Sunday, February 15, 2015

William Burroughs' Birthday in Tangier


Francis Poole

Tangier, Morocco—February 5, 2014, the centenary of William S. Burroughs' birth.
He died August 2, 1997 in Lawrence, Kansas.

Tim Murray and I have been frequent travelers to Tangier in efforts to recover the papers of the legendary American expatriate writer and composer Paul Bowles who lived in Tangier for over fifty years until his death in 1999. In the process we found numerous Bowles items (books, letters, postcards, photographs) relating to other twentieth century writers including William Burroughs, James Leo Herlihy, Patricia Highsmith, William Saroyan, and Tennessee Williams. We also found several paintings by Brion Gysin who was probably Burroughs' greatest collaborator. Gysin was a painter, writer, musician, and inventor whom Burroughs met when he lived in Tangier. The two later collaborated on a number of works using Gysin's cut-up technique, a kind of DADA method of rearranging pages of print to form new texts. Discovering this material spurred our interest in William Burroughs' connection with the city as well as his association with Bowles. Since 2014 would mark the one hundredth anniversary of Burroughs' birth we decided to visit Tangier to see if there were any events being held on his actual birthday. We did it as a kind of performance piece in remembrance of Burroughs' connection with Tangier. Though Burroughs only lived in Tangier for four years in the mid-1950s, he wrote his most famous novel Naked Lunch while there trying to kick a drug habit and being chased by various personal demons including depression following Allen Ginsberg's rejection of his romantic overtures. The novel was published in 1959 and a special 50th anniversary edition appeared in 2009. Compared to the other works Burroughs wrote after Tangier, it's probably the one he ripped his guts out on. Naked Lunch releases a torrent of language spirochetes and deviant, hallucinatory routines which attack the hypocrisy, dishonesty, and phoniness of American culture. Some of his later novels like The Wild Boys and The Place of Dead Roads come close in places but lack the visceral disorientation and dementia of a setting like Burrroughs' Tangier. It's Tangier which serves as the host which feeds Burroughs' most outrageous visions and hilarious forays into satire. 

William S. Burroughs and Brion Gysin. 

Of course centenaries can last for months or more than a year and the Burroughs centenary is still being celebrated in 2015. I learned there was an event scheduled for November, 2014 in Tangier by the European Beat Studies Network (EBSN). The list of presentations sounded interesting but that would be ten months later than Burroughs' birthday. 

Tangier, Circa 1950s

    Image result for vintage photos of tangier

While the setting of Naked Lunch includes references to places where Burroughs had lived and traveled in the U.S., Mexico and South America, it is mainly based on Tangier when it was still an International Zone administered by several different countries including France, Great Britain, Italy, and Spain. (With Moroccan independence, the International Zone was abolished in 1956.) In 1954 Paul Bowles wrote that in Tangier, "No visa is needed to enter the Zone, and once you are here you can stay on indefinitely without ever being annoyed by thoughts of permis de sejours and visits to the police. All this is, I suppose, as near to freedom as one can get in the world of 1954." (For more of Bowles' impressions of Tangier in the 1950s see Travels: Collected Writings 1950-1993, Paul Bowles.) Burroughs referred to Tangier as Interzone.  Following the infamous accidental  “William Tell” shooting death of his wife Joan Volmer in 1951 in Mexico City and his South American travels in search of yagé (ayahuasca), he moved to Tangier, which was not just any port in a storm. It was to be during the last few years of the International Zone. When Burroughs arrived in 1954, food and lodging were incredibly cheap and drugs and sex were readily available.Paul Bowles had been living in Tangier since the 1940s and had published The Sheltering SkyBurroughs admired Paul Bowles’ writing and had heard that in Tangier it was possible to live unmolested by the authorities. He found Tangier to be a “…sanctuary of noninterference…one of the few places left in the world, where so long as you don’t proceed to robbery, violence, or some form of crude, anti-social behavior, you can do exactly what you want.”  In Barry Miles’ insightful, graphic, and entertaining biography, Call Me Burroughs: A life,  he quotes Burroughs who wrote to Allen Ginsberg that he had tried writing the novel that would become Naked Lunch but had gotten stalled. Finally he decided to push ahead. Miles writes:

              When he was not inspired to write the novel, (Burroughs) wrote what was intended as a conventional travel article about Tangier that he hoped Ginsberg might sell to the New Yorker (eventually published as "International Zone" in Interzone).
              Bill now recognized the significant role that Tangier played in his writing, not just in providing characters, incidents, and the stage set for many of the scenes, but as inspiration for the whole book (Naked Lunch).  As Burroughs explained to Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac...
              "Tangier is the prognostic pulse of the world, like a dream extending from past into future, a frontier between dream and reality--the 'reality' of both called into question."

