May 29, 2023

What to Do in Tangier, With Insight From the City's Artisans, Curators, and Designers

By Stephanie Rafanelli

“People will tell the same old story until they hear a better tale,” says Ahmed, an elder I meet by chance in Tangier's casbah—a Cubist jumble of white buildings beneath circling gulls that cry out over the morning call to prayer. We're chatting, perched on the high ramparts of the old Portuguese citadel, our heels in Africa, Europe on the horizon like a giant seabird gliding toward us. “Birds go back and forth without borders,” muses Ahmed, his words flying just as freely among Darija (Moroccan Arabic), French, and Spanish. Tanjawi—or Tangerines—are sociable polyglots who speak in a meze of languages. Ahmed's hair is as silvered as Moroccan sardines, his green eyes drizzled with amber like the olive oil in bissara pea soup.

A quiet street in the historic casbah

Colors pop in this city of white and pearly light: the emerald of mint sold next to nets of escargot and the jade roofs of mosques; the yellow stripes of hooded djellaba robes; the cumin-like sprinkles of gold bougainvillea—and everywhere, across the network of roof terraces, the oily indigo brushstrokes of the sea. The shifting politics of the Gibraltar Strait have endlessly recalibrated the fate of Morocco's northernmost port city and the identity of its people; Tangier has been held by the Phoenicians, Portuguese, Middle Eastern caliphates, Spanish, British, and French before becoming the Moroccan sultanate's diplomatic center in the late 19th century. “We have been a nexus of culture in the Mediterranean for thousands of years, and Jews and Muslims coexisted in peace,” says Ahmed. “Yet in the West, they only talk about the moment 20th-century colonists created ‘the Tangerine dream.’” Ahmed is referring to the era in Tangier's history, beginning in the interwar period and peaking in the 1950s, when the city served as a licentious playground for a motley assortment of artists, socialites, and hedonists.

I meet Ahmed near the casbah home of American heiress Barbara Hutton, who entertained US ambassadors, World War II spies, and libertines here after the city was carved up by colonial powers in 1923 as a tax haven. And so began that same old story. Tangier was hitherto defined by its brushes with countercultural Western “genius”: It was a playground for babouche-wearing lotus-eaters who experimented with kif and sexuality on the Afro-European fringes. What happened in Tangier stayed here. To visitors, palms along the Bay of Tangier were as exotic as belly dancers and the zellige psychedelics. The standard Tangier pilgrimage takes in the stomping grounds and brief encounters of Delacroix and Matisse—who respectively fell in love with the quality of the light and the depth of the blues here—and transgressive literary figures such as Jean Genet, William Burroughs, and Paul Bowles.

Hicham Bouzid, cofounder of Think Tanger

The lobby of the Fairmont Tazi Palace Tangier

By the time the Rolling Stones visited in 1967, the city known as the Door of Africa had descended into disrepute. Petit Socco, a former square of banks, was the place to score drugs and rent boys. Abandoned by King Hassan II for its association with the Rif mountain revolts after Moroccan independence, in 1956, Tangier became a dilapidated drive-through, a no-man's-land for another 50 years. “The glorification of the Tangier International Zone and Orientalism—the Western mystical version of Moroccan culture—has been really damaging for us,” says Hicham Bouzid, a lanky curator in intellectual specs and clamdiggers who runs the cultural collective Think Tanger. He's part of a new generation of Tanjawis who are redefining their city and Arab Mediterranean identity, working with a multidisciplinary team to channel Tanjawi voices, thinkers, and art and community projects from a former fishmongers shop behind the Grand Socco, a square celebrating Tangier's independence. “That period was a hedonistic utopia for rich Westerners but a disaster for poor Moroccans,” he says. “We need to reclaim the past, then start telling the story of contemporary Tangier.

