Ephemeral Encounters, Enduring Narratives:
Visitor Voices of Tangier
Visitor Voices of Tangier
An enduring quality of Tangier is the ubiquitous views of distant mountains and shimmering seas; another is the regular arrival of visitors down at the port. In a city-region with nearly 150 lodging establishments, the direct daily impact of visitors on the city is not insignificant. Equally powerful is the ongoing participation of visitors in the place-making of the city by the stories they tell and retell. Of prose and place geographer Yi-Fu Tuan has observed, “a great city may be seen as the construction of words as well as stone.”
Places exist across a broad spatial scale. They may be, for example, a personal place, like a favorite corner in a café; or, an informal place, like an outdoor souq that can always expand to accommodate another seller; or, a physically bounded place, like the walled medina. A central concern for cultural geographers is to consider how places are made and maintained. Place-making is a process that never ends. It involves interaction with the environment, conceptual and imaginative processes, and verbal, textual and visual expression. An individual’s lifeworld and temporal associations with a place impacts their knowledge of it. For example, a lifelong resident of Tangier knows it differently than a member of its’ foreign writer/artist community; both in turn, know it differently than a short-term visitor. Everyone, however, participates in the place-making of the city.
Intimately tied to tourist cultures are the closely related narrative genres of travel writing, guidebooks, and place-promotion. Stories are an important part of experiencing a new place: they are read, heard, and told, and also visualized through images. Until recently only a relatively small number of travel narratives were published and distributed. Now, with the recent explosion of blogging, every visitor has the opportunity to voice their unfiltered views to the world. Anyone seeking information or advice about Tangier (or anywhere else) can access volumes of stories and images with a simple internet search. Although visitor narratives are often based on brief exposure to the city, this does not appear to diminish their popularity or assumed authority. Several of the most contentious and enduring claims about Tangier appear in a variety of media, they include: an absolute difference and contrast with Europe; warnings about legions of hustlers and hassles; laments over the city’s lost and glorious past; and, portrayals of the city as primarily a bothersome transit point on the way further south in Morocco. The paper concludes that visitor narratives play a role in place-making and provide an insightful access point into tourist cultures; it also serves to emphasize that words have the power to “build, sustain, and destroy.”
KEY WORDS: visitor narratives, place-making, Tangier, Morocco
 Tuan, YF. “Language and the Making of Place: A Narrative-Descriptive Approach.” Annals of the American Association of Geographers: v. 81, n. 4 (Dec., 1991), p. 686.
 Ibid, p. 694.
Ephemeral Encounters, Enduring Narratives:
Visitor Voices of Tangier
(to download full text in pdf, see below)
Ephemeral Encounters, Enduring Narratives:
Visitor Voices of Tangier
Discussions about Tangier, academic or otherwise, inevitably turn to geography and the city’s location. Strategically sited (as shown in Figure 1) on the Strait of Gibraltar – at the intersection of Europe, Africa, the Atlantic Ocean and the Mediterranean Sea – Tangier is at the nexus of one of the four great land-sea crossroads of the world. Even as advances in air transportation and telecommunications are drawing the world literally and figuratively closer together, land and water interconnectivity remains vitally important in both economic and cultural flows. Recent construction projects bear witness to the continued, indeed growing, importance of the city and its location, and also to the emergent dynamism of the Tangier area. The impacts of these projects on the city will be significant. With the developments that will undoubtedly follow, the pace of change is poised to accelerate even further in the coming years. Accordingly, with change and location as the backdrop, the conference theme is well-timed in drawing attention to the diverse cultures, intertwined histories, and disparate voices of Tangier. This paper highlights the perspective of one of the city’s constituent groups, that of its visitors. I argue that visitor perceptions, although often based on brief encounters with the city, have created enduring narratives that contribute a powerful voice in the construction of the city.
Figure 1. Strait of Gibraltar.
(Image source: http://www.uca.es/otros/anasim_gibraltar/fotossatelites.html)
How we look, of course, impacts what we see. Consequently, a fundamental aspect of research and representation has to do with point of view; another is the search for enduring qualities. Figure 2, showing the view from Place de Faro, conveys a sense of both: an enduring quality of Tangier is the ubiquitous views of distant mountains and shimmering seas; it also represents one of the perspectives on the city, from the inside looking out.
Figure 2. A Tangier view from inside the city looking out.
