I look at the list of people who have been here before me. So many writers, painters, musicians, politicians, kings and queens, sultans and sailors have been through Tangier that it makes my act of recording sounds, movements and actions a complex task.
I come after the paintings of Matisse and Delacroix, the music of Paul Bowl, the words of Allen Ginsberg, Peter Orlovsky, William Burroughs, Jean Genet, Roland Barthes, Gore Vidal, Tennessee Williams, and Samuel Beckett. This is the city where Churchill, Onassis and many others stayed because of its key role on the international political and financial chessboard.
I have two weeks to read about Tangier’s history, its culture pre and post colonial independence, pre and post its status of international city, to make ‘rational sense’ of the images and sounds in which I am immersed. I walk along the narrow alleyways of the Old Medina, and visit a couple of museums in search of clues.
Click on sound: Voices in the Old Medina
It is early afternoon and my helpless look must have convinced Francois that we need a long conversation to pick up the fragments of the polyphonic narration, which like a shawl covers the contours of the city, as it lies languidly on the sea. We go up to the roof terrace of the hotel which overlooks the port and I let the wind carry away my anxieties and insecurities.
The sound of the adhan, the Islamic call to prayer from our local mosque fills the air. It is mixed with the clucks of a vociferous cock perching on the balcony of the house next door.
Click on sound: Adhan
The terraces of the old buildings around us with their hanging clothes remind me of Naples. I feel at home. We sit down and talk.
With his soft voice François starts telling me about the many myths of Tangier. I listen entranced as he talks about the links between the history of Noah and the creation myth of the ancient Tingis, a land coming from “la boue”, the mud that was formed after the deluge. This is “la terre originelle”. According to the Old Testament the city was founded by Shem, one of Noah’s sons, and founder of the Semitic people also known as Middle People
But then again following the Greek myth it was the giant Antaeus, the son of the God Neptune and the Goddess Gaea, who founded Tingis.
The story says that Antaeus was defeated by Hercules during a wrestling match. Hercules had traversed the sea between the European continent and North Africa to fetch the golden apples from the garden of the Hesperides, hence the pillars marking the confines between these two parts of the world.
Francois says that we need to visit the cave of Hercules, an archaeological site with Paleolithic inscriptions to feel the power of the myth. We will take a “grand taxi” to reach the site.
I listen with concentration, while taking notes. The wind softly blows away the clouds hanging on the horizon. I loose track for a moment, but then François takes me back to the legend of Atlantis. According to Plato the mythical city was located right beyond the Pillars of Hercules before disappearing around 9,600BC.
I look at the sea in search of signs. The seagulls are circling around the antennas. They are looking for food. The adhan starts again. I can’t believe that two hours have already elapsed. François moves quickly through the centuries, when Tangier becomes a Carthaginian port and then part of the Roman Empire. There is a long series of invasions, the Vandals, the Visigoths, then the Moors rule the city and in 706 AC Tangier becomes the base for the conquest of Spain. He continues with a long description of movements, migrations, conquests and defeats, up to the time of the French colonial power, independence, the international status, and finally the incorporation within the Moroccan state.
How many steps before mine have inprinted their marks on the old pavements of the white city? I feel the thin layer of ancient dust filling my nostrils. It’s chilly, I’m tired, and I need a cup of tea. We get down to the Café Central.