Cultural Crossroads

During his lifetime Idries Shah promoted contacts and connections between different traditions around the world, believing this to be an important element in the advancement of human culture.

In this spirit, The Idries Shah Foundation has created ‘Cultural Crossroads’, a website forum where people from many walks of life are invited to talk about their own experiences crossing cultural boundaries, and the lessons that they have learned as a result.

You can find the full series here:

Interview with Josh ShoemakeAbout Josh Shoemake

Josh Shoemake is the author of Tangier: a literary guide for travellers and Planet Willie. He lived for many years in Tangier and was headmaster of the American School of Marrakech. He lives in Paris.

1. You’re an expert on Tangier, which for many years was an important hub for cultural cross-over between East and West. Can you explain how such a state of affairs came about?

For three main reasons, I’d say. The first is the most obvious: geographically, you’d be hard-pressed to find a city better positioned – literally – to blend cultures. Stand out by the lighthouse at Cap Spartel, and you’re at Africa’s northwesternmost point. North is Europe, west is America, south is Africa, and east is the Maghreb. Even Plato recognized the place as transitionally significant, situating the mysterious lost kingdom of Atlantis out west beyond the Pillars of Hercules, one of which, Jebel Musa, rises just up the Mediterranean coast from Tangier. Related: because of their geographies, I’ve often thought that port cities have more in common with each other than with cities within their own countries. Tangier, Naples, Veracruz, New Orleans, etc. – they could form a dislocated nation of dangerously beautiful cities. From the polyglot hustlers, to the questionable bars, to the charismatic hosts with invented pasts, these are places made for transformations, for the better or for the worse.

Second, between 1923 and 1956, Tangier was what was called an International Zone, which meant that it was governed not by France, Spain, or Morocco itself, but by a coalition of European powers, which consequently meant that there were really no laws to speak of, specifically pertaining to drugs, sexuality, etc. (rarely has an etc. contained so much). So the artists came, the writers and painters and assorted hopefuls and hangers on, the most talented of them, like William Burroughs, Paul Bowles, Truman Capote, and Allen Ginsberg, producing revolutionary work, surely inspired by the endless possibilities of Tangier. To be fair, Tangier had always had this freewheeling spirit, thanks also to its traditional inhabits, the ferociously independent and darkly humorous Moroccans, mostly Berber, of the north. But the period of the International Zone was the apex of the lawless, creative Tangier we tend to think of today.

Finally, there is the mystical explanation, which although I don’t tend to believe in mystical explanations, seems closest to the mark in Tangier. There is something in atmosphere of the place, a disorienting vibration, which for centuries people have attempted to describe. They talk of the particular light, or the maddening wind, the chergui, which occasionally blasts in from the Sahara. But more broadly, there seems to be an indescribable black magic to the place which casts a dizzying spell and keeps us all coming back.

2. How successful was Tangier as a cultural crossroads? To what degree was Western culture changed by it? And Eastern culture?

Unusually successful, especially if we focus on the International Zone years, and the city’s writers. Modern Moroccan literature came into existence thanks in large part to Paul Bowles, who translated several of the century’s most important local writers from stories told in the Moroccan Arabic dialect, which is unwritten, into English (Mohamed Choukri’s brilliant For Bread Alone, for example, was originally published in English, years before it ever came out in Arabic). Some of those writers later fell out with Bowles over money or other perceived slights, perhaps with reason, but the notion of a local Arabic literature, with storytellers free to communicate in their native language rather than colonial French or classical Arabic, had been established.

And Tangier was also an enormous influence on those experimental Western writers, especially Bowles (who wrote some of The Sheltering Sky there, as well as many of his daring short stories) and William Burroughs (who wrote Naked Lunch there). Obviously the settings and characters were Tangier, but I also think the city exerted a structural influence on the work. Read Naked Lunch, and you feel as if you’re wandering lost through winding medina streets (on drugs), every new turn a surprise, someone or something you want to meet, or not. Nothing holds together until you stop trying to make it hold together, and then everything seems to make sense. For a while.

3. Does anything remain in today’s Tangier of the spirit of those times?

Absolutely. We tend to associate the city with the Beat writers, but in researching my book on literary Tangier, I was amazed to discover just how long Tangier has been considered a literary destination. So many writers showed up there looking for something. Just to name a few further back: Hans Christian Andersen, James Fenimore Cooper, Alexandre Dumas, Ian Fleming, Richard Hughes, George Orwell, Samuel Pepys, and Mark Twain.

So it would be foolish to think that Tangier has “lost it”. The social scene right now is somewhat less eccentric than it once was, but that’s a worldwide trend. Culturally, however, a lot’s still happening, and there are two great English-language bookshops well stocked by the glory days of the twentieth century, but also publishing and promoting contemporary Moroccan writers: Les Insolites and the legendary Librairie des Colonnes, the oldest in Africa.

4. You lived in Tangier (and Morocco) yourself for several years. How did it change you?

Indescribably, probably more than any other experience in my life. I arrived in Tangier right after college, aged 22. I had no idea what I was getting into, other than that I was meant to teach literature. But like many people who visit, immediately upon arrival I felt as if I’d become someone else. Maybe a spy under deep cover, or a renowned wit, or an accomplished gun runner devoted to a band of brilliant rebels. Of course I was none of these things, but it is almost impossible to remain yourself in Tangier, whoever that once was. There is too much coming at you at once (especially when you’re a 22-year-old kid). There is too much color and sound and talk and fear and beauty to process. I think if you spend any significant time in Tangier, and in Morocco, you must learn to take all of this at a somewhat stoic distance, ideally without dulling your senses to it all. Otherwise you go crazy (and there are plenty examples of ones who’ve gone that route). To put it another way, after living in Morocco, I am not easily surprised, and am consequently more or less incapable of taking offense. The world is strange and awful and mostly wonderful. Tangier taught me that once and for all.

5. Now you live in Paris, which has also been an important centre of cultural cross-over. How does it compare to Tangier?

Like all imperial cities, Paris can occasionally feel like a museum, at least in comparison with Tangier, but to redirect Gertrude Stein’s phrase, there’s a there there, as there is in Tangier. You can feel the ghosts on the streets, and both cities are made for wandering. Memories attach themselves to places there. To Paris you come back again and again, and those memories – of that drink on that terrace, of that kiss outside Chez Lipp – will remain, layered onto a city that fortunately changes little on the outside. I so much love, and admire, that about Paris, and Tangier. Culturally, however, Paris does tend to be more segregated, at least in my experience. The grand sophisticated artistic melting pot has mostly gone elsewhere. But come on, this is Paris. You’ll find whatever you want if only you keep looking.