(Image source: Author’s collection, 2003)
That perspective can be transposed with an opposite view, from the outside looking in. This represents another enduring quality of the city: the long history of outside influence and the regular flow of visitors into the city. This perspective is represented by the image shown in Figure 3; it is the first glimpse of the city that is seen by the 1.7 million annual non-resident arrivals down at the city port. This is the perspective that this paper builds upon: looking in at the city from the outside. It is also the perspective from which I have come to know the city since I first visited in 1991. It is an important perspective because in a city-region with so many visitors and nearly 150 lodging establishments with 12,000 beds, the direct daily impact of visitors on the city is not insignificant. This perspective provides an apt point of entry into thinking about the tourist cultures of the city; it also provides the opportunity to think about Tangier as a point of “first contact” between diverse cultures. These encounters result in potential opportunities and potential conflicts for visitors and residents alike.
Figure 3. A Tangier view from outside the city looking in.
(Image source: Author’s collection, 2003)
This paper uses a place-based approach: this requires some explanation. “Geographers study places” and places exist across a broad spatial scale. They may be, for example, a personal place, like a favorite corner in a café; or, an informal place, like an outdoor souq that can always expand to accommodate another seller; or, a physically bounded place, like the walled medina; or, a politically defined place like the city itself. A central concern for cultural geographers is to consider how places are made and maintained. It involves interaction with the environment, conceptual and imaginative processes, and verbal, textual and visual expression. The most basic components of place-making, then, can be divided into two geographic worlds: the outer worlds of the environment where we build things like homes and neighborhoods, and, the inner worlds of the mind where we construct imaginary places like Said has explained. Naturally, the places of the shared outer worlds influences our private inner worlds and vice versa. In this way, place-making never ends; rather, it is an ongoing process. Additionally, these geographic worlds also represent two irreducible parts of place: the physical aspects of place and the internally held sense of place. By employing a place-based approach, I draw attention to the interaction between these worlds. In this paper, I do this by looking at place-narratives contained in words and images. Of prose and place, cultural geographer Tuan has said, “a great city may be seen as the construction of words as well as stone”.
What constituent groups, or in this case what “voices”, are there in the city, how do we delineated them, who holds the power, and what roles do they play in the place-making of the city? “Insiders” and “outsiders” is one way to think about people’s relationship with the city. A city resident, for example, might be considered either one or the other depending on the individual and how you view things. Indeed, an individual’s lifeworld and temporal associations with a place greatly impacts their knowledge of it. For example, a lifelong resident of Tangier knows it differently than a member of its’ foreign writer/artist community; both in turn, know it differently than a visitor. And, certainly “visitors” themselves do not constitute a monolithic group; they can be subdivided in a number of ways, like into “long-term” and “short-term” categories. Some long-term examples include students, temporary workers, expats, or people who live elsewhere but come back to the city again and again; and some short-term visitors, which is the primary concern of this paper, includes people like the day trippers from Costa del Sol, the escorted “package” tourists, or the backpackers just passing through the city. In this latter sense, visitor voices are clearly a subset of the “outsiders” category, however, regardless of the categories used, I argue that everyone contributes to the place-making of the city.
Intimately tied to tourist cultures are the closely related narrative genres of travel writing, travel guidebooks, and travel brochures. Each tells a story about the city and stories are always an important part of experiencing a new place. Stories are read, heard, and told, not just in words, but also in images. They repeat certain themes; they create expectations; they convey perspective and city mood. In this way, equally powerful to the physical presence of so many visitors in the city is the ongoing participation of the visitors and these place-narratives in the imaging of the city by the stories they tell and retell. Winding their way through all of these media, I have found four reoccurring Tangier place-themes, they are: 1. the closeness of Europe and Africa; 2. the sense of place (what it feels like); 3. the physical aspects of place: the cityscape (layout, functionality, etc.); and, 4. the city’s history and its place in history. The next sections of the paper look as examples drawn from a variety of travel narratives.
Let us now compare the narratives of two city tourist brochures: one from 1929, as the colonial project was really taking hold – and the other, from 1960 following Moroccan independence. Together with prose, both brochures use photographs, maps, and drawings to weave together a particular way of seeing and comprehending the city. The older one, a comprehensive city guide of nearly a hundred pages, is divided into two nearly equal length sections, one for display advertisements and the other for city-description and promotion. In this case, the brochure’s visual devices tell a particularly revealing and persuasive story. Prominently featured to preface the city-promotion section of the brochure is a photograph of the city from the water; it is like the one shown in Figure 3, where the city is viewed from the outside looking in. Likewise, the brochure, a product of the colonial administration, is readily understood as the creation of outsiders and in the service of outsiders.
Figure 4. Drawing Tangier in the French sphere, c. 1929.
