Into Africa - Issue 3 - Magazine | Monocle

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“Panic lurks on every street,” reads the film poster in the foyer of Tangier’s Rif Cinema. “Danger waits behind every door.” For half a century this was the traditional image of Tangier, a chaotic port on the northeastern tip of Africa awash with cheap dope and paranoia. The reality is a lot more interesting. Where hippies used to come in search of free love and easy living, now European entrepreneurs are seeking to invest.

Despite the horror stories, Tangier is an exhilarating place – an untidy conurbation on a lush peninsula between the Atlantic and the Mediterranean, home to 700,000 people. At its centre is the kasbah, the ancient Arab fort, surrounded by the old walled city, the medina, a maze of narrow alleys and dead ends. In the colonial Ville Nouvelle, you could almost be in France, but beyond these well-ordered boulevards the metropolis fragments. New houses spill over the surrounding hills. For the traveller it’s intoxicating, but it hardly shouts out “investment opportunity”. So why are foreign companies so keen to buy into Tangier?

Tangier is only 15km from Europe, but wages are much lower. Middle managers are paid €750 a month and semi-skilled workers €0.75 an hour. New businesses qualify for a 50 per cent reduction in corporation tax for the first five years, and the tax breaks are even bigger in Tangier’s so-called Free Zone. Firms which export 85 per cent of their products qualify for a place in this low-tax business park, where they pay no corporation tax for five years and 8.75 per cent thereafter.

Established in 2001, Tangier Free Zone now has more than 200 companies and 30,000 employees. People used to leave Tangier to look for work, now it’s the other way around. “Why go to China when you can have the same costs in Morocco?” asks Omar Chaïb, 39, commercial executive for the Free Zone. The biggest difference, of course, is location. Omar’s smart new office is only a half-hour ferry ride away from Spain.

The main companies in the Free Zone are from Spain and France, Morocco’s old colonial masters. The French aerotechnology firm Daher makes air ducts for Airbus here. In the past two years, its workforce has quadrupled, from 100 to 400. It could have gone to eastern Europe, but since French was the colonial lingua franca, there’s no language barrier in Tangier. The French plant manager, Stanislas Frein, shows me around his busy factory. He’s only been here for a year, but he says he’s had no trouble settling in. The public infrastructure isn’t on a par with France, but his house is a lot bigger. His children go to the French school and he likes the lifestyle.

Not all the exporters in the Free Zone are foreign manufacturers. Moroccan journalist Karin Faik, 45, shows me the hi-tech studios of new satellite news channel Medi1Sat, which began transmission last December. Funded by French and Moroccan investors, Medi1Sat broadcasts throughout Europe and North Africa in French and Arabic. “We want to build a bridge between Europe and the Arab world,” says Faik. It’s the first independent news channel in the Maghreb.

Communication is also the business of Tenges, a thriving Moroccan call centre. It’s been trading for 18 months, and already has 400 employees, spread across three sites. In Tangier, working in a call centre is a good job, not a stopgap. “The turnover of young people in Europe is much higher,” says director Mohamed Mouffak, whose employees are mainly graduates. The basic wage here is around €350 a month – twice the minimum wage – but, with bonuses, it can rise to €2,500 a month, a very good salary in Tangier.

With clients in France, Spain and Switzerland, Tangier is the ideal base for this international call centre. Spain and France both had a colonial presence in Tangier and their languages are both widely spoken here. Tenges’ clients include telecom firms such as Telefónica (Spain) and SFR (France) but it’s not confining its attention to these two markets. Some of its employees are learning German and English, too.

Tangier has a long history as an international business destination. The Romans set up shop on this promontory, and the Byzantines and the Phoenicians also passed through. The Arabs invaded Europe from Tangier, and the Europeans then returned the compliment. Tangier became Portuguese, then British, then an International Zone. For 50 years at the start of the 20th century, it was a European playpen. American writers such as Paul Bowles, Truman Capote and Tennessee Williams travelled here, following in the footsteps of Matisse. Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg came too. William Burroughs wrote Naked Lunch here (dubbing Tangier the Interzone), but after it became part of Morocco in 1956, this bohemian enclave went downhill.

