“Worlds of Tangier,” Published in Holiday, March 1958
In the summer of 1931, Gertrude Stein invited me to stay a fortnight in her house at Bilignin, in southern France, where she always spent the warm months of the year. At the beginning of the second week she asked me where I intended to go when I left. Not having seen much of the world, I replied that I thought Villefranche would be a good place. She was gently contemptuous. “Anybody can go to the Rivera,” she declared. “You ought to go somewhere better than that. Why don’t you go to Tangier?” I was hesitant, and explained that living there might cost more than my budget allowed me. “Nonsense,” she said. “It’s cheap. It’s just the place for you.”
A week later I was aboard a little ship called the Iméréthie II bound for various North African ports, and ever since I have been grateful to Gertrude Stein for her intelligent suggestion. Beginning with the first day and continuing through all the years I have spent in Tangier, I have loved the white city that sits astride its hills, looking out across the Strait of Gibralter to the mountains of Andalusia.
In those days Tangier was an attractive, quiet town with about 60,000 inhabitants. The Medina looked ancient, its passageways were full of people in bright outlandish costumes, and each street leading to the outskirts was bordered by walls of cane, prickly pear and high-growing geranium. Today, where this thick vegetation grew, are the cracking façades of new apartment houses; the Moslems have discarded their frogged Oriental jackets and enormous trousers of turquoise, orange, pistachio or shocking pink, to don Levis, and second-hand raincoats important by the bale from America; the population has augmented at least threefold, and I’m afraid the city would never strike a casual visitor as either quiet or attractive. There must be few places in the world which have altered visually to such an extent in the past quarter of a century [...]
With everything old being systematically destroyed (and the new European buildings are almost without exception eyesores, while the ones the Moroccans put up are even worse), how is it that Tangier escapes becoming an aesthetic nightmare? Its topography, more than anything else, I think, saves it; the city is built along the crests and down the flanks of a series of small hills that stand between the sea on one side and a low slightly undulating plain on the other, with high mountains beyond. There are few level stretches in town; at the end of each street there is almost always a natural view, so that the eye automatically skims over that which is near at hand to dwell on a vignette of harbor with ships, or mountain ranges, or sea with distant coastline. Then, the intensity of the sky, even when cloudy, is such that wherever one happens to be, the buildings serve only as an unnoticed frame for the natural beauty beyond. You don’t look at the city; you look out of it.
The back streets of the Medina, crooked, sometimes leading through short tunnels beneath the houses, sometimes up long flights of stairs, lend themselves to solitary speculative walks. With nothing more dangerous than pedestrians and an occasional burro to worry about bumping into you, you can devote part of your mind to coming to grips with your ideas. Since I have returned here in 1947 I have spent a good many hours wandering through these passageways (incidentally learning to distinguish the thoroughfares from the impasses), busily trying to determine the relationship between Tangier and myself. If you don’t know why you like a thing, it is usually worth your while to attempt to find out.
I have not discovered very much, but at least I am now convinced that Tangier is a place where the past and the present exist simultaneously in proportionate degree, where a very much alive today is given an added dept of reality by the presence of an equally alive yesterday. In Europe, it seems to me, the past is largely fictitious; to be aware of it one must have previous knowledge of it. In Tangier the past is a physical reality as perceptible as the sunlight.
Tangier is little more than an enormous market. Since the war it has been primarily a free-money market; and the new autonomous Moroccan government will probably take an increasingly active part in the economic life of a city without currency control. During the international years the dramatic extra-legal facets of the city’s character were much publicized, and Tangier was thought of as a place where very fourth person was a smuggler, a spy or a refugee from justice in his native land. It is true that the city was a market where diplomatic information was bought and sold; it was also a place where goods destined to pass eventually across frontiers without benefit of customs inspection were unloaded and reloaded, and, more importantly, a place where people from a variety of nations were able to exist without valid documents to identify them. Then, too, in the absence of all taxes, it was expedient for European exporters to maintain offices here, even though their produce might never pass within a thousand miles of the Moroccan coast. That era is over; such unregulated freedom could hardly continue indefinitely. The withdrawal of foreign business has produced a slump, and there is an unhealthy amount of unemployment. The shops are stocked with a superfluity of assorted goods from everywhere, and there are not many buyers. The city has no industry—only shopkeepers, agents, hawkers and touts.
