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Tangier: Morocco's St.-Tropez

Adam Broomberg and Oliver Chanarin The view from Dar Sultan's roof, in Tangier.

Photo: Adam Broomberg and Oliver Chanarin

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 post–World 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.

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