Tangier: Visualizing the City

Abstract. Using a place-based approach, this paper seeks to break out of the traditional dichotomies of post-colonialism by using conceptual visualization to explore the city’s experiential, representational, and imaginative geographies. It has five central goals: 1) to show how visualization works as both argument and performance; 2) to consider the city’s spatial-temporal configuration and how it informs city-visitor metaphors; 3) it traces, using textual and visual essays, these pervasive city themes: “hustlers”, “sin city”, “out-of-time”, and “dream city”; 4) it concludes by suggesting several alternative city visualizations, drawn from outside the city’s tourist cultures, for further research; 5) and finally, it invites collaborators to participate in a new research project designed to empower city voices and interrupt and extend the narratives of the city’s tourist cultures .

Key words: imaginative geographies, place-making, post-colonialism, sense of place, Tangier, Morocco, visual essay, visualization
(Editor's note: This paper has two parts: the textual essay that continues below and a visual essay available here. They are best read concurrently by opening both in separate browser tabs for easy switching back and forth between the textual and the visual discourse.)

“The personality of certain cities”, notes space and place theorist Yi Fu Tuan, “owes much to the influence of a powerful literature. A great city may be seen as the construction of words as well as stone.” To illustrate the point, Tuan cites nineteenth century London (1991, 686); another apt exemplar is Tangier. Indeed, the ongoing dialogue provided by the Tangier International Conferences has done much to analyze and appreciate the city’s literary traditions, diverse cultures, and contested histories (Amine et al, eds. 2004, 2006). With a nod to Tuan and an eye to place-making (amidst surging change in the city), the current conference, “Performing and Picturing Tangier,” explores the realms that lie between the words and the stones of the city.

My paper last year, “Ephemeral Encounters, Enduring Narratives: Visitor Voices of Tangier” (in Amine et al, eds. 2006, 29-37) drew attention to the city’s personality[1] as revealed through stories associated with the city’s visitor cultures.[2] In this paper, I want to further consider the spatial-temporal underpinnings of these stories and their currency in visual materials. In this way, because we often think in pictures, we gain access to the fertile grounds of imaginative geographies[3] and the opportunity to examine their footprints on the city.

Place and Visualization

Place theory, owing to the “betweenness of place”, can be employed to mediate between a range of analytical dichotomies (Entrikin 1991). I use it as the backdrop, as shown in Figure 1, in thinking about the interplay between our shared “outer worlds” and our personal “inner worlds” and their relationships with two irreducible parts of the concept of place: the physical aspects of place and sense-of-place. Last year, to break out of the traditional dichotomies of postcolonial theory (Mudimbe-Boyi 2002), I sought multidimensionality by centering narrative within this place framework (Entrikin 1991; Tuan 1991). I continue that goal and perspective in this paper but now I broaden my purview with conceptual visualization. Visualization, like narrative, is a synthetic process and employed in this way provides a constructive bridge between a myriad of factors. Visualization is important to consider because it connotes creative and interpretative practices in everything ranging from mental visual images to the exploding technological world of digital imagery[4] (“Visualization [a]”; “Visualization [b]”). In these ways, visualization does not work as a value free agent, rather, it works persuasively and expressively as modes of argument and forms of performance (Roberson 2004). Accordingly, I use visualization as a tool to elucidate aspects of Tangier’s experiential, representational, and imaginative geographies. I hope these perspectives will contribute toward greater understanding and appreciation of the city and its complexity.

Throughout the paper my arguments are developed textually and visually[5] – as a visualization – and they are meant to work together as symbiotic contributions to the whole. A “visual essay” follows the textual portion of the paper and they are best read concurrently.[6] Let us begin by figuratively walking the city core as a first time visitor examining its spatial and experiential character. This sets the stage to then interrogate several longstanding city metaphors, popular with visitors, by narrating visual data associated with them. I conclude by suggesting several alternative visualizations, drawn from outside the city’s tourist cultures, for further research. I also invite collaborators to participate in a new research project designed to empower city voices to interrupt and extend the narratives of the city’s tourist cultures.

Spatial-temporal Dimensions

Tangier has a large number of annual visitors, many hundreds of thousands, and they overwhelmingly arrive at the port at the foot of the city.[7] From there it’s just a few minutes walk to the famous city centers at the Grand Socco and the Socco Chico. A short distance, but it is significant space in establishing the city’s character. Although urban centers are typically home to a small percentage of current sprawling populations, it is here that best expresses city personality (Bruun 2003, 271) and Tangier is no exception. And to those unfamiliar with the city, it’s particularly striking terrain. Not only are the spatial configurations atypical – with unexpected compression and expansion of space – it’s also a really old place. Arriving here, people often feel a different sense of time. It’s like Bowles observed, in “Tangier the past is a physical reality as perceptible as the sunlight (1958, 68). To enter the city, is for visitors, to enter the past and enter uncertainty.