              And in a letter to Allen Ginsberg:

              "There is no town like Tanger town. The place relaxes me so I am subject to dissolve. I can spend three hours looking at the bay with my mouth open like a Kentucky Mountain Boy. Man, I don't need junk." 
Given the notoriety of Naked Lunch and its association with Tangier and the Beats, one would think a happening might be held in Tangier to celebrate Burroughs on his birthday. Was there in fact any remnant of a Tangier vibe which resonated the nightmarish genesis of Naked Lunch? Would the ghost of Burroughs in trench coat and fedora suddenly appear turning the corner in some medina alley and then as swiftly vanish like a cloud of hashish smoke? Before arriving in Tangier I wondered if there were plans to screen the film Naked Lunch at the renovated Rif Cinema which overlooks the Gran Socco. Instead the biggest cultural event during our stay was the Tangier Festival National du Film. It appeared the festival was strictly a showcase for Moroccan and Arabic films and had large crowds at outdoor screenings. David Cronenberg’s Naked Lunch with its sodomy and talking asshole scenes would not be on the bill. The only other "arts" event in Tangier was a lecture on Jean Genet, “La Tombe de Jean Genet,” held at the venerable Librairie des Collonnes. There had been a Brion Gysin-WIlliam Burroughs Colloquium in 2013 in their honor and a few Burroughs related items were on display at the Old Tangier Legation Museum (which also has several rooms devoted to Paul Bowles.) 

Tim and I always stop by the Librairie des Collonnes to browse and visit with the manager, Simon-Pierre Hamelin. Simon-Pierre is also the best link to the current Tangier literary scene which seems to be finding new energy in publishing young Moroccans. Besides being a writer, Simon-Pierre has edited the fine Tangier literary magazine, Nejma (Star) since 2007. Paul Bowles' books and his translations of Moroccan writers like Mohammed Mrabet and Mohammed Choukri are plentiful along with works by Tahar Ben Jelloun, Mohammed Berrada, Driss Chraibi, Laila Lalami, Genet, Sartre, Camus and others. There are also titles by Burroughs in various hard to find European printings. The Librarie des Collonnes may have the largest selection of beautifully illustrated coffee table books on Tangier and Morocco anywhere. Browsing through them can be like going to a museum and gallery both. So Burroughs' birthday "party" really began with a stop at the bookstore and the purchase of some new Burroughs and Brion Gysin editions.

                      Below: National Film Festival, Tangier.

The Tangier Burroughs once lived in and put through a psychological meat-grinder to be re-imagined as Interzone in Naked Lunch is practically non-existent. All of the bars (Trudy's, the Parade, et al.) from the International Zone days are gone, except for Dean’s Bar. Burroughs wrote letters to Allen Ginsberg about his time in Dean’s and may have based some of his routines on scenes he witnessed there. Madame Porte’s, which once served the best martinis in the world is now an ice cream and pastry shop. Where was the “Meet Café” from Naked Lunch with its clientele of pimps, hustlers, pushers, hapless fugitives and losers on the run from some worse fate? The “Meet Café” was probably based on the Café Central in the Zoco Chico in the old city or medina. Burroughs was photographed there in the fifties with his lover Kiki, and the Rolling Stones hung out in the Zoco Chico on their early Tangier trips. The Cafe is still there, now a place where Moroccans and a smattering of tourists and day-trippers from Spain sip mint tea al fresco under an awning. I did not smell any kif smoke wafting from within the café though kif is readily available and is still smoked openly in cafes located deeper in the medina. Most of the Moroccan men inside were playing dominoes or watching soccer matches or Spanish telenovelas on large flat screen TVs. In the new town, Guitta’s Restaurant from those days has been closed for years. Perhaps one or two restaurants where Burroughs might have eaten remain. We did find La Grenouille still open which continues to serve decent meals. 

