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Tangier is a place I’ve visited so often on the page that actually landing there was a disconcerting experience — not least because so much of what I’ve read has been so lurid. At best I expected burgoughs be overrun by fierce, heckling touts and swarms of pickpockets.
At worst, I wikliam picturing giant insects, murderous pirates and mugwumps. In reality, I arrived in a huge dock that was as clean as it was empty. Due to the fact that I’d spent more time reading novels about Morocco than guidebooks, I hadn’t realised that most shipping activity from my starting point in Algeciras has recently been rerouted to the brand new container port of Tanger-Med.
Interzone (book) – Wikipedia
The only hassle I encountered was having to wait for a bus to transport me 50km up the coast to the city itself. There, too, things weren’t quite as I’d imagined. Most notably, a huge new complex is springing up to the east, which has been designed and looks big enough to relocate the town’s entire centre of activity. Sentimentality probably isn’t the right reaction.
The new build is simply a physical manifestation of the speed and power with which Morocco has exploded into the 21st century. Besides, even in Paul Bowles wrote that, in Tangier, “there is nothing left to spoil”. Yet it’s hard not to worry about what may be lost amid these changes. Tangier may be a different place from the one that accommodated BowlesWilliam S BurroughsJack Kerouac and so many other giants of 20th-century literature, but there’s still a tang to the place that provides an exciting sense of what inspired them.
Beat and dust: Tangier’s tang of history
I followed the trail first to the Cafe de Paris. This was supposedly the old haunt of Burroughs, Bowles and all the Beats who gathered around them during the notorious “interzone” period. It’s easy to imagine them here, since the cafe’s mirrored interior seems to have changed very little in 50 years. It’s also easy to see why they liked it: The view out of its vast windows offers incomparable people-watching opportunities.
On the wide pavements flow great streams of humanity from all corners of the earth, from the very rich to the very, very poor, in all manner of costumes from slick Italian designer suits to desert-ready Obi-Wan Kenobi-style bernous. The roads, meanwhile, provide a constant vicarious source of excitement and danger — particularly at a roundabout, where those racing in have priority over those trying to get around.
It’s a place where, even if Ginsberg were expounding his theories on Buddhism at you, you wouldn’t feel bored. There, the main entertainment is watching long trains of Americans in bright clothes come in from the cruise ships, looking every different shade of alarmed as children and merchants buzz around them, forcing them to buy fezzes, mirrors, wooden snakes, scarves and endless streams of other rubbish — almost exactly as Bowles describes williwm in When I visited, it was shuttered up.
It looked like a willoam that has never really seen better days — and may not see many more days of any kind at all.
Interzone: William S. Burroughs, James Grauerholz: : Books
But the fact I couldn’t get in didn’t matter: The place hummed with the paranoia and disgust of Burroughs’s sick masterpiece, which made me feel better equipped to understand the state of burroubhs that could produce such a book. The heightened feeling you get from reading it on-site is all about the energy in Tangier as it is now, not that modern city springing up beside it.
I’d also wioliam visiting the Paul Bowles wing of the American legation: The information about his field studies on traditional Moroccan music are also fascinating. But to get a real feel for where Bowles was coming from all you have to do is spend a little time exploring the place he so loved and so hated.
When Port, the luckless hero of The Sheltering Sky, wanders around Tangier at night, he his met “head on” by “a wind that was dry and warm, coming up the street out of the blackness before him”. We are told that in it “he sniffed at the fragments of mystery”.
True, the smell most of the time is a more prosaic combination of frying meat, petrol, old water, sweat and — deliciously — the bread wafting from the open doors of the dozens of tiny bakeries. Yet there’s something about the noise and mess and energy in these badly paved streets that promises adventure; that gives extra shock to the sudden discovery of Bowles again “a blank wall at the end of a blind ally”; that conjures up ghosts.
And once you’ve felt all that, catch a train like his characters out into the wider, wilder country beyond. True, unlike Port’s wife Kit I didn’t encounter on board “a wild-faced man holding a weathered sheep’s head”. But my sleeping compartment was chained off from the rest of the train, just like the one Kit travels in, and looking out on to that dry, beautiful, cruel landscape I could sense some of the desolation she feels.
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That lack of a safety net. How easy it would be to feel lost there. How thrilling that would be; how awful. I was back in the country of imagination. It’s a remarkable place.
Topics William Burroughs Books blog.
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