It’s time to take a holiday from reality. William Seaward Burroughs did, and his holiday lasted 83 years.
Along the way he fantasised about a place called Interzone. Well, we all know why … inter this, inter that – and definitely inter a bit of the other. And here I am, 50 years later, and it’s all here for me too – on a plate. I’m guest of honour in the land of the naked lunch.
Tangiers is a sexy, sultry, slovenly, stab-you-in- the-back, stoned and shameless place. Go down into the Kasbah as soon as you arrive. It’s full of snakes and charmers. Some of the snakes are curled up in baskets. But most of them are serving behind the stalls … and the charmers, they’ll buy anything you’ve got to offer – and sell it right back to you at a profit. Wives and mistresses slide by in the shadows, hidden deep inside their fleshlessly dark dresses. Their eyes are smouldering. Their masks are hidden horizons … you can hear tambourines, gypsy dancers, flutes – and you can smell that heady mixture of garlic, mint and dope … babies with no eyes, beggars on wheels, salesmen with lice in their hair, green and brown slime bubbling up into the streets …
“… lying on the bed naked, dozing and making desultory love, smoking a little kif and eating great sweet grapes.” – WS Burroughs
Tangiers is a place so alive that you forgive all its indiscretions instantly. And you just might ignore your own. Old Bill spent five years sending reports and routines to Alan Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac from his new Interzone address. And they thought he was making it all up. He wasn’t.
Tangier is still a scandalously hallowed ground where the Beat Generation has become a clandestine underground industry. Alcohol might be frowned upon in Interzone but, like anything else, you can get it if you really want it. It’s all here for you whether you are a tourist, or just lonely. All you have to do is find the right tour guide. Or let him find you.
I slithered down the gangplank from the hydrofoil feeling queasy. Last night’s excesses didn’t lie well on top of the 20 minutes of choppy sea between Spain and Interzone. I guess I looked as pail as I felt. The customs men, with their Arabian good looks, guns, dark glasses, cigarettes and attitude, think they’re in the movies as they pose under the palms in the blistering sun.
They ignored the lice-ridden lady boy with an exposed breast and mustache like a comb who looked like he was dying as he hustled his bus fare home. But they jostled me as they read journalist on my passport and demanded to know who my editor was. As if they’d have recognised the name.
In a parking lot their colleagues were stripping a VW camper panel by panel while its two young hippie student-owners looked on in despair. I wondered why they would think anybody would bother to smuggled dope inter Interzone?
And all the time, in the background, there is the honk of Mercedes horns, the clatter of cymbals and street music and the constant yabber of bartering. The street vendors are pushing everything from carpets to plastic gods. It is a bedlam. It is said beggars will poke out their own eyes for a day’s takings.
Then this little sweet guy plucked me out of the customs line with hardly a word. All he said was his name. Which was a little disconcerting, like he was using a secret code.
He ferreted me away down dim and corroded art- deco streets. Boys on every corner, sharp as switchblades and twice as thin. It was like it had all been prearranged. But I hadn’t needed much persuasion. It was the name, you see, I recognised it right away. Kiki. The code of this clandestine road.
After ten minutes he stopped dead in his tracks and unfurled his arm like a cape to introduce me to the Borsalino. I realised we were on Avenue Prince Moulay-Abdellah. He smiled at me divinely. His teeth were dirty brown, but his lips were like cherries. He was as tall as a twelve-year-old, twenty if he was a day. But I’d been warned, these kids can be tooled up with blades honed in to needles. Kiki locked his eyes into mine and tried to read me like he thought I was ticker tape. He assumed that in the blink of my eye I had revealed more to him than I should have done. He licked his lips and his dirty smile got deeper.
“Mista Bowles get drunk here!” And he laughed hysterically and cupped a hand to his ear like he was trying to make me hear the echoes of Paul Bowles holding his seedy and drunken court at the bar. I laughed back and held out my hand to him in that gentlemanly, bonhomic way we Englishman have. He took it and shook it with the kind of trained ingratiation that could have made him a double-glazing salesman in another world.