(Image Source: Tanger: Winter Resort, Summer Resort. p. 3)
Another image, shown in Figure 4, is an advertisement for transportation from France and England to Tangier. Beyond the effort to sell more ferryboat and train tickets, it is clearly a visual effort to draw the city closer to Europe. Notice how the ferry route is cleverly shown by addressing perennial tourist concerns: it asserts that sailing for Tangier is fast, safe, and comfortable. In addition, Tangier’s status is elevated, it is depicted on par with the leading European capitals of London and Paris. Notice too, how the design of the image also works to subvert Spain’s geographic advantage, in the form of closeness, in the European competition for control of Morocco; Spain is shown as disconnected, indeed, it almost disappears entirely. Another map in the brochure, shown in Figure 5, also emphasizes Tangier’s location and connectedness. But in this image, it refers to city’s relationship to the rest of the world; Tangier, it suggests, is the center of the world. These examples of the perceptual manipulation of space can be seen as a part of the larger colonial project of the physical appropriation of space.
Figure 5. Tangier as the center of the world, c. 1929.
(Image source: Tanger: Winter Resort, Summer Resort. p. 32)
Another set of images shows the Tangier airport. In the pioneering days of regular passenger air service, it positions the city as high-tech, progressive, and modern. The overall message of the brochure is clear: the Tangier of 1929, the International City, is innovative, on the move, and a place of the future. The colonial project, of course, was powerful, by 1952 nearly a third of the city’s population was of outside, primarily European, extraction.
Figure 6. Post-colonial repositioning of tourist Tangier, c. 1960
(Image source: Tangier, Larache, Asilah. p. front cover)
Likewise, the 1960 city brochure sets the tourist stage with a perspectival photograph on the cover. Shown in Figure 6, it features the distinctive Moroccan shaped minaret of the Sidi Bou Abid Mosque. The photograph looks from within the city toward the traditional city center at the Grand Socco. In contrast, however, to the potent images of the 1929 brochure, the more powerful representation of the city is perhaps found in its prose; in addition, produced by national tourist authorities in Rabat, the brochure has no outside advertisements, it is solely focused on the imaging of the city itself. In placing the city, it reaches back well before the European intrusions; it emphasizes the city as a place of myth with a long, varied, and colorful history. It finds the city’s place in history as defined by significant African, Arab, European and Mediterranean influences and interconnections.
The brochure also highlights the city’s range of international cuisine, the beach and other sporting opportunities, and a slate of “respectable” entertainment. It also includes detailed listings highlighting the city’s role, though markedly diminished, as a political and banking center. Taken as a whole, the brochure asserts that Tangier is still of international stature despite its reintegration into the newly independent Morocco. Further, the brochure can be seen as participating in a national post-colonial repositioning, or decolonizing, of the city by providing a revised city narrative for visitors (and residents) to follow.
Turning now to some recent travel guidebooks we hear some very different stories about the city. Of Tangier and Morocco, The Rough Guide says, “Though just an hour’s ride on the ferry from Spain, it seems at once very far from Europe, with a culture – Islamic and deeply traditional – that is almost wholly unfamiliar.” Rather than seeing the city’s crossroads and international character, it emphasizes the contrast and difference between Tangier and nearby Europe. Like Said’s Orientalism it invokes a sense of adventure, a sense of dislocation, timelessness, and mystery. Another guidebook, Let’s Go, adds to these heavy city expectations, it says, “Visitors who restrict their tour of Morocco to Tangier … often come away exhausted, dizzy and pickpocketed.” True or untrue, typical or not, such prose creates a hostile atmosphere before the visitor even arrives in the city. But, the underlying message is clear and all-too-common: be wary of everyone and everything; and, move on away from Tangier as soon as possible. Another guidebook, Lonely Planet, builds on these themes and creates excitement by highlighting the sinister and salacious, it says,
While it's a compelling sort of city and a popular port of entry for tourists, Tangier is also home to some of the world's best hustlers. Perched on Morocco's northern tip, its international flavour remains strong; as does its reputation for inspiring shady deals and harbouring foreign misfits. Back in the days when Tangier was a neutral international zone, [the Petit Socco] provided the background for the seediest of lifestyles and it hasn't completely lost this air.
Despite almost continual changes in the city, such recent city representations might lead one to believe that nothing has changed in Tangier since Twain’s 1868 visit. In his travel account of the city, he says,
We wanted something thoroughly and uncompromisingly foreign … nothing to remind us of any other people or any other land under the sun. And lo! In Tangier we have found it.
