It has been nineteen years.
On the plane I keep telling myself I'm
going back to Tangier to see my old house and garden, find my old
house-keeper, pick up a few new recipes, see a few old friends.
The truth is I want to revisit the city which formed my adult
life...perhaps finally to get it out of my system. It has been 19
years. Between 1959 and- 1976, I did three stints in Tangier.
Each time I left, I longed to return; and now I am returning again.
For me Tangier was always a place of contradictions
-- European and Arab, luxurious and shabby, comfortable and
exotic, familiar and mysterious. It was the city where I had lived
unhappily with one husband and very happily with another,
set up households, raised my children, forged friendships,
learned what the Mediterranean life-style was about and how to live
It was also the place where I found my
vocation as food- writer, where I discovered who I really
My first impression upon arriving back:
I do not recognize the place! Tangier seems huge. Streets have been
rerouted, villas have sprung up where sheep once grazed. The sparkling
city I remember now looks drab, in desperate need of whitewash.
But the smells are the same: wood-fueled
cooking fires, bread baking in community ovens, spices in the markets,
mint tea in the cafes, sawdust on the street of carpenters---and
always the aroma of the sea blending with perfume the pine-scented
I walk past a humble house, and am enveloped
by the mingled scents of cumin, simmering onions, and the preserved
meat Moroccans call khlea. I'm suddenly reminded of my first meal
in Morocco, more than 30 years ago---a couscous flavored with saffron,
golden raisins, and sweet long-cooked onions cut into winglike shapes.
For my visit, I have rented a Moorish-style
villa from my English friend, Tessa, in the hillside suburb of Djemma
el Mokra, just a few hundred yards from my old house. The view,
as always, is turning: the city spreading out below, the curve of
the harbor, the Rif Mountains beyond. But the once luxuriant green
hills are now covered with houses. Tangier, my friends tell
me, has nearly tripled in size since I was last here.
I have two immediate objectives: to find
Fatima, my old housekeeper, who was almost a surrogate mother to
my children, and who taught me so much in the kitchen; and to see
the wonderful house where I spent so much time, and where I planted
a garden with waves of agapanthus, daylilies, and irises spilling
down the hillside. After all these years it will surely be magnificent.
Fatima, alas, is not to be found. I show
an old picture around on the streets, in the markets. A photo
that reveals her strong Riffian features. The old miller who used
to grind our wheat--- (Fatima used to say that she only felt safe
when there was a 100-pound sack of wheat in the house) ---smiles
gently. "Yes, I remember her," he says, "but I haven't
seen her in years...."
Word spreads quickly that an American woman
is searching for a housekeeper. It's that way in Tangier: The gossip
mill, which we call 'Tangier radio,' always gets things mixed up.
Soon women start showing up at the door. "My name is Fatima.
You need a cook?" I shake my head. "I'm just trying
to find a friend."
Our old house -- I can't believe what's
been done to it: checkerboard stonework where we had installed flagstones,
kitschy decorations that destroy the clean clear lines of the authentic
Art Deco facade. The new owner shows me around. She speaks without
sorrow of ripping out the bougainvillea and cutting down the magnificent
flowering trees that shaded the terrace. "They could have fallen
on the house," she explains.
And the flower garden is gone. "I
hate flowers," she says. ' Instead, she tells me proudly, she
is growing vegetables. My garden has become a cabbage patch!
She is kind to let me see the place and
so proud of her "improvements" I do my best to conceal
my pain. Later the photographer who accompanied tells me I tramped
around my ruined garden like a zombie. Well, they say you
can't go home again.
But enough of disillusion. I have only
a few days. I want to see Tangier at its best!
Cafe Haffa, a romantic outdoor Moroccan
tea cafe-garden cut into the steep cliffs above-looking the harbor,
is just the same, filled with old men sipping, smoking and conversing
in private alcoves, while numerous cats scurry about. I remember
once sitting here on clear days with the expatriate writer, Paul
Bowles, listening to him talk as he gloomily smoked cigarettes,
gazing out at the Straits and the distant shoreline of Spain.
Sadly, when I arrive, Paul is in the States.
I phone him in Atlanta, Georgia, to wish him well. We speak
of old times, the Tangier I used to know. "Yes, it's different,"
he agrees, with his usual courteous melancholy. "But then everything
is these days, isn't it?" Paul, so gaunt and wry, has long
been a key figure in the expatriate English-speaking literary community
of Tangier. Others, at various times, have included William
Burroughs, Allen Ginsberg, the beat poet Gregory Corso, British writer
Alan Sillitoe, and the avant-garde writer Brion Gysin--- who was
also briefly a restaurateur: He opened a place called The Thousand
and One Nights, but disgruntled Moroccan workmen put a djinn---a
spirit---in the bathroom, and cursed the place until it closed.
And of course there was Paul's wife, the
fragile, talented, and funny, yet ultimately tragic, Jane Bowles,
obscure during her lifetime but rediscovered since her death. I
recall Jane taking me to lunch at a beach club restaurant with Tennessee
Williams, where we ate grilled fish and Moroccan salads while Tennessee
was sorrowful over a young Moroccan who had rejected his advances.
Tangier in the 1960s was more than a city:
It was a state of mind, a place people came to reinvent themselves
and to live out their most eccentric fantasies. The phone book listed
several "countesses" and "barons" who were actually
courtesans and butcher boys. The phone company didn't care. The
phones didn't work anyway.
Barbara Hutton, poorest of 'the poor little
rich girls', was there, so demented in her final years that she
bought a title then insisted we call her 'Princess'; so was Marta
Ruspoli, a real princess, who came to believe in the lost continent
of Atlantis after she found the American Indian arrowheads
her grandchildren had mischievously seeded in her lawn; and so was
David Edge, a marvelous old fraud who lived in a palace in
the Casbah decorated like a stage-set, and sported a golden crucifix-
--a parting gift from the Primate of Hungary, he shamelessly
declared, with whom he'd shared a great love in his youth.
