Situated on the northernmost tip of Morocco, nine miles from the southern coast of Spain, Tangier is a city at the confluence of the Atlantic Ocean and the Mediterranean Sea. Known in Morocco as the “Bride of the North,” for its romantic charm, the city of Tangier has always cast some oriental magic on its visitors. Many have found their safe abode or mystical muse in Tangier, travelers and wanderers, fugitives and spies, drug dealers and smugglers, mystics and hermits, and poets and novelists.

Tangier: Historical Background

The myth says that the Greek king Hercules the Great (known as Heracles in Greek) built himself a cave on the cliffs overlooking the Atlantic Ocean at Cape Spartel, 13 kilometers south of Tangier. He is said to have rested there after finishing his eleventh labor of fetching the golden apples of the Hesperides from Lixus (the modern-day Moroccan city of Larache, southwest of Tangier).

Hercules Cave overlooking the Atlantic Ocean.

Hercules Cave overlooking the Atlantic Ocean.

The famous Hercules Cave, as it is still known today, serves as a tourist attraction frequented by local and international visitors seeking a glimpse into a fabled history. The myth also says that the African continent was previously attached to Europe, but during one of his fiercest fights with Antaeus son of Gaia, Hercules the Great, in fear and fury, hit the mountain to split the two continents and created the Gibraltar strait.

Etymologically, there are many versions to how Tangier got its current name, the most acceptable of which is that it was named after Tinjis, wife of Antaeus and daughter of the Titan Atlas, whose name is borne by the Atlas Mountains in Morocco today. The well-known Moroccan author Mohamed Choukri was right when he once said that “Tangier is a mythical city. . . . A town, a city, without myth is a dead city.”

Tangier – being at the intersection between Europe, Africa, and the Arab World – has long served as a nexus for various encounters, and a city coveted and inhabited by many civilizations. In the words of Mark Twain, “the Phoenicians, the Carthaginians, the English, Moors, Romans, all have battled for Tangier—all have won it and lost it.”

Each of these civilizations have impacted the history of Tangier and left imprints that continue to attest to the rich heritage of the city. Recent anthropological research has identified considerable Phoenician evidence (pottery, iron objects, etc.) in addition to the well-known Phoenician Necropolis in Tangier.

When the Phoenician reign faded away, the city fell consecutively under the sway of the Romans, then the Vandals, the Arabs, the Portuguese, the Spaniards, and the English until 1923 when it was declared an International Zone by colonial powers. It was, thus, governed by several Western countries, above all France, Spain, Portugal, England, and the United States.

The Tangier interzone period – beginning in 1923 and ending at the dawn of Morocco’s political independence in 1956 – marked a very special time in the history of the city. It alluringly promised a cosmopolitan freedom that attracted people from all around the world, most notably Western artists, painters, and writers.

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Tangier of the 1950s and 1960s: An Artists’ Catalyst

More than any other world city, the Moroccan city of Tangier has arguably had the greatest impact on the course of American literature. Many of the American Beat Generation writers either lived, stopped over, or sojourned in Tangier, the city that provided them with both inspiration and relaxation. As Truman Capote wrote, “it is alarming the number of travelers who have landed here on a brief holiday, then settled down and let the years go by. Because Tangier is a basin that holds you, a timeless place; the days slide by less noticed than foam in a waterfall.”


Tangier is a city at the confluence of the Atlantic Ocean and the Mediterranean Sea

Indignant and incensed at the cruelty exhibited by Western countries during World Wars I and II, and the negative aspects of the then contemporary Western civilization, many American and European writers of the 1950s and 1960s succumbed to the allure of Tangier.

“So long as you don’t proceed to robbery, violence, or some form of crude, antisocial behavior, you can do exactly what you want,”[1] the famous American writer William S. Burroughs wrote. In addition to their quest for the liberty and free expression the city provided, American and European expatriate writers in Tangier, like most of their characters, arrived in search of a place untainted with Western cultural imperialism.

Mark Twain was one of the earliest American writers who visited Tangier in the 1860s and chronicled his journey in a book entitled “Innocents Abroad.”

“Tangier is a foreign land if ever there was one; and the true spirit of it can never be found in any book save ‘The Arabian Nights,’” Twain writes. Though Twain’s account of Tangier is brushed in Orientalist colors, often portraying the city as strikingly foreign and other, it undoubtedly inspired further interest in the city.

Tangier would become the voluntary exile for many American writers, after Paul Bowles began the trend in 1947 when he moved to Morocco permanently.

A century later, Tangier would become the voluntary exile for many American writers, after Paul Bowles began the trend in 1947 when he moved to Morocco permanently before he was joined by his wife, Jane Bowles. His first novel, “The Sheltering Sky,” which he wrote in Tangier, served as a call for American writers to leave the modern world behind and go in search of different realities and experiences abroad. His other novels, such as “Let It Come Down” and “The Spider’s House,” also played a significant role in attracting more Americans to the city. Paul Bowles lived in Tangier until his death in 1999.

