We’re in Tangier primarily for Morocco’s National Film Festival, but this blog will focus on Tangier’s literary past instead. It’s Stef’s first time in Tangier, and my second – I was here with a friend a decade ago now, but my previous experience is no advantage. The place has changed appreciably in that time, particularly the bay which is now a huge concrete marina. However, under the new paint and gentrification, it’s unchanged.
We’re staying at Hotel Rembrandt which is really in the nucleus of the action. Built in the early 1950s, this hotel is now a little seamy but in its halcyon days was frequented by the likes of Tennessee Williamsand Jane Bowles (whose work, dare I say, I much prefer to that of her more famous spouse). It’s also where William Burroughs met his lifelong friend and collaborator Brion Gysin, and some wonderful French catalogues of Gysin’s artwork can still be found in Les Insolitesbookshop and gallery. A copy of Rembrandt’s famous self-portrait hangs in the lobby of our hotel, which is a suitably ‘chiaroscuro’ shade of brown. I prefer places where the wave has broken and the zenith has been reached and the descent begun. I often wonder if I would like to have lived through the really happening times when Tangier was in its prime, or if I do prefer experiencing these things vicariously and distantly as a tourist long after the fact. It’s tempting to think you’ve missed out, but it’s unlikely I would have thrived in Tangier where the Hon. David Herbert and Paul Bowles are taken as shining examples of the ideal expat. The type of expat who survives here now is firmly from the David Herbert school of the moneyed and (self)titled haut-monde, if Andrew O’Hagan’s article is anything to go by. Herbert, though no ground-shaking literary talent himself (author of a couple bagatelle-like memoirs), made his name as a high-society host of parties at his ‘Pink House’ in Tangier. A preening lotus-eater in the Stephen Tennant mould of aristocratic inertia, he was a divisive figure in Tangier for his towering snobbery. That said, it’s a shame to see his grave at the Church of Saint Andrew is the only one that looks dirty and neglected. It’s so caked in mud, you can’t read the epitaph which is supposed to say something like ‘He loved Morocco’.
Hotel Rembrandt is just around the corner from where I stayed ten years ago, in the similarly literary, though more louche Hotel el-Muniria, having had the dubious honour in the past (1950s) of hosting the likes of Francis Bacon and William Burroughs, who is said to have written most of Naked Lunch while staying there. I remember it being perfectly serviceable as a hotel, if a little rudimentary. There’s been a lot of demolition in this era, but luckily the hotel has been spared. Long may it limp on.
In the immediate purlieus of Hotel Rembrandt, on Bvd Pasteur, is another Tangierian literary landmark, the Librairie des Colonnes, a bookshop, arts club and centre and a publisher. Although spruced up for the tourists now (apparently bought and revamped by designer Pierre Bergé in 2010), it was once, and perhaps for some still is, the heart of Tangier’s (expat) literary activity, a meeting place for writerly minds. It still regularly hosts events and book launches. On my first visit I found it a bit stuffy and aloof, but I ventured back to buy a dual-language edition of Mohamed Mrabet’s Stories of Tangier, lavishly illustrated by Mrabet himself. The person who served me began writing in the book I was about to buy and this transpired to be Simon-Pierre Hamelin, the manager of the shop, a writer himself and the French translator of Mrabet’s stories. He wrote ‘To Richie / Who chose the / best of Tangier / Regards / S. P Hamelin’. He insisted there is no such thing as coincidences in Tangier, and I believe him.
