The Legend of Tangier A New History with the Mediterranean Port

The Legend of Tangier A New History with the Mediterranean Port

Photos: Hussein Al-Qallaf

After an initial lightning tour of Tangier, my mind was filled with what I had read about its most well-known writers: Muhammad Shukri, Altaher bin Jalloun, Paul Bowels, Tennessee Williams, etc., I saw more than a single city in one place with buildings carrying the styles of different periods of history. I looked at people s faces trying in vain to identify what they express of the city s spirit or secret. I breached the Mediterranean air along the fine corniche road. I drank minted tea in a Mediterranean-style café. As I watched world famous writers and artists visiting the city I felt the blow of the legendary winds of this city located at the extreme part of Morocco s North Africa, overlooking the world, guarding the Strait of Gibraltar and looking at those who pass through it.

According to a popular legend in Tangier, after the Flood, Noah s ark got lost in search of land, and one day, as a pigeon with muddy claws alighted on the ark the passengers shouted Alteen ga, Alteen ga , i.e. We ve reached land (in Arabic), hence the area was named Tanga .

A Greek legend has it that a lengendary person named Anti , the son of Posidion and Gaya, used to kill passengers and made a temple of their skulls which he presented to his father and named his kingdom Tinga , which stretched from Septa to Lexus, the golden apple city, near Larache. Hercules defeated Anti in a fierce battle and his swords cut the strait between Europe and Morocco and his famous grottos. Afterwards he married Anti s wife who gave birth to his son Sophocs who established the colony of Tangies .

The Grotto of Hercules, in the heart of the legend

I remembered the above legend as I stood inside the Grotto of Hercules looking at the Atlantic where it meets the Mediterranean through its famous aperture which looks like the map of Africa engraved on rock. The town of Tarifa, the nearest Spanish town to Tangier, can be seen through the aperture.

Lit by the sun through the aperture and small lamps, the grotto does not look large. I visualized the place which Hercules made his HQ and the corners which the city s defenders and adventurers used as a shelter up to the modern times as it is used by he idlers and lovers to meet there.

I looked at the grotto s rock walls again, imagining the secrets it has, th battles and plots it witnessed and probably stories of military leaders and foreign travellers as well as locals, including lovers whose whispers were only heard by the walls. But the poor imaginary painting of Hercules by a mediocre painter on the wall leading to the grotto made my knowledge of it waver between certainty and doubt, fact and myth.

I walked around the city alone once, and with my friend the writer Abdul-Rahim Alallam and my colleague the photographer many times. My previous visit to Tangier in which I failed to locate the restaurant in which the eminent writer Muhammad Shukri used to eat daily and write occasionally mode finding the place this time a top priority.

Tracking Muhammad Shukri

I was eager to track Muhammad Shukri not only out of my literary interests but also because my first knowledge of Tangier was through reading his famous books. The Bare Bread and the Clever and other non-fiction books, e.g. about Paul Bowels and The Internal Souk. Tangier, which was the main theme in most of his works, looked a mixture of the old and new, heritage and modernity, local and foreign, Africa and Europe, old gates of kasbahs and the limitless ocean.

That s what visitors to this city easily feel: a shift from one place and one age to another, like moving from a visit to Ritz Hotel, where Shukri spent part of his life, in the modern part of the city on the Mediterranean, like Alexandria, e.g., and a visit to Ibn Battuta s house in a narrow alley in the old kasbah with its Andalusian-style buildings or to the internal souk with its colonial Moresque architectural style.

However, most of those who wrote about Tangier were only interested in its legendary aspect. Criticising them, Shukri wrote: Most of what is written about Tangier today is in the form of postcards. A writer who stays a few weeks in Tangier writes a book and brags about his knowledge of secrets, glory and celebrities who passed by. Many of those who wrote the shallow postcards are after free popularity, so are their customers, those fascinated by what is strange and the Arabian Nights.

The strong interest in writing about Tangier may be due to the large number of celebrities who visited it, either spending the rest of their life there, as the American writer Paul Bowels did, or spending part of their life, such as William Burroughs. Allen Ginsberg and Jack Croac, from the American age of anger whose writings in 1950s were a revolt against American society and values. Other famous foreign artists, politicians, writers, bohemians, in addition to spies and adventurers loved Tangier dearly. Among those was the American dramatist Tennessee Williams, some of whose plays were inspired by the spirit of Tangier, as well as the French writer Jean Jinet, who spent part of his life there and was a friend of Shukri s. Most of those writers used to frequent many cafés in central Tangier, including the famous Café de Paris near King Muhammad V Street.