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Panoramic view of Tangier, Morocco.

William S. Burroughs got his shot of inspiration to live in Tangier after he read Paul Bowles’ “Let it Come Down,” he said in several interviews. He could not resist the enticement of freedom in Tangier, especially as he was considered a man of dangerous tastes: a homosexual and drug addict.

In his essay “The Name is Burroughs,” he writes: “As a young child, I wanted to be a writer because writers were rich and famous. They lounged around Singapore and Rangoon smoking opium in a yellow pongee silk suit. They sniffed cocaine in Mayfair . . . and lived in the native quarter of Tangier smoking hashish and caressing a pet gazelle.”

Burroughs, thus, moved to Tangier in the early 1950s and lived there for four years. In a 1955 letter to Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg, he describes Tangier as “the prognostic pulse of the world, like a dream extending from past into the future, a frontier between dream and reality—the ‘reality’ of both called into question.”[2]

Tangier, hence, provided William S. Burroughs with the necessary conditions for the imaginative ingenuity he needed to realize his childhood dream of becoming a writer. His breakthrough novel, “The Naked Lunch,” which he began writing in Tangier, gained him much popularity in literary circles and established him as a man of letters.

Alfred Chester, John Hopkins, and Brion Gysin were also among the American literary figures who resided in and wrote memoirs about Tangier. Other renowned American writers who had less extensive sojourns in Tangier were Tennessee Williams, Truman Capote, Allen Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac, Gore Vidal, and Gregory Corso.

These expatriate writers found in the international zone of Tangier a place where they could set free from their “obnoxious” cultural and national American identity and negotiate new transnational, hybrid identities. The literature they produced not only enjoyed a wide readership but too influenced American literature in many ways.

Tangier Today: A Fascinating Modern City

Thanks to its history and geostrategic location, Tangier today is the second largest economic hub in the country after Casablanca. Since the launch of King Mohamed VI’s economic development plan right after his enthronement in 1999, the city has made colossal strides in the development of industrial and commercial infrastructure. Now, Tangier is home to the largest shipping port in Africa – Tanger Med Port, which has recently made a meteoric rise in its performance and operational services.

Tangiers walled fortress overlooking the sea.

Tangiers walled fortress overlooking the sea.

According to the final figures of port activity for 2020, Tanger Med has become the first container port in the Mediterranean, with a tonnage capacity of 81 million tons of cargo, marking an increase of 23 percent compared to 2019. The Tanger Med industrial platform also ranked as the second most attractive economic zone in the world, in the Financial Times’ FDI Intelligence report for 2020.

The report compares about 100 economic zones from around the world based on international benchmarks and measures the adequacy of their value proposition with investors’ expectations. Tangier is also home to Morocco’s largest automotive industry, attracting some of the world’s top car manufacturers like Renault-Nissan. In 2017, the company celebrated the production of its millionth vehicle at the Renault-Nissan plant in Tangier.

The ambitious regional development program for the Tangiers-Tétouan-Al Hoceima region has transformed the city into a magnet for large-scale investments.

The ambitious regional development program for the Tangiers-Tétouan-Al Hoceima region and the Tangier-Metropolis program – launched by King Mohamed VI in 2013 – have transformed the city into a magnet for large-scale national and international investments. Accordingly, the city’s infrastructure has benefited from several multidimensional projects such as roads, schools, daycare and youth centers, clinics, sports facilities, parks, community-based markets, and mosques.

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The inauguration of a high-speed train between Tangier and Casablanca in 2018 – the first of its kind in Africa – was another big achievement. The train runs at a speed of up to 320 km/h (199 mph), reducing the travel time from Tangier to Casablanca to 2h 10min instead of 4h 45 min.

In March 2017, King Mohamed VI launched the Tangier Tech Smart City, based near the Tanger Med Port. The Smart City is an industrial and residential zone expected to be completed by 2027. On November 3, 2020, Morocco officially signed share agreements with State-owned China Communications Construction Company (CCCC) and its subsidiary, China Road & Bridge Corporation (CRBC). These Chinese corporations will hold 35 percent of the capital of the Tangier Tech Development Company (SATT), which is in charge of the construction and management of the city.

Moreover, several Chinese automotive, textile, electronics, and aerospace companies have already announced their intentions to invest in Tangier Tech city. These investments and many more are bolstering the economy of Tangier, making it one of the most rapidly growing cities in the country.

With its undeniable magnetism and mythical appeal, revealing the influence of various civilizations and having inspired countless internationally renowned artists and authors, Tangier continues to be a unique hub of history, innovation, and cultural exchange, even as it decisively looks toward a vibrant social and economic future today.

[1] James Grauerholz and Ira Silverberg, eds., Word Virus: The William S. Burroughs Reader (New York: Grove Press, 1998), p. 128.

[2] Ralph M. Coury and R. Kevin Lacey, eds., Writing Tangier (New York: Peter Lang, 2009), p.4.