Tangier is a foreign land if ever there was one.
A review of the literature shows that such stories as these are told again and again; they even span the passing centuries. Another visitor to the city, traveling in 1928, could well be the reference for the passage from The Rough Guide quoted above, it says, “In Tangier we are only a few miles from Europe and the Rock of Gibraltar, but we are centuries removed from modern life and civilization.” What about the air service to Tangier highlighted in the 1929 city brochure, or the map showing ships from Tangier bound for ports all over the world?
These narratives stand in an interesting contrasting to Wharton who visited in 1918; she had an all together different view of Tangier, of the city she says, “Tangier— cosmopolitan, frowsy, familiar Tangier, that every tourist has visited for the last forty years. It makes one wonder, which do visitors crave more – novelty and contrast? – or, do they simply crave the telling, or the hearing, of a good story?
Turning to a travel article in the New York Times in 1998, we find yet another spin on travel stories and motivations, it says,
[A]s cities have evolved into products, certain destinations have a short shelf life. Eventually they pass their ''sell by'' date and people begin to object: ''But nobody goes there anymore.”
Take Tangier. Poised at the tip of Africa, just across the Strait of Gibraltar from Spain, it existed for decades in a sort of existential ether, part hallucinatory state of mind, part International Zone ruled by European delegations.
[But now] … Tangier-style decadence doesn't require relocation to the North African littoral; drugs, sex and rock-and-roll are now available in far more livid forms at the local strip mall.
This passage seems to reflect the colonial nostalgia that Said was talking about – the loss of what might be called the “good old days,” when home (Europe and the U.S.A.) were kept “sacred” while the colonies were “profane” play places where anything goes. Surely present day Tangier has more to offer today’s visitors than merely a melancholic sojourn into the past in a hopeless search for lost colonial landscapes.
Until recently only a relatively small number of travel narratives were published and distributed. Now, with the recent explosion of blogging, every visitor has the opportunity to voice their unfiltered views to the world. Anyone seeking information or advice about Tangier (or anywhere else) can access volumes of stories and images with a simple internet search. Although visitor narratives are often based on brief exposure to the city, this does not appear to diminish their popularity or assumed authority. Here are several Tangier travel blog examples that comment on some of the Tangier place-themes I have been tracing in this paper:
We both felt our adventure was truly beginning when we left the relative comfort of Europe and headed into Africa. Becky had been reading in the Morocco Lonely Planet guide that we were going to meet an onslaught of touts, thieves, and other unsavory characters as soon as our boat pulled into port. She was very nervous about going to Morocco by the time we left Spain.
The Petit Socco … [has] the worst reputation. Right here, drug deals are made, human smuggling planned and prostitution performed. But after sitting there in a coffee shop for two hours, trying to spot any of these activities, I had to give up.
Very, very poor place, the poorest I've ever seen ... wonder how in 21st century people live in [such] misery so close to Europe.
In these passages we can see the particularly powerful impact of the guidebooks on city visitors: bloggers often highlight and repeat the things they have read in their guidebooks. In this way, all these different travel narratives, with the aid of the imagination, often work together to construct a fantastical imaginary Tangier that could hardly exist in the physical world: could it really be so different, so dangerous, so lawless, so miserable? Some people so fully embrace their imaginary version of Tangier that it becomes real: everyone is suspect, anything is possible; for others, the experience of the city does not live up to the imaginary world and they are left disillusioned.
In conclusion, let us now briefly compare the common Tangier place-themes I identified at the outset with their corresponding short-term visitor narratives. I’ll restate the general themes here: 1. the closeness of Europe and Africa; 2. the sense of place (what it feels like); 3. the physical aspects of place: the cityscape (layout, functionality, etc.); and, 4. the city’s history and its place in history. As we have seen, the visitor narratives repeatedly highlight points of conflict and contention in regards to these place-themes, they can be summarized thus: 1. an absolute difference and contrast with Europe; 2. warnings about legions of hustlers and hassles; 3. laments over the city’s lost and glorious past; and, 4. portrayals of the city as primarily a bothersome transit point on the way further south in Morocco. And yet, although not necessarily detailed here, there also exists a powerful body of evidence, from other voices, from other constituent groups, with longer and different associations with the city, that provide counter points on each of these themes. The city is also understood as: 1. a hybrid place of significant European, African, Arab connections; 2. a safe haven, a place of tolerance and creativity; 3. a destination and a meeting place; and, 4. a place that is constantly being made and remade, both physically and figuratively. Seemingly these broad and contrasting city qualities endure side-by-side.
