spider’s House, in Taprobane. Later that year, I read his warts-and-all account of his time on Taprobane, complete with tales of his servants’ internal squabbles and afternoon naps that were “quick descents into oblivion while the wind… ripple[d] the mosquito nets and fill[ed] the air with the salt mist of breaking waves". 

Captivated, I sought out more of Bowles’s travel writing and found almost all of it in the Mark Ellingham-edited anthology Travels: Collected Writings 1950-1993. True to his inveterate travelling, the essays are wide-ranging—from moving around with pet parrots in Central America to conversations with orange-robed monks in Bangkok. Yet, it is the pieces on Morocco, and particularly Tangier, that left the deepest impression on me. 

Bowles’ Tangier, an ever-changing dream

Bowles arrived in Tangier for the first time in 1931, on Gertrude Stein’s recommendation. He settled there in 1947. When he died of heart failure in 1999, he had been living in a little apartment outside the Medina.

In a world increasingly blind to shades other than black or white, it is tempting to view Bowles’ narrative style—neither hagiography nor full-blown lament—as emblematic of an era when dedicated travel magazines would loosen the purse strings for commissioned writers to produce thoughtful stories with a literary slant. In Bowles, such publications had the ultimate insider. 

Yet, even in the heady days of the exploratory travel essay, it would have been pardonable for him to lapse into the sort of generalizations that other, more famous—but also more fleeting, for any stay is fleeting compared to Bowles’—Western visitors to Tangier were partial to. Think of the international jet set’s idea of the Interzone as a meeting point for the world’s “drifters", the dirges for the end of empire providing the perfect background music to indulge in mild and intense forms of psychedelia. 

So it is indeed admirable that Bowles maintains his calm, non-rapturous tone even as he views the transformation of his beloved Tangier into a “minor Moroccan city" following the stripping of its privileges and integration into independent Morocco in the late 1950s. 

Always aware of his status as an outsider and never pompous in his observations of the Tangier Muslim’s fraught relationship with modernity, he watches as Moorish arabesques in Medina houses are replaced by concrete boxes and the newly-patriotic police imposes moral propriety among its inhabitants. In his own “View from Tangier" for The Nation in June 1956, he deadpans that the “Moslem and Western points of view are basically irreconcilable". In Bowles’ world, such a statement is not meant to shock, only inform. 

Throughout, Bowles draws readers in with so many light touches. Despite the passing of the good old days, Tangier is a pleasant enough place to visit, for here “the past is a physical reality as perceptible as sunlight". The back streets of the Medina lend themselves to “solitary speculative walks". This was a place where “details that meet the eye are not what they seem, but so many points of reference for a whole secret system of overlapping but widely divergent worlds in the complex life of the city". 

I had come across the name of a city in a school textbook as a 12-year-old. The Alchemist had given it a skeleton and the Beats had provided some flesh. But it was Bowles who had breathed character into it, given it a life of its own. My Tangier finally had a personality—irresistible and entirely borrowed from Bowles. 

More than Orhan Pamuk’s Istanbul or Naguib Mahfouz’s Cairo or Jorge Luis Borges’ Buenos Aires, what I could see most clearly in my mind's eye was Bowles’ Tangier. Like many others before me, I knew I had to visit someday. It happened in the spring of 2017. 

***

From the hill-town of Chefchaouen, we took the afternoon bus to Tangier. Moroccan light is a special thing—we watched as it suffused the yawning landscape with a graded yellow glow, reserving its best for highlighting the turquoise and emerald green of lakes in the distance. 

Herein lay the entire dream of the third-world expat—looking outside is quite different from actually being out there, threshing corn or shepherding goats and only just beginning the long walk home. Yet, the world is what it is and what can one do beyond attempting an awareness of there being another perspective. 

The romance died with the passing of the 4pm light as we entered the suburbia around Tangier—shiny boards announcing economic zones and all the other accoutrements of industry. The bus came to an abrupt halt just off the highway. We kept looking for signs of mystical Tangier, until the driver of a suitably beaten-up Peugeot hatchback offered to overcharge us for a ride into “town". 

Where the past lurks: Rembrandt and the cliff cafe

We rode onto Boulevard Pasteur (lined on both sides by neglected art deco affairs), chatting to the driver in our smattering of terrible French. We checked into the legendary Hotel Rembrandt, just as Bowles’ wife Jane was said to have in 1951. The Rembrandt was also where Bowles had arranged a meeting between Burroughs and British painter Brion Gysin in 1954, during one of Gysin's exhibitions. 

The rest is history—it was Gysin who introduced Burroughs to the famous "cut-up" technique (physically splicing a text and then re-arranging the pieces to create a new text) that was deployed in The Naked Lunch and subsequent works.