I was lucky enough to visit the café with the Moroccan writer Altaher bin Jalloun, who happened to be in Tangier, and do a brief interview with him in which Tangier was the main theme, particularly in view of the fact that he chose Tangier to live in parts of his stay in Morocco and wrote two novels set mainly there: Asilent Day in Tangier and That You Go, which discusses Tangier s immigrants to Spain.

The Loafers Square

Mention of the café reminded me of a nearby small square on the Atlantic surrounded by two guns of the Spanish occupation era: the Loafers or Idlers Square, with many youth sitting and looking at the end of the strait where Spain s hills are their dream and hope, whereas the city itself is the hope of many foreigners who enjoy living there- another sign of contradiction.

This contradiction is more clearly seen in Alhafa Café, one of the cafés which Shukri used to frequent. Located on a wound overlooking the Atlantic, the café is divided into levels like a football stadium with trees everywhere and rows of small brass tables and chairs. Bees swarm round the customers, most of whom are young men and women, drinking minted tea. Looking at nearbye Spain excites the imagination of job seekers.

Alhafa Café, a view of Spain

In his novel That You Go, bin Jalloun wrote: In winter Alhafa Café in Tangier becomes the meeting place of dreamers, as if Mershan s mastaba, cemetery and large bankery cats gather there to see what is going on silently, not deceiving anybody. Long hookahs move from table to table. Cups of minted tea get cold surrounded by falling bees. Customers sit motionless Others sit on mats with their backs leaning against the wall looking at the horizon as if looking for what fate holds in store for them They look at the sea, clouds mixed with mountains, waiting for the first evening s lights from Spain.

After visiting the Grotto we went to the popular internal souk in the old area with rows of shops where a wide variety of products is sold: vegetables, food, sweets, electrical and sanitary ware, traditional handicrafts, etc. Above these shops rise a number of Moresque- style buildings mixed with a colonial spirit, as is the case in many popular residential areas in Alexandria and other coastal Mediterranean cities.

Before entering the souk through the Andalusian-style decorated archway I looked at the wide 9 April Square with its fountain in the middle and the Andalusian-style Grand Mosque with its characteristic square minaret and green ceiling. The mosque was converted into a church during the Portuguese occupation era and was restored by the Alawis in 1688 and underwent restoration and extension works. All decoration arts were used mosaic, ceramic, painting and wood and gypsum engraving. The prayer house consists of three parallel porticoes and the qibla and a court with a portico on each side. The mosque represents the Alawi era s simple style of architecture.

History of Tangier

What follows is a brief account of the history of Tangier based on some sources. It is known that Tangier was founded by the Carthaginians in the fifth century BC and soon after became a major Mediterranean trading centre. It became a Roman province in the first century AD, and after he fall of the Roman Empire it was occupied by the Vandals in the fifth century AD, then the Byzantines in the sixth century, recaptured by the Romans and conquered by the Umayyads in AD 702.

Tangier regained its vitality with the start of the Islamic conquests of Andalusia led by Tariq bin Ziad in 711, then the Almoravids and Almohads, who made Tangier their base and HQ. Successive invasions by the Spanish, Portuguese and British continued from1471 to 1684 which left their mark on the old city walls, towers and churches.

But the most important period in terms of culture and urban development in Tangier s middle- ages and modern history was during the age of the Alawi sultans, particularly Sultan Ismail and Sidi Muhammad bin Abdullah. After recapturing the city from the British during the former sultan s age it restored its military, diplomatic and trading role as a gateway to the Mediterranean countries and, accordingly, witnessed significant urban development. Many walls, forts and gates were built. Religious and social life flourished as well. Mosques, palaces, fountains, baths and souks were built, in addition to churches, consulates and large houses for foreign residents. Tangier thus became a diplomatic capital with ten consulates in 1830 as well as an international city which attracted traders and adventurers because of the tax concessions it offered.

The year 1921 witnessed the victory of Emir Abdul Karim Alkhatabi against the Spanish, which led to further political disturbances in Spain and made Tangier relatively freer.

The population of Tangier at the turn of the 20th century was about 40,000, including 20,000 Muslims, 10,000 Jews, 9,000 Europeans, 2,500 of whom from Spain.

