A Sojourn in Tangier
By Marc Goldin
An afternoon dream, sitting in the Gran Café de Paris. Closing your eyes as the surroundings change to faded black and white, you’ll have reached back sixty odd years to a pivotal literary moment that did not yet have the self-consciousness to realize that it was a pivotal literary moment – just another black and white day in the Place de France in Tangier. There are people that you’ll try to find but they’ve slipped just beyond your grasp and you’re left clutching the air. They might’ve left you something however, looking down on the floor next to your table, a napkin flutters and there’s writing on it. In English but looking closer at it – seems mad gibberish; something about Arabs, magic substances and a place called the ‘interzone’.
To ponder seeking out Burroughs and his pals, one must first pay homage to the elder of Tangier, the one who came before. Of course there were expats from other countries since the dawn of time, maybe earlier, but the original American prophet who first set foot on this hallowed ground, Paul Bowles, looked upon this international port city in 1931 and declared it home for the next several decades. Or perhaps not that neatly – most likely one day, upon awakening from a nap, looked around him and realized that he’d been here all that time. It may have been the majoun (a cannabis laced confectionary -ed).
William Burroughs, a would-be but never quite was, acolyte, made his first pilgrimage in 1953, lasting only a few short months before slinking back to the US but a second attempt lasted longer, four years in fact, and would ultimately produce the first incarnation of his epic, ‘Naked Lunch’, a lot of it written in the Hotel El Muniria. Room 9.
Four years, but this was a moment when the cultural world experienced a small tremor as it spun on its literary axis. For during those four years, Burroughs’ mind expanded, welcoming his New York stablemates in 1957, Ginsberg, Kerouac and Corso to this promised land. A time of great creative fire, loosed by the old city, the Kasbah, the Medinah and, maybe, Dean’s Bar.
Kerouac and Corso, extending the New York manic road-trip sensibility probably never stopped moving long enough to truly get a sense of the inner life of Tangier, one kick after another, pausing to sleep here and there. But one figures that the Tangier sea-air had to have permeated their young American psyches, even while they slept. Perhaps not noticeably changed but something had been forever tweaked within them. A bit of a letter from Jack to Lucien Carr and his wife, Francesca, about the situation in Tangier and Burroughs’ ever-increasing lunacy:
Dear Lucien & Cessa — Writing to you by candlelight from the mysterious Casbah — have a magnificent room overlooking the beach & the bay & the sea & can see Gibraltar — patio to sun on, room maid, $20 a month — feel great but Burroughs has gone insane e as[sic], — he keeps saying he’s going to erupt into some unspeakable atrocity such as waving his dingdong at an Embassy party & such or slaughtering an Arab boy to see what his beautiful insides look like — Naturally I feel lonesome with this old familiar lunatic but lonesomer than ever with him as he’ll also mumble, or splurt, most of his conversation, in some kind of endless new British lord imitation, it all keeps pouring out of him in an absolutely brilliant horde of words & in fact his new book is best thing of its kind in the world (Genet, Celine, Miller, etc.)[i]
But also the kicks…
Meanwhile I explore the Casbah, high on opium or hasheesh or any drink or drug I want, & dig the Arabs. — The Slovenija was a delightful ship, I ate every day at one long white tablecloth with that one Yugoslavian woman spy. — We hit a horrendous tempest 2 days out, nothing like I ever seen, — that big steel ship was lost in mountains of hissing water, awful. — I cuddled up with TWO TICKETS TO TANGIER and got my laughs, I read every word, Cess, really a riot. — Also read Kierkegaard’s Fear and Trembling which you should read, it’s down on your corner. — Right now I’m high on 3 Sympatinas, Spanish bennies of a sort, mild. — Happy pills galore. — The gal situation here is worse than the boy situation, nothing but male whores all over, & their supplementary queens. — Met an actual contraband sailing ship adventurer with a mustache. Etc. More anon. Miss you & hope you’re well. Jack. [ii]
Ginsberg was probably on a slightly different continuum there in Tangier and may have been more inclined to hang with Burroughs but there wasn’t any real hanging with Burroughs – maybe physically occupying the same space for a time but tracing different circles. Ginsberg could clown but was really a serious seeker. He also functioned as a kind of caretaker for, and editor of Burroughs, trying to keep him on a tight leash and compile his copious notes and pages into something that resembled coherency.