Appropriately, the Rembrandt exuded a washed-out air. The wood panelling around the key-holders was riddled with ancient-looking scratch marks and the musty air seemed to have settled comfortably on the walls. After the dinginess of the reception hall, it was a surprise to walk into the spacious bar with its large windows overlooking a small pool and the partially obscured harbour. As yet unlit neon signs of beer brands faced the red Rexine barstools. It was the sort of place where old colonials came to reminisce or regret. The desi millennial has time for neither, because our visas are strictly time-bound and our parents are waiting at home.

We bundled into a taxi again, this time on a quest to find the mythical cafe on the cliff, the one they called Hafa. Writing for The Independent in 1990, Bowles singled it out as the only place he could think of “which ha[d] not undergone modernizing alterations". After going up a gentle slope, and skirting the part of the Medina known as the Kasbah, we were dropped in front of an alley in the Marshan district. 

Buildings on either side obstructed a view of the sea, but we could feel and smell it. A little turn into an opening on the left, and we beheld the sight that so delighted Bowles, his “series of terraces leading down to the edge of the cliff". In the 1930s, it was here that he learnt to count in Arabic while playing Lotto during Ramzan. From our vantage point at the very top of Cafe Hafa, we could see, on successive terraces of this plunging amphitheatre, the bobbling heads of its patrons, facing the Straits of Gibraltar and the sensation of Spain.

The floor was littered with peanut peels and biscuit wrappers. The blue and white tiles had long lost their cooling sheen—they were now specked with dirt. On the rough stone tables lay empty glasses of Moroccan mint tea, some inhabited by flies made mad by the sweet poison of the dregs. But all of that did not matter—everyone was here for the view and the air. 

As we nursed our mint teas and tried to make out the hills of Andalusia, the seagulls had ceased careening overhead and evening had glided into night. The young men with trendy haircuts in imitation football team tracksuits were all beaming because Real Madrid had just beaten Atletico Madrid in the Champions League. Putting Europe behind us, we headed back into Africa.

Into the heart of Beat town, the El Muniria and the Tanger Inn

We spent the next couple of hours looking for the Tanger Inn, supposedly a bar frequented by the Beats and attached to the Hotel El Muniria, Beat headquarters when Burroughs was holed up in a room there, putting together the manuscript of what would become The Naked Lunch. 

Google Maps initially pointed us to a place about a five-minute walk from the Bab Fass, one of the gates into the Medina. Then, we had a taste of how abruptly chaos turns into desolation in Tangier. Barely a few minutes from the din of the Bab Fass, we were in an ill-lit labyrinth of questionable pensiones and deserted staircases. Alley cats lurked in the corners, nibbling on fish bones. Quickly, we walked out into the main street and I will not deny being relieved to come across a cafe full of men watching the football.

Photo: Vikram Shah
Photo: Vikram Shah

Seedier still was the street on which we finally found the Muniria after running rings around the new town in a taxi. Funnily, it was almost behind the Rembrandt. We took the slope down from the Boulevard Pasteur. There was sudden dank, and not a soul to be seen. From the bottom of the slope, Pasteur seemed like a faraway dream. Committed to this subterranean world, we turned left and headed briskly towards a lit board some paces away: the Tanger Inn. 

The high walls of the hulking Muniria shielded the garden where Bowles was famously photographed with the Beats, and also blocked any view of Burroughs’ purported Room No. 9. The windows on the floors upstairs appeared to be boarded up. It all looked quite foreboding. It was different inside the Tanger Inn, though, which was clearly no longer a dive from the ’50s. The vibe and aesthetic was instantly recognizable as urban lounge-bar. 

That is not to say that its antecedents were not hinted at. The walls were plastered with quotes from the works of Tangier émigrés in loud, garish font—almost in parody of the location’s hoary past. On the TV, the video of an electronic dance music concert played on loop. One small section of the wall was reserved for the sepia photographs of the hotel’s famous customers—all ostensibly taken on the premises. These were incongruous with the rest of the decor. At the bar counter, a couple of girls chatted to two soft-spoken men in rapper caps. It is easy for the bookish to forget that there are those not burdened by history. Even in a city like this. Even in a place like this.

One of my two companions was booked on the overnight train to Marrakesh. We made our way to the train station a short distance from the Rembrandt. The shops were pushed far back from the wide street. Tangier, in general, seemed to be bathed in lugubrious lamplight. In an essay for the Gentleman’s Quarterly in 1963, Bowles wrote that the part of the city outside the Medina gives “the recurring impression that one is on the outskirts of a larger city whose center is not far away" but the “city never appears". I think I understood what he meant.