Advertisements for watches are ever-present. They flash on and off in the shop windows and flare in neon above the sidewalks. There is an enormous watch sign on a roof at the lower end of the Zoco Chico, in the heart of the Medina’s principal thoroughfare, made entirely of large sequins, ceaselessly fluttering and glittering above the crowd. All this in a place where for the great majority the smallest unit of time measurement is the qsim, which is equal to five of our minutes! But Tangier is very time conscious these days; the youngest children often stop you to inquire gravely what time it is, and listen with obvious relish to your mysterious answer.
Another inescapable feature of the streets is the ubiquitous cambio, with its slate bearing the buying and selling rates, in pesetas, of all the world’s principal currencies, including the gold dollar. The rates are scribbled in chalk and are subject to change at any moment. The less elaborate cambios consist of a chair and a box placed on the sidewalk; the upper end of the Calle Siaghines is lined on both sides with these primitive offices. Personally I have always fond that I save money by using a bank […]
When the visitor has seen the Zocos and beaches and palaces, he still has not seen the city’s most important single phenomenon, the one which gives reality to and determines the ultimate meaning of all the others: I mean the spectacle of the average Moroccan’s daily life. This necessitates going into the homes, preferably those of the lower middle class, and into the small neighborhood cafés which have a strictly Moslem clientele.
The cafés are not as easily accessible as they used to be, since the recent upsurge of nationalist feeling has somewhat modified the attitude of amicable indifference which the Moslem used to show toward the anonymous foreigner. For this reason it is important for me to choose places where my face is known, and where I can still get a jovial greeting from the proprietor and thus be assured a reasonably friendly reception on the part of the patrons.
In the back of practically every such establishment there is an open space covered with reed matting, generally raised above the level of the floor; entry into this part of the room demands the removal of one’s shoes.
Here the men sit with their legs tucked under them and, more often than not, in spite of the unofficial prohibition, pull out their kif pipes and smoke them as they have always done. The cafés are like men’s clubs. A man frequents the same one year in and year out. Often he brings his food and eats there; sometimes he stretches out on the matting and sleeps there. His café is his mail address, and rather than use his home, where there are always womenfold about, he will use the café for keeping his social appointments. In the smaller cafés, the entrance of anyone from outside the familiar circle of daily habitués has always been regarded with a wary eye and a certain degree of suspicion. Each café has its own little legends and references which can be understood only by the initiates. It is here that the endless stories and complicated jokes which so delight the Moslem mind are told, and where the average man is at his happiest and least inhibited. If a café happens to offer any kind of native Moroccan music, which is extremely rare these days, I will force my way through any wall of hostile stares in order to get a seat and listen; I suppose not many visitors are that eager to hear Moroccan café music.
The casual outsider, however, can usually get more glimpses of café life than he can of home life. In a bourgeois household, upon the entry of any man or boy not of the immediate family, Moslem or otherwise, all the women and girls are swiftly hidden, and remain hidden until he goes out of the house. In families of lower income, on the other hand, the social strictures have been considerably relaxed, so that I have only to suggest to my maid or chauffeur that a group of my friends would like to visit a Moslem home and meet all the members of the family, and the invitation will be willingly extended. I don’t claim that the activities which we see in a Moslem house are identical with those which would be going on if we were not there. But if we stay long enough, a certain degree of relaxation is usually reached, and the household rhythm at length begins to pulse of its own accord, so that it is possible to get a pretty clear picture of what life is like in the domestic citadel.
By our standards these people are desperately poor. At present, for instance, the maid who gets our breakfast, cleans the five rooms, and does all the laundering of our clothes, earns the equivalent of $8.33 a month. Also, she gets no food from us. Even in Tangier that is a low wage for 1958. Yet if you visit her house, you find it immaculate; moreover, the manner of life that she and her family lead manages to give an impression of Oriental ease and even abundance. It is a particularly Moslem gift, being able to create the illusion of luxury in the midst of poverty, and it never fails to arouse my admiration when I see it displayed. But then, these people are the supreme illusionists; they can give a straightforward action the air of being a conjurer’s trick or make the most tortuously devious behavior seem like naturalness itself.
