ENTHRALLINGLY WICKED TANGIER, 1940-48
The English and boy-lover Michael Davidson first stayed in Tangier from mid 1940 to early 1941 and then intermittently in 1947-8, as appears from his autobiography The World, the Flesh and Myself (London, 1962), in which he first described his time there. A lengthier account followed as a chapter of Some Boys (London, 1969), his memoir more narrowly focused on Greek love. The latter account is presented here first, followed by the few references to Greek love to be found in the earlier one.
The text is taken from pp. 87-96 of the unexpurgated American edition (New York, 1971), which in this instance differs only trivially from the original British edition.
THE TANGIER of those days, a writer may feel, was a city for which there weren't enough adjectives. To describe successfully the purulent and prurient and paradoxical life of that grotesque city, to depict the astonishing farrago of a society from its touristical surface of oriental romance to its murkiest sump of multifarious evil, would require an extravagance of vocabulary and a lushness of phrase beyond the resources of most writers—there never was, surely, a town so enthrallingly wicked, unless Babylon and Gomorrah could live up to its high standard of depravity; or so fascinatingly motley and mongrel and miscellaneous, unless indeed Babel was what it's proverbially supposed to have been.
Nearly every appetite could have been satiated here—though an appetite for art and the pleasures of the mind would hardly even be satisfied. Only one human desire had little hope of being fulfilled at all: the desire for love. Tangier was a city without love—or so it seemed to me at the time of which I'm writing: just before the war and for a year during it, and again in 1947-48 when I lived there as a journalist.
But the town and "zone" had everything else (Tangier was then an internationalized segment of Morocco—the "International Zone"): luxuriousness and all the sensual pleasures human invention can think up, and an agreeably oriental sense of personal irresponsibility; enough squalor in every shade of leprous variation to please the most gothic-minded romanticist; "007"-type espionage of a generally non-lethal sort and in the main comfortably fictional; smuggling of anything illegal from cigarettes and drugs to State secrets, from blocked capital to hunted criminals or political refugees; every kind of intrigue and fraud and fiddle and law-evasion. At a time of wartime restrictions and warring currencies, I saw cheques on New York, London, Paris, Berlin and so on being sold by auction in a mid-morning movie-theatre ("I have here escudos twenty-four thousand and fifteen centavos on Lisbon. . . ."); and an abundant market for the supply of almost any off-beat or illicit sexual demand, from small girls and boys to pregnant Negresses and Arabs with out-size genitals. . . . But it was a city without love. The odors of lust, like the fumes of liquor, hung in every street; but if you insisted on love you were given a poor effigy of it and made to pay heavily.
The town was too much of a flea-market for love. All the goods were second-hand, or damaged, or made for a quick turnover and a quick get-away. Nothing ever seemed quite genuine: one walked through the town with the feeling of being an extra in some ham melodrama, entering into such absurd situations as, during the war, finding oneself sitting on a café terrace beside German Nazis, Italian Fascists and Spanish Falangists—a situation which, to one born and bred on the Allied side, presented difficult problems of etiquette; or meeting some ludicrous "neutral" acquaintance, known to be a "spy" for both sides, who says: "I've just come from the German legation—I'm on my way to the British. . . ." Even the retired British colonels who lived grandly on the Mountain, and the solid bourgeois householders of the Marshan acquired a semblance of phonyness merely from the fact that they had chosen to live in Tangier. In the Kasbah, nobody could call Barbara Hutton phony, or her money; but one could say unusual. . . . There were plenty of bogus barons and dubious duchesses: even the family of the Marquess of Bute, who owned a quantity of the town, seemed to have something of the theatrical unreality of the rest of the Tangerine nobility. Every day, almost, was a holiday—yet like the Eve of a Tangerine St. Bartholomew, so curiously precarious did existence feel, founded upon so much that was spurious; for Friday, of course, was the Muslim day of rest, Saturday the Jewish and Sunday the Christian, and nearly every other day of the week was generally a saint's day or a feast of some sort belonging to one of the three—or else a "national day" of one of the members of the Zone's administering condominium.
