The Colour of Freedom

January 12, 1950

Continental Hotel

Tangier

 

The Tangier heat is dry and the sun burns a hole through the ultramarine sky. The blue expanse runs for miles and miles until it pinches with the pink sand. I look at the simplicity of it and realize how far I am away from home where every moment of my life was a complex web. There was no single thread but a chaotic pattern in which a spider would surely get tangled. If I had stayed I would have unraveled and choked blue.  I do not expect any one will understand my sudden departure, I certainly do not. I have done everything that was expected of me, in fact, I do not think I have ever taken a wrong step in my short life. Dullness never cried or laughed, it just let life pass it by. Nevertheless, here I am simply letting life tow me.

                                                                                               

The people are pleasant enough. The young boys playing football on the streets ask me what time it is. I do not think it is the time they care about. I suppose they find me just as exotic as I find them.

 

Tangier belongs to no one. The Spanish, French, and English own it. Tangier is full of Arabs and Berbers. At any given time one can hear French, Spanish, English, Arabic, and Moghrebi, the native tongue. The French run the hotels, banks, and the larger shops. Black children serve breakfast of mint tea, native bread, black, grilled to make it blacker, and jam. It is not quite New York but one can live quite comfortably in this city.

 

I have made some inquires of the garcon d'hotel about the writer Paul Bowels. He knows of him but has no clue to where he lives. The city is small, I am sure I will run into him.

 

January 14, 1950

Continental Hotel

Tangier

 

I have been feeling tired but restless.  The heat is stifling. It leaves me wet with perspiration. I can feel where it leaves its mark on my clothes. I do not know how the natives stay cool in their long robes. The sunlight penetrates my skull casting a shadow on my brain; leaving it in darkness.

 

The city feels like what, I suspect, Europe must have felt like in the Middle Ages. Time has stood still here but the world has moved on, more so for the natives than the Europeans – the Europeans can come and go as they please. The natives live in a crowded and complex center where the streets are absolutely indistinguishable from the hallways. A street might lead into a home, a hallway into a dead end, and a space might lead to another space and sometimes not. There is no reason in the primitive structure but somehow the people manage to function in the poverty they breed. Lost, I accidentally walked into a home. The sweet aroma of kif – a mixture of fine hemp leaves and tobacco – wafted up my nostrils.  I heard bursts of laughter and music emanating from the rooms. In a small room, tall women laid on the cool floor drinking glasses of mint tea and smoking kif cigarettes. I sneezed and excused myself and there was complete silence in the room. One of the women got up and walked to me. She looked me up and down and reached for my white flannel trousers, ‘mon dieu, c'est bon’ came the voice in soft tones, from her pink lips. Her ebony cheekbones lit up. She offered me some tea and kif and led me to a more private room. Later, she directed me out of the medina towards my hotel.  The Continental Hotel is situated outside the native center. It is surrounded by white stucco houses owned by the Europeans; around the corner the Mediterranean opens up into the Atlantic and Spain just across the strait.

 

January 20, 1950

Continental Hotel

Tangier

 

I picked up a copy of an Algerian newspaper, Echo D'Alger, where Bowles, author of the novel, The Sheltering Sky, is described as ‘distant, chilly, and eccentric and his parrot as skinny and featherless.’

 

January 25, 1950

Continental Hotel

Tangier

 

There is a little child who comes to the music-cafe where I have been listening to Moroccan music. He comes in wearing different coloured skullcaps. He approaches me seriously, shakes hands and asks for a penny. It is very late.

 

I asked Absalom, the garcon d’hotel about the young boy. Why was he asking for money late at night in a bar? He told me how the young boys prostitute themselves. They will go as far as to sell their younger brothers and sisters to the Europeans and Americans. He explained there were two kinds of freedom. The affluent and eccentrics of Europe and America come to Tangier looking for sex, drugs, and cheap housing. Then, there are the poor dark bastards who provide services whether it is serving mint tea or themselves.

 

January 26, 1950

Continental Hotel

Tangier

 

Absalom’s explanation disturbed me but put my life in some obvious context. When I was a child of three I wanted a white tricycle that I had seen in the shop window. It was not Christmas or my birthday. I talked about it for days on end. I cried and had my tantrums until my parents relented and bought it for me. Last year for my nineteenth birthday my parents bought me a white sports car without an utterance from me. My problems are trivial compared to what that young child in the coloured skullcaps’ will face for the rest of his life. I doubt if I will fully understand my place of privilege. I doubt my children or my grandchildren will ever understand how the colour of ones skin defines freedom.

 

Absalom found out that Bowles lives on a mountain about three kilometers out of Tangier with his lover.  We hiked up the mountain to the Bowles household. A young Arab man answered the door. He informed us that Mr. Bowles was in Ceylon and would be

back in a few months. I had missed him by a few days.

 

The countryside is blotched with all variety of cacti, palms, figs, and flowers. They are surrounded by huge eucalyptus trees.