The last independent Moroccan sultan, Hafez, was exiled to Tangier, where he was put in custody in the kasbah, in 1912.

In 1923, Britain, France and Spain signed a treaty under which Tangier was made an international city. In 1940 it was occupied once again by the Spanish until 1946, and finally it became fully independent as part of Morocco after its independence in 1956.

No doubt that this history with long periods of European, particularly Spanish, presence, had its influence on the city and contributed to the diversity of its spirit. One of the major influences is seen in the1913 Cervantes Theatre, which witnessed many international drama and music performances for decades,but it is closed now. A project for the restoration of the theatre was planned a few years ago but was not carried out due to lack of funding, a million dirhams of which was contributed by the Spanish government. With a seating capacity of 1,400, the theatre has highly distinctive Spanish interior design features.

Featureless people

As I was walking with friend Alallam I examined people s features: an extremely beautiful girl, like most girls in Tangier, an old man with a wrinkled face wearing traditional clothes and blowing a pipe, young men in a café, men in another noisy café. Tangier s people, like the city itself, have no distinctive features. The poor people we saw in the old part of the city are certainly different from the bourgeois classes in the affluent areas on the hills or in the de luxe flats along the beautiful corniche, parts of which remind you of Alexandria. Travellers writings are unreliable, as, despite their long stay in Tangier, they mixed only with those living in the poor areas. As a young girl told me, Tangier s population are less sociable than Moroccan southerners. However, I do think that they, like all coastal area inhabitants, are familiar with foreigners, open and multi-cultural. That s why, e.g., Spanish and French are very common there. On the other hand, because of successive foreign rule, they do not trust foreigners much.

Something I didn t understand during my first visit to Tangier about three years ago: I was tracking Shukri and, to my astonishment, nobody knew him or even heard about him .As a Ritz Hotel/restaurant executive explained to me, Shukri himself was upset because of the city inhabitants insistence on ignoring him, particularly in view of the fact that many of the city s foreign visitors and Arab and other intellectuals always ask about him. Pointing to a place near the reception area, with a sad face mixed with a smile as he remembered the man he described as the silent , the executive said, Here Shukbri suddenly felt unwell, and he was rushed to hospital where he died.

In Battuta s mausoleum

On my way to the mausoleum of the famous traveller Ibn Battuta, who lived and died in Tangier, in the old part of the city near the historical kasbah, I saw many beautiful buildings. The road to the kasbah begins with a stone archway surmounted by an old building with a huge wall on the left. After the gate there is a wide cobbled court with rows of old European style buildings. We descended many steps in search of Ibn Battuta s alley and with difficulty found the mausoleum after passing through a maze of narrow alleys.

A small white building with a 3x4m court, the mausoleum is covered in green with gold engravings and a plaque on the wall carrying a biography of Ibn Battuta; Muhammad bin Abdullah bin Muhammad of Tangier, known as Ibn Battua, born in Tangier on 24 February 1304.

In 1325, aged21, he decided to go on pilgrimage and learn more about Sharia in the Muslim world. He travelled to the Maghrib. Egypt, Sudan, Syria, Hijaz, Iraq, Persia, Yemen, Oman, Bahrain, Turkestan and reached India and then went to China and Indonesia and back to central Africa. He came into contact with many kings and rulers and wrote poems and their gifts helped him continue his journey.

Called back by Sultan Abu Anan, he returned to Morocco concluding his 30-year journey. He dictated an account of this journey to Muhammad bin Jazzi Alkabli which took the form of a famous book about his travels and was later translated into a number of European languages. He died in 1355.

The buildings in the kasbah area still retain their old Andalusian features with their huge gates, showing that that period of history had the most impact not only on Tangier but also on Morocco as a whole. We stopped in front of the old Moroccan kasbah bath , which has an old archway and decorations on the front. We saw a small shop with a signboard displayed outside carrying the name Alboughaz Music Club in which an old man was teaching young men playing music on oriental and Western instruments.

Finally we reached the old port which now operates for carrying passengers between Spain and Tangier. The large crowd, especially during the holiday season, was behind planning a huge, ambitious project which will make a quantum leap economically and socially: the Mediterranean port of Tangier, which we decided to make a special visit to.

