Victoria’s Book Reviews: Tangier: From the Romans to the Rolling Stones by Richard Hamilton

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“You cry when you leave Tangier and you cry when you arrive.”

Now, I admit to something of a weakness when it comes to Morocco – I adore the place. I love its intensity, its culture, and its colours. Morocco is a cauldron that seems to overwhelm the senses, from the beauty of its beaches, across its mountains and deserts, to the chaos of its medinas and souks. I cannot get enough of it. Yet, Tangier is one of the few places in the country I have not been.

Whenever I ask locals what I’m missing, they always shrug and say, “nothing.” Tangier, it seems, is a city that was rather than is. But it is a city with both a glorious and murky past, as Richard Hamilton brings to life in his well-researched book that takes snapshots of the city through the ages, from the mythological Hercules and the Roman slaughter of Carthage, up to its post-war heyday when the likes of Francis Bacon, the Rolling Stones and William Burroughs sought it out as place of inspiration and creativity.

“Much of Tangier’s history is a chronology of foreigners and exiles.”

In fact, the span of this book is its most impressive aspect. We get to understand Tangier over 2000 years, how its historical place as a frontier town for Africa has shaped it with all the rising and falling empires that have invaded then receded from its shores. Then there’s the Moroccan monarchy itself, from the bloody days of psychopath Moulay Ismail in the 17th century to the bling-bling of Moulay Abdelaziz at the beginning of the 20th century. It’s always been a place in flux.

“Ismail was known to have speared 20 or 30 black slaves for no reason, and on one single day strangled 30 women in his harem. Not even his own sons or pets were spared. A cat was ties to a mule’s tail and dragged to death, for stealing a rabbit. Besides 30,000 of his native slaves, Ismail also owned 2,500 Christians, including 70 English soldiers from the Tangier garrison.”

But no matter who was at the top of the pile, Tangier held a centuries-enduring reputation of iniquity. It was not for nothing that Samuel Pepys wrote of his visit, “God almighty should lose no time at all in destroying this city.” Gangsters and sex workers rubbed shoulders with the rich and influential, whilst drug dealers, bandits and spies shared café tables with artists and millionaires.

“In 1952, The New Yorker magazine said that at the time there were 85 banks and 42 brothels in Tangier.” Everyone was on the make.

From the abundance of possible stories, Patrick has focused on 13 lives (across 13 chapters) to demonstrate both how the city thrived and survived, but also how its myriad of excesses influenced artists and adventurers across the ages.

There’s Henri Matisse and Francis Bacon – though the conscientious former had a VERY different experience from the bad-boy latter, both found much in Morocco to inspire their paintings. There’s also William Burroughs, who wrote Naked Lunch in the city, and Paul Bowles, the great American author who lived and worked in Tangier for over 50 years.

But for all the drama, Richard also captures scenes of tragedy too, most notably in the last chapter on Brian Jones as Morocco was the scene for the final fallout between Mick, Keith and Brian, as it was for the playwright, Joe Orton, and his partner, Kenneth Halliwell.

There are also the welcome chapters on Ibn Battuta, one of Tangier’s most famous citizens and one of the greatest adventurers in history whose travels ran rings around Marco Polo, and local author, Mohamed Mrabet.

There are some tone-deaf aspects to the book, however. Not one of Richard’s chapters focuses on a woman; all are about men, which is a damn shame as there were more than a few women who are linked to Tangier; Edith Wharton and Patricia Highsmith both spent time in Tangier, as did Barbara Hutton who hosted “the party of the decade” in the city (which Richard does refer to). The absence of women-focused chapters is glaring.

There’s also a notable reticence to refer to the sexual exploitation, abuse and rape of Moroccan minors by many of the expats as anything other than “hanky panky” (Richard’s term, not mine). Read the room, Richard. It may have been common practice but there is a need at some point in this book to call it out.

But what I missed most of all was a sense of place.

Richard is genuinely terrific at capturing the lives of those in Morocco. In the later chapters, in the post-war era, there’s also that great sense of community and frequent haunts that are brought to life with some fabulous diary extracts and gossipy titbits. However, the sights and smells of Tangier are elusive.

Richard writes from a contemporary viewpoint and the book has a number of photographs of Tangier today, but the city has obviously changed considerably over the years (centuries) and quite what the city used to feel like, what its roads and houses looked like, what food people ate, where they hung out etc… That doesn’t always leap off the pages. Perhaps that’s the result of having a journalist helm the book rather than a novelist – after all, journalists don’t surmise what they don’t experience – but it is a noticeable gap.

“Tangier in the 1960s was more than a city, says the American writer, Paula Wolfert, “it was a state of mind, a place people came to reinvent themselves and to live out their most eccentric fantasies.”

Nevertheless, I enjoyed this book immensely. How could I not? It offers both an intellectual and gossipy insider view on the lives and eras of this famous city. What you take away is that sense of there being something so deeply intangible and elusive about Tangier; it is a city that seems to have had magical eras. But so ephemeral too, something that once was but now lost forever under the influx of capitalism, excessive wealth and private ownership. A city whose magic seems to have blown away on those desert winds.

 

Tangier: From the Romans to the Rolling Stones by Richard Hamilton is published by Tauris Parke / Bloomsbury; hardback RRP £20.

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