As with any port, that story is complex. Bouzid founded Think Tanger seven years ago, when the city was in a “cultural vacuum, where the only institutions and best projects were run by a circle of Europeans who'd stayed.” Tangier was changing dramatically due to the major infrastructural investments of Hassan's successor, King Mohammed VI. In 2007 he masterminded Tanger-Med port, now the busiest in Africa, diverting cargo traffic away from the city's new leisure marina. And in 2018 he oversaw Al Boraq, the continent's first high-speed train, between Tangier and Casablanca, with a planned extension through to Agadir and a tunnel under the Strait of Gibraltar to Tarifa in Spain. With Petit Socco already cleaned up, the casbah and medina were also renovated, their walls now the color of the curd white of cheeses brought to market by Jebala women from the Rifs. Meanwhile, embassies, sultanate palaces, and colonial villas have been steadily restored, including Perdicaris Villa in Rmilat, a 70-hectare urban forest, and the new Museum of Contemporary Art in the former casbah prison, dedicated to the north Moroccan postwar canon of abstract painters.

A swimming pool at Villa Mabrouka, the former residence of designer Yves Saint Laurent, now reimagined as a hotel by designer Jasper Conran

Today, Tangier's historic center has the laid-back feel of a fishing island: Its palm-flagged parks, mosques, briny fish markets, and boulevards of yellow-piped Art Deco town houses—now as cheery as lemon meringue pie—are compact enough to stroll on foot. Tanjawi rise and eat late, the light and sense of space lending them open-minded, sunny, independent artistic dispositions. Everything runs at a slow Mediterranean pulse, a rhythm to which metal is hammered, looms drawn, and carpets unrolled in the quiet medina, where only the sparrows flitting between arbors of vines seem rushed.

Tangier's potential is as wide-open as its amphitheater of beach, but the city's young generation is cautious, having learned from the colonial past and Marrakech's overreliance on foreign tourism. “It's become a Disneyland. We wouldn't want our authenticity bleached,” Bouzid says. We're walking to Rue de Velázquez, an organically evolving hub of independent vintage stores and galleries in the old Spanish quarter, past boulevards of low-clipped trees near the 1913 Art Nouveau Gran Teatro Cervantes. This summer, Think Tanger opened Kiosk here in an old chess cafe. A gallery, bookshop, and artists' residency, it runs socially aware tours and prints alternative city guides and limited edition posters with contemporary Tanjawi artists like Omar Mahfoudi, also the cofounder of Tangier Records, a bubble-gum-pink surprise in the medina. “It's Tangier's second vinyl store,” says Mahfoudi's business partner, sound engineer Hamza Sbai, drolly. “The other opened in 1973.

Cinema Rif, a restored Art Deco theater on the Grand Socco square

Raspberry mille-feuille from El Morocco Club, a restaurant and piano bar at the edgeof the casbah

“There's been a big change to the people of Tangier's self-worth, which was bruised during the colonial and postcolonial periods. That's why we want slow, culturally mindful tourism,” says Yto Barrada, an internationally renowned Tanjawi artist I meet at Cinema Rif—its foyer covered in vintage posters of Tangier-set films and a photo of Egyptian singer and 1920s film actress Umm Kulthum, North Africa's arch matriarch, in her trademark cat-eye shades. Barrada, who is showing at New York's MoMA in the spring, ignited the new creative scene here in 2006 when she rescued the Art Deco theater in Grand Socco and turned it into nonprofit La Cinémathèque de Tanger, North Africa's first art-house cinema. Her own multimedia body of work has also set the tone for today's socially engaged artists and makers. In “A Life Full of Holes: The Strait Project,” for instance, she explores the one-way movement across borders: Europeans can roam freely across Africa, but Africans cannot do the same in Europe.

Caitlin Morton

Melinda Joe

Steph Koyfman

Todd Plummer

“The creatives here are a community. They aren't driven by ego; they have a bigger responsibility to their city,” she says. She's brought me to the vast, ramshackle gardens of her maternal home overlooking the straits, where hillsides of indigo and waist-high black hollyhocks with petals the color of red cabbage, backlit by the sunset, emit a peachy aura. Here, as an extension of her textile work, she recently founded the Mothership—a reference to the legendary band Parliament-Funkadelic—which puts an ecofeminist lens on Tangier's famous gardens. In this textile workshop, artists' residency, and holistic retreat, Barrada experiments with forgotten precolonial natural dyes, botanical pigments, and inks, reclaiming both ancient know-how as well as these slopes, which once belonged to American Scottish artists Marguerite and James McBey.