But some of my most vivid memories of my
early Tangier remain those of the Bowleses and the other Tangier
writers who encouraged me. It took me a long time to discover
my medium; Writing cookbooks is not the first thing that comes
to mind in a group of novelists and poets. But Brion Gysin
kept saying that somebody had to do a book about Moroccan
food, and though he always claimed he was going to do it himself,
he never did. I had already studied cooking a bit, so I thought
Such a place attracted what we called 'great
Tangier characters', most dead now. To paraphrase Norma Desmond
in Sunset Boulevard, they had faces then!
Tangier, you see, was long a haven for
gays. Today, with homosexuality widely acknowledged, I find it touching
that the city once served as refuge for those whose 'love dared
not speak its name.'"
Visiting old friends one day, I have lunch
with Joe McPhillips, headmaster of the American School of Tangier,
where my children spent their formative years, and where Yves
St. Laurent has designed costumes for the school play a couple of
times. (Paul Bowles still writes music for the annual production.)
"But," he adds, over asparagus with poached eggs and a
popular Tangier dish of fish in a chermoula marinade, "It's not
like the old days Paula," he says over lunch. We dine at his
home on a popular Tangier fish dish, seasoned with a spicy chermoula
marinade of coriander, parsley, paprika and cumin. "Remember
how, in the old days, there were two separate cities, Arab
and European?. Now we expatriates are much more involved with the
Moroccan life. In that way, the city's better than ever."
The next evening, another longtime resident,
the Chilean painter Claudio Bravo, invites me to dinner at his magnificent
house on the Old Mountain Road, which has perhaps the finest
garden in the city, and views over the Straits of Gibraltar. We
talk about art, and about food trends. "Now that people have
TV," says Claudio, "they watch cooking shows from
Egypt, Tunisia, and France." The dish of the moment, he tells
me, is a kind of ersatz bisteeya, filled with Moroccan spiced fish
and Chinese noodles! Claudio serves me a version---small crisp rolls
stuffedwith gelatinous pasta and coriander-scented shrimp. Then
we get more traditional, with a delicious lamb, okra, and quince
"I rarely go out," he says. "I
draw and paint fourteen hours a day. I don't miss the bars
or the lavish parties. Anyway, this isn't a party town anymore."
Then, naming Matisse, Delacroix and Francis Bacon, all of
whom spent time in Tangier: "It's still one of the best
places in the world for a painter."
Another day, I visit the Fez Market,
where I used to buy my vegetables, I wander the stalls, marveling
over the freshness of the produce. Suddenly an old Berber woman,
in red-and-white striped apron, with pompons on her hat, throws
her arms about me. We kiss. I used to buy wild mushrooms from
her. "So good to see you!" she says. "How are the
children?" Soon other venders, old friends, crowd around. Finally
I feel at home.
Barbara Temsamani, an American married to a Moroccan
industrialist, takes me to lunch to the home of Saad Hajouji, grandson
of El Glaoui, the legendary pasha of Marrakech. The food is lavish:
triangular pastries filled with bisteeya stuffing, and pigeon
smothered in raisins, and huge amounts of peeled chick peas and
peeled green grapes in a sauce seasoned with onions, nutmeg,
saffron, ginger, black pepper, cubed lamb's liver and a touch
of vanilla. This is Moroccan palace cookery at its finest---labor-intensive,
reproducible only with a staff of old women cooks called dadas.
Later, Barbara introduces me to a caterer,
Zora, who teaches me a Tangier homestyle dish of lentils with preserved
meat. From her, I learn a delicious version of orange and radish
salad, and a difficult pastry dough called azut cadi, a favorite
Moroccan sweet breakfast dish inevitably served with butter and
dark country honey. It is the most difficult to execute well.
Moroccans call this dish "The Caid's Turban," because,
at one point, during the preparation, the cook twirls a long snakelike
ribbon of stretched dough into the shape of a turban, and, as it
cooks, unravels it much the way a Moroccan dignitary might
uncurl his fabric headpiece. In the end the dish resembles
a plate of spaghetti --
I remember in 1968, my son, then a small
boy, returned from an expedition to a Berber festival in the
Mountains, in the company of his father and Brian Jones, of The
Rolling Stones, to describe, with wondrous eyes, a strange bread
he called "spaghetti bread." I have finally learned
to make that bread this week...
On my last day in Tangier, I visit a natural
spring, Ain La Lanyoun, high on the hill above our old house.
I would sometimes accompany Fatima here when she went to fetch
water; it is known for its healthful properties, and she liked
to use it when making bread. The source is approached by a
walkway through a garden. I recognize the old man who guards
the place and keeps it clean. He nods sweetly but does not remember
me. We chat briefly about the wonderful "lightness" of
the water here, which differentiates it from other water in
the area. "You can drink as much as you like and you will never
feel full!" he reminds me. I give him a few coins, as one always
does. Back on the road, I continue up the crest of the hill for
a final look at Tangier.
The Straits are calm, a deep marine blue,
and the cloudless sky is a pure blue dome, truly a "sheltering
sky" as in the title of Paul Bowles' novel. It is late
afternoon. The light is ravishing. Gulls circle the harbor.
Parasol pines emit resin perfume. The Rif mountains glow mysteriously to
the East. The soiled city glitters white. Memories flood back. But 19
years is a long time, and I have learned, away from Tangier, that
there are no paradises on this earth.
My last thought before I descend the hill:
I wish Fatima were there with me, so I could take her face
in my hands and kiss her good-bye. This time, I don't think
I'll ever return. Tangier has changed...and so have I.