Hotel: Tangier - Tales from the City ; Paul Bowles Wrote `the Sheltering Sky' There, While Kerouac, Burroughs and Many Other Authors Found Its Pull Irresistible. Rhiannon Batten Traces the Literary History of Tangier through Its Hotels
Batten, Rhiannon, The Independent (London, England)
"Straightaway I felt a great excitement; much excited; it was as if some interior mechanism had been set in motion by the sight of the approaching land." This is how writer and composer Paul Bowles described his first sight of North Africa. It wasn't to be a brief encounter. After his first visit to the Moroccan port of Tangier, in the early Thirties, he moved permanently to the city in 1947. In 1949 he wrote his semi-autobiographical novel The Sheltering Sky, a bare and brutal story set in post-war North Africa.
But Bowles wasn't alone in his appreciation for this part of the world. A whole series of wealthy and intrepid expatriates have found their way to Tangier over the centuries. Among them was Samuel Pepys, who visited in the 17th century, the legendary Times correspondent Walter Harris, who lived there in the early 20th century, and Emily Keane, the Englishwoman who caused outrage in the late 19th century by marrying the Sherif of Ouezzane.
The literary associations with the city built to a seedy crescendo in the first half of the 20th century when, between 1923 and 1956, it was made a neutral international zone, and the resulting lack of regulations governing politics, homosexuality and, above all, drugs, drew even more visitors.
My own meeting with the city was less one of sight than of smell. It was dark when my plane landed and the road from the airport into Tangier wasn't well lit, so I wound down the taxi window and sniffed my way into the centre of the city, past rows of hot, scented pines and through a screen of orange dust. Tangier in daylight was an altogether different place. The streets were full of belching cars and children noisily making their way to school, while the city's shops seemed only to stock cheap Western shoes, plastic alarm clocks and S Club 7 CDs.
In its Arab guise, Tangier may not be as seedy as it once was, but it also seems less interesting - nothing more than a booming, modern port. Disappointed, I set out in search of its literary past. Since many of Tangier's scholarly visitors had stayed there only temporarily - or had ignored the fact that they found themselves permanently lodged in the city - the obvious trail to follow was that of the city's hotels.
First stop was the Hotel Continental, tucked away in a corner of the medina. When they weren't smoking away the afternoon at the Cafe Hafa or in one of the coffee houses in the Petit Socco square, Paul Bowles, William Burroughs, Tennessee Williams and the like might well have been found on the terrace of the Continental, gazing out to sea and half listening to the sound of ships' containers being loaded and unloaded in the port below.
On a sunny day the light there really is lovely. It's reflected in three neat strips: the turquoise water, a long curve of sunny yellow sand, and the hillside jumble of buildings wrapped in a late- afternoon glow. With the hotel's literary connections and aesthetics, it comes as little surprise that it appeared in the film version of Bowles' The Sheltering Sky. Like an African Passage to India, it tells the story of Kit and Port Moresby, an American couple who, seduced by the sun, the sand and the sensuality of the experience, travel deeper into the desert. The further they go, the more unsettled they become. }
The film was made in 1990. Directed by Bernardo Bertolucci, it starred John Malkovich and Debra Winger as the doomed couple - and an 80-year- old Paul Bowles as narrator. Much of the film was shot in Morocco, and a lot of it in hotels, since the couple's spiralling journey into a spiritual desert involves them chasing on, from one hotel to the next and the next.
In the movie, the Hotel Continental plays the role of the book's Grand Hotel, the Moresbys' first base in Africa. Best glimpsed in the scene where Port wanders down to the reception on his way out for a walk, the place is depicted as a giddy mix of antique European furniture, lavish banisters and exotic Moroccan carpeting, not very different from the hotel as it is today. …