I have never decided precisely why the time spent in these humble homes is so satisfying. Perhaps it is merely because both hosts and guests are playing a simple, pleasant game in which the hosts lead the way with regard to the silences to be observed as well as the conversation to be made, and the guests follow comfortably, happy to have all social responsibility taken from them. Certainly it is agreeable now and then to spend an evening reclining peaceably among pile of cushions, in effortless talk with people who are completely natural but infinitely polite. And when the end of the evening comes, and they have fully convinced you that the occasion has been even more enjoyable for them than for you, and you have pronounced the necessary formulas of farewell, it is delightful, too, to step out into the silent moonlit street, and a moment later look from a Casbah gateway down about the thousands of white cubes which are the houses of the Medina, hearing only the waves as they break on the beach and perhaps the sleepy antiphonal crowing of two roosters on neighboring rooftops. If I ask myself occasionally whether I may not be a trifle out of my mind to have chosen to spend so many years in this crazy city, it is at such moments that I am reassured—easily able to convince myself that if it were 1931 once more, and I possessed the gift of accurately foretelling the future, I should very likely take Miss Stein’s good advice and make my first journey to Tangier all over again.
“Café in Morocco,” Published in Holiday, September, 1966
The beach, very wide along this coast, is protected by a crumbling breakwater a few hundred feet offshore, so that from here in the garden the waves make only a distant murmur, a somnolent backdrop forthe nearer sounds of bees buzzing and the occasional low voices of the men inside the café. I came into the garden a few minutes ago and sat down on a large woven-gass mat near the well. The mat has been provided with piles of bottletops to be used as counters in whatever game I may be going to play.
The garden spreads out along the foot of the town’s ramparts, hidden behind a jungle of fig trees and cactus, buried in total shade beneath a ceiling of grape leaves. At this season the heavy bunches of grapes hang down between the meshes of cane trellis above, and bump against my forehead as I come through on my way to the well. Facing me, in a corner, like a Chinese lantern big enough to hold a man, is a wicker fish trap left to dry: this is a fisherman’s café. At night, after it is shut and the beach is deserted, the customers often return with their own teapots and invade the garden, lying on the mats talking and smoking, and when the grapes and figs are ripe, eathing the fruit. Mrhait, who runs the establishment, finds this as it should be. “The fruit is here for our friends to eat,” he declares. There are a few tables and chairs around for those who want them, and even these are left out all night for the customers’ convenience. They represent the major part of his capital, and they could easily be carried away. But this is a small town; no one has ever stolen anything from him.
The traditional café in this part of the world is conceived of as a club where, in addition to enjoying the usual amenities of a café, a man may, if he wishes, eat, sleep, bathe and store his personal effects. The fact that the nearest café may be five or ten minutes’ walk from where he lives (it is seldom father, for the establishments are numerous) does not prevent him from considering it an extension of his home. Each café has its regular clientele whose members know one another; the habitués form a limited little community in which the appearance of an unfamiliar local face is as much an intrusion as that of a complete foreigner. It is difficult to induce a Muslim to go into a café where he is not known; he does not enjoy being stared at.
And it is in the café that the foreign visitor, too, can feel the pulse of the country. Nowhere else can he manage to observe a group of individuals repeatedly and at length in their daily contacts with one another, or succeed in existing at their tempo, achieving in occasional unguarded moments a state of empathy with their very different sense of the passage of time. And to experience time from the vantage point of these people is essential to understanding their attitudes and behavior. Today, when even in the farthest reaches of the bush there is beginning to be established a relationship between the number of hours a man works and the amount of wages he collects, any human institution where the awareness of time has not yet penetrated is a phenomenon to be cherished.
With its luxury of unmeasured time the Moroccan café is out of harmony with present-day concepts, and thus it is doomed to extinction. Ask any café owner. It takes approximately three minutes to prepare each glass of tea. The customer may then sit for as may hours as he wishes over the one glass. Since the maximum profit per order is equivalent to about one cent, it seems clear that economically there is no future in the café business. There are other factors, too, that militate against the continued life of the traditional “Moorish” café. It is claimed by the authorites that cafés cause men to waste time that might be used to better advantage. Whatever places are shut down in periods of civic reofrm (and latter-day puritanism ahs made these campaigns fairly frequent) are thereby permanently destroyed, since if and when they are reopened, it is invariably as European-style establishments. The change-over in clothing also has its effect. As long as the clientele was composed exclusively of men wearing the customary garments, it was sufficent to cover the floor with grass matting. The increasing number of those who sport European apparel, however, induces the owners to provide chairs, since the Moroccn like their trousers to be so tight-fitting that to sit in their normal position on the floor while wearing them would be an impossibility.
