The spartan waiting room, lined with glass along one side, is incandescent with the winter sun that glares from above the outline of Jebel Musa on the African coast, slicing through the interior space on a low diagonal. We’re the first in, having merely strolled down from the house, five minutes away, as we sit and sip coffee from styrofoam cups, watching the short line of vehicles outside that have come from further afield. It’s quiet – just a camper van or two with loaded roofs and a few four by fours as well as a couple of trucks.
Five minutes and a thirty-five minute crossing; we live forty minutes away from another world. From Africa. The thirty-five minute claim, emblazoned across billboards from here to Malaga and Seville, is a lie of course – it usually takes over fifty – and they make quite a fuss of boarding and disembarking, but still. The catamaran bobs a little as it pulls out of port below the old sunlit castle, past the the lighthouse on its wind-blasted island, relatively still today.
As the ferry revolves to orientate itself toward Tangier, sunbeams patrol the passenger area and the ceiling shimmers like the walls around a swimming pool. I watch the Spanish coast recede and see anew the beauty of the place where we live: the old town of Tarifa and the mountains that surround it. The wind turbines that cluster along the ridges of high ground, the rocky outcrops and the sand dunes.
Like a map in relief it grows more slender over the silver blue water. We make the crossing, slipping in between the cargo ships in their busy lanes. The sea is very calm and my sea legs, though serviceable, are mediocre; I feel slightly queasy as I usually do and question the wisdom of cold gorgonzola pizza for breakfast.
At Tangier we run the gauntlet of touts and taxi drivers and make for the money changer; once we’ve finished there we let one of the drivers commandeer us and take us to the train station for a reasonable fee. We buy our tickets for the sleeper train that leaves the following night and return to the Grand Socco – the open, palm-lined space that marks the entrance to the city’s remarkably preserved medina.
If the visitor passes beneath the arch of the Bab and into the medina, it’s the last open space they’ll be seeing for a while. Old Tangier defines the dizzying, disorientating network of dead ends and alleyways that one pictures when one thinks of a medieval Islamic town. I always seem to see things here I’ve never seen before – a nougat kiosk on a street corner, a man selling eggs on the Rue d’Italie that he has meticulously graded into seven different sizes, priced accordingly. Pomegranates you wouldn’t believe. The same blind man still begs outside the market. The spice vendors still display their ras-el-hanout pre-ground.
But as glad as I am to see it again, that isn’t the Tangier I’ve come for this time. We’ll use another few taxis over the course of our two day visit, in and out of the old town to visit a few locations that join the dots of the city’s more recent and notorious past. When designated an international zone in the twentieth century, Tangier became something of haven for the disenfranchised (not to mention the devious). Homosexuals from the stifling conservatism of high society, artists and writers, musicians and ne’erdowells converged here to mix and create a milieu of their own.
We sit in the Cafe Central and enjoy the same view over the Petit Socco that William Burroughs would have, whether he was merely relaxing or scoping the balcony opposite (where young men still smoke kif) for talent. We stroll uphill and past the kasbah to Cafe Hafa, where Paul Bowles would come to smoke some himself on the stepped terraces that look out on the Atlantic. Over the rim of our mint teas we can make Tarifa out across the way.
We hit the five star Minzah hotel (Jim Morrison, Ives Saint Laurent…) and its piano bar, where the waiter, all dressed up in something like knickerbockers, makes a fuss of us and bows as he leaves us an over-priced beer. The low-lit cosiness of another piano bar up in the kasbah, at the Morocco Club, is newer than the days it evokes but is decorated with photos of the people who populated them. David Herbert, Gore Vidal, Degas, Matisse and Errol Flynn, the blue parties, the hat parties, the this parties, the that parties; I almost lose myself in nostalgia for it all, transported through time, when it occurs to me that these people were all the brother-in-law of the earl of whatever, or film stars or heiresses, and that even if I’d been here I wouldn’t bloody well have been invited.
“Yes you would,” says S, our hostess, as we have breakfast on her roof the following morning, partially shaded by a defunct minaret and looking out over the tumbling medina. She’s just pointed Barbara Hutton‘s house out to us.
“They came here to get away from all that snobbery. If you had anything about you that was in any way interesting, you were in.”
It’s a nice thought at the end of what has been something of a pilgrimage for me, and before we leave town there’s another; Saïd shows us through a series of colorful and twisting lanes to a modest looking building whose door is closed but sports a peep hole through which the curious eye can spy the tomb of the greatest traveller of them all: Ibn Battuta, the 14th century Tangerine who went further than anyone had before him (or anyone who wrote about it) and most people since, by road and sea, on foot, on horseback, by donkey and by cart.
We have a journey of our own to make and once we’ve killed enough time, we take our last Tangier taxi to the station and catch the night train to Marrakech. Our sleeper cabin could be accused of lacking some of the romance and charm that you will doubtless have seen with your mind’s eye when I said “night train to Marrakech”. Actually it could be accused of lacking all of it, but it’s clean and if we don’t sleep we doze at least till the sun rises and the earth outside the window has turned the dry red of Africa.
Tired and disorientated, we are dropped off amidst scenes that would have been familiar enough to Ibn Battuta – the donkeys and the handcarts of an old medina and a modern addition: the incessant scooters that swarm like wasps through the narrow souks of the Red City.