A hallway at Casa Tosca

Another creative experiment in color can be found in Marshan, an Art Deco residential district scented by orange peel and accented by bird-of-paradise blooms. Tanjawi designer Kenza Bennani returned home in 2015 after working for Jimmy Choo in London and set up the slow-fashion label the New Tangier in her late grandfather's town house. Inside is a prismatic universe devoted to Moroccan craftsmanship—from a rainbow-like row of silk-thread spools (her great-grandfather brought his own from Fez over a century ago) to rails of caftans, unisex djellaba cloaks, and sarouel pants in locally sourced silks and upholstery brocades, all hand-stitched and hand-finished by maalem artisans.

“In Western culture, there's this idea of the omnipotent vision of the designer to which everything is subservient, even our bodies,” says Bennani. “Here it's not about me or my ‘genius.’ The craftsmanship always comes first, the community.” Bennani sees her stripping back of Moroccan garments to their most minimal shapes—body-friendly unisex square cuts—as a kind of cultural activism. “In Europe, I felt I had to respond to some Orientalist idea of what being Moroccan means—that is, highly decorative. But we cannot reduce our entire cultural heritage to pom-poms.”

Caitlin Morton

Melinda Joe

Steph Koyfman

Todd Plummer

Northern Moroccan artisanship has remained uncorrupted by the “cheap vision” of the souk aimed at tourists—a fact that has both drawn back Europe-trained Tanjawi talents and pulled in international designers. In a warehouse in Malabata honeyed by bundles of wicker and afternoon light, I meet Meriem Bikkour, the quick-witted matriarch of the esteemed rattan business founded by her father, Mustapha, in the 1970s. “The artisan scene here is less driven by money than in Marrakech; it's much more personal for us,” she says to the gentle rhythm of stapling. One of the unsung heroines of Tangier, she is the woman behind the rattan chairs and tables at the city's newest hotel openings, from the Fairmont Tazi Palace to Villa Mabrouka, designer Jasper Conran's second Moroccan hotel in Yves Saint Laurent's casbah oasis.

Artist Anaëlle Myriam Chaaib works on a painting

“Tangier is a place where female creatives can thrive; the mentality toward women is very different from other Moroccan cities,” says French Moroccan illustrator Anaëlle Myriam Chaaib, who is opening Maison Citron, a patisserie in a Portuguese town house in Marshan, decked out in the same yellow stripes as shop awnings on nearby Rue d'Italie. Chaaib moved with her older sister from Lille to her father's nearby hometown Chefchaouen a few years ago and opened an all-female-staffed restaurant, where, inspired by the fountain-pen blues and fertile greens of Morocco's coastal roads and mountains, she began to paint. “At first I painted to counter the stereotypes that my friends had in France, that Morocco is all dry and dusty. I used to be ashamed of being Moroccan,” she says. “Now I'm proud.” Her whimsical illustration style is another love letter to Tangier, today a nexus of Africa's past and future, a living, breathing, honest muse refusing to be whitewashed or painted over. “I walk the streets constantly stimulated by beauty and colors,” she says, “like the red of a tuna carcass against a pink wall.”

Caitlin Morton

Melinda Joe

Steph Koyfman

Todd Plummer

The lounge at Casa Tosca, the Tangier home of Milanese designer Nicolò Castellini-Baldissera

With his second Moroccan hotel, designer Jasper Conran shows his understanding that Tangier is, at heart, a laid-back natural Mediterranean beauty. His magical renovation of Villa Mabrouka—the late Yves Saint Laurent's Tangier bolt-hole, with a Slim Aarons–worthy kidney-bean pool just outside the casbah—is as immaculately dressed down as an insouciant white linen shirt. The property has previously cycled through the maximalist visions of renowned Orientalist designer Stuart Church (also behind the Moorish Sahara Palace Marrakech) and Parisian bohemian Jacques Grange. But the only jeweled accessories here are the palm fruits. Dazzling whites and mint shades in 12 suites only serve to offset the inky indigo expanse before it.

