Story and photos by Barbara Angelakis
Additional photos by Manos Angelakis
Naughty to Nice
In the day (1920s to 1940s) the port city of Tangier had a reputation for depravity - where everything and anything was available… as long as you paid the price. Tangier is located at the Straits of Gibraltar, at the very tip of the African continent between the Atlantic Ocean and the Mediterranean Sea, inexorably linking the cultures of Europe and Africa.
In 1906 France and Spain split the country of Morocco between them. However Tangier, due to its strategic location, was designated by an International convention held in Paris in 1924, as a neutral demilitarized zone, to be administered jointly by France, Spain, and Britain. During this Protectionist Era Tangier was occupied (sic) by over 20 countries including the United States. After WWII, Spain continued its control over Tangier but in 1956 Morocco gained its independence and in 1975 Tangier was finally reunited with the rest of the country.
During the neglect of the years governed by the international committee, Tangier’s gateway position provided easy access for the transfer of unlawful goods and services, i.e. smuggling. After WWII Tangier was the home port for numerous “cigarette boats”; very fast speedboats that brought untaxed cigarettes and a few other contraband to Sicily, and from there to the rest of Europe. Its laissez faire attitudes regarding sex - in all its variations - opened the city to homosexuals who could live freely and taste of forbidden fruit without fear of retribution. Intrigue lay heavy on a city that was flooded by diplomats, secret agents, international spies, smugglers, scoundrels, and in general, people of ill repute from all over the world. Of course that level of potential peril naturally brought with it an undesirable consequence and Tangier could be a very dangerous place. As a matter of fact, according to our entertaining and very knowledgeable guide, Mohammed Harrak (https://www.tourhq.com/guide/ma96956/mohamed-harrak), King Hassan II, father of the current King Mohammed VI, disowned the city of Tangier as morally incorrigible and refused to visit his Palace there.
Notwithstanding, this level of decadence attracted prominent artists, musicians and writers seeking inspiration and adventure. During that period William Burroughs lived in Tangier and wrote Naked Lunch, his “Beat” masterpiece. Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, Paul Bowles and Tennessee Williams, to name but a few, passed through and used the local color to flavor their novels. Henri Matisse was fascinated by Tangier and painted a number of scenes during his one-year residence in the city that are still identifiable today. If you start at the highest point of the Medina, under an ancient tree you will find arrows painted on the street that will lead you to the many recognizable sites.
But time moves on and King Mohammed VI, has made a concentrated effort to redeem Tangier and turn it into a luxury tourist destination with a city-wide beautification and building program, including a modernized port that welcomes the yachts of the rich and famous and a glamorous new railway station.
The ancient medina has been restored and the modern city has beautiful buildings, broad tree-lined boulevards, beaches on both the Atlantic and Mediterranean, and an affluent and sophisticated population.
Tangier has become so respectable that celebrities and international people of means have built opulent villas in the hills above the city that afford spectacular sea views. A visitor would be remiss in not taking a drive along the hilly, serpentine roads to see the gated, but nevertheless sumptuous, properties.
Hugging the scenic coastline, another short drive out of Tangier will take you to the 150 year old lighthouse at Cap Spartel. A sign designates it as the spot where the Atlantic Ocean and the Mediterranean Sea meet, regardless of its accuracy, it affords tourists a perfect setting as a backdrop for their selfies.
It is notable that in 1777, Morocco became the first nation to recognize American independence. After the American Revolution, the United States concluded a Treaty of Peace and Friendship with Morocco, still in effect today. This makes it the longest standing unbroken treaty that the United States has with any nation. This special relationship is officially represented by the “Tangier American Legation Institute for Moroccan Studies” (TALIM), the first American public property outside of the U.S. and the only museum/cultural center in Tangier.
Located in the medina, it was built and presented to the U.S. Government by Sultan Mouley Suliman in 1821 to house the U.S. Legation and Consulate. As the oldest diplomatic property outside the U.S. and a Historic Landmark, the Legation has been visited by Presidents Roosevelt, Eisenhower, Regan, Kennedy and Obama. The original Moroccan-style building was constructed with an open-air courtyard and garden, arched windows and intricate tile work.
Over the years it was expanded and now includes a museum of the history of Moroccan-American relations plus a research library, and it offers an Arabic literacy program for the women of the medina. In the old section of the house we were fortunate to catch an exquisite temporary exhibition devoted to traditional wedding costumes and jewelry.
Beautiful paintings adorn the hallways and walls from prominent expat artists and there is a room devoted to author/composer Paul Bowles. www.legation.org
It is advisable to have a guide when visiting the medina with its unmarked narrow alleyways, and its distractions of craftsmen plying their trades. Goods of all descriptions loudly offered for sale assaulting you from both sides of the street could challenge even the most directionally astute, security-minded traveler.
Explore by yourself at your own peril or accept the adventure of getting lost and the satisfaction of getting un-lost and back to your hotel loaded down with the spices and oils; candied fruits and nuts; carpets; leather goods; brass objets d’art; Berber jewelry, either authentic or copies; plus dozens of other uniquely Moroccan treasures acquired on your sojourn.
For information on Tangier and other captivating towns and sites, visit the Moroccan National Tourist Board www.visitmorocco.com
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