There was a once a place on the planet where the dream of being a ‘citizen of the world’ was put into practice. That utopia materialised in Tangier, which, for four decades, was one of the most cosmopolitan cities on the planet. Throughout history, this metropolis had been an example of coexistence between different religions and races, but the imperial powers went one step further by proclaiming it an international zone in 1923. This meant that the task of governing the north-African city was shared between various countries. Diplomatic juggling which, through this legal anomaly, aimed to preserve the area’s neutrality given its strategic value in controlling the Strait of Gibraltar. This multinational administration initiative, first put forward by France and Great Britain, would come to incorporate other European countries, the USA and later, the Soviet Union.
Its unique international nature brought people from all over the world to Tangier. What’s more, there was a need for consular staff, military personnel, postal employees and teachers… A loose approach to excise turned the city into a tax haven, taken advantage of by multinationals and banks as well as millionaires from all over the world who flocked to this fashionable hotspot. Payments could be made in dollars, francs and pesetas, which drove trade and business. This free flow of money acted as a magnet for conmen of all kinds, while black-marketeers guaranteed that all kinds of goods reached the city while the war saw continental Europe run short. Each country had its own rules and police force which gave rise to situations of legal limbo and lead to a relaxed approach to law enforcement. As a result, Tangier was an exceptionally free environment, much more so than many European cities.
Liberty called, irresistible bait enthusiastically taken by the cultural, bohemian class. Beat generation writers such as Burroughs, Ginsberg and Kerouac, along with Williams, Capote and Goytisolo were all clients at Tangier’s modern cafes or stayed in legendary hotels such as the Continental. Paul Bowles arrived in 1947 and was to stay until the end of his life. His beginnings in Tangier were masterfully portrayed by Bertolucci in his film, The Sheltering Sky. Delacroix’s stay had a knock-on effect, attracting other painters such as Fortuny and Matisse, who found new nuances of light and colour here.
Hedonism triumphed in Tangier’s sleepless nights, whether at embassy events or the extravagant soirees organised by the city’s eccentric rich. The edgiest parties were held in the city’s dives, where a cocktail of hashish and hypnotic gnawa music provoked genuine states of trance.
During World War II, the city received a wave of Jews and political refugees, many of them hoping to sail onward to the USA. And with them, or chasing behind them, an army of spies that enmeshed the city in silent intrigue. The film Casablanca is inspired by that period, which reached its maximum tension when Germany took Paris and Tangier became a crucial centre of information for the North African Campaign.
Franco took advantage of the war to occupy the city in 1940 and fulfil the longstanding Spanish aim of incorporating it into their Moroccan protectorate. The Spanish community had always been the largest, and considered Tangier as Spanish as any city on the peninsula. The zoco chico, at the heart of the city, had a bullring and football clubs, while newspapers in Spanish such as España, directed by Haro Tecglen, were also published there. Spanish national pride was symbolised by the splendid Cervantes Theatre, where famous stars such as Estrellita Castro, Caracol, Valderrama and Lola Flores all performed.
The defeat of the Nazis put an end to five years of Spanish control and Tangiers recovered its international status, which was to last until the city was fully incorporated into Morocco in 1960. However, the permissive, libertine atmosphere survived in a country where the public arena was governed by the precepts of Islam. In this respect, it was a great help that the countercultural movement of the 60s took an interest in the city. Jim Morrison, Mick Jagger and Keith Richards strolled its alleyways, seduced by that blend of modernity and Arab exoticism. After sunset at Hafa Café, wild, debauched parties were the norm. The Moroccan authorities turned a blind eye.
But not everything that glittered was gold. A large part of the population suffered abject poverty, second-class citizens in their own lands. This reality was hidden because it distorted the idealised image that was presented of the city. Testimony of this is to be found in the work of the Moroccan writer, Mohamed Chukri, whose autobiographical novel For Bread Alone describes with unflinching crudeness the spiral of violence, drugs and prostitution that he was forced into by dire need.
As Morocco’s status as an independent nation strengthened, the city fell into irrepressible decadence, looking nostalgically back to the golden age when Tangier was the centre of the world. The legendary buildings are now ruins of a splendid past. Although the tolerance and positive relations between Christians, Jews and Muslims remains as an example to export, new ideas and visions of freedom now enter the city by internet or via the sea of satellite dishes that populate its roofs. Mohammed VI is in favour of revitalising the city and the new Tangier Med port and its free-trade zone are breathing fresh life into the area. Many foreign companies have set up here, attracted by offshoring opportunities. It’s no longer about being international; now it’s time to be global.