The traditional floor-café is a result of natural processes; one might say it is strictly functional, in that the intent is merely to make as comfortable and pleasant a place as possible for the greatest number of people, and at minimum cost. The cheapest materials—cane, bamboo, palm, thatch, woven reeds and grass—are not only the most attractive visually, but also provide the most satisfactory acoustics for the music. The modern table-and-chair café, on the other hand, is an abstraction: its primary aim has come to be the showing off of the expensive foreign objects that have been acquired (including, in the cities, electric refrigerator and television) and that distinguish the place from its humbler rivals. Practical considerations fade before the determination to make this all-important display. Thus it is that the new-style cafés achieve only a sordid uniformity in their discomforts and metallic noisiness, while the old-fashioned places are as diverse as the individuals who created them.
This garden here by the sea with its ceiling of grapes; the flat roofs of the Marrakesh cafés where the men sit at midnight waiting for a breath of cool air; the cave-like rooms in the mountain markets of the High Atlas, to which the customers must bring their own tea, sugar and mint, the establishment furnishing only the fire, water and teapot; in Fez the baroque wooden palaces among the weeping willows of the Djenane es Sebir, whose deck chairs line the river’s wandering channels; the cafés where the tea-drinkers bring their prayer mats and retire into a small carpeted room to perform their sundown prostrations; the countless little niches in the alleys of every town, where a plank along the wall and bottle crates tuned on end are the only furnishings; and then the cafés with dancing boys, like the Stah in Tangier; the sanctuary cafés whose shadiest customers remain unmolested by the authorities, like the one opposite the gardens of the Koutoubia in Marrakesh; the superb improvised tent cafés at the great religious pilgrimages in the wilderness; the range is vast. Few countries can supply such a variety of décor and atmosphere.
And what goes on in these places? The men converse, tell interminable stories, eat, smoke kif, sleep and play games: cards, checkers, dominoes, parchisi and, during Ramadan, bingo, whose prize used to be a glass of tea for each winner, but which nowadays often mysteriously turns out to be a bottle of cooking oil. In cold weather they sit as near as they can to the bed of burning charcoal under the water boiler. At night latecomers anxiously ask as they enter: “Is there still fire?” Once the embers have been allowed to die there is no more tea until the next day. The water boiler is an improvised samovar made of copper with a tap on the side; once in a while it proves to be the real article, with Cyrillic characters incised on its flank. Being the most important item in the place, it is put in the spot where there is the most light.
The elaboration of niches and shelves around the fire and water is the living heart of the café—rather like the altar of a church. In the cities it is a complicated tile-covered construction that serves as a sink, stove and cabinet. One compartment contains the fire and the samovar, another the water tap or pail; smaller cubicles are for storing sugar, tea and mint. In the lesser cafés the single table is put beside this unlikely looking installation. Close friends of the proprietor and the kif concessionaire generally sit here. Nowadays, what with official frowns being directed at the smoking of the herb, the kif seller is not likely to be in evidence; nevertheless, he is a very important a factor in the functioning of the café. He not only brings his own raw material, which traditionally he cleans and cuts in full view of the clients before selling it to them, thus forestalling doubts about its purity, but also processes (for a price) the kif that others have brought with them, blending the tobacco with it to suit each man’s individual taste. How much of this must go on clandestinely depends on local circumstances; the ban on kif is being enforced with increasing firmness.
Unless he has been at the pipe for many hours, it is impossible to tell from a North African’s behavior whether or not he has smoked kif. The same observation cannot be made, I am afraid, if alcohol has been taken instead. In the bars, loosened inhibitions tend to send tempers up in flames, but I have never seen anything more serious than an argument in a café full of men smoking kif; the prevailing atmosphere is calm and jovial.
