A Sociological Autobiography: 25 – Tangier

By | February 22, 2014

Thatcher aside, the 1980s had their joyful moments. Some of these were experienced abroad. I earlier recounted two month-long car journeys around Western Europe in my mid-teens. Scrupulously planned with the aid of AA maps and counsel, and no less finely costed by my father, Ron, these were spent under canvas in sites quite primitive compared with today’s; but no question it was the education for me that he intended. No camper by temperament or inclination, Margaret coped with her customary selflessness.

We drove as a family of Scamblers to Carnac, witnessed its stones and somehow survived on crepes for a week; but by aged 35 I had still not flown. When I did, in 1984, it was on a scheduled night flight to Malaga, thence by coach to Marbella with its economic accommodation and meals, plentiful cafes and sun-soaked, deep-sand and child-friendly beaches. Apart from my falling to a virus that mimicked whooping cough, which I found disconcerting enough but which terrified other holidaymakers, it was a satisfying family trip. We hired a car to visit Rhonda, split in two by its giant ravine, and Granada, where a walk round the exquisite Al Hambra rehabilitated us after a long, piping-hot drive. But it was another day-trip that has prompted this brief diversionary piece.

It only lasted a few hours but was no less memorable for that. Tangier lies a mere nine miles south of Gibralter – nothing to a high-speed hovercraft – but for all its historic cosmopolitanism sits well outside the Western European habitus. We had barely left our craft before being hijacked by a middle-aged, red-fez-wearing tour guide. Set hard on resisting his blandishments we nevertheless followed tamely as he led us towards the town through weaving columns of child beggars. Annette and three daughters were no less mysteriously to experience an interlude astride a camel (we have the photos to prove it).

William Burroughs called Tangier the ‘Interzone’, reflecting its status as an international free zone. It retains a reputation for attracting and offering succour to all sorts of outcasts and misfits. This hospitality extends well beyond the self-referential literati to embrace a plethora of artists, philosophers, intellectuals and exiled politicians. Its political neutrality and relaxed commercialism made it a magnet also for spies in the Cold War era and for smugglers before and since.

Not that the literati are not well represented. Among the books written within its environs are Burroughs’ own Naked Lunch and Paul Bowles’ The Sheltering Sky, both edgy and provocative path-breakers. Others writers who have sampled its insinuating pull are Samuel Pepys, Alexander Dumas, Mark Twain, Edith Wharton, Jean Genet, Tennessee Williams, Patricia Highsmith, Jack Kerouac, Truman Capote, Gore Vidal, Allen Ginsburg and Joe Orton; and these are only authors I am familiar with. In 1984 I knew less of this than I do now; but I was aware even then of the footsteps and traces of at least Burroughs and Bowles.

So where did we go and what did we see? What did I experience and what have I brought to that experience since? There are episodes I recall that I would happily overlook: settling for cheap mementoes as compensation for not purchasing the carpets and rugs that our guide’s companion dealer hoped for, and each and every loo. Sasha, Rebecca and Miranda would then have included the Kasbah, which was a few degrees too unfamiliar for them: they stuck very close. But perhaps they would reconsider now. The cramped bustle of the Grand Socco and Petit Socco (from the Spanish for souk), with their multiplicity of wares and colours, is lodged in the memory. More so, our ‘afternoon tea’ in a smart, elevated hotel with extraordinary views over Tangier: occupying a table surrounded by gaping windows, we gazed out to the mixed blues of sea and sky as our feet recovered. The paperless, hole-in-the-floor loo stank.

But it is less particular memories than an overall impression that has stayed with me. You can absorb a place, or for that matter an event or incident, as if by osmosis. In this way it can become a part of who you are, however small or insignificant, often without you realizing it (Gadamer’s ‘fusion of horizons’ again).

A person could disappear in Tangier: drop out or start again. It offers the camouflage of variety. Is there a normal citizenry? Or is this the question the conceit of a transient visitor? Probably the latter. Tangier must owe as much of its heterogeneity to its ethnic history as to its relative independence from political hegemony and surveillance. Founded by Carthaginian colonists in the early fifth century BC, it succumbed to a plethora of different rulers: the Romans, Vandals, Byzantines, Arabs, Portuguese, British and Spanish all left their mark prior to its incorporation into Morroco. And that is just how it feels. Oddly, it remains my sole experience of the great continent of Africa.


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