The new port

Our friend Alallam, in coordination with Minister Muhammad bin Eissa, arranged a meeting with the port director, Mr Hassan Abqari. The port occupies a vast area with containers anchored at its huge docks. Asking him why the new port was planned, he said the old port, being in the city centre, caused traffic and pollution problems, especially during the holiday season (170,000 cargo ships annually).The port was opened in 2007 and now handles about two million cargo ships and over a million passengers a year.

The port has a new feature, the so-called zero division position , which allows cargo ships to go directly to the designated dock, rather than waiting for hours, thus saving cost, time and effort. Abqari said the number of ships from Europe in 2017 is projected to be two million, and the port s proximity to Europe is designed to cope with this huge volume of traffic.

  • Q.What palyed this role before the new port?

A.Malta,, Algeciras (Spain), Barcelona, Valencia and other ports.

  • Q.How did you compete with these large ports?

A.Through the port s standard specifications which allow the simultaneous unloading of five ships. In addition, the port s depth is 12-15m with a large storage and warehousing area. These facilities and resources cut transit time, allowing a ship to make four instead of three rounds daily.

  • Q.What development opportunities for the region does the port provide?

A.It will certainly create job opportunities and an economic and social development centre in Tangier and north Morocco, in addition to other related services, a motorway network from and to the port, and a railway line is under way.

  • Q.What opportunities does the port provide for Tangier s population in particular?

A.A 5,000 hectare plot of land is designated for related services, including an industrial zone with employees accommodation. The French car Renault opened a factory earlier this year with a capacity of 400,000 cars p.a. The factory will provide 600,000 direct job opportunities and 30,000 ones in related industries, such as transport, raw materials, spare parts, rubber, etc.

  • Q.How does he port play a strategic role as a bridge between Europe and Morocco?

A.The distance between Tangier and Europe by way of other ports is covered in 2.5h, but because the port is only 14 km from Spain it takes only 1.25h, thus cutting fuel and cargo costs and saving time. The daily transport cost of 12 metres is now reduced from 400 to 220. Passengers travel costs have also been reduced. We used to handle 25,000 containers a year, but now we handle 15,000 containers a day. The port boosts traffic between Africa and Europe significantly.

  • Q.Does the port have a negative impact on other ports?

A.I don t think so. The port with the most impact (not more than 10%) may be Algeciras, but the real competition is between Spanish ports themselves. We can now attract supertankers, thus compete as European ports do. In this way, the port should be viewed in a European context.

  • Q.Are Ceuta and Mellila affected?

A.No. On the contrary, the port attracts foreigners to the area, including Ceuta and Mellila.

  • Q.Does the port employ foreigners or only Moroccano?

A.We employ some foreigners, mostly Egyptians. At first we relied on experienced Egyptians from Port Said who accomplished their mission successfully, and Moroccan workers took over and they do their job efficiently. Europeans with technical expertise account for only 20% of the total labour force.

On our way out of the port we looked at the dock with the tankers unloaded and passengers disembarking. It was really impressed by this huge project which will change the future of Tangier and the north in general; particularly in view of King Muhammad VI s support for boosting development there. I talked to Eng. Abdul-Latif Alsawy, ex-director of the Urban Development Agency, responsible for the urban planning of Tangier and the area around it. The Agency played a key role to keep up with the social and economic changes which Tangier province has witnessed. I mean the major projects, such as planning Tangier port and ancillary facilities, in addition to designating 2,000 hectares for industry,300 of which for the French car Renault factory, a railway line plan and residential and recreational areas, he said.

Foreign investments have been made in housing, tourism and industry by French, Spanish and Portuguese investors, in addition to highly successful investments by Gulf countries, mainly Kuwait and UAE, he added.

  • Q.How did the Agency deal with urban sprawl at the expense of historical and archaeological areas?

A.Old Tangier is about 30 hectares (25 km2) in area. The Agency made plans to preserve cultural heritage and protect the fronts and original designs of old buildings used by foreigners in Tangier and Asilah. True, only 60% of these plans have been implemented, but we are still pressing, as Tangier has a long history of civilization and it is a multi-cultural city with Italian, Spanish and Portuguese quarters which mix with Andalusian heritage.

  • Q.Does Tangier suffer a housing crisis?

A.Unfortuantely, yes. The population of Tangier in 1930 was 40,000; a million now. Though the city s area expanded thirtyfold, housing development cannot cater for population growth, as after independence priority was given to the industrial and political sectors, which led to the rise of urban slums. The province is planning to get rid of this problem and clear the city from slums within two years, and a new city Shoroft near the port will provide accommodation for about 50,000 port workers in the coming few years.