Like the hard, metallic sunshine and the cutting winds of the winter, life in Tangier seemed to have no soft corners for the gentler emotions—indeed, for emotions at all, except those like anger or jealousy. Everything had a price and had to be bargained for; all was "business" and business hasn't any room for tenderness. That's why, I suppose, among all the boys I knew there—Arab, Berber, Jewish, Portuguese, Spanish, French—I remember none with a pang: I can scarcely remember any of their names—though I can recall the outlines of some of their physical attributes. . . . They were most of them charming, if some of them were charmingly mercenary; but none displayed affection or really aroused it: it was all commerce, though a commerce nearly always spiced with piquancy and pleasure, like buying something very beautiful in an antique-shop or finding a long-craved book on a second-hand stall.
I remember a fifteen-year-old Spanish boy, tall and slim, with long, lank hair and delicate feline limbs; I met him on the playa, the broad ribbon of white sand that sweeps like a high road round the shore of Tangier bay. On his second visit he brought his next younger brother, aged thirteen, explaining that the earlier the boy learned about the ways of the world the better. He himself had been taught by an older brother—there were three more little brothers yet to grow to the right age, the youngest still an infant.
I remember a Jewish boy, dark and softly handsome like an Andalusian, whose memory in my mind's eye still brings back his name—Moise: he was a "superior" local Jew who spoke French rather than Jewish-Arabic. He used to take me to a curious bathing establishment kept in their back-yard by a Jewish family (there were a number of similar establishments to be found in that sombre jungle of slums behind the Petit Socco). It was meant for one bather (or two) and consisted of a small pisé hut like a potting-shed in which was placed a cauldron of hot water, scrubbing brushes and other ablutionary instruments; and a tiny walled yard open to the sky in which to dry oneself in the sun. To one of these Moise brought me, and we scrubbed each other with the brush, and made playful love in the sunshine. . . .
There was another Jew: a sweet, shy fourteen-year old with red-ochre-dark hair and a fair clear northern skin. He was diffident and gentle-mannered; yet every evening, one week of summer, he sat on my back door step which I rarely used; until one warm dusk, I happened to look out that way, and there he was . . . sitting shyly on the big stone step, with his short knickers rolled back over his thighs and his bare knees and calves white in the twilight. We talked that first evening; the second, I think it was, I sat beside him on the step; and on the third I stroked his knee and warm and silky expanse of thigh. On the fourth evening, he came indoors. . . .
And Dris—or was his name Abderhamman? A tall, long-boned Arab who may've been any age between twelve and sixteen, whose huge melancholy eyes were like black olives set in the parchment of his face, and who with his cowled head looked like an Italian-Primitive saint, so elongated did his narrow-shouldered figure appear within the gracile fluting of his ankle-length jellaba. I found him on the playa; on the stretch of sand, backed by the ranks of bathing cabins and beach-bars, where in summer a profusion of half-nude European women lay baking in the sun, like lengths of washed-up seaweed each the unembarrassed centre of a ring of Arab or Berber youths hungrily whetting their imaginations upon all the female flesh they could see. He was squatting with his legs crossed beneath the skirts of his jellaba and his hands thrust deep through the slits at the sides; his head was huddled under his cowl as if he were cold; but I could see the sad, stoical passion of his black eyes and his half-opened magenta lips. And then I apprehended an almost imperceptible motion, as miniature as the throbbing in a lizard's throat, which was infinitesimally vacillating the fabric of his robe above his lap—he was, I saw in a gust of realization, quietly and covertly flogging himself beneath the tractable shrouds of his robe. . . .
I recall too that small Berber, blue-eyed and tousled, with the impish air of a London urchin, whom I found one late night alone on the deserted playa: a hot night of summer, when the sky was incandescent with stars and even the moonlight looked warm. In this silvered darkness, the water's edge seemed an infinite distance from the far side of the beach, above which the dunes hung like purple banks of obscurity; apart from the lights of the town, sparkling up the hillside as if from another planet, we might have been alone on a desert island. We took off our clothes and bathed together naked and blissful, in the warm, soft, unmoving water—I remember how the moonlight made his white body look like freshly polished marble. And after our bathe, because his douar was some way out in the countryside and he had nowhere to sleep, I took him back to my villa.
