When Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac were creating the Beat sensation in the mid-to-late fifties, their friend and mentor William S. Burroughs was halfway across the world in Tangier, a seaport city on the North African coast on the Strait of Gibraltar.
Having run into legal troubles in America and Mexico, Burroughs chose to hide in Tangier after reading about it in the works of Paul Bowles. Paul and Jane Bowles became Burroughs’ close friends in Tangier, as did his future collaborator Brion Gysin. Burroughs was visited there by Ginsberg and Peter Orlovsky, who liked Tangier, and Jack Kerouac, who didn’t. It was here, though, that Kerouac picked up Burroughs’ scattered writings and insisted that he publish them under the title ‘Naked Lunch.’
Other cities on the coast of North or West Africa were important destinations for the Beats and their crowd. Allen Ginsberg travelled to Dakar, Senegal, on the Western coast, as a young man, and this is mentioned by Kerouac in ‘On The Road.’ Ginsberg was trying to find more satisfaction than he’d found following Neal Cassady around Denver, but he found that the ‘Dakar Doldrums’ were no better than the Denver kind.
In the sixties and seventies, neighboring Algeria was the escape of choice for American refugees like Timothy Leary and Eldridge Cleaver.
The seaport city is among the oldest cities in Northwest Africa. Originally settled by the Phoenicians from the Middle East, it fell under the Carthaginian Empire, than became part of the Roman empire in 82 B.C. It was taken by the Arabs in 705, but unlike many other Muslim cities it never became part of the Ottoman Empire. It fell under Portugese rule in 1471, and became an international port city in 1925. This made it an unusually permissive place to live, which appealed greatly to Burroughs. He wrote of a mythical place called ‘Interzone’, which recalled the ‘internationalized zone’ of Tangier. When Morocco gained its independence from France in 1956, Tangier became a part of the new nation.
An interesting fact: when a small new kind of Chinese orange known as the Mandarin was sold in Tangier ports, it acquired a new name: the tangerine. The tangerine has played a strangely prominent role in the rock music of the 60’s and 70’s: think of songs by Leonard Cohen, Laura Nyro, ‘Tangerine’ by Led Zeppelin, the band Tangerine Dream, and the first line of the Beatles’ ‘Savoy Truffle.’
And as for Tangier itself, think of Bob Dylan‘s song from “Blood on the Tracks”:
If you see her say hello
she might be in Tangier …