From 1923 until Morocco’s independence in 1956, Tangier was under international administration. No less than nine European powers held the reins of power. It was a golden age for smugglers, drug dealers and spies. The city was once talked about in the same breath as London, Paris and New York and during its glory years from the mid-1920s, it was an international zone, administered by a joint convention including France, Spain and Britain.

It was the literary figures, most of them American, who propagated the myth of the city of Tangier in north-western Morocco as a den of permissiveness, danger and excitement. Paul Bowles came to the city sometime around 1950 on the recommendation of Gertrude Stein and fell in love with the easy Mediterranean life. He achieved worldwide fame with his Moroccan novel “The Sheltering Sky”, and stayed until his death in 1999. He arrived just in time to experience the wild years of the Tangier International Zone when it was El Dorado for millionaires, smugglers and secret agents, where every day extravagant parties took place in the villas of the high society. A cosmopolitan centre of decadence and creativity.

It is not surprising that many other authors followed his footsteps, fled their prudish homelands and flocked to Tangier, where the cost of living was low and life easy and exciting. Most of them eventually left the city, but Paul Bowles remained, writing his existential stories and travel reports about growing weary of Western civilisation and the pointless search for something better.

It was all these writers that made Tangier a literary fiction. Reality and fantasy were blended and a narrative was created where the Orient was made a sensual, exotic backdrop. They were barely interested in the lives of the locals. Tangier became a dream destination for pleasure-seeking Westerners in search of adventure, good weather and exotism and thus became a magnet for international socialites, artists, interior designers, aristocrats and fortune seekers. Names such as Francis Bacon, Samuel Becket, Jean Genet, Tennessee Williams, Jack Kerouac, William Burroughs, Truman Capote, Henri Matisse, Roland Barths, Charles de Sevigny, Yves Vidal, Barbara Hutton, Yves St Laurent, Pierre Berge were some of those fortunate to have lived the golden days of this extraordinary city, crossroad of cultures.

In the 80s the city rapidly sank into cultural and political oblivion and the neglect continued until His Majesty King Mohammed VI acceded to the throne. His Majesty saw the economic potential of a city at the crossroads of Europe, Africa, the Mediterranean and the Atlantic. Tangier can be proud now of having not only Africa’s biggest port but North Africa’s biggest car factory and Africa’s first high-speed rail link to Casablanca and soon to Marrakesh. The King spends as much time as he can at his palace in Tangier and personally supervises the renovation and restoration of the city. Squares like the Grand Socco at the entrance to Medina are being redesigned and the parks of the city are planted with new greenery. On Tangier’s Corniche, hotels, swimming areas and large tourist complexes are being constructed. The city can now boast of new great 5-star hotels, charming restaurants with excellent cuisine, a new cultural vibe and the recovery of the former glory of most of its historical monuments. The old Medina is undergoing a full restoration under the auspices of UNESCO and a new wave of prominent foreigners have settled in Tangier in recent years. The paradox is that the more the Moroccans strive for modernity, the more the Europeans and Americans that settle in the city, search for tradition.

Tangier sits at the crossroads of trade routes and civilizations – on African soil, but just a few miles from Europe’s southern shores. Throughout its history, this exceptional location has attracted merchants, bankers, artists, vacationers, and all manner of adventurers, becoming a cosmopolitan, multilingual place, highly tolerant of diversity. The story repeats itself and the north Moroccan city once talked about in the same breath as London, Paris and New York is back on the map as one of the most desirable destinations in the world. Tangier indeed is Morocco’s phoenix bird.

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