Read Your Way Through Tangier

Credit…Raphaelle Macaron

First, a warning: Tangier is not a place you visit only once. It will charm you, surprise you, make you want to look, then look again. Or at least that’s how it was for me.

The first time I visited the city was as a child, when my family spent a summer vacation there — swimming, fishing and sightseeing. I still remember the pleasure of encountering the local dialect, which was more musical than the one we spoke in the capital, Rabat; the terror of getting lost in the Souk Dakhli while my parents were shopping; and the awe I felt when I saw the opening to the Caves of Hercules.

Later, Tangier became the landscape that inspired my first collection of short stories, “Hope and Other Dangerous Pursuits.” It’s where my husband and I spent anniversary weekends, and the last place I saw my father before he passed away. The city holds some of the most significant memories I have of my country, which is perhaps why I’ve continued to return, year after year.

What should I read before I pack my bags?

It’s impossible to capture Morocco’s extraordinarily rich history in one volume. Depending on your interests, you might enjoy Dreams of Trespass, by the feminist intellectual Fatema Mernissi, which chronicles her girlhood in Fez in the 1940s; “Memories of Absence,” by Aomar Boum, which explores how four generations of Muslims in southern Morocco remember their Jewish neighbors; or “Black Morocco,” by Chouki El Hamel, which tells the history of enslaved people from the 16th century to the beginning of the 20th.

I would also recommend Rebel Music,” by Hisham D. Aidi. Written by a Columbia University professor and a native of Tangier, the book uncovers connections between the Muslim world and the West, using music as a focal point. Aidi shows how hip-hop, Gnawa, reggae and jazz have come to reflect young Muslims’ shared consciousness, their political identities and civil rights activism. Bonus: You can listen to the book’s accompanying playlist while you pack.

What books help explain the city?

“For Bread Alone,” by Mohamed Choukri, translated from the Arabic by Paul Bowles. Choukri is a towering figure in Moroccan literature, and this novel is perhaps his best. It follows a young boy who leaves his village for Tangier — where, his mother tells him, he can have “all the bread” he could ever want. Instead, the boy is neglected, abused and eventually left to fend for himself. Choukri’s voice is fearless, haunting and true.

“The Lemon,” by Mohammed Mrabet, translated from Darija (Moroccan Arabic) by Paul Bowles. Unlike Choukri, who made his living as a schoolteacher, Mrabet was illiterate. This stark, vivid novel was recorded on tape and then translated by Bowles. It’s about a 12-year-old boy who befriends a group of outcasts after he is thrown out of the house by his father. The book’s frank depictions of sex, drugs and alcohol made it somewhat controversial when it appeared in 1969.

“The Last Friend,” by Tahar Ben Jelloun, translated from the French by Linda Coverdale. Ben Jelloun is an extraordinarily prolific writer, having produced dozens of works including novels, stories, collections of poetry and plays. Set in Tangier in the 1960s, “The Last Friend” tells the story of two teenagers who meet in a French high school at a time of political upheaval and revolutionary fervor. Told from three different perspectives, the novel asks us to consider the limits of loyalty — to friends, lovers and even nations.

What did authors who came to visit have to say?

A lot, as it turns out! Tangier has long been a source of inspiration and fascination for writers from all over the world, among them Paul and Jane Bowles, whose association with the city is perhaps the best known. But long before the Bowleses settled in Tangier, the Harlem Renaissance writer Claude McKay had made a home in the city. His autobiography “A Long Way From Home” devotes a good section to his experiences in Morocco.

Others who spent time in the city include Tennessee Williams, Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, Jean Genet, Gertrude Stein, Alice B. Toklas and Juan Goytisolo. Some years ago, Mohamed Choukri wrote three short books about his relationships with Genet, Williams and Paul Bowles — the three expat authors he knew best. These books are collected in “In Tangier” and make for a fascinating, and at times disturbing, reflection on art, collaboration and power.

If I have no time for day trips, what books could take me there instead?

Driss Chraibi’s classic “The Simple Past” — published in 1954, when Morocco was on the cusp of regaining its independence — is set in Casablanca and Fez. It’s an entrancing novel, full of violence and beauty, about a teenager’s rebellion against his tea-merchant father (referred to throughout the book as “the Lord”) and the French administrators who run the country. Coming across the work of Chraibi in my teens was an important part of my literary education, and he’s remained a reference since.

Another book I recommend often is “Year of the Elephant,”by Leila Abouzeid, translated from the Arabic by Barbara Parmenter, which is about an anticolonial activist from Rabat whose husband divorces her abruptly and without explanation. Abouzeid writes with great heart and spirituality about independence, identity and reinvention.

Meryem Alaoui’s Straight From the Horse’s Mouth follows a Casablanca sex worker who is offered a chance to appear in a Dutch film. Translated from the French by Emma Ramadan, the novel is told in diary form, in a tone that is at once dark and funny.

For a broad selection of contemporary short stories, you could also read The Common’s special issue on stories and art from Morocco, which includes works by Malika Moustadraf and Mohamed Zafzaf.

What should I read for a broader historical perspective?

“The Travels of Ibn Battuta.” In 1325, a young Amazigh by the name of Abu Abdullah Muhammad Ibn Battuta left Tangier for Mecca. Instead of returning home after completing his pilgrimage, he continued eastward, traveling some 75,000 miles over the next three decades — a journey reportedly longer than that of Marco Polo. At the end of his life, Ibn Battuta finally returned to Tangier and wrote — or rather, dictated — his travelogue.

I drew some inspiration from Ibn Battuta’s travelogue style for my novel “The Moor’s Account,” which is based on the true story of Estebanico — an enslaved Black man from Morocco who was brought to Florida on a colonial expedition in 1528, but quickly found himself stranded in America with three Spanish noblemen.

What’s a good place to curl up with a book on a day off?

The Cinéma Rif — an Art Deco movie theater beautifully restored by the Moroccan visual artist Yto Barrada. The attached cafe serves drinks and light meals and is a perfect place to sit for a while with a good book.

Laila Lalami’s Tangier Reading List

  • “Dreams of Trespass,” Fatema Mernissi

  • “Memories of Absence,” Aomar Boum

  • “Black Morocco,” Choukri el Hamel

  • “Rebel Music,” Hisham D. Aidi

  • “For Bread Alone,” Mohamed Choukri

  • “The Lemon,” Mohammed Mrabet

  • “The Last Friend,” Tahar Ben Jelloun

  • “A Long Way From Home,” Claude McKay

  • “In Tangier,” Mohamed Choukri

  • “The Simple Past,” Driss Chraibi

  • “Year of the Elephant,” Leila Abouzeid

  • “Straight from the Horse’s Mouth,” Meryem Alaoui

  • The Common literary journal, special issue on Morocco

  • “The Travels of Ibn Battuta”

Laila Lalami is the author of five books, including the novels “The Moor’s Account” and “The Other Americans.” She has won the American Book Award and has been named a finalist for the Pulitzer, among many other accolades.

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