Bill Burroughs, however, who’d been there the longest, went at it with a vengeance. He’d had crazy times in Mexico and other places but in Tangier, he was unused to the liberty to do as he pleased. Coming straight from the suffocating 50s in the U.S., William was like a man on the loose, a sailor on leave, set free to run amok in an exotic land. And he gorged himself silly on it all but he wrote it down as well and we’re the luckier for it as it captures a snapshot of a time and place that would vanish as soon as he had clicked the shutter. But WB was a bit mental, in the throes of his addiction as you can see…
Dear Allen and Jack,
Kiki just brought me your letter—no date on it. Now, Al, I’d cut off my right nut to see you, may I fall down and be paralysed and my prick fall off, but I don’t want to give you the impression I’m like on my way to Frisco, because it ain’t necessarily so like a lot of things you’re liable to read in my letters. To begin with I got no loot. I wrote you from the withdrawal doldrums. Actually, Tangiers is looking up—What I mean is I don’t know what the fuck I will do when I get out of here and that is pact, I mean a fact. There’s a war here I want to dig, also Perganum harmala which is same thing as Yage used by Berbers…[iii]
It was up and down for him but it seemed he found inspiration there in Tangier after a while…
Yesterday I took a walk on the outskirts of town. Environs of the Zone are wildly beautiful. Low hills with great variety of trees, flowing vines and shrubs, great, red sandstone cliffs topped with curiously stylized, Japanese-looking pine trees, fall to the sea. What a place for a house on top of those cliffs!
I used to complain I lacked material to write about. Mother of God! Now I’m swamped with material. I could write 50 pages on that walk, which was a mystical vision comparable to your East Harlem Revelations. That letter where I come on sorta whiney, like: “Tangiers has nothing for me and it’s all your fault I’m here anyhoo.”… Well, Al, ‘taint necessarily so. Beginning to dig Arab kicks. It takes time. You must let them seep into you… Well like I say, could write a book on that walk. Instead I will select one moment:
I went in an Arab café for a glass of mint tea. One room 15 by 15, a few tables and chairs, a raised platform covered with mats stretched across one end of the room where the Arabs sit with their shoes off playing cards and smoking kif, the inevitable picture of Ben Youssef, The Deposed Sultan—You see his undistinguished pan everywhere like those pictures of my fran Roosevelt—pictures of Mecca done in the hideous light pinks and blues of religious objects, profoundly vulgar like the final decadent phase of Aztec mosaics—Pawing through this appalling mass of notes and letters, looking for something, I run across one of your old letters, Al, and the following jumps out at me: “Don’t be depressed. There’s too much to do.” And that is a fact. So much I am flipping. You’re a fucking genius, Al…[iv]
The first stirrings of what might later transform into ‘Naked Lunch’. But let’s address the so-called exotic nature of the ‘other’, of Tangier the place, held hostage to its myth and history, in the words of Mohamed Choukri, a Moroccan author and novelist:
The intense nostalgia for the Tangier of yesteryear, the Tangier of the International Zone, seems utterly absurd to me. Within the history of each city or country, every epoch has its own significance and beauty, just as every stage in the life of a human has its own kind of magic. But the lamentation over the mythical Tangier, the yearning for a Tangier that no longer exists, and by those who never even lived there, is the peak of absurdity. According to the most pessimistic and lachrymose of these whiners, ‘Everything marvelous about Tangier has vanished!’ [v]
Choukri has voiced a realistic sense of the mythos of this place as someone indigenous might do and we would initially be compelled to agree; yet, because of its pull on the rest of the world, it has to be acknowledged that this place in this time had an impact on certain minds that were there.