There are now pedestrian walkways on either side of the Boulevard Pasteur closed to traffic. In the evenings families crowd these walkways for evening promenades pushing baby carriages or with children in tow. Many of the young people we saw were wearing headsets or talking or texting on cell phones. In a effort to revitalize Tangier as a premiere Mediterranean tourist destination there is a construction boom underway. An upscale Hilton hotel is going up across from the new train station. The Grand Socco has been re-landscaped with a marble fountain and benches. Vendors sell candy by the piece, cigarettes (three for one dirham), roasted peanuts, balloons, and other cheap plastic toys. It was hard to tell how much of a European and Western expatriate population there is now. One elderly Irish expat told me over drinks at the Caid's Bar in the Hotel Minzah that Richard Branson, Jimmy Buffet, Francis Ford Coppola, and Mick Jagger had vacation homes on the old mountain. "Jagger was here not long ago with one of his girlfriends." I didn't care whether it was true or not and more likely it was just an attempt to make Tangier seem hip and glamorous. The busloads of unglamourous tourists in from the cruise ships that call at the port stay clustered together in groups as they are led through the medina. They look bewildered, nervous and even timid as they try to ignore and dodge the gnat-like swarms of men selling baskets, Berber hats, toy drums and other cheap Moroccan tourist goods. The city that Paul Bowles once called, "The den of iniquity," today seems quite tame if not conservative. Tangier's reputation as an open playing field for the promiscuous once attracted large numbers of sex tourists to its shores, especially during the International Zone days. .While Tangier seems much tamer than it did even in the late nineties, one gets the feeling that old habits die hard and that practically anything is still available for a price. Discretion being the watchword as there are eyes and ears everywhere. 

Below: Dar el Baroud, Tangier.

Hotel Continental 

But the weather is still great and when sitting on the terrace of the Hotel Continental overlooking the port and the coast of Spain twenty miles away across the Straits of Gibraltar, one can sense the exotic otherness that once was. And the Cafe Hafa still sits perched on its lush hillside above the sea beckoning stoners with its perfumed breezes, mint tea, and kif. Never mind that there is a Renault auto factory humming away in an industrial zone outside the city. Tangier has seen enormous growth since Bowles died in 1999 and houses seem to spring up by the minute in slap-dash fashion moving the city limits in all directions away from the old city center. Urban improvement has begun to creep right up to the edges of the traditional medina. The venerable beach clubs, bars and restaurants lining the bay are being bulldozed to make way for more upscale establishments. How long before a Mall of Tangier opens in the Kasbah?  

Well, we didn’t find any Burroughs birthday parties in the city but wanted to drink a toast to his memory and at least leave some token to mark the occasion. Before we left for Tangier I had done several Burroughs drawings and collages which I then made photocopies of. Most were small in size but I also printed some larger ones. I thought we could put the large prints up around Tangier near places associated with Burroughs. The smaller cards I would leave in various cafes, restaurants, and bars. Some of these places included the Gran Café de Paris, the Flandria Palace, La Grenouille, the Blue Pub, the Café Central, and Dean’s Bar. We also posted a few of the larger prints in the Calle de los Arcos, the street where there had been a rooming house, restaurant, and male brothel owned by a guy known as Dutch Tony. Burroughs had lived there for a time when he first arrived in Tangier. I dubbed the street “Burroughs Alley.” It was not far from Rue Mohamed Bergach where I lived for three years.As we walked around affixing the prints to walls, we were only stopped once. Just off the Zoco Chico an old Moroccan woman opened her door and in a stream of Moroccan Arabic expressed her annoyance at seeing a Burroughs image on the wall next to her house. (I couldn't blame her.) She obviously was not interested in Burroughs’ centenary. I apologized in Spanish, removed the print and clumsily dropped it on the street where a group of young boys snatched it up and ran off yelling.

Below: William Burroughs centenary poster.

