Iain Finlayson / Travel

A City of the Dream

As we re-release Tangier: City of the Dream, Iain Finlayson returns to Tangier for the first time in 20 years, and reflects on the city’s history and enduring allure. 

Last Resort of the Living Dead

“A dream concealed in stone… sky supersonic, orgone blue, warm wind…Such beauty, but more than that, it’s like the dream is breaking through.”
William Burroughs

Through the novels of Paul Bowles and William Burroughs particularly, and the memoirs of Edith Wharton, Truman Capote, Tennessee Williams, Gore Vidal, Allan Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac, Joe Orton and other writers and celebrities who passed through Tangier, the city still survives, a little battered but resilient, from that fifty year period after the Second World War when Tangier was identified as ‘Interzone’, the conditional city of imagination and experiment, insights and evasions, truth and lies. It exists and persists in the literary imagination as securely as Dublin is identified with James Joyce or as Graham Greene created ‘Greeneland’. It is more a city of the mind than a place in the world; it is an atmosphere rather than a location.

And yet, of course, it exists in concrete reality and is physically inhabited on many levels. The permanent expatriates, mostly American and European, were known as Tangerinos; the constant indigenous residents are still known as Tanjaouis. The city itself is almost formally layered: most of the expatriates living in villas on wooded slopes, known as ‘the Mountain’, above the wide boulevards, shops and cafés of the port and commercial area, which in turn rise above the narrow streets and little market squares (soccos) of the Kasbah and medina, home to an occasional foreigner but mostly given over to occupation by Tanjaouis.

Tangier is a North African and Mediterranean city. Janus-faced, it looks back to Africa; forward to Europe. Though it was always ill-regarded by the rest of Morocco as a place apart, scandalously infected by infidels, its geographical hinterland is traditionally Moroccan; yet it looks, somewhat ambiguously in view of its long history of control by foreign interests and its diverse international culture, across a short stretch of water to Gibraltar, that other Pillar of Hercules just fifteen kilometres distant. The film ‘Casablanca’, made in 1942, presenting the wartime city as a temporary staging post for wartime refugees on the way to somewhere more secure, might just as well have been set in Tangier then, just as now Tangier and neighbouring Ceuta are way-stations for asylum seekers and economic migrants hoping to leave Africa to make better lives elsewhere.

Hip and cool again in the 21st century, Tangier has not, in the dreams of some local entrepreneurs and national commercial interests, become a glitzy tourist resort of casinos, big hotels and beach culture. But perhaps that is not what tourists expect from Tangier; they look more for ethnicity, for authenticity in a globalized culture, and some come in search of the fictional, poetic, haunted city of desire and despair brought into being from the cool detachment of Bowles, the grotesque genius of Burroughs and the kif-high extremism of the Beats, with a dose of the criminal amorality that drives characters in several novels by Patricia Highsmith who also lived for a while in Tangier.

The characters that populate Tangier: City of the Dream are mostly American, British and Moroccan; but another book could be written about the French, Spanish, Italians, Dutch, Germans, Scandinavians and many more Moroccans, novelists, artists, photographers, adventurers and scoundrels who contributed to the development (degradation, Paul Bowles would have said) of Tangier from the mid-19th century when Alexandre Dumas, Garibaldi, Hans Christian Andersen and Mark Twain visited the city, to the end of the 20th century, marked in literary terms by the death of Paul Bowles.

I had not revisited Tangier since the early 1990s, because I felt myself to have been very lucky to be there at the end of an era, luckier still to have been made welcome by David Herbert, the long-term ‘King of the Mountain’ who ruled the expatriate colony and whose patronage opened so many doors to people I needed to know, by Paul Bowles and his friends who bore with me very patiently and taught me so much about the spirit of Tangier, and especially by  a young French cultural attaché in Tangier, Daniel Laurain, who introduced me to the local, magical Riffian culture, musicians and kif.

But in November I made a day trip to Tangier from Gibraltar and found the city, at least superficially, pretty much unchanged. The hub of the modern city around the Cafe de Paris has been laid out more spaciously and decoratively; the wooded ‘Mountain’ which rises above the city is busy with new building of expensive villas; but the medina – well, the medina was simply twenty five years older. I could still find my way through its little alleys and turn up again, after all those years, in the Petit Socco. It will always be the same. It is the enduring foundation of Tangier tradition. It will be there still when all the transitory, temporary layers piled up by travellers, tourists and transients have been eroded by time and their own temporality. ■

Tangier: City of the DreamIain Finlayson is the author of acclaimed biographies of James Boswell and Robert Browning, as well as books on such varied themes as the Scots, the writers of Romney Marsh and denim. He is books editor of Saga Magazine and reviews books for The Times. Tangier: City of the Dream was re-released this week.
Image via wikimedia.
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