Only in Tangier could the chain-smoking Berber Mohammed Choukri have written his scandalous autobiographical novel, "For bread alone", a radical reckoning with poverty, ignorance and domestic violence. When it was first published in Arabic in 1982, it caused a huge stir. Today, Choukri and Bowles are two of the city's most famous sons. It is questionable whether such a radical novel could be published now.

Liberal cultural climate

"Even today, the cultural climate in the city is liberal," says Bouali. "Books on thorny issues such as the dispute about Islamic rights of succession in Morocco are in great demand," he says, regardless of whether they were written in French or Arabic. Asma Lamrabet, the well-known feminist, sells well, as does Abdellah Taia, an author who lives in France and writes openly about his homosexuality.

Gate leading to the old medina in Tangiers (photo: Claudia Mende)
Between myth-rich literary past and pulsating modernity: the character of Tangiers has changed enormously since the days of Bowles and Choukri. The temporary standstill of the city has now been overcome, and a new spirit of optimism can be felt today. These days Tangiers is a major trade hub between Europe, Africa and Asia

Bouali considers important authors of the younger generation to be journalist Abdeslam Kadiri, who published a book of conversations with author Driss Chraibi, who passed away in France in 2007. Chraibi also wrote about outmoded and outdated social structures in his novels. He also mentions Mohammed Mgharbi, who has written a novel about his native city entitled "A Tanger dans le bec de la pie" (2018).

The character of the city has changed enormously since the days of Bowles and Choukri. When Morocco gained independence from France in 1956, the city became part of the country. Many Americans and Jews moved away. During the reign of King Hassan II, Tangier slid into insignificance. It was the present king, Mohammed VI, who recognised the opportunities presented by a city at the gateway between Africa and Europe and invested massive sums of money in it.

The cargo port Tanger Med, the largest of its kind in the entire Mediterranean, and a free trade area where European investors such as the automotive giant Renault are now producing, have created a huge number of jobs. Investors are buying up old buildings; new hotels have been built; the seafront promenade has been redeveloped for tourists; and it is hoped that a planned marina will pull in travellers in the luxury segment. Since the start of the new millennium, Tangier has become more Arabic and Islamic, especially as a result of the arrival of conservative inhabitants from the rural Rif region. Tangier also has a major Salafist community.

Sense of a new beginning in Tangier

Nevertheless, the standstill is over and there is a sense of a new beginning in Tangier. Today, the city is an important hub for trade between Europe, Africa and Asia. "Tangier is on the move," says Khadija al-Hemam in her memory-filled flat in the old kasbah.

The 83-year-old was one of the first women in the Moroccan film industry. She worked as a costume designer on many productions – so many in fact that she can hardly remember them all. She wasn't, however, able to work on Bertolucci's "The Sheltering Sky" because of a broken arm. Like so many residents of Tangier, Al-Hemam constantly switches between Arabic, English and French. She is ambivalent about the development of Tangier. She is afraid of losing the Tangier where everyone knows his/her neighbour, where religious denominations don't play a major role, and where people keep an eye on their elderly neighbours to make sure they are managing alright.

She was a young women during the era of miniskirts and rock'n'roll. Today in Tangier, many women wear headscarves. Nevertheless, she is convinced that Tangier will remain a liberal city. "A strict Islamic lifestyle will never conquer the heart of Tangier," she says.

Her daughter, Soumaya Akaaboune (46), agrees. Akaaboune is a well-known actor in Morocco. After living abroad for years, she has returned to her native country. In March of this year, she was a member of the jury of the International Film Festival in Tangier, which took place just before the coronavirus crisis began. She also believes in the indestructible character of Tangier, that special something that does not belong to any one culture or continent. "For us," she says, "everything is always open. Tangier is still a place of transit where people are in perpetual motion."

Claudia Mende

© 2020

Translated from the German by Aingeal Flanagan

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