By CHARLES ANDREWS
I LOVE MOROCCO — SO WHAT?
CURIOUS CITY has for its last six years out of seven been focused mainly on things Santa Monica. So… I take an exotic vacation, couldn’t I just skip two columns? Sure. But I don’t really take vacations. I travel. Whenever I can, with the convergence of time and money, and usually with discovering a great deal. I came here to learn something, so why wouldn’t I share that? It’s what a columnist does.
I consider it an insult to be called a tourist. I think of myself as a traveler. Like the 14th Century Tangier scholar Ibn Batouta, who visited 44 countries, but it took him 29 years, back then. (He may even have walked by this former riyad home as it was being built, same century. One of the nine rooms here at La Maison Blanche hotel is named for him.)
Big deal, Ibn. My family hit 30 countries in less than a year, 2011-12, and spent as long as we wanted in each one. 18 days in Morocco, with four in Tangier and three in Jajouka, the Atlas Mountains village of Bachir Attar and the Master Musicians.
BACHIR IS THE REASON
I’m here. I probably won’t get to see Jajouka this time, because he has been spending time in Tangier, staying in Paul Bowles’ apartment. If you don’t know who Bowles is, don’t feel bad. When I first came I barely knew the name. But look him up and you will find a fascinating character so respected in the literary world that the best writers and other artists took longship or plane journeys in the ‘40s – ‘70s to come here to Tangier to see him. Allen Ginsberg, William S. Burroughs, Jack Kerouac, Tennessee Williams, Gregory Corso, Brion Gysin, Timothy Leary, Bernardo Bertolucci (made a film of his “Sheltering Sky” novel), the Rolling Stones (recorded here twice, 1968 and 1989) and more knocked on his apartment door.
I visited Bachir at that apartment, vibrating with history, sitting on the same couch where probably all the aforenamed have sat and told great stories. American photographer and close Bowles friend Cherie Nutting has preserved it, thankfully. On our previous trip she graciously allowed my family to stay there several days, even though we had never met in person.
TANGIER IS LIKE THAT
This is not just another ancient city or Arab world citadel. There is something special and different about Tangier, when you take in its history and its totality. The Phoenicians dug it so much they conquered it around the 10th Century B.C., and the tourists and travelers haven’t stopped coming since. Phoenician tombs are dug into rock overlooking the Mediterranean, just down the street from the remarkable Cafe Hafa, for nearly a century now a gathering place for celebrities and locals young and old to sit in the sun and sip mint tea in glasses stuffed with big leaves, looking down just below to the gorgeous blue sea. On most days you can see Spain across the water. Who knows what great literature has been scribbled at these thick-legged inlaid tables set in concrete? There are places of historic import like this all over this city, if you know where to look if you know where you’re standing.
Introduced me and my family to these two unforgettable sites that many tourists never find out about, when we first visited in 2012, and he is my other excuse for coming. I have learned much more about him and his beloved city this time, staying in his truly amazing (and not very expensive for what it is) hotel on the edge of the kasbah, looking down on the medina, the crazy crowded color-drenched ancient marketplace.
And here is where it circles back to Santa Monica, for me.
Begdouri is considered, for decades, the top travel guide in Tangier and Morocco. Ask Rick Steves, ask Anthony Bourdain. But loving, passionate preservationist probably best describes him, really. He doesn’t so much know about Tangier because he became a tour guide, it’s the other way around; he has lived and breathed it, with great pride and wonder, all his life. And almost all the locals I’ve talked with feel the same pride and protectiveness for their great city.
Tangier is about 10 times the size of Santa Monica and growing very rapidly, but it remains, with its new development, a beautiful city that still looks and feels ancient. They can do that with more than 3,000 years and we can’t handle 150? SM/CA/USA is so much wealthier than Tangier/Morocco so it’s obviously not the means, but the political will.
I AM HAPPY AND HOPEFUL
For what I have heard from Bachir Attar. A movie is being pieced together about his ancient music heritage, not about him or even his father who welcomed Rolling Stone Brian Jones there to record in 1968 (Bachir was 5), but going back 1000 years. They would love to get Johnny Depp for the lead role and I completely concur.
Bachir played me a piece of music, a collaboration of the Master Musicians of Jajouka and some Western players, and it is unlike anything I’ve ever heard, really exciting. And a massive, world-class recording studio is being built to draw top artists from all over the world, featuring the Master Musicians as the calling card. It is not a pipe dream. Bachir took me to the site on a hilltop overlooking the sea, five stories, concrete already poured, less than a year from completion, they figure.
You must look up Bachir Attar too. Close friend and collaborator with the great jazz master Ornette Coleman, played with Flea, the London Symphony Orchestra, Bill Laswell, Talvin Singh, respected worldwide but barely known by the general public. The movie would change that.
Villager Attar has the same pride in his heritage as does city dweller Begdouri and the same passion for preserving it, and both are making bold moves into the future as well. It can be done. Tangier is proof.
Y’all should come here. Your entry may be bumpy but you will learn that there are differences that soon become more endearing than annoying, and for all our sundry costumes, we are all the same under our djellabas and abayas, the world over.
QUOTE OF THE WEEK: “Traveling – it leaves you speechless, then turns you into a storyteller.” – Ibn BatoutaCharles Andrews has lived in Santa Monica for 32 years and wouldn’t live anywhere else in the world. Really. Send love and/or rebuke to him at email@example.com