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 .
CLEAR LIGHT BURST open the sky, illuminating clues of Henri Matisse hidden in the muddle of Tangier. We stood on the periphery of the Grand Socco looking up and down for the way to the Grand Hotel Villa de France, where the Matisses had stayed and Henri had glimpsed scenes that matched his artistic vision. Jim was armed with a book of the paintings, and I carried my Morocco guide and map. We looked every bit the awkward rube tourists, but most Moroccans don’t know much, if anything, about the artist whose lush paintings have etched the colors and forms of their country in the minds of art-lovers throughout the world. A couple of guides, real or faux, approached us, but we convincingly declined. I don’t engage in conversation with hustlers unless it feels safe and right. In any case, we wanted to be on our own.
We wandered through the overrun and sun-dappled garden before walking up the street to the Matisses’ hotel, which must have been quite grand in 1912 and 1913, when they were here, but now is shut and surrounded by its own jungle of neglect. Jim studied old pictures of the lodging and of the scenes Matisse painted, and finally pointed out the room where Monsieur and Madame must have stayed. It is always a thrill to make such discoveries, but for Jim it’s even more satisfying to find the angle that intrigued Henri enough to color a canvas with his mental picture of it.
Our great goal for the day was in the Kasbah, and, miraculously, we found our way the first time we climbed the hill. We walked through the gate of Bab el-Assa, and Jim realized the exact perspective that was the subject of the painting—“La Porte de la Casbah,” from 1912-13—on the huge Matisse poster we had hanging at our apartment in Collioure. Jim sat down to sketch while I looked around. A Kasbah (most common spelling) is the walled citadel at the highest point of North African cities. This one had white and blue walls and stunning vistas of the sapphire sea beyond. Mansions framed one side of the wide courtyard with terraces and views beyond the ramparts. If I were a resident, this is the address I would want.
We diligently and sometimes luckily found all of Matisse’s vistas. A couple of times we didn’t notice the “eyescapes” as we walked in one direction on the narrow cobbled streets; but then when we came back from the other direction, we would have moments of Aha! We’ve found the right scene!
A friendly Belgian couple pointed out what they thought was the bar where the Rolling Stones used to hang out. I wasn’t so sure, but okay, we went in and sat down. I still think it a usurper, but from there we gazed onto the rooftop terrace of the villa that the heiress Barbara Hutton owned for many years. The outdoor space and garden were inviting, though in need of a fluff-up. I could imagine the swell parties and glamorous guest lists Ms. Hutton must have engineered. Unlike M. Matisse, her name is well known here. She was a friend to Morocco’s people (and animals) and endowed many good works. We also checked out her address from the street. Not bad, as the Hotel Saint Germain’s M. Malric would say.
The only potentially smarmy experience we had was with a fairly neat and well-dressed guy who told us he’d take us to Paul Bowles’ house. I was suspicious, but we were on a relatively spacious and clean street, so we went along. The street’s name was accurate, but when the man started up a tight staircase, we said no thanks and left. Did he have good intentions? I don’t know, but my radar was up, and there was no way I would’ve followed him at that point—especially since the “Rolling-Stones-hangout” owner had told the man we were his friends, which I interpreted as a message to leave us alone.
In the Kasbah...
When we descended from this heavenly summit of Matisse Land, it was market day and the medina was filled with Riffian peasant women with their red-and-white skirts and broad straw hats. Their look and style is totally different than the women who are covered from head to toe in a loose caftan or djellaba, scarf, and veil. Due to Tangier’s proximity to Spain and an area that is still Spanish Morocco, many people greeted each other with “ola” rather than “bonjour.”
It was a wonderfully satisfying Matisse day, and we rewarded ourselves with cocktails in El Minzah’s merely perfect bar before our last piquant dinner in the restaurant. Mission accomplished. We packed our bags.
The next morning we reunited with Aziz, who drove us back to Casablanca along the miles and miles of undeveloped coastline. This would be an unbelievable sight in the U.S. or France. It is good to know that such an unspoiled seashore still exists, though I’m sure it wouldn’t if Morocco weren’t so poor.
Our flight back to France wasn’t until late, and so we rested for a few hours at the Royal D’Anfa Hotel. That evening Aziz picked us up and drove us to his house for a home-cooked Moroccan dinner. It was a generous invitation that we were delighted to accept.
Aziz’s wife was out of town, so when we arrived, his mother and two sisters kindly welcomed us to their home. His children were darling, and they all treated us as honored guests or friends they’d known for years. Aziz was the only one of his family who spoke English, and we don’t speak Arabic or Berber, so our communication with one another was through body language, sign language, our sensations of tasting and touching, seeing, hearing, and smelling, and the intimate messages that somehow one just feels or knows in his heart or gut.
Aziz’s sister had graciously prepared our meal, which Aziz, Jim, and I were to eat before anyone else. What a feast—course after course of salads and chicken with olives and dishes whose names I can’t remember (but which I totally devoured), and, for dessert, oranges as big as grapefruits, juicy and sweet.
After dinner, as we were putting on our coats to leave, the family offered us beautiful presents. Jim received a white hat that Aziz’s father had brought home from his pilgrimage trip to Mecca, and I was given a sweet cedar box with a traditional silver necklace inside.
After we all hugged and kissed, Aziz drove us to the airport where we said our last goodbyes. In the blackness of night, the memory of that very special evening was a clear light illuminating our way back home.
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.
You can find the Chasing Matisse book by James Morgan here at Amazon--or you can find it in or order it from your favorite book store.
If you'd like to start at the beginning of Jour of Our Lives, click here.