My Old Moroccan Home

By Paula Wolfert

Published on July 13, 2007

On the plane I keep telling myself that I'm going back to Tangier to see my old house and garden, find my old housekeeper, pick up a few new recipes, see a few old friends. The truth is, I want to revisit the city that formed my adult life, perhaps finally to get it out of my system. It has been so many years. Between 1959 and 1976, I did three stints in Tangier. Each time I left, I longed to return; and now I am returning again.

For me Tangier was always a place of contradictions—European and Arab, luxurious and shabby, comfortable and exotic, familiar and mysterious. It was the city where I lived unhappily with one husband and very happily with another, set up households, raised children, forged friendships, learned what the Mediterranean lifestyle was and how to live it. It was also the place where I found my vocation as food writer—where I discovered who I really was.

My first impression upon arriving back: I do not recognize the place! Tangier seems huge. Streets have been rerouted; villas have sprung up where sheep once grazed. The sparkling city I remember now looks drab, in desperate need of whitewash. But the smells are the same: wood-fueled cooking fires, bread baking in community ovens, spices in the markets, mint tea in the cafes, sawdust on the street of carpenters—and always the aroma of the sea blending with the perfume of pine trees.

I walk past a humble house, and am enveloped by the mingled scents of cumin, simmering onions, and the preserved meat Moroccans call khlea. I'm suddenly reminded of my first meal in Morocco, in the early 1960s—a couscous flavored with saffron, golden raisins, and sweet, long-cooked onions cut into winglike shapes.

For my visit, I have rented a Moorish-style villa from my English friend, Tessa, in the hillside suburb of Djemma el Mokra, just a few hundred yards from my old house. The view, as always, is stunning: the city spreading out below, the curve of the harbor, the Rif Mountains beyond. But the once luxuriant green hills are now covered with houses. Tangier, my friends tell me, has nearly tripled in size since I was last here.

I have two immediate objectives: to find Fatima, my old housekeeper, who was almost a surrogate mother to my children, and who taught me so much in the kitchen; and to see the wonderful house where I spent so much time, and where I planted a garden with waves of agapanthus, daylilies, and irises spilling down the hillside.

Fatima, alas, is not to be found. I show an old picture of her around on the streets, in the markets. The old miller who used to grind our wheat—Fatima used to say that she only felt safe when there was a 100-pound sack of flour in the house—smiles gently. "Yes, I remember her," he says, "but I haven't seen her in years."

Word spreads quickly that an American woman is searching for a housekeeper. It's that way in Tangier: The gossip mill, which we call "Tangier radio," always gets things mixed up. Soon women start showing up at the door. "My name is Fatima. You need a cook?" I shake my head. "I'm just trying to find a friend."

As for our old house … I can't believe what's been done to it: checkerboard stonework where we had installed flagstone, kitschy decorations that destroy the clean, clear lines of the authentic Art Deco façade. The new owner gives me a tour. She tells me how she tore out the bougainvillea and cut down the magnificent flowering trees that shaded the terrace. "They could have fallen on the house," she explains.

And the flower garden is gone. "I hate flowers," she says. In their place, she proudly tells me, she is growing vegetables. My garden has become a cabbage patch—which is probably the last thing anyone needs in Tangier, where fresh organically grown produce is both plentiful and cheap.

But enough of disillusion. I have only a few days. I want to see Tangier at its best! Cafe Haffa, a romantic Moroccan outdoor tea-garden cut into the cliffs overlooking the harbor, is unchanged, still filled with old men sipping, smoking, and conversing in private alcoves, while numerous cats scurry about. I remember once sitting here with the expatriate writer Paul Bowles, listening to him talk as he gloomily smoked cigarettes, gazing out at the Strait and the distant shoreline of Spain.

Sadly, when I arrive, Paul is in the States. I phone him in Atlanta, to wish him well. We speak of old times, of the Tangier I used to know. "Yes, it's different," he agrees, with his usual courteous melancholy. "But then everything is these days, isn't it?" Paul, so gaunt and wry, has long been a key figure in the expatriate English-speaking literary community of Tangier. Others, at various times, have included William Burroughs, Allen Ginsberg, Gregory Corso, Alan Sillitoe, and the avant-garde writer Brion Gysin—who was also briefly a restaurateur: He opened a place called The Thousand and One Nights, but disgruntled Moroccan workmen put a djinn—a spirit—in the bathroom, and cursed the place until it closed.

And of course there was Paul's wife, the fragile, talented, and funny, yet ultimately tragic, Jane Bowles, obscure during her lifetime but rediscovered since her death. I recall Jane taking me to lunch at a beach club restaurant with Tennessee Williams, where we ate grilled fish and Moroccan salads while Tennessee waxed sorrowful over a young Moroccan who had rejected his advances.