To explore this experiential geography, I use a series of five photographs to trace key thresholds in how the city unfolds for visitors as they begin to move about the city. Fresh from the boat and the cacophony of the port these city gateways are formative and disarming. For those familiar with Tangier these photographs may seem rather unremarkable, but to many visitors – North Americans in particular – such cityscapes are unusual and confusing. Take the scene shown in Figure 2 at the base of rue la Plage. With the beach and the palm lined boulevard stretching out to left (and outside this picture frame), who could imagine that such a small dark street leads to the city’s main centers? Or consider the scene shown in Figure 3. It shows two entrances through the medina walls that lead directly to the Socco Chico. Still unsure? To those unfamiliar with the city, even that explanation really makes it no clearer: it’s like a labyrinth or a treasure hunt. (One entrance is up the stairs to left and the other is through the tiny darkened archway at the center.) Who could imagine that these are major city gateways?

As the visitor moves about the city, this pattern of abrupt expansion and compression of space is repeated again and again. Heading up the winding narrow street of rue la Plage leads to the wide expanse of space at the Grand Socco. It’s shown in Figure 4 in a 1980’s photograph. From here space compresses into three small entrances through the medina wall: through the archway at the left, and through the relatively hidden passageway between the two buildings in the center and by ducking through the covered market at the right. Continuing on, Figure 5 shows the compression just inside the medina walls looking back through the twin archways at rue de Italie. Strolling on down the hill, amidst the crowds, street vendors, and numerous shops, Figure 6 shows the renewed expansion of space in the heart of the medina at the Socco Chico. Long a favorite of writers and visitors, it’s shown here in a picture postcard from around 1914. Two small exits are hidden in the background that lead right down to the port and complete the circuit with the initial city gateways shown in Figures 2 and 3.

In short, something that is obvious and ordinary for city residents – the spatial configuration of the city center, is for visitors, something extraordinary. The unexpected compression and expansion of space has contributed to a sense of spatial and temporal dislocation that leads to confusion – even fear – but at the same time it also builds a sense of heightened intrigue.

Place-themes and Metaphors

This spatial configuration (physical aspects of place) and the experiential geography of visitors have coalesced together in city place-themes and metaphors. They express a perspectival sense-of-place. In reviewing a variety of media associated with the city’s visitor cultures (Roberson in Amine et al, eds. 2006), I’ve identified four prevalent city themes that I will now expand upon: they are, “hustlers”, “sin city”, “out-of-time”, and “dream city”. As I’ll show, each theme is multi-dimensional and provokes vivid imagery and emotional responses; this makes them key markers in exploring the intimately tied representational and imaginative geographies of the city. In particular, I want to highlight the tension inherent in these themes: confrontation – negotiation, fantasy – desire, attraction – repulsion (Laamiri in Amine et al, eds. 2006).
In the next section, I’ll look briefly at visual data and stories associated with each of these city themes. Keep in mind the model shown in Figure 1: visualization as constructed of experiential, representational, and imaginative geographies and mediating between our shared outer worlds and our personal inner words.


Long before reaching the port, even people just contemplating a visit have already heard about the city’s “hustlers.” Guidebooks always stress this point – known the “world over for their talents,” one says (Tromanhauser 1991, 494). It results in some powerful performances and visualizations of cross-cultural confrontation. Like this “advice” shown in Figure 7 that I found scrawled on the wall at the Tangier Hostel, it says “Trust no one in Tangier” and it’s signed “Zach” of Brooklyn. Or this image recorded in a travel blog and shown in Figure 8. The accompanying caption says, “Never ever say yes to this man” (“Tangier, Morocco”). You can see the obvious discomfort of the man on the right, the apparent tourist, (who’s feeling like a bit of a hostage?) and the outstretched hand of the man on the left, the apparent “hustler”.

This theme has its origins hundreds of years ago in the form of “pirates”.[8] It’s a fanciful and essentialising codification of what people are like in this region of the world and it continues to be repeated in reference to the Tangier area even in scholarly publications (for example, see Swift 2000, 32). And yet visitors are also renegotiating – and performing – this relationship in other creative ways. Like this blogger, shown in Figure 9, who recounts how he had a positive city experience (and cultural exchange) by hiring this young person to show him around the city. Everything worked out well, he notes, he was “… our shield against all of the annoying drug pushers and wannabe tour guides” (“Tangier, Morocco”). Of course, drugs are exactly what some visitors come to the city seeking so it also serves to point toward the next city theme I’ll explore.