The bookshop itself has a decent selection of English books and crucially English books you’d really struggle to buy anywhere outside of Tangier. These include a series of small Moroccan-published books by the Khbar Bladna imprint, on subjects such as translating Paul Bowles and a touching memoir by Christopher Dickey of his famous father James Dickey. I happened to buy Beyond the Columns: A History of the Librairie des Colonnes, Tangier, and it Literary Circle (The Black Eagle Press, 2013). This little book is barely 40 pages long yet it crams in so much detail and covers such much gossipy history of the shop and the writers who frequented it. Rather floridly (and at times sloppily) written by Andrew Clandermond and Dr. Terence MacCarthy, it’s nonetheless a very interesting document that will appeal to many camps – the Beatniks, lovers of the work of Paul Bowles (not me, I find him too chilly, but he is so synonymous with Tangier he cannot be dismissed), Joe Orton-ites (let’s face it, how can you not be interested in Joe Orton once you see what he did to library books in the 1960s?), the American expat writers like Williams, Capote et al and of course followers of Jean Genet. I suspect that the print run on this book was pretty small, judging by the scarcity of other Black Eagle Press books, so at 80 dirhams (a little under 8 euros) it’s one to buy if you get the chance, and you won’t find it for sale online anywhere (Copac doesn’t even list a copy of it!). Of course, a much more substantial book on literary Tangier is Josh Shoemake’s Tangier: A Literary Guide for Travellers (2013), which is recommended for those who really want to immerse themselves in the literary history of the city, but Clandermond and MacCarthy’s booklet reads like a digest of the same book, and is a good, solid starting point.
All this, however, has focussed on the expat Western experience of Tangier, and there seems to be little discussion of home-grown talents such as Mohamed Choukriand Mohamed Mrabet. And I’m only mentioning these writers because some of their works have been translated into English, there will be many more for translators discover. Choukri died in Rabat in 2003 but is buried in Tangier and Mrabet (perhaps better known outside of Morocco now as an artist, rather than a writer) still lives in the city. Both men were known to Paul Bowles (Mrabet had a particularly close but rocky friendship with Bowles) and Bowles was also his translator into English. The other thing that connects all three men (as well as David Herbert, for that matter) is the English publisher Peter Owen, who Choukri once described (in his book In Tangier in which he recounts his friendships with Bowles, Genet and Tennessee Williams – I think the Genet chapter is the best) as a money hungry ‘vampire’. Owen published works by all four men and while he might not have been loved by his authors, he seems to me like an inspired and visionary publisher, consistently bringing out landmark books that many other publishers would have been too dull or craven to risk publishing themselves. Owen brought out Mrabet’s Look and Move On and Choukri’s For Bread Alone (both harrowing accounts of a life of grinding poverty and survival against the odds and both now sought after in their original Peter Owen editions). It’s strange that Choukri in particular, whose work was so candid in its description of prostitution (which Choukri did as a young man to survive) that the outraged Moroccan authorities banned the book for many years. I say this is strange, two-faced even, because today, now Choukri is safely dead and admired, his name is used to sell certain cafes and restaurants that once were embarrassed to have his custom (or even refused it!), alongside that of the Rolling Stones or the Beats.
Once you have your book (there are plenty written in, about or inspired by Tangier) I recommend you go and read it at the Grand Café de Paris at the Place de France, a haven right in front of a busy crossroads at the centre of the city, and once much haunted by Bowles, Genet and Choukri (when they served alcohol, which is no more). Inside this place it’s brown, smoky, dated and even to some perhaps outmoded and I’m not much of a fan of cafes, but I love this place, never before has an old café given me such pleasure. A vestige of French colonial times, it’s a place where formally dressed waiters serve you coffee and mint tea, and I love the ceremony surrounding the café au lait, the way they pour the hot milk into the coffee in front of you. The clientele is mostly older men but that doesn’t preclude the many women and families who also stop there for a drink. It’s completely unreconstructed, so it won’t appeal to those in search of hipster haunts in titivated Tangier, which I’ve noticed are beginning to spring up. Sometimes in these places, the lowly literary pilgrim such as myself can still be in the presence of greatness. I began by saying that I seem to travel around in the wake of momentous events, but I remember once being in Café de France on Jemaa El Fna in Marrakech while the great exiled Spanish writer Juan Goytisolo (who now shares a graveyard in Larache with his close friend, Jean Genet) was there, actually there – living, breathing, drinking, talking. I was too scared to talk to him, but I was there in his orbit while he still walked the earth, and that feels special. Some expats insist on the amaranthine quality of Tangier, that the best time is the present. I’m not so sure. Some generations are just more interesting than others, and the jury is still out on my own. That said, long livre Tangier!