Tangier, Morocco, Steeped in American history — Ambassador Edward M. Gabriel (ret.)

Tangier coastline Photo:Travel4Brews

Tangier coastline Photo:Travel4Brews

Ambassador Edward M. Gabriel (ret.)
May 30, 2018

ED official photo - smallWhen I first arrived to Morocco as US Ambassador in 1998, I had already been schooled in the unique history of the US-Morocco relationship. Morocco was the first country to recognize the newly independent United States in 1777. It was also among the first to negotiate a Treaty of Peace & Friendship, the longest unbroken treaty in the history of the US, signed by Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, and Muhammad III in 1786, and ratified by the Continental Congress in 1787.

However, I didn’t fully appreciate the US connection to Tangier.  Tangier is not on the usual circuit for travelers to Morocco, which includes Casablanca, Rabat, Fez, the desert, Marrakech, Essaouira, and back.  Even worse, tourists to Spain may decide they want to say they’ve been to Africa and take the short 9 mile trip over the Strait of Gibraltar to Tangier for a half day experience.  This is not the way to see Tangier.

Tangier is rich in American history. It was in the Strait of Gibraltar that the US formed an alliance with Morocco in the early 1800s to end the Barbary pirates’ seizure of US vessels, thus giving birth to the US Navy. Shortly thereafter, the American Legation, the official US residence for our first representatives to the Kingdom of Morocco, was established and still stands to this day.  It is the only US National Historic Landmark outside the United States, and today is a museum.

One US Consul who served in the 1800s, Thomas Carr, is worth mentioning. In a letter he wrote to the State Department in 1839, Carr reported that the Sultan of Morocco presented him with two lions and a horse, higher than the gift allowance permitted by the United States. After much debate with the Sultan concerning the problems of accepting such a gift on behalf of the American people and the threat of decapitation for refusing such, Carr was distressed to see the local Pasha and town crier marching up the alley to the Legation with the gifts. The scene was caught in a drawing rendered by Carr’s son, which can be seen at the Legation today. In Carr’s letter, he demanded an extra allowance from the State Department to care for the animals that were literally eating him out of house and home (the lions being housed on the ground floor of the Legation).  The Legation today should be on everyone’s must see list when visiting Morocco.

One of the most forgotten American links to Tangier were the many expatriates who flocked there in the 1950s and early 60s, some of whom remain today. Commonly referred to as the Beat Generation, this was a movement of young people and intellectuals who rejected conventional society, favoring Zen Buddhism, modern jazz, and free expression.  Some of the biggest names who came to visit and live there included Paul Bowles, Peter Orlovesky, Irwin Allen Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac, and William Burroughs.


Paul Bowles correspondence during his stay in Tangier Photo: Kent MacElwee

Paul Bowles lived and wrote in Tangier for 52 years.  In 1999, I had the distinct honor of presenting him with an award of appreciation from President Clinton honoring him for his contribution to American values through his writing and his goodwill work during his years in Tangier. His response to the award was warm and heartfelt, “I am a proud American and always will be”.  He passed away a month later.

Bowles once said, “Morocco’s front door opens to all of Africa. The other side of that same door opens to Europe.” He saw Morocco as a land of contrasts and Tangier is where he would author some of his most famous works.  Sheltering Sky is considered one of the best 100 novels of all time. He counted among his friends Gertrude Stein and Aaron Copland, with whom he wrote many famous music scripts, rapidly rising to prominence as a composer of theatre music.

Another of the most enduring American legacies in Tangier is the American School of Tangier (AST), the oldest American school in Morocco, established as a US and Moroccan non-profit educational institution in 1950. Since its inception, it has graduated thousands of young Moroccans who would go on to study in the best universities in the United States and Europe. Its longevity and success can be attributed to one person, Joseph A. McPhillips.  McPhillips, a graduate of Phillips Academy, Andover and Princeton University, came to AST in 1962, becoming its headmaster in 1973. He also started a second American school in Marrakech in 1995 and was headmaster until he passed away in 2007. He was a force to be reckoned with, and a principal figure on the Tangier scene for more than five decades.

McPhillips was also a theatre director who directed more than 20 plays at AST, which would become a Tangier tradition. Amongst them was the 1992 production of Euripides Hippolytos performed in Arabic and featuring music by Paul Bowles and costumes by Yves Saint Laurent.  Today the American schools of Tangier and Marrakech have over 700 students and are carrying on the tradition Joe McPhillips intended to bring the best American education values to Morocco.

As Tangier reinvents itself as the hub for international manufacturing, a host of new American and international companies are arriving every day to take advantage of an educated workforce, competitive costs, and the easy, free-trade access to both the US and Europe. With them comes the next generation of Americans who will carry on the historic ties between our two countries.

Finally, when you do go, make sure to stay at the five start Mirage hotel, a most beautiful and romantic setting on cliffs overhanging the Atlantic Ocean, with the sound of the waves splashing down below. It’s a once in a lifetime experience.

Tangier is an exciting place, filled with American, European, and Moroccan history creating Bowles’ “land of contrasts”.  So, come and stay awhile in this special city, and enjoy the beat it has created for all who visit it.

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