"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.