Sin city

Another key feature of travel writing and guide books is Tangier as a “sin city”. The “dangerous, sinful, rotten city of Tangier…” says one (Lilius 1956, p. 1); and another, “Tangier is certainly better acquainted with drug trafficking [and] prostitution … than most vacation spots (Tromanhauser, 1991, p. 506). The “sin city” sub-themes, like images of Las Vegas, include illegal drugs, illicit sex, gambling, undocumented aliens and marginal business practices like skimming, scamming, smuggling and money exchange. Nothing, perhaps, cemented this visualization of Tangier more completely or in greater mythic proportions than Martin Scorsese’s 1995 film Casino.[9] The film highlights these “sin city” sub-themes in the context of a fictitious Las Vegas casino called the Tangiers. How does this theme interact with the newly opened casino in the city, reputed to be the largest in Africa?

Other visualizations of this theme also proliferate, particularly in materials from the 1950’s which played up the city’s status as a freewheeling and unregulated place. An ethnographic study of the city from that time period pictures a range of city social groups and stakeholders, among them images of the ubiquitous lottery agent and a currency exchange booth of the time (Landau 1952, facing 111). Other more salacious visualizations cascade from suggestive poses, like the woman in the photograph from the 1890’s shown in Figure 10, to overtly sexualized bodies, like the boy in the photograph from the 1950’s shown in Figure 11. In this way, “sin city” encapsulates a complex performative landscape of the forbidden – permitted and temptation – seduction. Again, this theme works to repel (or repulse) some people even as it attracts others.


As suggested by my spatial-temporal reading of the city center, these themes are reinforced by a sense of rejoining the past – Tangier as a city “out-of-time”. Visitors often want to see something new and different so their gaze scans for contrast rather than similarity. Like the blogger who posted a photograph of an elderly women in the market who is dressed in traditional red and white striped clothes. Of the image, the blogger notes, it “makes me think of National Geographic” (“Old Woman Selling Flowers”). That’s a magazine famous for circulating images of faraway places that are seemingly lost to the advances of time, even to the point of appearing to be otherwordly. And yet other blog postings make the opposite point: the city as readily recognizable. Like in this blog image, shown in Figure 12, featuring a sign for McDonald’s and for the Intercontinental Hotel (“Monica Getzova's Tangier Journal”). Indeed, without the Arabic writing it could be a cityscape almost anywhere in the world. Rather than a city “out-of-time”, this is suggestive of the surging change currently taking place in the city.

Dream city

The “dream city” theme is another old one. A travel book from the 1830’s, before the advent of photography, uses a series of dreamy and romantic engravings to visualize the city (Roscoe, T. and D. Roberts 1838, 177). But this theme really gained traction with Bowles’ now famous description when he said, “Tangier struck me as a dream city … rich in prototypal dream scenes: covered streets like corridors with doors opening into rooms on each side, hidden terraces high above the sea, streets consisting only of steps, dark impasses, small squares built on sloping terrain … [giving] false perspective … as well as the classical dream equipment of tunnels, ramparts, ruins, dungeons, and cliffs…” (in Mewshaw 1998, p. TR 13.) Depending on the circumstances, or analysis applied, this could just as easily refer to fantasy, desire, alienation and/or nightmare.

The “dream city” theme can also be read in Bowles’ photograph shown in Figure 13. The city resident likely simply sees an old photograph of Place Amrah with children playing in the foreground and a silhouetted man dressed in a djellaba at the right. But to those unfamiliar with the city and viewing this photograph they want to know, “just who is the shadowy hooded figure at the right?” “Is it the grim reaper?” If so, then those children aren’t just playing – they’re running in fear. As this shows, photographs are much more than simple depictions of reality and how they are read is very much dependant on the positionality of the viewer. In this case, the unknowing viewer transforms an ordinary scene into a sinister one that conjurers uncertainty, dream scenes and questions.

Speaking of which, to circle back in the themes I’ve explored here (and as a reminder of their fluidity and interconnectivity), encounters with “hustlers” can engender dream images as well, but their nightmare status in not in question, like this blogger who posted the photograph shown in Figure 14 and asks, “Why didn’t we run away?!! (“Tangier Guide”).
Visualization is productive as well as persuasive and performative. As the city is made and remade what other themes should be brought to the fore?

