Looking up a hill, I wonder if this could be the one I’m looking for. Is there a crystal shop at the top? Somewhere here in the Moroccan city of Tangier, I’m hoping to find one.
Not that I actually want to buy any crystal, mind you. And not that I expect that the one I seek actually exists. But, in my head, this is the association I have with Tangier. Somewhere at the top of a hill is a crystal shop with an old man who has given up on his dreams, waiting out his days with a resignation void of inspiration.
It’s this reference to Paulo Coelho’s novel, The Alchemist, that I think of as I walk through the old medina of the city. In case you haven’t read the book yourself, Tangier is where the protagonist, Santiago, arrives from Spain on his way to the Egyptian pyramids on the search for his personal legend. He, however, gets waylaid in Tangier after he is robbed and spends a year working for the man at the crystal shop.
Like most of the places and characters in The Alchemist, Tangier and the shop’s owner represent something deeper. They are symbolic of a melancholic routine that does not look for emotional innovation and does not seek the potential within. Santiago helps the shop grow and gives its owner the means to follow his passion in life.
Paulo Coelho’s depiction is perhaps unfair in reality, although it serves its allegorical purpose. Tangier is, in fact, a bustling city where the constant ferries bring European influences to the entrance of North Africa. Spanish and French mix with the sounds of Arabic and English. Everywhere people are coming and going, the distant sight of the Spanish coast on the other side of the water a comfort for some, a hope for others.
Paulo Coelho was not the first writer to find inspiration with Tangier. This dynamic blend of cultures in an environment of exoticism brought many Americans to the city in the 1940s and 1950s. People like Paul Bowles, William Burroughs, Truman Capote, Tennessee Williams, and Jack Kerouac.
William Burroughs is said to have liked it here because of “the hashish and the boys”. For many of the others, it was more about having a familiar community of expatriates in an unfamiliar world. This was the age of the Beat writers and the genre flourished in this Western pocket of Africa.
One afternoon I take a seat at the Central Cafe in a small square in the heart of Tangier’s medina. A middle-aged waiter with a waistcoat comes to take my order. He does not look particularly Moroccan but nor does he look like any other particular nationality. He, like the city, is international. I, terrible at languages and confused by this situation, order a long black in a mixture of about three tongues: “Could I please have a cafe noir grande, por favor, merci.”
It’s at this cafe that the American writers of the Beat era would often converge. Back then, half a century ago, I can imagine it being a slightly more chaotic and authentic experience, loud conversations fighting with a haze of smoke for control of the space beneath the awning. Now it’s popular with tourists – not because it is much different from all the other cafes in the medina but just because its location on a main central path makes it a natural place to stop for a rest.
“Do you want some smoke, some hashish?” a man sitting next to me asks. I shake my head and smile and think that maybe things haven’t changed too much since the days of William Burroughs… except that it’s quite likely this is some kind of set up or scam. All over Tangier, I’m constantly being offered hashish. There is nothing exotic or hippy about it, though. It just feels dodgy and annoying.
Outside of the old medina, a large and rather modern city has grown. Along the promenade of the main beach, nightclubs and large restaurants proudly proclaim their European influences – in other words, you can drink alcohol here. In the centre of the city, there are large clean boulevards with busy shops and cafes. This is not the Tangier that I had expected and it’s certainly not the one the writers moved through half a century ago.
I’m not going to find my crystal shop at the beach or in the city centre anyway. I’m actually coming to the realisation that I’m not going to find it anywhere. And that is probably a good thing. Santiago found his in The Alchemist because he needed to – he was on a quest to realise his personal legend and this was a step along the way. I am not on such a quest at the moment and Tangier is not the city to me that it was to him.
Like so many of the people here today, Tangier is just a city for me to pass through as I head further along my travels.