Tangier: Morocco's St.-Tropez
Published: April 2009
By Richard Alleman
As Tangier sweeps away decades of neglect with major civic and cultural renewal, <em>Richard Alleman</em> finds the glamorous city on the Strait of Gibraltar reclaiming its former glory.
I spent one of the most magical summers of my life in Tangier in the late sixties. Back then, Morocco's northernmost city and strategic port—the Mediterranean to the east, the Atlantic off to the west—was still riding high on its 30-plus postWorld War I years as an International Zone governed jointly by Britain, Spain, Belgium, Holland, the United States, Portugal, Sweden, the Soviet Union, and Italy. Throughout this period, it was a freewheeling center for all sorts of illicit goings-on: smuggling, drug trafficking, and especially espionage. Even after Morocco gained its independence in 1956, and later took full control of Tangier, many of the city's denizens continued to pride themselves on their slightly naughty reputation.
I was 22 years old and in the Peace Corps. I taught drama to Moroccan teenagers at the American Library in the morning, swam midday at a bayside beach club, then directed plays in the late afternoon. The nights started at the Café de Paris, the legendary haunt of expat literati, including William Burroughs, Allen Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac, Jean Genet, and Paul Bowles. Sooner or later everyone wound up at the Parade Bar, a hole-in-the-wall where Jane Bowles was a regular, as was Tennessee Williams, whom I once spied holding court in the lush back garden. Tangier by Night, as our gang called it, continued in the town's many discos, piano bars, and drag cabarets or at parties hosted by titled Brits and minor Euro-royalty at villas on the two mountains that form a backdrop to the city. American heiress Barbara Hutton entertained annually (usually when the Sixth Fleet was in town) in her fairy-tale palace in the Kasbah, as the upper fortified area of Tangier's medina is known. The entertainment ranged from robed Saharan trance dancers to the latest rock group from London. It was irresistible, a latter-day scene from White Mischief.
The following winter I returned to Tangier to find it a different place: cold, rainy, and depressing, with no sign of the summer crowd. Over the next three decades, the city disintegrated into a shabby Third World port, all potholed streets and crumbling buildings, drug runners and gangsters—neglect due to the late King Hassan II's dislike of a town rumored to have hatched several unsuccessful plots against his autocratic rule.
A year or so ago, another story started to emerge. Morocco's progressive new king, Mohammed VI (a.k.a. M6), who ascended to the throne at age 35 upon the death of his father in 1999, had begun to institute reforms (protection and civil rights for women, the easing of press restrictions, the freeing of political prisoners). He also became taken with the idea of northern Morocco as a tourist destination, calling in experts to formulate a multibillion-euro master plan for the region; it included a vast duty-free zone outside Tangier and one of the largest container ports on the Mediterranean coast of North Africa, some 20 miles to the east. The city's aging commercial harbor would be turned into a marina for yachts and cruise ships. The man credited with overseeing the beautification of Marrakesh, former wali (provincial governor) Mohammed Hassad, was drafted to do the same for Tangier, ultimately transforming it into a North African St.-Tropez.
I am sitting in the sunshine on a cactus-covered terrace of the Hafa, one of my favorite places in Tangier, a short walk from the ancient walled Kasbah. Founded in 1921, this cliffside café is famed for its views of the Strait of Gibraltar—and until recently, its tolerance of cannabis smoking. I'm indulging only in syrupy hot mint tea and the beauty of the sea, which stretches before me like some great cobalt-blue lake backed by the cloud-swirled hills of southern Spain.
I barely recognized Tangier when driving from the airport through suburban clusters of mid-rise housing blocks until we finally reached the Boulevard Pasteur and its block-long mirador overlooking the Strait. It was disappointing to find some old haunts gone: the Parade Bar, demolished to make way for a nondescript commercial building, and the Grand Hôtel Villa de France, once home to Matisse and Tennessee Williams, now boarded up, its pool and gardens an overgrown jungle. But I was happy to see that Tangier's most famous hotel, El Minzah, was open for business.
Built in 1930 in the center of town, the Minzah is to Tangier what the Mamounia is to Marrakesh, the spot where movie stars and spies holed up during the Interzone days. Its paneled lobby, Andalusian patio, and palmy pool area are still buzzing. My no-nonsense room has frescoed doors, sculpted archways, carved armoires, and—its best feature—a magnificent view of the Bay of Tangier. The Minzah is steps away from the Café de Paris, on the Place de France, where the café au lait and the people-watching are as good as I remember. Sitting there with novelist and art historian Souad Bahéchar, however, I am struck by an energy I never noticed in Tangier before: business types with fat dossiers rushing by; clusters of locals, often with architectural plans, in conference at nearby tables. A lone backpacker writing in his journal seems out of place amid all the bustle.
"It wasn't like this a year ago," Bahéchar tells me. "But when things start to move in this city, they move quickly." Bahéchar was born and raised in Casablanca but has lived in Tangier for the past 25 years; despite its bad times, she has remained enchanted by its singular East-meets-West allure. "We are, after all, the window of Morocco, the first place most foreigners see when they day-trip here on the ferry from Spain," she says. "This city has always had enormous potential, and now, finally, I see investment, I see change, I see that the King is really behind this. Tangier is finally getting what it deserves."
