Notes from an author: Christine Mangan on Tangier

The Moroccan port may have changed since its heyday, but the allure that first drew artists and writers here still hangs heavy in the streets.

By Christine Mangan
Published 11 Aug 2019, 06:00 BST, Updated 5 Nov 2020, 05:27 GMT
Christine Mangan.
Christine Mangan.
Photograph by Jacqui Oakley

Stepping off the ferry, we descended into chaos. Droves of insistent hawkers stood before my partner and me, offering sunglasses, hats and watches, along with a bevy of other trinkets, concealed within sleeves or underneath coats. We pushed in the direction of the Medina, the sun beating down overhead, only to be met with a younger set of touts who flanked us on either side, promising to show us around the city for only a small price. No, we responded, and then non, merci, and at last, la choukran. They didn’t listen. Instead, down one winding street and then another, they continued to swarm around us. It was a scene I’d read about in numerous travelogues, although no amount of research could have prepared me for the real thing.

I’d always been enthralled by stories of Tangier, the Moroccan port city often defined by its literary past. It was the reason that, with only weeks left on our visas, our four-year stay in Dublin coming to an end, my partner and I decided to embark on one final adventure, in pursuit of the city that had served as a source of inspiration to generations of writers.

There remain its detractors, of course. Recent travellers lament that the city has changed since the time when writers like Paul Bowles and William Burroughs, Patricia Highsmith and Truman Capote, flocked to its shores. They claim that this particular chapter of Tangier’s story is well and truly in the past. 

And indeed, we stumbled across a number of locals eager to reminisce about the days of the ‘golden age’; one man even taking out a scrapbook to show us the well-known names the city once drew, his favourite picture a yellowed newspaper clipping of himself and Sidney Poitier.

Of our more memorable encounters was the time when one of the city’s infamous grifters — although to us he was only ever an affable conversationalist — sat next to us at the cafe in the Cinema Rif, lit a cigarette and introduced himself. He claimed to be an artist and talk quickly turned to the writers who’d once lived in the city. He wanted to know if I’d ever read Bowles and when I admitted I hadn’t, he shook his head in disappointment. He spoke reverently of the author, telling us with a certain amount of pride that Bowles had once been his neighbour; that they’d wave to one another in the morning; that everyone thought of the writer as just another resident of Tangier. He made us promise to visit Café Hafa, once frequented by Bowles and where all the artists still go, to drink mint tea and look out towards where the Mediterranean meets the Atlantic. 

At the end of our conversation, as he gathered his things and thanked us for listening to an old man reminisce, as he implored us to pick up a copy of Bowles’ work before we left, he smiled and said: “You’re Tangerines now.” 

A quick search later revealed it was the term locals used to describe expats who’d made Tangier their home. I didn’t know it then, but it would also become the title of my first novel, the first words of which I’d be inspired to write as we boarded the ferry back to Spain.

Later that night, as we walked through the streets of the Medina, I grew convinced those critics were wrong. While the Interzone (an area governed by foreign powers from 1924-1956) no longer existed around Tangier, the spirit of that time could still be found and felt in certain corners of the city. Corners where, despite the progression of time, Tangier had retained something of its mythologised past. 

Whether people-watching over a cafe au lait in the Petit Socco, gazing at the Mediterranean from Café Hafa, or even those experiences that didn’t exist during its heyday — sitting atop the white washed terrace of Le Salon Bleu, or listening to the Arab-Andalusian sounds of Les Fils du Détroit — there remained a sense of what initially drew these artists here, and what draws them today. 

I’ve visited Tangier three times now, and while I’ve come to accept the city may never be as it once was, there’s something that sets it apart from all the other places I’ve visited. Something that prompted me to put pen to paper, to try and capture, as many others have before, what it is about this city that continues to enthrall.

Tangerine by Christine Mangan is published by Little, Brown Book Group. RRP: £8.99

Published in the September 2019 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)

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