When the tea maker gets an order, he takes a long-handled tin canister and puts in a heaping teaspoonful of green China tea (usually Formosan chun mee). Next he adds four or five teaspoonfuls of sugar. Another little canister filled with hot water from the samovar is already embedded in the coals. As soon as it is boiling, he pours the water over the mixed tea and sugar. While it is steeping he crushes as many stalks of fresh spearmint as he can into a glass. Then he strains the tea into the glass, often garnishing it with a sprig of verbena, two or three unopened orange blossoms, or a few leaves of rosemary, chiba or some other locally available herb. The result, hot, sweet and strongly aromatic, bears very little resemblance to tea as it is drunk anywhere else in the world; it is até, a refresher in its own right, not unlike maté in Argentina but a good deal more tasty. Usually when newcomers try their first glass, they are appalled by the concentrated sweetness and get into the habit of ordering it with less sugar. The results are catastrophic. Indeed, the cafés that cater to the tourist trade now serve an unpalatable hybrid concoction, neither até nor tea. The Moroccans were quick to heed to foreigner’s preferences; what with the constantly rising cost of sugar, the new preparation saves them money.
All cafés provide neighborhood delivery service. A boy carries racks holding six glasses, back and forth, full and empty, all day long between the samovar and the nearby offices, banks and shops. Boiling-hot mint tea is still the favorite drink in the land, notwithstanding the increasing sales of colas and other bottled gaseous beverages. Even the customs officials in the port may be sipping tea offhandedly while they go through the luggage: the traveler who is automatically unnerved by the prospect of customs inspection often finds this reassuring.
A part of each café is occupied by the soudda, a wooden platform raised a foot or so above the floor, usually with a low railing around it, and always with a covering of woven grass or reed matting. If there are any musicians they sit here, as do the establishment’s most regular and esteemed habitués. After hours at night, this space may be used as a dormitory for transients. Ten or twelve years ago in the Calle Ben Charki of Tangier there was a large café with an unusual clientele. It made no difference whether you went at midnight or at three in the morning: scores of boys between the ages of eight and fourteen sat at the tables in the center of the sparsely lighted room, fiercely playing cards. A wide platform extended along three of the walls, where there was even less light. The boys lying here tossed and scratched in their sleep; even so, they were the lucky ones, for when the card players began to yawn and look around for a place to stretch out, the platform was often full, and they had to be content to move to a table where the others were already asleep, leaning forward from the little straight-backed chairs, their heads and arms lying flat on the boards. Month in, month out, the ragged horde filled the café. They were the boleros of Tangier, children who had strayed into the city from the hills beyond, and having managed to acquire a wooden box, a tin or two of polish, an old toothbrush and a rag, had set themselves up in business as shoeshine boys. As an old resident, I found the place a natural concomitant of North African life; however, the foreign visitors I took there thought it offensive. Children ought not to live that way. Apparently, the authorities shared these prejudices, for the establishment has long since ceased to function, nor are there any others similar to it.
Like all the African countries, Morocco has been thrown open to the forces of rapid modernization. The fact that its indigenous culture is so much more highly evolved than that of most other places on the content tends, however, to retard the process. In a primitive land where the disparity between the old and the new worlds is total, the conversion conceivably can be effected in one generation, but where there is a perfectly viable, if archaic, tradition of civilization already in existence, as there is in Morocco, it will naturally take more time. This spirit of resistence to arbitrary, senseless change is a stock subject of the humorous anecdotes exchanged among café sitters, particularly in small towns.
A story I heard here in Mrhait’s café the other day delighted me. This was a factual account of something that happened in a little country market up the hill behind Larache. It was the day of the week when all the peasants of the region come on foot and on donkeyback to the village and sit in the market selling the things they have brought in with them. Swaggering through the throng of rustics came a young man who, if he was not really from the city, at least was doing everything he could to create that impression, his most blatant claim to urban refinement being a brand-new pair of locally made Levis, so skin-tight that he had a little difficulty in walking. He came up to an old woman, one among many others like her, who sat in the dust with a few figs, a half-dozen green peppers and some tomatoes, each being arranged according to custom in a neat little pyramid in front of her. Indicating the figs with the toe of his shoe, and thus upsetting the pile, the youth asked their price in an offhand manner calculated to widen the social difference he felt existed between him and the old woman.
“Don’t kick the fruit, my son,” she said evenly. She had taken his measure as he came, but now she did not even look up at him. Then she added: “If you’ll sit down here beside me, I’ll give you a good price.”