Morocco’s King Hassan ii thought Tangier was too close to the Rif Mountains, associated with hashish and rebellion, so he abandoned it. It became notorious for hustlers and people-smugglers. Its offshore banks relocated to Switzerland; its tourists to Marrakech.

Tangier’s revival began in 1999 when Hassan ii died and his son, Mohammed, became king. Mohammed VI had always been fond of Tangier, and although Morocco is a constitutional monarchy, the King wields real power. He built bridges with Tangier, and the results of his rapprochement are starting to filter through. Tangier’s population has been growing at 3 per cent a year, three times as fast as Casablanca. Opel, Zara, Volkswagen and Marks & Spencer do business here. A dynamic new governor, Mohamed Hassad, has been brought in from Marrakech. It’s the first city in the developing world that has applied to host the International Exhibition, Expo 2012.

King Mohammed’s pet project is Tangier Med Harbour (TMH), a brand new port 30km east of Tangier. Tangier’s old city centre harbour is only 8m deep – too shallow for modern ships – TMH is 18m. Due to open this July, it will be one of the biggest container ports in the Mediterranean, with a roll-on roll-off ferry terminal for five million passengers, a million cars and half a million trucks a year. The old coastal road from Tangier to TMH is steep and winding, but a new road and rail link are both underway.

By moving the main passenger port out of town, Tangier hopes to revive its reputation as a holiday destination. The beach and the promenade have been spruced up, the old town has had a makeover and the port will be revamped to attract the cruise-ship trade (Tangier currently receives 20,000 cruise passengers a year but it’s aiming for 1.5 million by 2010). There are 13,000 tourist beds with another 3,000 under development. The goal is 41,000 beds by 2010. Most of the money for these projects is from overseas, mainly from Spain, but also from as far afield as Dubai. Big new hotels are going up all around the bay.

There is a worry that Tangier may pursue quantity instead of quality. Local artists want to restore Tangier’s heritage without losing its grungy character. Local developers want to undercut the prices on the Costa del Sol. Can Tangier do both?

The city has had a spring clean, but it’s still a hectic place. It is intensely atmospheric but a big part of its appeal is that it’s a spit-and-sawdust port, not a high-rise resort. The gay bars and boudoirs where Joe Orton and Kenneth Williams used to go are long gone but Tangier wouldn’t be Tangier without a bit of rough. “This city is going to be transformed – there’s nothing we can do,” says Moroccan artist Yto Barrada. “But we can save some spots,” she adds, and one such spot is her newly reopened Rif cinema on the Grand Socco, Tangier’s main square. We’re sitting in the foyer. Outside, a loudspeaker calls people to the mosque for evening prayers.

“This is the historical centre of the city but nobody cared about it,” says Barrada. Yet since she started to restore this art-house cinema (at a cost of €900,000) the Grand Socco has had an overhaul, part of a €100m public project to improve the general fabric of Tangier. The Rif’s running costs are a modest €150,000 a year. As a cultural catalyst, it’s a bargain. “If these little places are saved then Tangier could still be Tangier,” she says.

Barrada, liberal and liberated, represents a new generation; she has one foot in Europe and one foot in the Maghreb. Born in Paris in 1971, she grew up in Tangier but left in 1989 to study in New York, then at the Sorbonne. After 15 years away, she returned home a few years ago. “It’s a different city,” she says, with a hint of sadness. “If the tourists are going to come, they’re not going to go to kasbah, souk and beach. They need other things. You’re in a city of more than a million people with no theatre, no concert hall, no public library.”

One thing tourists need more than libraries is good shopping. Tangier needs more upmarket boutiques like Excentrica, which has been run by Moroccan fashion designer Salima Abdelwahab, 33, for two years now. Part Spanish, part German, she trained in Malaga but grew up in Tangier. “We don’t need to go to Europe. We can find all the fashion here,” she says. “What is interesting is the contrast between the Orient and the Occident.” She’s talking about Moroccan fashion, but she could be talking about Tangier.