But in the here-and-now, he was a little bare-foot guy on the make, wearing a sultry off-the-shoulder blue and green nylon cagoule. I pulled my hand from his and he automatically wiped all traces of me down his tattered and encrusted khaki shorts. His eyes slipped down to his sandals. His smile became thwarted. It stuck to his lips like glue though.
“Whatever you wan’, I kin’ fin’ it for you roun’ here,” he sounded awkward. But I knew he was being coy. He meant it all: sex of all varieties, drugs, alcohol. But mainly sex.
I can, of course, cope with all of these things in their right place, at the right time. But Kiki was telling me, the right place was a back alley and the right time was the here and now.
Well, actually, all I wanted was the alcohol. The seasickness and the sun had started a fermentation inside me, so I took a chance on my memory and asked if we were near The Morocco Palace. It was a short stumble down the road.
The beer is warm and the whiskey is harsh … like it should be in a city where shopkeepers liberally lace your mint tea with dope. Tangier is only a tiny seaport on a small bay in the Strait of Gibraltar – yet it has some tales to tell After all, it was the land of silk and money. Tangier was Africa’s gateway to Europe. Moroccans still sit in the cafes at night, coveting the twinkling lights of Spain only 14km away. They dump dope in the sea overnight for the fishermen to land and during the day they take trips across the mainland to sell cheap watches and hooky CDs.
Spain has always been the real Tangerine Dream ever since it was stolen in 1471 from the Arabs by the Portuguese who gave it to Charles II as the dowry from Catherine of Braganza. The English abandoned it after a couple of centuries to pirates.
And until 1956 it was known as Tangier Inter(national) Zone. Not that original then, Bill huh?
Now, this dramatic little seaport spends most of its time welcoming – in its own way – day-trippers who arrive from Gibraltar and Algeciers, or bidding farewell to container-loads of textiles and oranges. It is a poor city now. The ostentatious wealth has gone. Things have changed. It’d be nice to say that its economy has gone to pot. But it hasn’t, it’s gone to Westernisation and the images its wistful and transient population constantly see on TV. The businessmen dress like Miami Vice and the beggars and guides dress like cheap porn extras. Tourists say it’s lost its identity. And they’re right – it has. But that’s what Tangier is about: losing your identity.
Kiki sat on the step outside the Palace and smoked a little kif while I had a couple of belts to get me in the mood.
When I was ready, I came outside and sat down beside him. He offered me the nub of his joint. Well, Old Bill knew that you couldn’t get dope like this anywhere else in the world, Moroccan Gold. And Kiki knew it too. After a couple of tokes, my smile was becoming a permanently false feature too. Yeh, it was the dope … but it was also the fact that I was here, balancing on the brim of a Burroughsian dream. I
was walking, a little unsteadily, down the streets he’d walked down in his sober suit and his black-rim glasses, with his cadaverous accountant’s demeanour and his pork pie hat.
Ah, he was a writer with a head full of ideas. But secretly he was a three-times married hysterical bi-sexual with a raging drink and drugs problem who had recently filled his wife’s head full of a bullet. He killed her accidentally in a stoned and alcoholically fueled game of William Tell!
But just like Tangier,. I could forgive him anything. My feet were scuffing the very gutters where this addled heir to the Burrough’s adding machine fortune had rolled in his cut-ups of despair and vomit and laughter. And I’d been plucked out of the crowd and spirited down here by a little bi-sexual hustling youth who’d clocked on to the dollar in the code-name of Kiki.
It wasn’t a code that was hard to break, of course. Kiki, was the name of Bill’s enigmatic bi-sexual little hustling boyfriend who, one dark night – with Spain twinkling somewhere in the background – clocked on to Bill who was floundering in one of those dives he regularly slid in to. Kiki offered him a warmth that, even Bill knew, was better than the safety of the gutter.
“I am standing in the doorway as he walks towards me, a strange sad fixed smile on his face …” WS Burroughs
Kiki looks up at me, his cagoule has slipped again. He is sultry. I can smell him. His eyes are white hot. The heat melts his smile into a sensual sneer, like Elvis. He knows he isn’t turning me on. But he also knows he is making me feel vulnerable. There are so many ways that I can see why a man would go for him. He’s young and he’s handsome and he’s on the make. He’s foreign, dark and exotic. He’s willing. And I am a lonely drunken writer looking for drugs and a literary experience.
