Tangier port town in Morocco is an extraordinary location, at the intersection of the westernmost tip of the Arab World (al-Maghreb), the northernmost tip of Africa and the closest point to Europe.
From the indigenous Berber people to the Phoenicians, Romans and Moors, this region has been contested for thousands of years. It is the seat of an ancient and advanced maritime civilization.
In 1325, writer Ibn Battuta, at the age of 21, set out to explore the world. He travelled to and documented 40 countries and was the first of the great legacy of literature from Tangier.
However, it was during the the international zone period from 1912 to 1956 that Tangier embraced its identity as a literary capital of the world. A flood of writers, painters and musicians came to the city and gave birth to a golden age.
Journalist Walter Harris arrived in Tangier in 1886 and spent the rest of his life there. He was laid to rest at the Church of St Andrew in 1933, the Arabesque Anglican church Henri Matisse painted during his residency in 1912.
Between 1924 and 1956, the Interzone, under the joint administration of France, Spain and Britain, began humming with cultural diversity. It was the scene of the Beat writers, with Jack Kerouac visiting and William Burroughs settling to write Naked Lunch.
Tangier was a home away from home for the Rolling Stones, with founder Brian Jones falling in love with and recording the spectacular Jajouka music from the southern Rif mountains – an ancient, healing fusion of Berber, African and Arabic sounds with Sufi rhythms.
Coupled with the endearing mixture of European and North African architecture; endless views of the Mediterranean and the Strait of Gibraltar; the abundance of kif, hashish and freedom, Tangier developed a reputation for a bohemian spirit and café culture that gave birth to unique characterisations, conversations and stories.
Truman Capote wrote about visiting Tangier: “Withdraw all your savings and say goodbye to your friends – heaven knows when you will see them again.”
This was the case for Paul Bowles and his wife Jane, who made the city their home and contributed to the magical tapestry of literature and culture with books of their own and translations and recordings of Moroccan writers and musicians.
One was Mohamed Choukri. From a poverty-stricken background, Choukri became one of Morocco's most famous writers, telling stories about the history of his people and the eccentric Tangerine writers of his generation, such as Bowles, Jean Genet and Tennessee Williams.
After Moroccan independence in 1956, Tangier’s popularity diminished. However, the intervention of philanthropists kept the creative spirit of Tangier strong.
A centre for literature was always the Librairie des Colonnes, founded in 1949. It was a meeting place for Moroccan, American, Spanish and French authors. Pierre Bergé, co-founder of couture house Yves Saint Laurent, bought the landmark book store and today it is expanding its output with a publishing firm. It recently published one of the most talented writers of the Nouvelle Vague, young Moroccan writer and film director, Abdellah Taïa.
Simon-Pierre Hamelin has been the director of the store for 12 years. He said: “It’s still, and even more than before, a place of meeting for writers, readers and visitors where you can hear free voices from all around the world.
"To promote this literary revival, Librairie des Colonnes publishes a literary review magazine called Nejma (“star” in Arabic) and publishes and distributes books worldwide to show the quality and vivacity of Moroccan literature and culture. We also organise events, book signing, conferences, musical and played readings and writing workshops three times a month.”
The cultural revival in Tangier is supported by strong social and economic development. The industrial port, a winding beach road, the Palais de Culture under construction and endless property developments are changing the face of the city. However, opportunity for the poor and illiterate remains a challenge, with the youth resigned to keeping their “bum on a rock and eyes to Spain”.
Cinema Rif, in the city's grand square, is a landmark for independent cinema. Founded by photographer Yto Barrada, Cinema Rif is celebrating 10 years of reactivation with archiving and screening projects.
Moroccan film is showcased at the annual Tangier International Film Festival, which is celebrating its 10th edition in September. It will launch the Tangier Film Market, Morocco's first film market.
The North African classical music genre draws on Andalusian music and is called Nawbah Andalusi. Les Fils du Detroit perform daily at the Arab-Andalusian café. The sounds of the Darbuka drum, 12 string oud, lira bamboo flute and violins have been heard morning and night from this venue for 40 years.
Tangier also hosts the annual international Tanjazz Festival in September. Featured artists include Moroccan stars Samia Tawil and Ayoub El Machatt and friends.