It’s this creative tension which makes Tangier unique. It’s a place where Europe and Africa collide. That’s why so many people have travelled here, and why so many of them stay. Anne Scheuer, 37, came here from Belgium seven years ago, to relocate her specialist tour operator, Wiggle. “Nothing was going on in 2000,” she says, over coffee at the El Minzah, Tangier’s grand old colonial hotel. “It was very difficult to start a business.” The city was grey and dirty and the economy was flat, but she felt it had potential. Her optimism has been repaid.

Something that has never been a problem for Scheuer is her gender. “People always ask me, ‘How do you manage as a woman alone?’ but people respect me,” she says. Tangier is an Islamic city, but it’s also cosmopolitan, with small but well-established Jewish and Christian communities. Nigerians boost the congregation at the Anglican Church. Tangier has always been an exotic mix of East and West, a great port where two cultures meet, and now this ancient gateway to the Mediterranean is poised to become a world trading centre again. That old layabout William Burroughs must be turning in his grave.

Get around

Royal Air Maroc flies direct to Amsterdam once a week, London twice a week, Paris and Brussels three times a week and four times a week to Madrid. There are frequent flights to Morocco’s main hub, Casablanca, with onward connections worldwide, but to attract more long-haul visitors, Tangier needs more dedicated direct flights. Until then, its proximity by boat remains its main appeal for Europeans. There are regular ferries to the Spanish ports of Algeciras (two hours away) and Tarifa (about half an hour). A catamaran to Gibraltar takes 80 minutes.

Home time

“Tangier has changed an enormous amount since the King sent the governor up here from Marrakech,” says Philip Arnott, an English émigré who deals in art and property. “Anything that’s illegal is being knocked down.” With labour costs so low, no wonder the building market is so buoyant.

“Developers are buying a lot of land,” he says, during a private view at his gallery, Lawrence-Arnott, which he leases for €1,000 a month. “It’s very easy to buy here. It’s very straightforward. You can usually tie the whole thing up in three days.”

On the wall behind him is a flyer for a city-centre plot with planning permission: 4,815 sq m for €9m. For €650,000 you can buy a 600 sq m villa (five bedrooms and four bathrooms) on a 1,000 sq m plot near the golf course. A traditional family home in the medina costs €150,000. The going rate for a housekeeper is about €150 a month.

Live the life

During the 1950s there were over 50,000 expats in Tangier. Now there are only a few thousand but their influence endures. There are American, French and Spanish schools, and an old American Legation that serves as a cultural centre, where local women take literacy classes. One of the city’s best restaurants, Riad Tanja, is next door.

The Legation’s resident director, Thor Kuniholm, personifies Tangier’s age-old internationalism. An American of Nordic descent, formerly the American Consul in Casablanca, he has lived over the shop for 16 years. He also sits on the board of a micro-credit foundation, which gives loans to local women to set up their own businesses.

“They’re building all over the place and prices are going through the roof,” he says, showing me the view from his penthouse, which looks out across the sea to Spain.

Movers and shakers

“Fourteen years ago Tangier was very different,” says Philippe Guiguet Bologne, 38, who came here from Paris in 1993. “There was no business. Nothing was working well.” Even people who lived here told him he was crazy, but it felt like being in a novel, so he stayed.

In 1999 he opened Dar Nour, an intimate boutique hotel within the walls of the kasbah. He spent around €500,000 on restoration. An employer of four staff, Bologne respects the kindness of the local people. The biggest culture shock is the laid-back attitude to time. Things get done, but at a pace you can’t dictate. He prefers this way of life, but it takes getting used to.

You can see Europe from his rooftop terrace, but he knows it’s far away. “You can have the illusion that Tangier is very near, very close, very similar, but it’s another world,” he says.

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