***

The next day, we decided to negotiate the Medina. In light of day, the crumbling pastel facades and rickety wrought-iron balconies of the cheap pensiones came across as charming. We stood in front of the dilapidated art deco edifice of the Gran Teatro Cervantes. It was tempting to read in this building the entire historia of Spanish North Africa—the dream and its doom.

At eye level, the white arch marking the entry to the Jewish cemetery fittingly stood right next to the commerce of the fish market and the spice shops. Entering through the Bab Fass, we surrendered to the Medina, passing arched doorways and century-old water fountains peppered with hypnotic zellij (the patterned, mosaic tile work of the Moors). 

An example of zellij. Photo: Vikram Shah

We idled in the Cafe Central in the square known as the Zoco Chico, which was once “completely surrounded by cafes" but already in 1958 (as Bowles wrote in a long essay for Holiday), they were “giving way to curio shops run by members of the ever-increasing colony of Indian merchants". Even the Indian merchants—Sindhis who had set up shop when the city was a customs haven—had almost all gone now.

The delights of the American Legation Museum

Navigating the Medina, politely smiling at young men addressing us as “Shahrukh Khan" and offering us “fresh stuff", we made our way to the American Legation Museum. This building had been gifted to the Americans by Sultan Moulay Ismail in 1821, a tribute from the country that was the first to formally recognize American independence. Until the move to Rabat in 1956, the building was used as the American consulate.

The American Legation Museum. Photo: Apurv Tyagi

Not only do the exhibits tell the full story of the US-Morocco diplomatic relationship, the museum is replete with hints of the personal histories of ambassadors’ families and other expats. The little histories are seamlessly integrated into the official one in a way only made possible by the kind of town Tangier was in the 19th and the first half of the 20th centuries. Everyone was somehow connected to everyone else. 

This is best typified by the pocketbooks available in the museum shop and produced by Khbar Bladna, a small publishing house started by Tangier resident Elena Prentice in 2002. Written in the Tangier languages of Darija (Moroccan Arabic), Spanish, French and English, contributors to the editions include writers, translators, photographers, diplomats’ children and others with memories of the old days. Tangier nostalgia is an industry unto itself. 

The crowning glory, of course, is the museum's shrine to Bowles. Two rooms on the upper floor commemorate his life and work. First editions of books that are currently out of print, handwritten notes from his epic journey around Morocco to record its traditional music, the copy of a score he wrote for a play put up by the American School—it is a fitting tribute. 

The building deserves a Khbar Bladna edition of its own. A complex structure that has been modified and re-purposed over the years, it abounds in architectural delights, largely of Moorish provenance. In classic Medina tradition, the tiny entrance does not betray the size and craftsmanship of the interiors. All in all, this was easily one of the finest museums I have been to, and a lesson in the preservation of legacies—both public and private. 

The view from the Kasbah

In search of sea views, we ambled to the highest point of the Medina—the Kasbah. We could not quite make out the white houses of Tarifa (which to John Blake, son of a long-time consul at the Legation, looked like sugar cubes on the coast of Spain), but looking down from the gateway, we saw the “thousands of white cubes which are the houses of the medina", as Bowles did on moonlit nights after visits to the family houses of his Moroccan friends.

In the final act of blithe hipsters seeking a time warp, we ducked into the venerable Cafe Baba, visited by Kofi Annan and Anthony Bourdain alike. There was a dirty mirror on the sky-blue wall, but this was the most atmospheric cafe of them all, full of framed photographs and newspaper cuttings. Near the entrance, elderly men in the North African traditional dress, djellaba, huddled together with their sibsis (a thin pipe of Berber origin). Further inside, in front of the TV, young locals kept an eye on phone notifications while working the rolling paper with nimble fingers. The air was redolent with the slow burn of moist herb. 

From the window, I could make out the terraces of the enormous Sidi Hosni, a house once owned by the Woolworth heiress Barbara Hutton and the scene of an almost surreal ball that Bowles attended and later described for Kulchur magazine. He had reported seeing a throne of brocade and spears, gypsies imported from Granada, an American flag made of flowers and the silhouettes of natives wordlessly taking in the bacchanalia from the roofs of their own houses nearby. 

***

We walk back down the stairway into the lower reaches of the Medina. Its denizens have shut shop for the day and the stray cats are already out to skulk stealthily through the night. Again, that shift from chaos to desolation without warning. I am thinking that I should put Tangier behind me. The pursuit of the past is futile—it will only recede further. I remember how he ended his autobiographical prose-poem, Paul Bowles, A Life: 

There continued to be more and more people in the world,

And there was nothing anyone could do about anything. 

Vikram Shah is a recovering commercial lawyer, gradually realizing that the bills do not pay themselves. 

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