A walk from the café reveals the King's master plan unfolding all over town—many buildings under scaffolding as workers clean and restore their Beaux-Arts façades for the first time in ages; streets and boulevards getting wider and being edged with trees; fountains and vest-pocket parks springing up. Down along the beach, a palm treelined corniche is nearing completion, and swim clubs and discotheques are being rebuilt to comply with a new ordinance that does not permit seaside buildings to rise higher than the promenade they line. Meanwhile, beachfront hotels undergo refurbishing. The landmark mid-century modern Rif hotel has reopened after 12 years behind shutters.
Over in the walled medina and up in the Kasbah quarter, where five years ago the only places to stay were cheap pensions and backpacker hostels, a mini-riad revolution is under way, turning traditional Moroccan residences into sleek little boutique hotels. One of the top places to stay is Dar Nour, two skinny houses with three terraces, sublime ocean views, and seven rustic guest rooms. Equally alluring is Dar Sultan, which has six rooms furnished with a witty mix of Moroccan, Italian, Turkish, and Indian objets, including a delicious blue penthouse.
"Suddenly people are proud of being from Tangier," says Philip Lorin, a French national who retired to Tangier 13 years ago and, in 2001, founded the Tanjazz festival, which welcomes more than 100 international jazz artists and groups for a week every May. "Back when we started, people thought I was crazy—they said that nothing works here," Lorin says. "Now taxi drivers are talking about our festival, our city." Besides Tanjazz, the city hosts Les Nuits de la Méditerranée (three weeks of world music in June and July), a new international short-film festival, and a literary week in February called Le Salon du Livre. There's also a growing number of special exhibitions at the town's art galleries. Lorin's biggest fear is that Tangier will attract too many tourists and too many house hunters—and become another Marrakesh.
Marrakesh, by the way, is closely watching the current upswing of its rival to the north. Moha Fedal, the innovative chef behind the famous Marrakesh restaurant Dar Moha, set in designer Pierre Balmain's former palazzo, is attempting to conquer Tangier with the year-old Riad Tanja, in a restored medina mansion next door to the American Legation Museum. In sleek salons with thick Berber rugs and Marrakesh-style tadelakt (polished plaster) walls, he is serving Tangier his signature nouvelle cuisine marocaine (light vegetable salads, mini fish tagines, mille-feuille desserts with caramelized fruits). The labyrinthine property also has six luxurious mosaic-tiled guest rooms for rent.
Tangier's restaurant scene can be traced back to 2004, when two savvy restaurateurs abandoned a thriving establishment in Marbella to test the waters on the other side of the Strait. Their Relais de Paris, despite an unprepossessing setting in a mini-mall (site of McDonald's, the town's top teen hangout), has been wildly successful. On any given night, many of Tangier's major movers and shakers—government ministers, hoteliers, artists, and architects—can be found dining here.
A few glamorous newer restaurants may be siphoning off a bit of Relais de Paris's business. Villa Joséphine is the place to have lunch on a hydrangea-filled veranda overlooking Malcolm Forbes's former palace. A colonial mansion with 10 romantic guest rooms, it was once a summer residence of the Pasha El Glaoui of Marrakesh (who infamously collaborated with the French during Morocco's struggle for independence). The main restaurant at the posh Le Mirage resort, a complex of 27 bungalows built on the cliffs above an Atlantic beach seven miles south, has delicious saffron-flavored soupe de poisson and curry-spiced langoustine brochettes. And a meal at Dar Zuina (Arabic for "pretty house"), 45 minutes farther south, is often a good excuse for a longer stay. Set in rolling hills outside the white seaside town of Asilah, this rustic retreat surrounded by fields of marigolds is the creation of Jean-Yves Ardiller, a Frenchman who has traveled extensively on the Indian subcontinent. Decorated with rough Berber furnishings, antiques, and fabrics from Ardiller's travels, Dar Zuina also has five suites with Moroccan lanterns, straw mats, and platform beds covered with Rajasthani throws. "There are two places in the world that always spoke to me, that have a special energy," Ardiller says: "Greece with its sea and India with its spirituality. Somehow, northern Morocco combines them both." Ultimately Ardiller sees Dar Zuina as a North African ashram for pursuing meditation, yoga, and even astrology.
"I have much more confidence in this Morocco than the preceding one," says acclaimed Tangerine writer Tahar Ben Jelloun, speaking at the most recent Salon du Livre. A winner of France's Prix Goncourt, Ben Jelloun is discussing his latest novel, Partir (Leaving), which deals with so many young Moroccans and West Africans' obsession with emigrating, legally or not, to Spain—just 7 1/2 miles across the sea. Set in the early nineties, in the last decade of King Hassan II's reign, the book offers a chilling picture of dangerous crossings in rickety boats, substandard employment, prejudice, and loss of self-esteem endured for an illusory better life on the other side of the Strait. Ben Jelloun, who spent 18 months in prison in the sixties for taking part in a student demonstration in Casablanca, is surprisingly upbeat about his country's future under M6. Indeed, he believes that now is the time for Moroccans who have emigrated to return to their country.