“No harm done. A few moments of back-alley pleasure, that’s all. No questions asked.”
The voice is as insinuating and as slovenly as an ex-pat writer. English. Wine-sodden, choked by cheap cigars, laughing like a ripped lung. Paul Bowles look-a-like nudging me with a linen-covered elbow and tipping me a wink from beneath a panama. I smiled and made a gesture like I was doffing my cap to romantic dissolution, dramatic devil-may-care alcoholism, the dissembling of the mind through the mysteries of smoke. The meter can tick all night long, don’tchoo worry mista.
I look at Kiki and ask: “What’s your real name?” He shrugs. A stock answer. But I see his eyes dim, like he realised his last deal of the afternoon had gone down.
Writers come here all the time seeking a little piece of history, or a little bit more. And Kiki can spot a writer a mile off, pluck’m out of the line, like the patsies they are, and show them a little romance.
“Which way you wanna go mister?” he asked with a sigh. I smiled and asked him to take me to the French quarter.
He took me the quick way, through the slums that have replaced the shanties. It’s a different cacophony here. Thin concrete streets where people crash in to each other’s
battered cars to get parked. Here, there isn’t even the stain of a policeman or a machine gun. Teenagers curse and laugh and fight and play football, it gives them more hope than going to school. TVs scream out of every open window. Beggar businessmen shunt their Mercedes into BMWs. They mug it up after a lucrative day’s work, eye-patches on top of the head like tiaras, a prosthetic leg slung jauntily over the shoulder. These streets are miraculous – the blind and the lame are instantly cured. Kiki is reserved but business-like, concise, as he shows me the sights. He hurries me through the tour.
Calle Magallanes, for instance, a small whitewashed garden room overlooking the harbour. Bill worked on Lunch in that room. But we were off to the next place, immediately. Kiki showed me the four rooms Bill had rented for $20 in 1955. He told me a Birmingham gangster lives there now. Then he led me down through dark shuttered alleys and in and out of glamorous shopping malls with designer labels where only princes and queens can afford to visit. Finally we stepped back in to the Kasbah. We’d come full circle. The snakes were hissing and the charmers were yaberring. Kiki turned to me and stuck out his hand. I took it and his grip was weak.
“How much do I owe you?” I asked.
“Fifteen dollar.” He let go of my hand, wiped it against his shorts, and adopted a soldier’s stance. I peeled off a couple of notes without taking my hand from my pocket. They came to twenty and I handed them to him without a quibble. He laughed and smiled at me one last time, pocketed the dosh. Then he was gone, like a dog looking for a rabbit. Gone in an instant, swallowed up by the noise and the smoke and the crowd.
In the Kasbah, the streets reek of garlic and sweat. I went looking for dope. Here’s no different than anywhere else really. Pickpockets, thieves and thugs – business people by any other name – making a living on market day. There’s so much jostling and pushing – gangs of teenagers go through you like steam. And that’s when it happened, inside all the steam. A mannish boy in a blue and green cagoule dipped a woman’s handbag in a split second, right next to me. Unzipped it without a sound. There was a splut! as he vanished on the spot.
The woman was hysterical – cash, credit cards, passports, a palm-ful of personal possessions – a mobile phone worth one-and-a-half euros on the black market. All gone. You’ll be insured – people tried to calm her down – nothing to worry about. At least you’re not hurt.
Tangier has got a tourist beach too. You could spend the day there. Despite the railway that cuts through it like a shiv, it can be a sun-drenched haven. But Tangier has got the blistering desert a few kilometres away. The Great Gobi. Everybody knows that if a man walks into the desert, then he has chosen to walk into a mirage. Well, it might be an urbane myth, but I have also heard it said that somewhere, out there, in every desert, there is a telephone box. It is always maintained and in working order. But it has only one call left on it. And you can only see it in the night, glowing and fizzing in the distance. If you reach it, you are in a dilemma. Who do you call? Who is it you want to see in your mirage?
Do you call up your god? Or do you call up the next train station …