There was a French boy—his name was Raoul. It started with our playing chess; his parents had taken a villa for the holidays much nearer the playa than mine—a tumbledown cliff-cottage on the sea side of the Marshan—and we used to play at their villa. They were very self-consciously middle-class people: the father was a municipal personage—directeur des jardins publiques of a big provincial town. While the father and mother were dozing in their deck-chairs on the beach, with newspapers over their faces, Raoul and I would be amusing ourselves on the matrimonial bed.
A black-haired Portuguese boy, I recall, with skin the colour of drying orange-peel: I came upon him solemnly masturbating among the sand-dunes near the railway station—he was taking a short-cut between the fishing-boat quay and the market; beside him on the sand, while he was at it, lay his basket of gleaming fresh fish. He told me he tossed himself off regularly three or four times a day: whenever, in fact he found himself with his hands idle and in sufficient privacy. . . . Those dunes, deep and steep as quarries, their sandy crests greenish with growths of scrub or coarse camel-grass, their depths hidden from casual sight until, arriving at the very edge, one looked down . . . these dunes, austerely remote, one would think, from human peccadilloes, the haunt of seagulls and aged mystics repeating the 99 names of God among the sandy solitudes, yet sometimes revealed quaint surprises to the random wanderer. Once, in the month of Ramadan, when every adult and near-adult Muslim must by law refrain during the hours of daylight from eating, drinking, smoking and sex—in other words, from any class of sensuality at all—I greatly alarmed an unfortunate Negro youth by coming upon him while, deep in the shelter of one of these sandy caverns, he was eating a huge slice of watermelon with his right hand—thus eating and drinking at the same time—and with his left fondling and massaging a hefty black penis. He was thus committing three crimes together—and what's more, at the very moment when the mueddin from the nearest minaret was wailing the midday call to prayer; the young man's grin of relief when he saw that I was an infidel unlikely to denounce him to the police was charming. . . . On another day I chanced upon the unusual spectacle of a childish exercise in bestiality: a lanky fair-haired boy of about fifteen—Spanish he turned out to be—was holding with one hand a large mongrel bitch by the tail (he had her well-trained) while, his eyes fixed upon the vaginal orifice, he worked away at himself with the other; when I unexpectedly came upon the scene he dropped the dog like a hot brick, but was too far gone to stop the other hand. . . . This was, as it happens, the only time in my life that I encountered an experiment in bestiality; though it is of course common in Morocco and probably other Arab countries among country boys: Moorish friends in Rabat told me that small boys normally copulate with the female donkeys in their charge, in the belief that this makes the penis grow. . . But those splendid sand-dunes, full of a strange unworldly beauty and full, often, of strange adventure, alas no longer exist. When I was in Tangier four or five years ago, I found that they were being built over, for some industrial purpose I suppose.
Clearly, of course, I remember Manolo and his bosom friend Pedro; I can see Manolo's blond Catalonian profile, with the golden down on his chin and cheeks; and the Saracenic Semiticism of Pedro's Spanish good looks. They'd both be getting on for 35 years of age today—and fondly possessing, I hope, large and growing families. Why, they may have sons of just the age I knew them at! For a time they composed my "crew" aboard a fifteen-foot double-ender I had converted into a makeshift cabin-cruiser and lived in at her moorings among the fishing fleet. They were happy, pleasant companions when for the moment they had everything they wanted to eat and smoke and had forgotten to wheedle something extra out of me—they were such a decorative pair and so entertaining that for a short time their companionship was worth paying for even at their exorbitant rates. One of our favourite excursions was round to that immense expanse of empty sand, acres of superb desert, on the Atlantic side beyond the classic rocks known as the Pillars of Hercules; whose rolling, pitted sands—which, with miniature ravines and stony wadi, were like a model of the Sahara—ultimately merged with the Atlantic, with its white curls of breakers endlessly unrolling on the shore like coils of molten netting. Nobody was here, except for a rare striding Berber going to his douar of huts somewhere or other, or a tiny pigtailed boy shrilly calling to his goats. Nobody was here, nobody: it was a kind of Atlantic "Empty Quarter"; and here the three of us, naked as the day we were born, swam and ran and played ball and basked and explored the caves of Hercules: I wonder where all those photographs I took have got to? . . . I have heard recently that today there stands on the sands of that old desert by the Pillars of Hercules a "lido" with snack-bars and striped umbrellas and juke-boxes and all the proper tourist attractions. . . .