One person who has come back is Yto Barrada, a photographer and artist who has made a name for herself in Europe and America. I meet up with her on the Grand Socco, the plaza and former marketplace between Tangier's 20th-century town and ancient medina; like so much else in Tangier, it too is in the middle of a makeover. Recently, Barrada moved back to Tangier to embark on her dream project: the new Cinémathèque de Tanger. Drawing on her connections in the worlds of art and film (her American husband, Sean Gullette, cowrote and starred in Darren Aronofsky's Pi), Barrada has put together an impressive board of advisers, including Aronofsky, Lebanese writer-director-actor Danielle Arbid, Moroccan-American screenwriter Anissa Bouziane, and London-based critic Chris Darke.
Barrada proudly shows me around the gutted Cinéma Rif, which showed its first movie on the Socco in 1948 and until recently had featured second-run Bollywood pictures. The theater is keeping its former staff and Art Deco terrazzo floor while making way for a 350-seat main house, a 52-seat screening room, a library, a film archive, private viewing consoles, and a lounge, the whole project under the direction of French architect Jean-Marc Lalo and Tangier's decorator du jour, Stéphane Salles. "There's a lively film scene in Morocco, but unfortunately nowhere to see Moroccan films," Barrada says. "They play the festivals but not in our own cinemas." She plans to collect and screen commercial, classic, well-known, little-known, and rare works from all over the world. She shows me the cinema's main projector, and points out how it can be swiveled 180 degrees to face the Socco for free open-air showings for more than 4,000 people. "Can you imagine seeing an old Egyptian musical on a warm summer night?" she asks. "Or Casablanca?The energy is here. It all depends on what we do with it."
As I stroll along the Grand Socco, thinking about Tangier's exciting future, one of the city's notorious hustlers interrupts my reverie with the usual, "Hello, Mister." So, what is he selling, I wonder: drugs, a tour of the Kasbah, sex?Much to my surprise, it's none of the above.
"You want to buy house?" he asks. "I show you nice houses—not expensive!"
"La, shukran," I reply, amused at this bizarre turn of trades. No, thank you. But as he departs to lock onto another prospect, I wonder if I should have taken him up on his offer.
Richard Alleman is the author of The Movie Lover's Guides to New York and Hollywood.
WHEN TO GO
Tangier is liveliest in July and August, but has equally good weather in May, June, September, and October, when crowds are smaller. Avoid the Muslim holy month of Ramadan (September 24 to October 23 this year), when the city pretty much shuts down.
Royal Air Maroc flies from New York to Casablanca, with a short hop to Tangier. Fly direct from London, Madrid, or Paris; take an hour ferry from Spain.
WHERE TO STAY AND EAT
20 Rue Gourna, Kasbah; 212-62/112-724; www.darnour.com; doubles from $60, including breakfast.
49 Rue Touila, Kasbah; 212-39/ 336-061; www.darsultan.com; doubles from $100, including breakfast.
Asilah; 212-61/ 243-809; www.darzuina.com; lunch for two (by reservation only) $40; doubles from $180, including breakfast and dinner.
El Minzah Hotel
85 Rue de la Liberté; 212-39/ 935-885; www.elminzah.com; doubles from $205, including breakfast.
Hotel Rif & Spa
152 Ave. Mohammed VI; 212-39/349-305; www.hotelsatlas.com; doubles from $172, including breakfast.
Hôtel Club Le Mirage
Cap Spartel; 212-39/333-332; www.lemirage-tanger.com; doubles from $285; dinner for two $60.
Relais de Paris
Complexe Dawliz, 42 Rue de Hollande; 212-39/331-819; dinner for two $70.
Escalier Américain; 212-39/333-538; www.riadtanja.com; doubles from $85, including breakfast; dinner for two $70.
231 Rte. de la Vieille Montagne, Sidi Masmoudi; 212-39/334-538; www.villajosephine-tanger.com; doubles from $250; dinner for two $80.
WHAT TO DO
Tangier American Legation Museum
The restored U.S. diplomatic mission has Tangier paintings by Delacroix and Cecil Beaton; Malcolm Forbes's toy soldiers; and the must-see Paul Bowles Room. 8 Rue America; 212-39/935-317; www.legation.org.
Cinémathèque de Tanger
Grand Socco; 212-39/934-684; www.cinemathequedetanger.com.
Custom tours of Tangier and Northern Morocco. 212-39/937-071; www.wiggle.ma.
WHERE TO SHOP
Stunning caftans, handbags, and one-of-a-kind ceramics. 3 Place de la Kasbah; 212-39/ 932-083.
WHAT TO READ
The Sheltering Sky
By Paul Bowles. The expatriate's definitive North African classic.
The Sacred Night
By Tahar Ben Jelloun. Enchanting tale by Tangier's most acclaimed novelist.
The Dream at the End of the World: Paul Bowles and the Literary Renegades in Tangier By Michelle Green.