You can be anyone in Tangier. You can remake yourself, rewrite your backstory, reform or deform, indulge your subconscious, cultivate nemeses, or simply start anew. Tingis, Tanja, Tanger, Tangiers, Tangier—even the city takes pseudonyms—is an edge city, caught between worlds, at the border between East and West, between North and South. Stand at the walls of the kasbah atop the medina, and you are at the northernmost tip of Africa, just nine miles from Europe across the Strait of Gibraltar. You overlook both the Mediterranean and the Atlantic, and in the distance rise the Pillars of Hercules—Gibraltar and Jebel Musa—which Plato, in his Timaeus, called the edge of the known world, beyond which was the lost kingdom of Atlantis.

You could also call it Babel, the city God cursed for building its tower too close to heaven. His punishment doomed its inhabitants to speak dozens of mutually incomprehensible languages, and walking down the Boulevard Pasteur on a sunny day, with light fracturing the air and the bay curving into the distance, you might imagine that Tangier was once, a long time ago, too close to heaven.

Over the centuries, however, its fallen residents have learned to understand one another. The borders between languages have blurred, and a waiter will welcome you in perfect French, an Arabic cry will ring out down a street, a taxi driver will speak a formal English worthy of Henry James, and everywhere men will cry out in Spanish at the futbol on café televisions.  

Founded in the fifth century B.C., Tangier has always been a crossroads of cultures, ruled by Carthaginians, Phoenicians, Romans, Arabs, English, Spaniards, and then in the mid-20th century, by European powers as a loosely policed international zone. Each wave of foreigners has added layers to the city, and as you walk through its winding streets today, you will often come upon a place where the layers have been peeled back or have rotted away.

You will find yourself encountering a sheepherder from Ibn Battuta’s 14th century or a mischievous beggar boy straight out of Jean Genet or an anachronistic gentleman in a seersucker suit who has surely wandered out of a Paul Bowles story. As luminous sea light glances off the city’s white walls, it would be easy to imagine that you have slipped into the pages of a novel. The Interzone, as William Burroughs called the place, has always attracted spies, outlaws, outcasts, and well, writers, working at the edge of literary forms and blurring artistic borders.

Tangier’s literary history is unlike any other the world has ever known or may ever know again. What can be said of the city’s historically eccentric inhabitants can also be said of its literature: It escapes from rules, assumptions, conventions, and morality. The city’s main artistic figures cut ties with any notion of home and challenged themselves to create new forms of fiction that they might step into and actually live. They made experiments of themselves and traveled out to the edges of their interior limits, using drugs, drink, and unconventional sexuality as creative tools.

Photo by Fadel Senna AFP/Getty Images.
Photo by Fadel Senna AFP/Getty Images.

The list of edge writers drawn to the city is long, among them Ibn Battuta, Samuel Pepys, Alexandre Dumas, Mark Twain, Edith Wharton, Walter Harris, Genet, Paul and Jane Bowles, William Burroughs, and Joe Orton. For much of the 20th century, Paul Bowles’ small apartment up beyond the Mohamed V Mosque was the center of it all. Make a list of the most daring writers over the last century, and most of them spent time with Bowles in Tangier. Tennessee Williams, Patricia Highsmith, Jack Kerouac, Truman Capote, Gore Vidal, Allen Ginsberg—the list goes on. The outlaw originality of the work they produced is astonishing, most notably in two books partly written in the city: Burroughs’ Naked Lunch (1959) and Bowles’ The Sheltering Sky (1949). However, two of the most original characters ever drawn to Tangier, unjustly forgotten writers worth reading if you’re planning a visit, were Brion Gysin and Alfred Chester.

Gysin, a Canadian, wrote one novel, The Process. It is Burroughs-like in its inscrutability, but Gysin was principally a polymath: a renowned painter who collaborated with Breton and the surrealists, the author of a deeply researched book on the real life of Uncle Tom, and he was the originator of the cut-up technique (cut random phrases from a newspaper and rearrange them to make strange poetry), which inspired Burroughs’ writing. Gysin was also the inventor of the Dream Machine, a patented spinning cylinder that projected a strobe pattern onto the viewer’s eyelids and was meant to induce hallucinations. He hoped that this last invention would make his fortune and finally earn him some recognition. However, when he met with Columbia Records in 1962, which was interested in marketing it, he blew the pitch by veering off to describe another invention: a spinning disc that would hold music, read by a laser—an idea so obviously loony that the executives saw him out.

Then there’s Chester, whose life was more tragic and who could pack more romantic longing into a beautiful sentence than a thousand better-known writers. In the ’60s he was the darling of the intellectual New York Partisan Review crowd, which included Susan Sontag. At the instigation of Bowles, he left that all behind to move to Tangier. There, he fell in love with a fisherman and put his whole heart into falling apart. Filling a room of his apartment with rotting oranges, the crooked orange wig he had worn since a childhood illness became so filthy that it resembled roadkill. Read his short stories if you can find them—“Head of a Sad Angel”—and visit the places in Tangier he writes about, and he’ll make you want to fall apart too and savor the misery.

Theirs are uniquely Tangier stories, not only because of the multilayered experience the city provides but also because Moroccan Arabic, or darija, is not a written language.

Moroccans writers were also integral to Bowles’ circle, notably Mohamed Choukri, Mohamed Mrabet, and Larbi Layachi. They came from exceptionally poor backgrounds and drew on superhuman reserves of determination and charm to escape their circumstances and become accomplished writers themselves. Bowles played a central role in their stories, working with Choukri to translate his searing fictionalized memoir For Bread Alone from Arabic and recording the stories of Mrabet (read Love With a Few Hairs) and Layachi (read A Life Full of Holes), then editing and publishing them in English.

Theirs are uniquely Tangier stories, not only because of the multilayered experience the city provides but also because Moroccan Arabic, or darija, is not a written language. Classical Arabic (fusha, the dialect most closely spoken in the Middle East) is the language of official discourse, newspapers, and magazines, but only a minority of the population can speak it well, much less write it. This puts Moroccan writers in an absurd position unknown in almost any other part of the world: To write about their country, they must choose a foreign language in which to write, generally French or classical Arabic.

Choukri, who was educated by that point, wrote in classical Arabic and worked with Bowles in Spanish. This is what is so interesting about Bowles’ transcriptions of Mrabet’s and Layachi’s spoken stories. They are some of the few Moroccan works we have that were actually composed in Moroccan Arabic. Although there was never any text, and the books were first published in English, a language few Moroccans could read. Even stranger, the books of these men were banned by the kingdom at one point or another, and stories that had originated on the Tangier streets were blocked at customs in their foreign editions.

That these collaborations ever happened and that such iconoclastic characters could experiment so openly with themselves and their writing in a Muslim country is a credit to Tangier’s sophisticated natives. It is also a credit to their history of living in several worlds at once—a quality that has given them a wry, seen-it-all sense of humor and a sympathy for the individual.

Tangier’s social history sheds a more complex light on the 21st-century clash between Islam and the West. If our contemporary commentators were to spend an afternoon sitting in a Tangier café (try Café Hafa, up on the cliffs overlooking the strait and filled with ghosts from the past), their black-and-white opinions would suddenly seem woefully simplistic. Tangier defies definitions. It must be lived—and felt—to be understood. To stroll through its streets is to stroll through the past, through amphibious colors, indefinable smells, cacophonous sounds, and stories. Somebody’s always telling a story. Truth or fiction? Never mind. There’s not much difference here.

Josh Shoemake is the author of Tangier: A Literary Guide for Travellers.