Originally created 09/01/02

After neglect, Tangier moving ahead

TANGIER, Morocco - Paul Bowles, Tangier's longtime American resident who wrote The Sheltering Sky and put this legendary city of sin and ennui on the map, is gone.

So, too, is Hassan II, the king who hated the city and the rest of northern Morocco as much as Mr. Bowles loved its intrigue, haunting music and best-known products, hashish and marijuana.

But the former international zone, notorious for drugs, casual sex and frivolity on the fringes of a conservative and fiercely proud Muslim tribal society, is moving ahead. Apartment blocks and pastel-colored villas are mushrooming across hills where sheep once grazed, and factories in duty-free zones are churning out clothing and electrical goods for export north to Europe.

There are many reasons for the new boom in Tangier, one of Africa's longest-inhabited cities and the closest to Europe. In 1912, when French and Spanish forces subdued Moroccan tribes and co-opted the sultan, France established a protectorate over most of the California-sized kingdom. Spain took the remaining northern fifth.

The intense rivalry over Tangier among territory-hungry European colonial powers was contained in 1923 by turning the city into an international zone.

Morocco regained its independence in 1956, and Tangier was gradually absorbed back into the country whose Arabic name, al-Magrib, means "the far west."

Spanish influence is still strong in Tangier and northern Morocco, although Arabic and French are the official languages. The early evening stroll or paseo typical of towns and cities in southern Spain is religiously observed in Tangier. Although these days many do it in late model cars blasting Moroccan hip-hop music along the city's pleasant tree-lined streets.

Tens of thousands of TV aerials and satellite dishes sprouting from rooftops and balconies bring risque Spanish game shows, French dramas and broadcasts from a half-dozen Arab nations into Tangier homes.

The Franco-Moroccan supermarket chain, Marjane, has opened a huge store on the southern approach to the city. But most of Tangier's estimated 1 million inhabitants still seem to prefer the traditional souks or markets where mounds of brown, green and gray olives surround piles of preserved lemons, and women from the Rif wearing huge straw hats with blue tassels sell fragrant bunches of bright green mint or "nana" for the tea that fuels endless hours of conversationin the city's cafes.

Although no reliable figures are available, money from the illegal export to Europe of pungent blocks of hashish and bales of marijuana is believed to be fueling Tangier's construction boom and encouraging the continued migration from rural areas to the city.

Vast fields of marijuana, or kif as it is known here, cover the foothills and slopes of the Rif Mountains. Kif - and its byproduct, hashish - is the economic mainstay of Berber peasant farmers, much as coca leaves are for peasants in Colombia and Peru.


GETTING THERE: The only direct flights from the United States to Morocco are via Royal Air Maroc to Casablanca. There is train and bus service from Casablanca to Tangier, and it is possible to rent a large Mercedes taxi for the five-hour drive. This is a particularly attractive arrangement for three or more people.

It is also possible to fly directly to Tangier from London, Paris, Amsterdam, Madrid and Malaga, Spain; but in good weather, probably the best way to approach Tangier is by sea on one of the several daily ferries from Algeciras, Spain, that make the 2 1/2-hour trip from Europe to Africa across the Strait of Gibraltar.

LODGING: Tangier has a number of inexpensive pensions and hotels for between $20 and $30 a night in the "medina" or old quarter of the city. The most interesting is the Continental near the port. There are others along the avenue d'Espagne on the seafront. More upmarket are the Rembrandt and Tanjah Flandria on boulevard Pasteur in the new part of town. For a binge, try the Minzah, a former traditional Moroccan palace with a pool within walking distance of the medina.

DINING: Really good Moroccan food can be difficult to find outside private homes. But try Hamadis at the edge of the medina or Heart of Tangier in the new town next to the Grand Cafe de Paris. The Casa Italia inside the courtyard of another former palace is a very pleasant place for dinner.

MISCELLANEOUS: Morocco is on 0000GMT; the 220V electrical outlets take European continental plugs, and the currency, the dirham, has an approximate value of 10 to the dollar; the best time to go is between April and September. There are occasional heavy rain storms in October and November; December can be cold, and January and February can be gloomy.

ON THE NET: http://i-cas.com/morocco/tangier.htm; www.maroc.net/legation


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