These points, and counter points, will probably continue to be debated, but as my final point, I want to emphasize that with place-making we are not just concerned with the past and the present, but also with the future. What will the city be like in the future? What could it be like? What do people want it to be like? And, I want to emphasize the role of language in this place-making process because as Tuan has said, words have the power to “build, sustain, and destroy.” Stories, their points of view and their enduring qualities, are important as we reconsider the crossroads city of Tangier at the crossroads of change.
A version of this paper was given at the Voices of Tangier Conference on January 28, 2006 in Tangier, Morocco. I would also like to extend a wholehearted thank you to Khalid Amine, Andrew Hussey, and Barry Tharaud for all their efforts in putting on the conference.
George F. Roberson
Denver, Colorado, March 2006
Human Dimensions Research Group
Department of Geosciences, University of Massachusetts – Amherst
Article citation (in slightly different form):
Roberson, George, F. “Ephemeral Encounters Enduring Narratives: Visitor Voices of Tangier,” in Voices of Tangier, Khalid Amine, ed., 2006. Tetouan, Morocco: Abdelmalek Essaâdi University and Aberystwyth, Wales: University of Aberystwyth, pp. 29-37. To download in pdf, click here
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 The others are: the Strait of Malacca (Singapore), the Suez Canal, and the Panama Canal.
 These projects include, a free trade zone; a major new train station; a significantly expanded regional road system; a massive new international container port; and, real progress on the long stalled trans-straits tunnel project.
 Given the often salacious and contentious nature of visitor narratives about the city, it could be said that their voices contribute, for better or worse, to the construction of the city.
 Vaidon 1977, p. 1.
 For the year 2004: Ministere du Tourisme; annual arrivals fluctuate, it was 1.4 million in 2003.
 These statistics are according to “Tourism Trends”; estimates vary however, in an interview with Mr. Abassi Said, of the Tangier Tourist Office, he placed the current total at 6,000 beds. Whatever the actual number, huge growth in lodging is in the works with an additional 10,000 beds currently under development in the Tangier region (Ministere du Tourisme).
 Tuan 1977, p. 3.
 Paul, ed. 1988, Said 1978.
 Entrikin 1991, p. 300.
 Place-theory stands in contrast to a landscape approach which has used an objectivist perspective, or what Nagel (1986) critiqued as the “view from nowhere”. Place-theory, according to Entrikin (1991, p. 300, 307-9), like narrative forms, uses a centered point of view from where both the relatively subjective sense of place and the relatively objective physical aspects of place may be simultaneously considered.
 Tuan 1991, p. 686.
 Lifeworld is concerned with the day-to-day practices of individual’s lives and the recognition that this is a perspective worthy of analysis; for more information see Buttimer 1976, p. 277.
 There are often animosities and conflicts between and within these groups. Impacts of tourism has become a major field of inquiry, particularly in the field of Anthropology. For more about tourism theory see Graburn 1989, Löfrgen 1999, and Nash 1989.
 In this way, categorization is a useful tool of analysis; however, the imposition of analytical binaries, in particular, can be problematic and often work to obscure large and interesting gray areas.
 Urban tourism has become a huge business, for a variety of perspectives on the tourist city see Judd 1999.
 Narrative provides an important point of view because the speaker is identified and is clearly at the center of the action; plus, in this way, it is not just the “professional” who is doing the looking. Use of narrative also expands the narrow range of available qualitative methods, ie. interviews, focus groups, and ethnography.
 Stuart 1955, p. 185. The population is listed thus: 105,000 Moslems, 15,000 Jews, 52,000 Europeans (and others), for a total of 172,00.
 Ellingham 1993, unnumbered introduction.
 Tromanhauser, ed. 1991, p. 506.
 Indeed, written above my bed at the Tangier Youth Hostel (in 2000 and still there in 2006) was the often repeated traveler’s mantra, “Trust no one in Tangier.”
 Twain 1869 (1911 reprint), p. 64.
 Carpenter 1928, facing p. 2.
 Wharton 1920, p. 4.
 Mewshaw 1998, p. TR13.
 For Said on colonial nostalgia see Paul, ed. 1988.
 For a discussion of contrasting perceptions of colonial and noncolonial spaces in the context of Tangier see Dellal, M., “Tangier: An Exotic Haven, or Achilles’ Heel?” in Lacey and Poole 1996.
 A form of personal diary which is posted on the internet for public consumption; there are many sites that offer free blogging in easy to use formats that integrate text and images.
 Including the CFP for this conference as well as other papers presented here.
 Tuan 1991, p. 694.
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