The city of Tangiers was built on its writers and its port. I am almost tempted to say that it was also built on poverty, cheap commodities and the Bohemian life of its expatriate population.
One of the early visitors of the city in the modern era was Alexandre Dumas in the year 1841. However, the famous French writer, author of The Three Musketeers, came looking for Africa, not for Tangiers. Africa as it has been depicted in Homer’s epic poem, cited by Herodotus, the founder of history and talked about by Strabo, the father of geographers.
A local saying runs that one cries when arriving to Tangiers and when leaving it. The ones who cry when arriving to Tangiers are groups of “guides” who crowd the port and sell things, all sorts of things. William Burroughs, one of its most famous visitors, said in Naked Lunch (1959) that the world’s powers meet in the city to spy on each other. He wrote: “Here East meets West in a final debacle of misunderstanding, each seeking the Answer, the Secret, from the other and not finding it, because neither has the Answer to give.”
When novelist Truman Capote visited it in the year 1973, he wrote: “Before coming here (Tangiers) you should do three things: be inoculated for typhoid, withdraw your savings from the bank, say good-bye to your friends-heaven knows you may never see them again…Tangier is a basin that holds you.” One might fall under the spell of Tangiers, as did his colleague and rival Gore Vidal, who accused him of stealing the plots of his novels from Carson McCullers—an accusation to which Capote responded to by accusing Vidal of stealing his plots from the Daily News.
There is a book that recollects the names of all foreign writers and novelists who were attracted by Tangiers’ streets and cafes. Mark Twain was not the first, nor Tennessee Williams the last.
One of these was responsible for taking Mohamed Choukri out of his life in a small room on a poor rooftop to international fame. He relayed what Choukri wrote in his book For Bread Alone to Paul Bowles in Spanish who then translated it to English. The book describes a life experience that is both amazing and terribly sad. Bowles believed that the importance of the story resides in its roughness. What an amazing literary quality—the man did not try to hide the harsh sides to his life.
All of Choukri’s writings after For Bread Alone were all recitals with the same rhythm. He dug up in his memories and narrated the harshness of his early experiences. His fame became inseparable from that of the city, its port and of the famous writers who visit Tangiers.
Whilst Choukri’s books were very popular in Europe and the Arab world, they were censored in Morocco until the year 2000, three years before the death of the writer.
Whereas Mohamed Choukri was more popular than the city’s port, Truman Capote was unknown and not recognized by anyone. He was furious and cursed the city as he was leaving it. It is the city for the banned and the unwanted. “A dim city dispossessed of all basic laws.”