Tangier: Myths and Memories

By Jelloun, Tahar Ben | UNESCO Courier, March 1997 | Go to article overview

Tangier: Myths and Memories


Jelloun, Tahar Ben, UNESCO Courier


Tangier - a gateway to Africa, and a window on Europe - still draws sustenance from its myths and legends, even though the city has expanded, looks different and no longer recognizes its children. This is the fate of places marked by transience, the crossroads of history and rumour. A point of departure (of escape) and arrival, a port for easy dreams and uncertain journeys, Tangier no longer knows what to do with its reputation. The deeds and misdeeds ascribed to it are legion; so too are the cliches and fiendish images it has given rise to, and the fractured prose and obscure poetry it has inspired. It has been painted in every possible colour, and evoked in salons and galleries so often that it has become a ghost dressed in shabby silk, a crumpled postcard not fit to be sent to a friend waiting in the faraway cold.

A year after the death of Marco Polo, Ibn Batuta, who was known as "the prince of travellers", left Tangier on 14 June 1325 (he was born there in 1304) on the journeys that would take him several times round the then known world. He did not often feel homesick for the city, but he was haunted by its image. Its perfumes and smells followed him everywhere, conjuring up the memory of a peaceful community where nothing untoward ever occurred. He wrote that Morocco, "the land where I wore the amulets of childhood and where the dust first touched my skin", was the best of all countries. In the travel notebooks (Rihla) which he dictated, there were few references to Tangier, which had not yet become a crossroads. It was above all a port from which people set out to explore the world or seek adventure.

* The painter's eye

In 1832, Eugene Delacroix stayed in Tangier before going on to Meknes, Fez and other places. He was welcomed everywhere and did not conceal his surprise or his sense of wonder. "I have now arrived in Tangier," he noted. "I have just made a tour of the city and I am full of astonishment at all I have seen. I would need twenty arms, and days forty-eight hours long, to give an account of it all. . . . At the moment, I am like a man in a dream who sees things which he fears will escape his grasp. . . ."

Through the good offices of Abraham Benchimol, an interpreter at the French Consulate, he was able to obtain an introduction to Jewish society in Tangier which gave him the opportunity to paint his celebrated Jewish Wedding. In a letter to his friend Pierret dated 25 January 1832, he wrote: "The Jewish women are admirable. I am afraid that it would be difficult to do anything but paint them: they are pearls of Eden".

Later on, another French painter, Henri Matisse, came to Tangier, where he stayed at the Hotel Villa de France. At first, torrential rainfall kept him confined to his room. Since he had come for the sun and the light, he almost gave in to disappointment and thought of returning to France. Fortunately, he decided to stay until the weather turned fine. That year, 1912, marked a new direction and dimension in his work. The light of Tangier was a revelation to him.

Other painters have spent time in Tangier. Today the Chilean Claudio Bravo lives and works there. He seldom emerges from his beautiful house at the foot of the "Vieille Montagne" and he paints the people and objects of Tangier in a hyper-realistic manner which cannot be reduced to orientalism or exoticism. Claudio Bravo paints the meeting of two civilizations. He turns this place into a crossroads where different ways of seeing and being, different visions of the world and sensibilities, and a mix of different temperaments all confront each other. In fact, his attraction and respect for Moroccan popular culture have made it virtually the main subject of his work.

* An international city

For some forty years, until 1957, Tangier had the status of an international city. What did that mean for its inhabitants? Although it had a representative of the royal authority, the city was administered by several different countries. …

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