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Tangier’s Shopping Secrets

Michael James O’Brien

Photo: Michael James O’Brien

“You know what people say in Tangier—‘You have watches, we have time,’” Yves Taralon, artistic director of the Hermès home department—La Table Hermès—tells me, leaning back on a pair of antique pillows at the Hôtel Nord-Pinus Tanger, a beautiful pensione in the heart of the Kasbah. I’m only half listening to him because, frankly, those embroidered cushions are driving me nuts.

The day before—my first day in Tangier—I found vintage cushion covers just like them at the charmingly dusty, cluttered Galerie Tindouf that I was desperate to purchase; their jewel-like embroidery, their delightful crimson-and-white coloration had me at hello (or bonjour or marhaba in this multilingual city). But their price, a surprisingly firm $600 each, had me scurrying back to the Kasbah.

Today, Taralon has promised to share with me the finely honed shopping secrets of his own private Tangier, a place he loves so deeply that he dreams of it constantly when he’s at home in Paris. “The blue of the sky, the yellow of the walls, the Islamic green of the mosques…” he sighs, his gaze drifting across the Strait of Gibraltar to the coast of Spain. Those influences have shown up in full force in the decorative lines he oversees for Hermès—the scarlet-and-white porcelain; the beach towels featuring a giant Hand of Fatima.

Taralon came to Tangier 20-odd years ago, buying what he describes as “an ugly two-room house in the favela.” (It is now vastly expanded and almost unbearably chic.) He arrived from France nearly empty-handed. “I just brought a radio and my new boyfriend with me—the radio is still working, anyway,” he chuckles. “I planned to furnish it with finds from the flea markets. With no money you could do a lot of things at that time.”

You still can. In Tangier, you don’t toss things out when they break, or when you’ve grown tired of them. Everything is repurposed—Taralon’s armchairs were made by a neighboring scrapyard man; every bit of fabric in his home, from slipcovers and seat cushions to curtains, was woven to his exacting specifications by local weavers.

Enough talk! Let’s hit the town! We set out, descending a steep stone staircase and walking through the medina, full of tiny shops open to the street that sell sheepskins right off the sheep, wooden washboards, spangled babouche slippers, and other goods practical and frivolous. Taralon despairs over the fake Vuitton belts and polyester jungle-print robes; I confess that I get a real kick out of their exuberance.

A group of little girls in school uniforms and head scarves, with pink Barbie rucksacks strapped to their backs, pass us at the Grand Socco, Tangier’s main square, where Taralon proudly shows off the newly restored Art Deco Cinema Rif. He and other members of the local artistic community got together to rescue this movie palace, part of a larger effort to save Tangier’s historic buildings.

Wandering the nearby streets, Taralon and I discover something we have in common—an unvarnished love for old-fashioned shops with curved glass vitrines, here selling suits and shoes that appear to be untouched and undusted since the 1950’s. Taralon revels in Tangier’s authenticity, the landscape that makes one think Paul Bowles, patron saint of the colony of disaffected poets and dreamers who flocked here in the 1950’s, could at any minute come strolling out of the raffish Hotel Continental, a ramshackle inn that still presides over the waterfront.

After a quick tour of the massive indoor butcher market, where pale chickens hang by their necks and I nearly slip on blood and gristle (maybe ballet slippers aren’t the right footwear for meat markets), we head for the Fondouk Chejra, the Weavers’ Market, where Taralon has business. We pass through a doorway crowded with stalls selling toilet paper and plastic hangers, then up a flight of deteriorating stairs to a series of covered stalls where men—all men, only men—are busy spinning wool on wooden wheels in a scene straight out of the 19th century. Feral cats, skinny as those dead chickens, tiptoe along adjacent rooftops.

Taralon pops into a particularly unpretentious stall—it is literally a hole in the wall—and stuns me when he says the place does business with Barneys New York. He falls for a length of woven cloth of Christmas tree green with hot-pink stripes. What are you going to do with it?I ask. Is it for your home?For Hermès?“To have,” he shrugs. I turn my back and he buys me a red scarf, explaining that he is obsessed with red. “The red in Tangier—I like so much the red!” he says softly. The scarf has orange fringe. (It isn’t until I get it home that I realize it’s Hermès orange.) Within minutes, I am moved to buy myself a huge, striped, homespun blanket, at once rough-hewn and delicately patterned. The seller ties it up with frayed cord. It costs around $20.

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