Tim and I finally visited the Hotel Muniria where Burroughs had written much of Naked Lunch. During Burroughs' stay in the 1950s he was also visited there by Allen Ginsberg,  Jack Kerouac, Gregory Corso, Peter Orlovksy, and other Beats. This was the only place in Tangier where we found any Burroughs mementos or evidence that he had lived in the city. The owner’s wife graciously allowed us to walk around the hotel and gardens and take photos. Since we weren’t staying there I offered to pay her something but she politely refused. One interesting space we saw was a small study across from Burroughs’ room. It was cozy with bookshelves, a comfortable chair and a small desk where one could write. It was easy to picture him sitting there at his typewriter with the sun coming through the French doors and a view of the beach down below. I could see the maid bringing him a glass of mint tea and a spoonful of majoun. The Tanger Inn which is located in the basement of the hotel is where backpackers, Goths, and young Moroccans go to party. I doubt if many end up there looking for a connection to Burroughs or the Beats. It’s a small, dark, nightclub with Moroccan cushions, low tables, and a few photos of Burroughs and other Beat writers on the wall. The club has a DJ who plays loud techno pop music late into the night and where one can order the drink named for Burroughs, a vodka and coke. A place Burroughs would probably have fled from while flashing his sword cane at anyone who tried to block his path.  We opted to have our toast in Dean’s Bar. Sadly, Dean’s Bar, the one legendary watering hole left from the Interzone days where Burroughs used to drink, closed in the fall of 2014. Now like Dean, Missed by all and sundry.

In the end there was no Burroughs birthday celebration to be found. I felt Burroughs' presence most strongly while walking on the beach in Tangier. From his letters to Ginsberg he seemed to have enjoyed being out in the fresh salt air of the Mediterranean. There in the blue-green waters of the Bay of Tangier Burroughs had loved to go rowing in the mornings to build up his strength while trying to get healthy and off drugs. There are photos of him lying on the beach looking relaxed and goofing around with Ginsberg and Kerouac. Burroughs as beach bum. Why not? Today if one goes looking for Burroughs in Tangier there are very few shadows cast by "El Hombre Invisible" as he was referred to by the locals.The Doctor Benway character who performed surgery using a rusty tin can lid seems as far away as Kansas. Instead take a walk along the crescent shaped sands of Tangier Bay. Smell the sardines and kebabs grilling in the many small restaurants lining the rue.  If Burroughs' ghost ever visits Tangier I think that’s where his spirit is most likely to be found. You might even come across a beat up old fedora washed ashore.                                                

Below: Zoco Chico, Tangier.

Below: Cafe Central, Zoco Chico, Tangier Medina.

Below: Burroughs Alley.

Below: William Burroughs centenary poster on building, Tangier.

Below: William Burroughs centenary poster on tomb of Walter Harris, St. Andrew's Church cemetery, Tangier.

Below: Poster of April, 2013 colloquium honoring Brion Gysin and William Burroughs.
Tangier American Legation Museum.

Below: Hotel Muniria and Tanger Inn looking down towards the beach and Bay of Tangier.

Below: Staircase, Hotel Muniria, Tangier.

Below: Hotel Muniria, Tangier.

Below: Hotel Muniria.

Below: Door to room where William Burroughs stayed,
Hotel Muniria, Tangier.

Below: Tim Murray and Francis Poole in the Hotel Muniria garden.

Below: Gregory Corso, Paul Bowles, and William Burroughs.
Hotel Muniria garden, 1950s. 

Below: Tangier Beach, 2013.

Below: Peter Orlovsky, Jack Kerouac, and William Burroughs
Tangier Beach, 1950s.

Below: Dean's Bar, 2014.

Below: Found art, Tangier.

Below: Maybe Burroughs once shopped for a knife, wristwatch, or remote control (?) in the joteya or flea market.

Below: First edition, bound in Moroccan leather
inscribed to Paul Bowles.
University of Delaware Library Special Collections

Below: Letter from William Burroughs to Paul Bowles.
University of Delaware Library Special Collections

Below: Painting of Zoco Chico
by Brion Gysin
inscribed to Jane Bowles.
University of Delaware Library Special Collections

Below: Hand print on wall, Tangier. 
Is part of the little finger missing?
Photo by Francis Poole

Below: Paul Bowles, Francis Poole, 1979.

Below: 13 drawings and collages for William Burroughs centenary. Printed in various sizes. Some were affixed to walls and buildings and others left in restaurants, bars, and various locations around Tangier.
 All works by Francis Poole 

Below: Naked Lunch, Tangier.