Welcome to the ‘Interzone’
Through the novels of Paul Bowles and William Burroughs particularly, Tangier exists and persists in the literary imagination – perhaps as an atmosphere rather than a location – as securely as Dublin is identified with James Joyce. We asked Iain Finlayson, whose Tangier: City of the Dream we recently reissued, to put together a small reading list that captures the mood and history of this remarkable city.
‘Scene is Tanger, which I call ‘Interzone’’, wrote William Burroughs, who was living in Tangier, to Allen Ginsberg in New York. In the mid-1950s, he was sending draft chapters of The Naked Lunch to Ginsberg for criticism and safe keeping. ‘Panorama of the City of Interzone … The Composite City where all human potentials are spread out in a vast silent market. … Cooking smells of all countries hang over the City, a haze of opium, hashish, the resinous red smoke of Yage, smell of the jungle and salt water and the rotting river and dried excrement and sweat and genitals. … The City is visited by epidemics of violence …’ Even in his most hallucinogenic, nightmarish visions, in this the first of a series of novels, there is an underlying reality in Burroughs’ paranoid perception and invention of Interzone as Tangier.
The theme of corruption and victimisation in The Servant, Maugham’s most famous novel, is repeated in this story of Arnold Turner, a teacher at a boys’ school in England’,. On holiday in Tangier, he meets Ewing, a Tangier resident, who introduces him to Riffi, a fourteen year old Arab boy, with whom Arnold becomes infatuated. As a favour to Ewing, he agrees to find a boy in England who can be shaped by Ewing to his serve his desires. Though it is no service to literature, this novel may have been inspired by Maugham’s acquaintance with expatriates in Tangier who discreetly bought or employed the sexual ‘services’ of boys and complaisant young men. It is rather a period piece now, but it reflects the milieu and morals of Tangier as an international free port and playground.
As a teenager, Choukri walked down with his family from their home in the Rif mountains to Tangier. In the city, his mother had promised him, there would be bread. What Choukri found, foraging for feed, was only a better class of garbage. His memoir of his desperate early life in Tangier and the political riots in 1952, provide an alternative street-level view of Tangier life for Moroccans to the novels and journalism written by expatriates and visitors. Choukri writes frankly, even joyously, of drugs, sex, alcohol, and above all of teaching himself to read and write at the age of twenty, discovering books. In a companion memoir, ‘In Tangier’, he recalls encounters with Paul and Jane Bowles, Tennessee Williams, Jean Genet and others he befriended in the 1970s. In his writings, as in his life, Choukri is always lively, assertive and independent-minded.
Bored by his dull life in New York, Nelson Dyar turns up in Tangier to work in a travel agency run by an old friend. In the novel, Bowles described Tangier as ‘counterfeit, a waiting room between connections, a transition from one way of being to another …’ This image of Tangier was one of the attractions for William Burroughs. He read the novel, and perhaps identified with the coreless nonentity that is Nelson Dyar who – Bowles said – is a self-defined victim ‘whose personality, defined solely in terms of situation, elicits sympathy only to the extent to which he is victimised’. Dyar’s story develops in a dark underworld of sinister encounters and bewildering stage sets. As models for all the characters in the novel, Bowles admits using actual residents. The only invented character, he claims, is Nelson Dyar: though Dyar does resemble Bowles in some respects. This is the masterpiece novel that has defined Tangier as an existential city in which the vulnerable disintegrate and are degraded.
This oral story was told to Paul Bowles, who taped and translated it from the Maghrebi Arabic of young Mohammed Mrabet. Its main theme is the relationship between Mr. David, a European who runs a small hotel in Tangier, and Mohammed, a sulky seventeen year-old boy. They are lovers until Mohammed meets Minah, a young Moroccan girl. To make her love him, Mohammed buys a love charm from a local witch. The charm works for a while, and they marry until Minah’s mother breaks it and Mohammed goes back to Mr. David. If any one story sums up the collusion between Moroccan and European Tangier, it is this short, shocking novel based pretty much on Mrabet’s own experiences. Mrabet’s narrative, the first of several to be recorded in the true Tangier vernacular, provides perspectives on the city subtly different from the novels and stories of European and American writers. ■