The prospect of a bargain proved too much for the young man. He squatted down, and that was the end of him. With an explosive sound the seams of his trousers split wide open. (“His face was red, red!” the raconteur recalled with relish.) To the accompaniment of loud peasant laughter the young man made his way back through the crowd and out of the market.
One night I went to Mrhait’s café with the idea of telling him that what I had been writing that at the end of his garden was a piece about cafés, to see if he had anything to say on the subject. But I intended to wait until everyone had gone, in order to avoid interruptions. It was fairly late, and there was a hot east wind roaring overhead. Even there behind the ramparts I recognized the dry spicy smell of parched hillsides that is born on the cherqi at this time of year. The waves rolled in across the dark beach with mechanical regularity. I sat until there wa no one in the garden and I could hear no voices inside the café. Eventually Mrhait came out of the doorway and peered through the tangle of vines toward my dim corner. He finally saw me and came over.
After he had sat down opposite me and lighted a cigarette, I began. “You know, I’ve been writing about cafés here in Morocco so that Americans will know what they’re like. I thought maybe you might have something to say about your own café, something you’d like them to know.”
The cigarette end flared; his voice betrayed a surprising degree of feeling. “For sixteen years, ever since I was twelve and my father put me in this café, I’ve worked here and lived here and slept here. I made all this with my own hands. Why are those roses growing there? Because I planted the bushes. Why do we have these figs and grapes? Because I take care of the trees and vines. Why is there good sweet water in the well? Because I keep it clean. This morning, this very day, I went down inside and scooped out eight wheelbarrows full of sand and mud. That’s what it means to run a café—not making one glass or a thousand glasses of tea.”
Failing to see just where his rhetoric was leading him, I interrupted cautiously: “But you do like your work, don’t you?”
“My work is in the garden, and that’s only in the summer. In the winter I stay inside the café, and the wind blows, and some days nobody comes at all. Just the empty café and outside the rain and waves. That’s not work. That’s prison. There’s nobody left in this town. Everybody’s gone. And that’s why I’m going to go to the city myself and get a job in a café where they pay you every week.”
He rose to his feet. I was silent, considering again the transitoriness of everything in this land. In my imagination the café had long ago assumed the character of a landmark; it seemed impossible that Mrhait would be willing to walk out and leave it. I got up, too, and followed him slowly across the garden.
“But it’s your café!” I was saying. “It belongs to you! After all these years you want to begin working for wages? At your age?”
In front of the doorway onto the beach he stopped and turned to face me. “Look. If you can’t make a living by working for yourself, then you go to work for somebody else, don’t you?”
“I suppose so.”
“It’s better to carry glasses in a busy café than own an empty one. Better to eat than starve, no?”
As we shook hands, he added reassuringly: “I’ll be back. I’m sure to come back, later on. Just as soon as I get a little money together.”
Fortunately it was dark and he did not see my smile, which he would have recognized as cynical. The familiar refrain: There is money in the city! I’m going to get it. Whether or not Mrhait gets it, once he has lived in the city he will not return here.
It’s wonderful that Bowles, artist of solitude and extreme experiences, also made himself a gracious host to the world’s remoter climes for the readers of Holiday and GQ! Daniel Halpern of Ecco has recently assembled a number of these lost travel writings, along with the more famous travel essays gathered in Bowles’s book, Their Heads Were Green, in Travels: Collected Writings, 1950–1993. Read the whole of “Worlds of Tangier”; learn (in “How To Live on a Part-Time Island” and “An Island of My Own”) about the tiny island of Taprobane off the coast of Sri Lanka that Bowles bought in 1952 and where he wrote The Spider’s House; plunge into the otherworldly Sahara in “Baptism of Solitude.” (Little Star learns to our delight that, in a more local mood, Bowles in 1929 rented a room down the block from our own humble rag, at 122 Bank Street, and started work there on his memoir, Without Stopping.)
Halpern himself followed Bowles to Tangier, where he moved into an apartment in his building, Bowles’s “small and uncomfortable shoe box stood on end,” for two years (read about his sojourn here), and in 1970 dreamed up with Bowles the great magazine Antaeus, lodestar to our own enterprise.
Hear some of Paul Bowles’s music here.
(We think it apt to link on this occasion to NYC’s great independent travel bookstore, Idlewild.)