  • Q.What about the large number of closed flats in a densely-populated city?

A.Well, About 35% of Tangier s flats are closed because many Moroccan expatriates abroad invest in real estate in the hope of making a profit in addition to property speculators, which exacerbates the housing problem which may be dealt with some day.

  • Tangier s architectural style between heritage and modernity

When I returned to Tangier I noticed many modern buildings and high-rise towers in many parts of the city, which made me think about its history: Will the old ports disappear giving way to new residential areas, many buildings in which are closed?

As our tour of Tangier came to an end, its legendary spirit influenced me more. However, I felt it still has many secrets which need months to uncover, particularly its temptation. As a matter of fact, I was concerned that the city would have changed a lot years after my first visit, but my concerns ceased as I remembered those who visited it and were fascinated by it. Its old areas, landmarks, kasbahs and grotto will remain part of its temptation and ability to attract its lovers for ever.

(Translated by Dr Shaaban Afifi)


Ibrahim Farghaly


The old port of Tangier where only passengers are now carried between Morocco and Europe

A view of the old port of Tangier, the crossing point to Europe

The Mediterranean port of Tangier, with facilities rivalling major world ports expected to bring about a quantum leap in the development of north Morocco, not just Tangier

The grotto aperture on the Atlantic which looks like the map of Africa reversed

Hercules Grotto still attracts the youth of Tangier

Inside the grotto, whose touristic nature makes the sale of antiques which reflect the area’s heritage a big business

The grotto’s reputation attracts foreign tourists

A variety of tourist services is available outside the grotto

A girl wearing the traditional dress in northern Morocco around Tangier

Young Paul Bowels and Shukri, a photo hung in Rembrandt restaurant in Tangier

A photo of Muhammad Shukri hung in a restaurant he used to frequent in Tangier

A building in Bouhtouri Street in central Tangier on the top floor of which Shukri lived until he died

The front of Ritz Hotel where Shukri used to spend most of his time

A Ritz Hotel executive told us that Shukri often preferred to sit in one of these two armchairs thinking when not writing or receiving visitors

An old Spanish gun dating back to the Spanish Civil War era in a part of which Tangier shared

A view of Tangier from Alkasala (Loafers) Square. In the horizon the Atlantic cheriches their and many other youth’s dreams

The entrance to Alhafa Café which Shukri made popular by frequenting it. Al Taher bin Jalloun also referred to it in his novel That You Go

Some of Spain’s nearby areas and hills can be seen from Alhafa café when it is clear

A part of the Grand Mosque in 9 April Square. It was converted into a church by the Portuguese then restored its earlier status during the sultans’ era

An entrance to the internal souk

Continental Hotel, which accommodated many world famous writers and artists

The internal souk, the most popular in Tangier, surrounded by Moresque – style buildings

The internal souq

Tangier is famous for its tall hills on which large ports of old Tangier were built

9 April square in central Tangier with a fountain in the middle and Grand Mosque

Alboughaz (the strait) Club which teaches music to Tangier’s children and youth

On Muhammad V Street many of Tangier’s residents display their heritage and earn their living at the same time

One of Tangier’s elderly recalling the dreams and memories of the old city

Horse races are very popular in Tangier in summer and jockeys fire when they reach the finishing line

Old baths, landmarks in Tangier, especially the old part

Jockeys preparing to start the popular horse race in Tangier

The mausoleum of Ibn Battuta, he famous Moroccan traveller born in Tangier in the 14th century AD

Iraqi poet Saadi Youssef decided to spend most of his life away from London, in Tangier, under the shadow of writing and meditation

A passenger ferry from Europe landing at the Mediterranean port of Tangier. The ferry can now operate four-instead of three-daily journeys between Spain and Tangier

The Mediterranean port of Tangier has five of the highest world class docks and harbours all types of ships and containers, including supercontainers

Hassan Abqari, Mediterranean port of Tangier director

In the port of Tangier with its huge dock five containers can be simultaneously unloaded

Eng, Abdul-Latif Alsawi, ex-director of the Urban Development Agency in Tangier

Tahar Ben Jelloun with the editor in the famous Café de Paris, Tangier, Boulevard Mohammed V

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