Alternative Visualizations

Visualization is tool whose power can be used constructively to extend our literal and figurative boundaries. Like the example provided by a recently completed combination tunnel-bridge. A photograph of this new and unusual configuration is shown in Figure 15. It’s the result of “seeing” traditional norms in new ways – it is an alternative visualization that has creatively reformed two basic and even elemental forms, that of bridge and tunnel.
Likewise, alternative visualizations extend the conversation beyond the four pervasive themes of the city’s tourist cultures shown in this paper. Like Harter (1993) who refers to the city as “an island”, acknowledging its distinctive qualities amidst its globalizing interconnectivity. And Miller (2001) who draws attention to the historical conception of the city as a “garden”. While Amine (2006) explores the city’s feminine associations with conceptions like “bride of the north” and “pearl of the Straits”. Recently, owing to the real estate business, I’ve even seen the city referred to as the “new Dubai” (Lloyd-Jones 2006). In our exploration of the horizons of postcoloniality, these alternative visualizations provide routes for further research and understanding by challenging and transcending the traditional east – west binary logic that remains so commonplace. At the vanguard of cross cultural encounters for thousands of years, Tangier continues to do precisely that.

What other alternative visualizations can be explored and created?

How about this Tangier street mural shown in Figure 16. Looking closely, you can see that it is a creative and expressive interpretation of the Straits of Gibraltar. It takes the iconic outlines of maps and photography and visualizes them in many new ways. Who made it? What does it mean?

And finally, consider one of the most iconic tourist city-images: the Cave of Hercules. It is shown in Figure 17 from a 1960 tourist brochure. It has been reinterpreted as part of a compound image, shown in Figure 18, for these conferences and used on the cover of the published proceedings. How do people read this visualization? Thus conceived, I read it as couching the city between geography and history and between a colonial past and a globalized future. And it shows a silhouetted figure, representing the citizens of the city, looking out at the world and visualizing the realms of possibility and the city of tomorrow.

Recognizing the responsibility of those working in postcolonial settings to contribute towards the undoing of colonialisms lingering effects, I am launching a research project, “Re/writing Tourist Tangier”, that will employ a form of autoethnography (Butz and Besio 2004; Pratt 1992) to empower a broader range of voices into the city dialogue. In particular, it seeks to interrupt and extend the narratives of the city’s tourist cultures by adding the narratives of city residents to the discourse. Those interested in hearing more about this project or those wishing to participate, graduate students in particular, please contact me at the email address below. In this way, we not only visualize the past and the present but also engage as active participates in visualizing and creating the city’s future.

I like to thank everyone involved in the conference. I’d like especially to acknowledge the efforts of Khalid, Barry and Andrew: thank you.

A version of this paper was presented on Saturday, February 10, 2007 as part of the panel “Tangier: Visualizing the City” at the Performing / Picturing Tangier International Conference. And also on Monday, February 12, 2007 at Abdelmalek Essaâdi University, Tetouan, Morocco.

George F. Roberson
Denver, Colorado
February 2007

Geography Human Dimensions Research Group
University of Massachusetts – Amherst


[1] Also called “genius loci” or “spirit-of-place”; a myriad of place-based approaches are outlined by Wilkie (2003).
[2] This article is also available online at: http://interactive-worlds.blogspot.com/2006/12/ephemeral-encounters-enduring.html.
[3] First termed by Said (1978), Schwartz (1996) explores the concept vis-à-vis the impacts of early photography on the construction of knowledge and Ryan (1997) employs it his study of the processes of British empire building, see especially pp. 20-7.
[4] Closer inspection of the visual, sometimes called “the visual turn”, is the focus of much recent scholarship, see for example “Intervention” (2003; 2004), Ryan (1997), and Ryan and Schwartz, eds. (2003).
[5] Visual data has been underutilized in academia (Ryan 2003, p. 234), but like its textual counterpart, it needs to be systematically interrogated. For example, we need to ask questions of images, questions like – who made it and when? for what purpose was it made and by what method? what does it show and what has been included / excluded and why?
[6] This has been done for practical reasons only, the materials can be presented in a variety of ways with pros and cons associated with each. For example, my conference presentation reverses the prominence of the textual and visual discourse as it is presented here by featuring a colorful and interactive display of the visual data on a large screen.
[7] There were 1.7 million non-resident arrivals at the port in 2004; the city’s resident population is currently one million (Ministere du Tourisme).
[8] The continued popularity of pirate imagery and stories is well demonstrated by Hollywood’s incredible success with the “Pirates of the Caribbean” films. Staring Johnny Depp, he was the recent top vote getter for his work on these films at the 33rd annual People's Choice Awards, more information at: http://news.yahoo.com/s/ap/people_s_choice_awards
[9] It stars leading box office actors Robert De Niro and Sharon Stone (Casino 1995).


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