by Beth Arnold
An ongoing series about uprooting our lives in America and moving to France. For what's happened before, see previous Jours of Our Lives entries here.
OUR FIRST IMPRESSION of Tangier was of a big city with a big-city feel, though that changed. We checked into another incredible hotel, the El Minzah, an elegant jewel with a touch of shabby chic. Our room had a terrace with a spectacular view to the sea. The downstairs piano bar, with its cozy banquettes, was a wartime favorite of Allied bigwigs and various spies, and is said to have been the inspiration for Sam’s “Café Americain” in Casablanca. Whether that’s true or not, I could definitely see Humphrey Bogart holding forth there. The El Minzah so utterly evoked romantic visions of what a colonial hotel should be that we hardly wanted to leave it.
The Port of Tangier conjures up images of mystery and intrigue, of spies having secret signals and hushed conversations, of men slinking through the night like worn but agile tomcats, and of old gay men coming from the West to find solace and pleasure in their select young parallels. It is a city of and for men. I felt this nowhere else in Morocco, but these cafés told the tale. They are full of men huddled together in conversation, sipping their hot and sugary mint-infused tea, dragging on smokes, staring into the streets, their lives, their worlds. What do they see? So many of these men need work.
Unlike in France, women are almost completely nonexistent in Tangier café life. The only female we saw in one was a random European who must have been either very brave or very foolish. I’m a fearless traveler, but either I didn’t have the courage or I had the good sense to skip this experience. I didn’t feel unsafe, but the scene was a little creepy and didn’t suit me. (If you want to debate the point that the whole of Morocco has this culture, I will agree theoretically, but Tangier is vastly different. It doesn’t slide neatly into a Moroccan pigeon hole.)
To understand Tangier, you have to know a little of its history. The Greeks and then the Romans (with their Celtic cavalry) settled here before the Arabs arrived to war with the indigenous Berber tribes. Many other invaders took their turns as well. Tangier reminds me of Havana in that its location on the sea made it a prime target for all the aspiring nations who wanted to control its well-situated port. Most of Morocco became a French Protectorate in 1912, and in 1923 the resolution among the competitors for Tangier was to make it an “international zone” that was run by diplomatic agents of Britain, Spain, France, Portugal, Holland, Italy, Belgium, Sweden, and the U.S. Tangier was wide open for bankers, libertines, exiles, refugees, artists, writers, and others for whom the “anything goes” posture of licit and illicit dealings packed a punch. Spy stories abound, and if Graham Greene didn’t set a story in Tangier, he should have. The fun ended in 1956 shortly after the French handed Morocco back to its people and rulers, but there is still a leftover atmosphere of shady maneuvering.
The other important point in understanding Tangier, a short ferry ride from Spain, is that it’s the entrance for Europeans coming into Africa—and also the gateway for Africans who are headed to Europe. A number of people travel back and forth every day, so there is constant traffic, transition, and opportunities for everything that crossing these borders implies. The city is also known for its hustlers, and we were warned by the hotel staff, our driver Aziz, and guide Omar to be very careful.
A lot of international intrigue was going on here: The American Legation.
The morning after we arrived, before we bade farewell to Omar and Aziz, Omar led us through the souks of bright vegetables and luscious fruits, pale chickens hanging by their feet, mounds of red meats, crusty golden breads, multi-flavored olives, and more. Women from the Rif wearing their red-and-white-striped cloth skirts and embroidered wide-brimmed hats had come to sell their homemade cheeses. Aziz advised that the best is made from goat’s milk, but theirs was a mixture of cow and sheep’s milk. We passed by the historic American Legation, where during World War II much of the Allied landings into North Africa were planned, and later stopped at the Hotel Continental for a coffee. The old hotel gleams from the outside, but from the inside you can tell it’s seen better days. It has been the home for many film crews shooting exotic movies. Photos of John Malkovich and Francis Ford Coppola hung in the antique shop next door.
Omar had been guiding us for several jam-packed days, but he was hopping a bus back to Fez to host a family wedding party. Aziz felt nervous about leaving us on our own, but we insisted that he take a few days off and pick us up later in the week. But before he would cut us loose, he drove us to a resort outside of Tangier where mansions abound, the coast is expansive with rolling sea, and the Grotto of Hercules is hidden underneath the baked earth.
Yes, Hercules lived here, and he is heralded by a festive “See Rock Mountain” feel in the square above his seaside cave home. Sea shells are attractively embedded in the stucco walls of turquoise buildings, and a giant mural of the brawny hero is painted on a rock wall. Camels are saddled and ready to ride. A small boy in costume with donkey in tow asked if we’d like to take a picture. Jim said no. I said yes. We paid him a small price and snapped. Traditionally dressed Muslim women gossiped on a terrace with the white-capped waves crashing below them.
As we walked down into the cave, the guide told us the story of Hercules and the Berbers who had lived there later. He pointed ahead to where the rock walls were splayed open in the shape of the African continent with the ocean lapping just beyond the massive crack. I was startled. A
couple of months before—on Jim’s birthday—I had dreamed of this place, not knowing what or where it was. In my dream, Jim and I were at an enormous cave with a vast body of water at the foot of the opening, which was also at a resort. Our daughter Bret had come across the water by herself in an inflatable boat, and I was completely impressed by this. She had come to tell us that no one could find my grandmother (who died last August). Bret and I would cross the sea again, but this time we would use a more substantial craft that I would drive. The next morning I recorded the dream, because I thought it so interesting, something I needed to contemplate. Finding it in Morocco as an ancient home for myths and legends and people who lived and breathed was surreal. Was it some sort of premonition? Why? What did it mean?
I told Aziz my weird tale as we drove back to Tangier. He found a quay-side bistro where we inhaled a lunch of crispy fried squid, whole whiting, grilled shrimp, and rice. It was mouth-wateringly delicious and authentic—not a tourist spot—and some of the best fish we’d eaten anywhere. Then we wished Aziz a happy time off and walked to a well-known bookstore, which supposedly had a good selection of English volumes. But the only one we found was a Moroccan cookbook with recipes of many of the richly spiced dishes we’d been savoring. I bought it, thinking I would eventually have a Moroccan feast of a dinner party. But the store itself was dark and somewhat foreboding, and I didn’t get the rush of excitement I usually get from bookstores.
That evening we had dinner in the hotel. Then we retreated to our room, where we sipped icy bourbon on our whitewashed terrace with its glorious view of the port of Tangier and the blue sea beyond. Tomorrow we would venture deeper into the city, but for the moment this was close enough.
Unless otherwise indicated, photos by Beth Arnold. Not subject to use without permission.
Beth Arnold lives and writes in Paris, where she produces her "Letter From Paris" new media project.
Jours of Our Lives illlustration by artist (and couturier) Elizabeth Cannon. To find out more about her, click here.
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