Burroughs, Bogey and Bourdain: A portrait of Tangier
"Tangier is one of the few places left in the world where, so long as you don't proceed to robbery, violence, or some form of crude, antisocial behavior, you can do exactly what you want."
The above quote from William S. Burroughs, one of Anthony Bourdain's heroes, represents a Tangier that many people travel to Morocco to find. From 1923 to 1956 Tangier was only loosely governed. For years, everything was permitted. Nothing was forbidden. Situated at the northern tip of Africa and just a short ferry ride from Spain, writers, spies, artists and the like found drugs, sex and an affordable lifestyle set against an exotic background.
Burroughs moved to Tangier, a port city situated between the Atlantic Ocean and the Mediterranean Sea, in 1953 after shooting his wife to death in a drunken accident in Mexico City.
The son of a stuffy, prominent St. Louis family, Burroughs was a heroin addict, homosexual and an inspiration to the Beat poets; although he himself wasn't a Beat.
Burroughs' masterpiece, "Naked Lunch," was written in Morocco. By all accounts, he was high for most of the process of writing the non-linear, dark, dry-humored, critical, satirical, profane work of literature.
Populated by a collection of colorful characters including locals and ex-pats, Bourdain visited with many of these ex-pats during his stay in Tangier. Bourdain had tea at the legendary Café Tingis located in the historic Petit Socco, or Little Square, with longtime Tangier ex-pat and former British journalist Jonathan Dawson.
"Some people have to leave home to find their home. I'm one of those people," Dawson told Bourdain.
Dawson came to Tangier more than 20 years ago and never left. He basically lives out Burroughs' fantasy: cake and tea at 4 p.m. daily, served by his manservant. Dawson also has a pet rooster.
Dawson explained that the Beat Generation was just a small part, merely 15 years, of Moroccan history. There was a life before, and a life after.
They discussed Tangier's higher tolerance for outrageous behavior. Dawson called it a Moroccan city with a European outlook. One can actually see Spain and Gibraltar from the city's main thoroughfare.
Bourdain also met up with George Bajalia, a Fulbright Scholar in Tangier, and a local artist to have tea at Café Baba, located in the Tangier Kasbah, the city's native corner. The cafe has attracted foreign dignitaries, rock stars, aristocrats and artists since it opened in 1943.
"Sweet mint tea and a thick, slow-moving haze of smoke," Bourdain said. "It smells like my dorm room. 1972."
Bourdain also spent time at the 14-acre estate of antiques dealer and longtime ex-pat Christopher Gibbs for a garden party with some other ex-pats. Over a traditional Moroccan feast, the group discussed the unusual side-by-side aspect of life in Morocco among natives and ex-pats. The ex-pats all agreed that what attracted them to Tangier -- and what keeps them there -- is that people can do whatever they want in Morocco so long as they are well-mannered about it.
Bourdain did learn all about how Tangier is a wonderful place to move to, but in true Bourdain fashion, he also spent time with many locals.
"You can walk around the movie inside your head, play the Bogey character you never were, all against an all too willing, all too genuine backdrop," Bourdain said.
In the remote village of Jajouka, Bourdain spent time with Bashir Attar and his band for a family-style dinner.
"Like anywhere else in the Arab world," explained Bourdain, "eating with your hands -- always the right one -- is proper dining etiquette."
Musicians from all over the world journey to Tangier to meet Attar, who is part of a lineage of master musicians -- all from the same small mountain village. Burroughs famously dubbed them a "4,000-year-old rock band."
"For years, if you were a rock god, you had to come here," Bourdain said.
These master musicians once recorded with the Rolling Stones and have been the musical choice of the royal families of Morocco for decades. They were even excused them from manual labor by the country's rulers so they could devote themselves entirely to musical training.
Bourdain noted that the percussion, strings and pipes took you to another place.
"It's intricate, hypnotic, beautiful," he said. "And if you're in the right, uh, frame of mind. Mesmerizing."
Back in the city, Bourdain talked to some locals about the young artists, writers and musicians who come to Tangier today expecting a 1950s wonderland -- and the fight to keep Tangier's unique character alive.
Today, being simply an artist in Tangier is simply not enough to keep a person sustained the way it was a half-century ago. Nowadays, there exist elements like investors, tourists and European purchasing power.
Imagine if Burroughs' trash and hashish-laden one-room dwelling in the native corner's maze of twisting streets and alleys was turned into something really depressing like a boutique hotel?
However, ex-pats and natives alike believe Tangier's unique character will survive. They want to ensure that the old parts of the city -- particularly the Kasbah and the Medina -- remain intact for generations to come.
"Tangier is Morocco," Bourdain exclaimed. "Always was Morocco. And recently the country's leadership seems to have embraced it in all its ill-reputed glory. The days of predatory poets in search of literary inspiration and young flesh are probably over for good. Hippies can just as easily get their bong riffs in Portland or Peoria. But the good stuff, the real good stuff, the sounds and smells and the look of Tangier -- what you see and hear when you lean out the window and take it all in -- that's here to stay."❚
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