Does Tangier have the aura of a myth? Yes, undeniably; but in whose eyes? Is Tangier a lost paradise? Certainly, since those who once witnessed its opulence are still here to speak of it, but who are they who mourn a world that is no more? Can one speak of the irresistible magic of Tangier? Yes again, but magical for whom?[vi]
‘Magical for whom’, indeed. It would be easier to think of those who found their way there in the 50s from elsewhere in the US and Europe, as cultural refugees, fleeing the repressive and fascist lands that held them artistically hostage. Theoretically then, it was business as usual for Moroccans but a dazzling funhouse for the sensation seekers, including Burroughs, Ginsberg, Kerouac and Corso. Bowles, a writer, and a much earlier arrival, operated from a different sensibility, preferring to carve a life for himself there and to work himself into the Moroccan fabric. And he stayed on, continuing to create while the others, the younger ones, moved on – to the next place, the next kick.
Ginsberg, Kerouac and Corso, all products of a 1950s U.S. climate of repression, undoubtedly felt some sort of release, artistic and otherwise, after touching down in a freer international town like Tangier. New York and San Francisco, although considered cosmopolitan, still existed under the same stuffy atmosphere as the rest of the country and the sense of freedom that had to be felt in Tangier would’ve opened them up to more of a worldview; primed them in a way so that by the time they got to Paris, their creativity had been fired up. Burroughs, as probably the most repressed of the quartet and who had been there the longest, seemed to have gotten the most from his time there but Tangier also probably prepared Ginsberg for his more significant and life changing time in India. At any rate, the contrast between the exotic appeal of Tangier as experienced by the four Americans and the understandably staunch post-colonial view of their local and native literary counterpart, Mohamed Choukri, is well worth examining when considering the influence of a time and place on artistic sensibility. The fascination of the cultural tourist versus the wearied indignation of the post-colonial indigene, both sides ironically producing good and creative work. The French and Algerian writer, Albert Camus also comes to mind.
With the exception of Burroughs’ ‘Naked Lunch’, nothing of any real literary import was produced in Tangier by the others, Ginsberg, Kerouac and Corso, but there really is no getting around the impact a place, this alien to them at the time, would have on their future literary work. So ultimately they all left for other places, their next stop would be at 9 Rue Gît-le-Cœur in the Latin Quarter of Paris, nicknamed ‘The Beat Hotel’, by Gregory Corso. Much great work would be produced there and it became a hub for dozens of like-minded souls and kindred spirits from various places. The four went in different directions over the years – Ginsberg on to India, Corso hopping around Europe; Burroughs and Kerouac returning to the U.S. They came back together periodically, each on his own search and each writing his own narrative. Without Tangier, they probably would’ve done what they did anyway but its magic was subtle and its influence discreet and undeniable.
The afternoon grows late, it’s become noisier in the Gran Café de Paris as the tourists stop in for a coffee or aperitif after a day of shopping in the Kasbah. Probably time to leave anyway as the spell has been broken. Time to wander the small crooked winding lanes and alleys, maybe get lost for a while.
Peter Orlovsky, Jack Kerouac and William Burroughs on a Tangier Beach (Photo: Allen Ginsberg/Corbis)
Gregory Corso, Paul Bowles and William Burroughs, Hotel El Muniria (Photo: Allen Ginsberg)
[i] Kerouac, Jack Letter to Lucien and Francesca Carr Feb, 28 1957 Tangier
[iii] Burroughs, William Letter to Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac October, 1953 Tangier
[v] Choukri, Mohamed In Tangier. London. Telegram Book 2008
Marc Goldin lives in Chicago with a bratty one-eyed Persian cat named Lulu. When not accommodating her many and frequent demands, he manages to squeeze some writing in, well aware of how precious this time is and has managed to publish two short fiction pieces as well as a creative non-fiction story. The rest of the time is spent writing short stories and a bit of poetry. In the last year however, a novel unveiled itself so he has been at work trying to coax it out (not unlike how one would handle a recalcitrant cat) and is well in it. When this might see the light of day is anyone’s guess.
For more stories, read Café Dissensus Everyday, the blog of Café Dissensus Magazine.