William S. Burroughs
WSB: Tangier (1954-1958)

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From Ted Morgan's Literary Outlaw

     A city built on low sand hills at the northwestern top of the African continent, Tangier was unique for two reasons: Geographically, it was the only city overlooking both the Atlantic and the Mediterranean, thus straddling two worlds. Legally, it was an international zone. Whereas the rest of Morocco was under French rule, Tangier was goverened by the consuls of eight European nations, and had three official languages-- French, Spanish, and Arabic-and two official currencies, the franc and the peseta. From this special position many benefits flowed.

     Legend had it that the city's origin went back to the Greek hero, Hercules. Walking along the shores of the Mediterranean, en route to pick up some of the Golden Apples in the Gardens of the Hesperides (about sixty miles south of present-day Tangier), Hercules spied a lovely young woman dozing in the sun. It developed that she was married to a local giant named Antaeus, who was the son of Gaea, goddess of earth. As long as any portion of his anatomy touched the ground, he received powerful charges from mother earth that made him invincible. Antaeus challenged Hercules for ogling his wife, and they fought, but every time Hercules threw him, the giant bounced back. In one last, prodigious effort, Hercules lifted him off the ground and crushed him to death in his mighty arms. Then he buried him on the continent's northwest corner, where Tangier today stands. Antaeus was the god of losers, which made Tangier an appropriate haven for all the washed-up people who gravitated there, with stories of having been robbed of their wealth and their power and their strength.

     The actual history of Tangier was one of foreign occupation, so that a certain kind of cosmopolitanism, at once wary and raffish, became inbred. The Berbers were followed by the Phoenicians and the Romans, the Portuguese in the fifteenth century, and the British in the seventeenth. A period of Moroccan monarchs ended in 1912, when the French and the Spanish partitioned Morocco, and Tangier was made a special zone.

     Writers and artists passed through. Mark Twain came in 1867 and wrote that the houses of the native quarter were so jammed together it seemed like "a crowded city of snowy tombs." All the men seemed to be money- changers. At last he had found something uncompromisingly foreign. Matisse lived and painted there from 1911 to 1913.

     Because of its special status, Tangier was a hub of unregulated free enterprise. Anyone with a valid passport could become a citizen of the city. It was a free port, with no import duties or income tax. Gold could be bought over the counter. Anyone with a letterhead and a storefront could open a bank, of which there were close to 100. Anyone with a fistful of cash could become a money-changer, of which there were more than 100. Post-World War II Tangier became a multinational boomtown, a capital of permissiveness. Smuggling was a respectable profession- drugs out and guns in. It was said that the CD license plates did not mean Corps Diplomatique but Contrebandier Distingue (distinguished smuggler).

     Tangier being by definition a place where everything was freely bought and sold, it gained a reputation for wickedness. In his widely syndicated column, "As I Was Saying," Robert Ruark wrote in 1950 that "Sodom was a church picnic and Gomorrah a convention of Girl Scouts" compared to Tangier, which "contained more thieves, black marketeers, spies, thugs, phonies, beachcombers, expatriates, degenerates, characters, operators, bandits, bums, tramps, politicians, and charlatans" than any place he'd ever visited.

     What Ruark did not catch was that although lenient, Tangier was also provincial. It was a small town, where you kept seeing the same people, and everyone knew everyone else. The Arabs, Spanish, French, and expatriate residents coexisted in polyglot harmony. In spite of languid law enforcement, there was little crime. The bulk of the population was made up of hardworking shopkeepers and merchants. There was also a glittering expatriate fringe of the wellborn and truly wealthy. Barbara Hutton wore a diadem and sat on a sort of throne when she received guests in her whitewashed, crenellated palace in the medina. On the Mountain, as an outlying hilly area was known, the inimitable David Herbert, younger brother of the Earl of Pembroke, maintained the traditions (and the cuisine) of English manor life.

     When Burroughs arrived in January 1954, he caught at once the special character of the city, its quality of exemption. It was exempt from every interference. There was no pressure of any sort to curtail private behavior. Hard drugs were routinely sold over the counter. Kif and hashish were openly smoked in little clay pipes with wood stems. Boys were so plentiful you had to fight them off. Here at last was the sanctuary of complete noninterference he had sought in his wanderings. The cop stood there with his hands behind his back, a benign and unthreatening presence. In Morocco, no stigma was attached to homosexuality. According to the distinguished anthropologist Edward Westermarck, author of Ritual and Belief in Morocco, it was regarded with indifference by the Moroccans except in the case of boy whores or of men who practiced passive pederasty, who in the next world would be condemned to wash their faces forever with the urine of Jews.

     Another attractive feature to Burroughs was the low place of women in the society. They were veiled and shrouded, so you hardly noticed them. From the country there arrived men on donkeys followed by women on foot, bent over almost double under their load of charcoal. There was no mistaking their subservient role. Tangier was also a place where magic was a part of daily life, where sorcerers mixed love potions and poisons, where members of secret brotherhoods went into trances and cast spells. In the souks the medicine men sold their wares-powders, bottled elixirs, bunches of herbs, bits of bark, dead lizards, colored stones-all arranged on anatomical charts spread on the ground.

     Burroughs found a room in a house at 1 calle de los Arcos, near the Socco Chico (Little Market). The owner, Anthony Reithorst, a portly fellow known as Dutch Tony, made a living arranging assignations with boys in his quarters for visiting English and American gentlemen. Burroughs hung out at the Cafe Central in the Socco Chico, the meeting place and switchboard of Tangier, and as good a place as any to size up its inhabitants. He saw young Spaniards in gabardine trench coats talking about soccer, Arab guides smoking kif pipes, pimps and smugglers and money-changers, a parade of boys being appraised by expatriate queers, and above all, a parade of losers stuck in Tangier, where, in the words of Auden, "the lonely are battered like pebbles into fortuitous shapes."

     Tangier was the world capital of the stranded. Here was a Danish boy waiting for a friend to arrive with his money and the rest of his luggage, who each day met the ferry from Gibraltar and the ferry from Algeciras. Here was a Spanish boy, waiting for a permit to enter the French zone where his uncle would give him a job. Here was an English boy waiting for a money order, having been robbed of his valuables by a girlfriend.

     There was in Tangier a high concentration of people with vague and unlikely prospects, who sat around cursing their luck and hoping for deliverance. They would get a job on a yacht, or smuggle whiskey into Spain, or write a bestseller. At cafd tables they traded schemes, fantasies of diamond or gun-running, of starting nightclubs and bowling alleys and travel agencies, and Burroughs knew that in spite of their confident voices and decisive gestures, none of it would ever come to pass-the idea, the plan, the project would be allowed to disintegrate undisturbed. All their lives these people had taken wrong turns, they had drifted with an unlucky current, and they had ended up in Tangier.


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