Tangier in the 1960s was more than a city: It was a state of mind, a place people came to reinvent themselves and to live out their most eccentric fantasies. The phone book listed several "countesses" and "barons" who were actually courtesans and butcher boys. The phone company didn't care. The phones didn't work very well anyway.

Barbara Hutton, poorest of the "poor little rich girls," was there, so demented in her final years that she bought a title and insisted that we call her "Princess"; so was Marta Ruspoli, a real princess, who came to believe in the lost continent of Atlantis after she found the American Indian arrowheads her grandchildren had mischievously seeded in her lawn; and so was David Edge, a marvelous old fraud who lived in a palace in the Casbah decorated like a stage set and sported a golden crucifix—a parting gift from the Primate of Hungary, he shamelessly declared, with whom he'd shared a great love in his youth.

But some of my most vivid memories of Tangier remain those of the Bowleses and the other Tangier writers who encouraged me. It took me a long time to discover my medium: Writing cookbooks is not the first thing that comes to mind in a group of novelists and poets. But Brion Gysin kept saying that somebody had to do a book about Moroccan food, and though he always claimed that he was going to do it himself, he never did. I had already studied cooking a bit, so I thought I'd try.

Visiting old friends one day, I have lunch with Joe McPhillips, headmaster of the American School of Tangier, where my children spent their formative years, and where Yves St. Laurent has designed costumes for the school play a couple of times. (Paul Bowles still writes music for the show.) "But," he adds, over asparagus with poached eggs and a popular Tangier dish of fish in a charmoula marinade, "It's not like the old days, Paula. Remember how there used to be two separate cities, Arab and European? Now we expatriates are much more involved with Moroccan life. In that way, the city's better than ever."

The next evening, another longtime resident, the Chilean painter Claudio Bravo, invites me to dinner at his magnificent house on the Old Mountain Road, which has perhaps the finest garden in the city, and views over the Strait of Gibraltar. We talk about art, and about food trends. "Now that people have TV," says Claudio, "they watch cooking shows from Egypt, Tunisia, and France." The dish of the moment, he tells me, is a kind of ersatz bisteeya, filled with Moroccan spiced fish and Chinese noodles! Claudio serves me a version—small crisp rolls stuffed with gelatinous pasta and coriander-scented shrimp. Then we get more traditional, with a delicious lamb, okra, and quince tagine.

Another day, I visit the Fez Market, where I used to buy my vegetables. I wander the stalls, marveling over the freshness of the produce. Suddenly an old Berber woman, in a red-and-white striped apron, with pom-poms on her hat, throws her arms about me. We kiss. I used to buy wild mushrooms from her. "So good to see you!" she says. "How are the children?" Soon other vendors, old friends, crowd around. Finally I feel at home.

Barbara Temsamani, an American married to a Moroccan industrialist, takes me to lunch one day to the home of Saad Hajoui—grandson of El Glaoui, the legendary pasha of Marrakech. The food is lavish: triangular pastries with a bisteeya stuffing, and pigeon smothered in raisins and huge amounts of peeled chickpeas and peeled green grapes in a sauce seasoned with onions, nutmeg, saffron, ginger, black pepper, cubed lamb's liver, and a touch of vanilla. This is Moroccan palace cookery at its finest—labor-intensive, reproducible only with a staff of the old women cooks called dadas. Later, Barbara introduces me to a caterer, Zora, who teaches me some Tangier home-style dishes I don't already know. From her, I learn an orange and radish salad and a terrific lentil dish with khlea.

On my last day in Tangier, I visit a natural spring, Ain La Lanyoun, high on the hill above our old house. I would sometimes accompany Fatima here when she went to fetch water; it is known for its healthful properties, and she liked to use it when making bread. The source is approached by a walkway through a garden. I recognize the old man who guards the place and keeps it clean. He nods sweetly, but does not remember me. We chat briefly; then I give him a few coins, as one always does. Back on the road, I continue up to the crest of the hill for a final look at Tangier.

The Strait is calm, a deep marine blue, and the sky is cloudless. It is late afternoon, and the light is ravishing. Gulls circle the harbor. The Rif Mountains glow mysteriously to the east. The soiled city glitters white. Memories flood back. it has been a long time, and I have learned, away from Tangier, that there are no paradises on this earth.

My last thought before I descend the hill: I wish Fatima were here with me, so I could take her face in my hands and kiss her goodbye. This time, I don't think I'll ever return. Tangier has changed, and so have I.

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