Archive for Sunday, September 15, 2002

Tangier returns to good graces

Legendary Moroccan city attracts attention after years of official neglect

September 15, 2002

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— Paul Bowles, Tangier's longtime American resident who wrote "The Sheltering Sky" and put this legendary city of sin and ennui on the map, is gone.

So, too, is Hassan II, the king who hated the city and the rest of northern Morocco as much as Bowles loved its intrigue, haunting music and best-known products, hashish and marijuana.

Residents and tourists walk beneath a banner of King Mohamed VI on
Tangier&squot;s seafront Royal Armed Forces Boulevard. The 38-year-old
monarch gave his third annual speech from the throne this summer in
Tangier, reversing more than three decades of official neglect of
the legendary Moroccan city. The banner reads, in Arabic, "Happy
anniversary and long life."

Residents and tourists walk beneath a banner of King Mohamed VI on Tangier's seafront Royal Armed Forces Boulevard. The 38-year-old monarch gave his third annual speech from the throne this summer in Tangier, reversing more than three decades of official neglect of the legendary Moroccan city. The banner reads, in Arabic, "Happy anniversary and long life."

But the former international zone, notorious for drugs, casual sex and frivolity on the fringes of a conservative and fiercely proud Muslim tribal society, is moving ahead. Apartment blocks and pastel-colored villas are mushrooming across hills where sheep once grazed, and factories in duty-free zones are churning out clothing and electrical goods for export north to Europe.

There are many reasons for the new boom in Tangier, one of Africa's longest-inhabited cities and the closest to Europe. Foremost among them is King Mohamed VI, the 38-year-old who assumed the throne on July 30, 1999.

Unlike his late father Hassan II, who developed a strong dislike and mistrust for the tough, independent northern Berber tribes whose final rebellion he quashed in 1958 while still crown prince, Mohamed spent his summers in Tangier with his grandmother, enjoying the bracing sea breezes, the beaches, sports and life away from the formality of the royal court.

This year, he chose Tangier pointedly neglected throughout his father's 38-year reign as the site of his third annual speech from the throne. On the following day, he traveled east to Tetouan, where Berber chiefs from the imposing Rif Mountains assembled on horseback in full regalia to pay him homage.

In his speech, which also touched on the importance of recognizing and promoting the rights of Berbers and women, the king declared his intention to make Tangier and its environs "one of the biggest ports and most important resort areas in the Mediterranean."

Power struggles

Young men drink sodas, coffee and mint tea at an outdoor cafe on
Tangier's boulevard Pasteur. Despite a construction boom in the
northern Moroccan city, unemployment is high, and young men spend a
lot of time in cafes.

Young men drink sodas, coffee and mint tea at an outdoor cafe on Tangier's boulevard Pasteur. Despite a construction boom in the northern Moroccan city, unemployment is high, and young men spend a lot of time in cafes.

In 1912, when French and Spanish forces subdued Moroccan tribes and co-opted the sultan, France established a protectorate over most of the California-sized kingdom. Spain took the remaining northern fifth.

The intense rivalry over Tangier among territory-hungry European colonial powers was contained in 1923 by turning the city into an international zone.

Morocco regained its independence in 1956, and Tangier was gradually absorbed back into the country whose Arabic name, al-Magrib, means "the far west."

Spanish influence is still strong in Tangier and northern Morocco, although Arabic and French are the official languages. The early-evening stroll or "paseo" typical of towns and cities in southern Spain is religiously observed in Tangier. But these days many do it in late-model cars blasting Moroccan hip-hop music along the city's pleasant tree-lined streets.

Tens of thousands of TV aerials and satellite dishes sprouting from rooftops and balconies bring risque Spanish game shows, French dramas and broadcasts from a half-dozen Arab nations into Tangier homes.

A Berber woman from Morocco's northern Rif Mountains sells fresh
mint outside one of the many markets in Tangier.

A Berber woman from Morocco's northern Rif Mountains sells fresh mint outside one of the many markets in Tangier.

Markets, economy

The Franco-Moroccan supermarket chain, Marjane, has opened a huge store on the southern approach to the city. But most of Tangier's estimated 1 million inhabitants still seem to prefer the traditional "souks" or markets where mounds of brown, green and gray olives surround piles of preserved lemons, and women from the Rif wearing huge straw hats with blue tassels sell fragrant bunches of bright green mint or "nana" for the tea that fuels endless hours of conversation in the city's cafes.

Every summer, tens of thousands of Moroccans working in Europe MREs (Moroccans residing abroad) as they're officially known return home via Tangier in vehicles loaded with goods and appliances to sell to pay for the trip. During the rest of the year, the remittances they send home from their wages in Europe are Morocco's main source of hard currency.

Although no reliable figures are available, money from the illegal export to Europe of pungent blocks of hashish and bales of marijuana is believed to be fueling Tangier's construction boom and encouraging the continued migration from rural areas to the city.

Vast fields of marijuana, or kif as it is known here, cover the foothills and slopes of the Rif Mountains. Kif and its byproduct, hashish is the economic mainstay of Berber peasant farmers, much as coca leaves are for peasants in Colombia and Peru.

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