This 1920s palace, high above the Rmilat forest, was once the second residence of “Mendoub” Ahmed Tazi, the sultan's representative during the Tangier International Zone. Now it's reborn as Fairmont Tazi Palace Tangier, after a renovation as a showstopping 133-room celebration of Moroccan Art Deco glamour, with keyhole arches and singularly dramatic mosque-height corridors, and the Tazi's spirit has passed on to Medou, the pasha-like hotel cat. Adorned with Moroccan crafts and contemporary art, with a 27,000-square-foot spa and seven bars and restaurants, the lofty highlights include the sultan-worthy Katara suite; the low-lit Origin Bar in swirling green marble; Persian restaurant Parisa, with murals by Togolese French graffiti artist Mattia Sitou; and an irresistibly slick black marble pool that takes in the whole Cubist canvas of Tangier.

Milanese designer Nicolò Castellini-Baldissera has long been associated with Tangier's villa community, having cataloged the colorful homes of the city's legendary creatives in Inside Tangier: Houses & Gardens. His taste isn't shabby: He's the great-grandson of the pioneering Italian modernist architect Piero Portaluppi and a descendant of Puccini. His new rattan-furniture brand Casa Tosca is named after his ostentatious townhouse, with a rooftop pool and hammam in sedate Marshan. Shared with Connecticut journalist Christopher Garis, it's a vibrant wonderland of Tanjawi crafts, lovebirds, art, Anglo-Italian kitsch, antiques, and heirlooms, with terrace gardens by the legendary Umberto Pasti. He makes his home available to book to those who know where to ask.

A lunch spread of beef salad, beetroot hummus, and fish tacos at Alma Kitchen and Coffee

Abdelghani Bouzian outside his workshop

Alma Kitchen and Coffee, which was recently opened by young jewelry designer Lamiae Skalli and photographer Seif Kousmate, reinvents Tangier's cafe culture for young Moroccans with a minimalist design using ivory zellige tiles and custom-made furniture. “We have to overcome the idea that if it's not exotic or traditional, it's not Moroccan,” Kousmate says. Interior decorator Guiomar Doval, a fourth-generation Tanjawi of Spanish descent who studied design in Madrid, hones her Afro-Mediterranean style using north Moroccan materials and crafts in restaurants like Chiringuito in Tanja Marina Bay. Dishes at the pier-side space range from sole meunière to shish taouk.

At the shoebox Mahal Art Space, Nouha Ben Yebdri fosters emerging African talents like Morocco-based Ghanaian artist Reuben Yemoh Odoi, whose installations of scrawled train tickets and suitcases symbolize the journey of migrants. Abdelghani Bouzian's giant mask sculptures—deeply personal odes to the oral culture of the Rif people—and towering puppets made from refuse (a 20-foot-high Hercules recalls the Greek legend of Tangier) evolved from his theater, craft, and sustainability workshops for kids as director of nonprofit group Association Darna.

The Kasbah Collective, stocking new-generation Tanjawi crafts in the emerging hot spot around Bab Kasbah, is run by Hana Soussi Temli, the daughter of Boubker Temli of Galerie Tindouf, and her husband, Yassine Rais el Fenni, son of Majid Rais el Fenni of Boutique Majid. At El Morocco Club, Tangier's decade-old dining institution, chef Noureddine Zaoujal turns out lighter New Moroccan twists on city classics such as chicken pastilla and souk vegetables in argan oil. elmorocco

This article appeared in the September/October 2023 issue of Condé Nast Traveler. Subscribe to the magazine here.