Late at night, before dragging oneself from the temptations of the town and going home to bed, one would have just one more drink on the pavement of the Petit Socco (or Zoco Chico), the minuscule quadrangle whose Spanish charm was enhanced by a ban on all wheeled traffic; and here a half-dozen or so of Jewish shoeshine boys would offer themselves for the night—one had merely to take one's pick. . . . Behind this little square, at whose café tables half the business of the town, licit or furtive, was conducted by the droves of commission-agents, middlemen and "couriers" who always seemed to be in the middle of any business deal, lay a tangle of narrow streets, dark and mainly dirty, which formed the old European- Jewish quarter—the new "French" town and the ancient Muslim fastness of the Kasbah seemed to belong to different worlds. In these old sombre streets most of Tangier's orthodox sin was housed—I remember in those old days two "hotels" delightfully named Hotel Satan and Hotel Delirium. It was in one of these streets that one night I met, thinking it was a boy, an Arab girl of about twelve: in the male jellaba she wore (in those days no respectable woman or girl wore out-of-doors anything but the all-enveloping white haik) it was impossible to think she wasn't a boy. In one of these streets, too, there lived the Spanish girl of twelve or perhaps thirteen who, for a time, took to haunting my doorstep, when I lived in the town, after she'd been told, quite wrongly, that I liked little girls; she always brought with her on these visits her ten-year-old sister. . . . There was an Englishman there at the time, a highly respected figure in the Zone, who was known to all the boys within miles as "Mister Bob"—simple masturbation was his pleasure, for which as every boy in town knew, he paid a set fee. I was walking one day near the harbour when a Spanish boy who was approaching, knowing that I was a friend of this man's, suddenly began jerking his hand up and down in front of him in a masturbatory movement and exclaiming loudly, "Mister Bob! Mister Bob!" as if this were a street-cry advertising his wares—apparently "Mister Bob" had become the English synonym in the boys' vocabulary for sexual business. . . .
Such was the Tangier which I knew twenty-five or thirty years ago. It was a city where a visitor out for a riotous time could plunge into the best-stocked pool of exotic pleasures outside the Arabian Nights and believe he had reached Paradise; but for a resident, for someone who lived there, it was different. A stay there for some time worked like a long period of too much cigarette-smoking: the poison of corruption, like that of nicotine, engendered a growing nausea: there came a moment when a resident, gasping for clean air, longed to leave. But the fascination of the place was such that one always longed to get back again.
Nowadays it's changed. A decade of independence and nationalist politico-prudery has led to the expulsion of some of the more flagrant customers of girls and boys and the closing of the more shameless bars. But many more decades will be needed to change the course of a centuries-old tradition of cupidity and corruption, in whose spoils a half-dozen races share; and I dare say one can still have a good time there.
The World, The Flesh and Myself
Davidson moved to Tangier soon after the fall of France in June 1940 raised the prospect of imminent internment.
Tangier in 1940 was not yet entirely the international elysium for crooks, outlaws, escapists, drunks, aberrant sexual eccentrics and sedulous voluptuaries of both sexes that since the war it has been. But even then almost any curious thirst could be assuaged; boys or pubescent girls of half-a-dozen races were two-a-penny, guilty manipulators of foreign currencies and the procurers of curious pleasures or illegal commodities lurked at every cafe-table; and the sombrely sinful streets behind the Socco Chico were caravanserai with evocative names like Hotel Satan or Pension Delirium. …
George Greaves was already one of the great characters of Tangier. His Australian truculence, his power of verbal venom, the Hogarthian vigour of his satire, and his infinite knowledge of the private lives of anybody who mattered, from the British Minister down, made him a personage to be respected. …
To sit with George Greaves outside the Cafe de Paris, or on a pavement of the Socco Chi., was to become a privileged peeper into the souls of the passers-by. His great bulk hunched forward in the cane-chair, chins resting on one hand with an erect forefinger ranged along the imperial nose, trilby hat tilted over the pale eyes, he would watch the passing notables derisively. Suddenly he would explode in an expectorant noise of disgust, like the beginning of a full-blown Neapolitan gob. … His destructive eye would fall on a prosperous-looking Arab. 'That one—used to be the kept boy of a former French Minister: now look at 'im—wouldn't tell you the time if he 'ad two watches.’ . . . [Chapter 14]