On the cliffs closer to town, near the casbah, lies the Marchan district, where French philosopher Bernard-Henri Lévy and his bombshell actress wife, Arielle Dombasle, have a new summer home. In an odd juxtaposition that’s increasingly typical of Tangier, their starkly contemporary, Andrée Putman–designed house shares a wall with Café Hafa, a hangout where stoners have been coming to smoke kif (marijuana blended with tobacco) ever since the Rolling Stones were regulars in the Seventies. Somehow, the plastic chairs and occasional swarms of bees only add to the allure of the café, where the price of a mint tea (60 cents) buys a seat on one of eight shaded terraces overlooking the strait at the exact point where the Mediterranean meets the Atlantic.
For young Tangier converts such as Paris-based Jamie Creel and Marco Scarani—who together recently bought decorator Charles Sevigny’s Dar Zero, a house often called the most beautiful in the casbah—the city’s main advantage over Marrakesh is its proximity to dozens of fine beaches, most of which are now cleaner than they’ve been in years (though increasingly threatened by Marbella-style overbuilding). The wildest and most beautiful are on the Atlantic side, west of town, near the modern resort Le Mirage. Favored by the Moroccan rich and Europeans such as Catherine Deneuve, Le Mirage features spacious bungalows that are carved into a rocky promontory overhanging the surf. From there the wide, often empty beach stretches all the way to Rabat, 110 miles down the coast. Sometimes the offshore winds are so strong that waves of sand rise up along the dunes, sweeping into the ocean’s breakers at the shoreline.
Not far from Le Mirage, in the whitewashed village of Asilah—once a Portuguese colonial stronghold, now an easygoing summer retreat—is every Tangerine’s favorite fish restaurant, Casa Garcia, where local boatmen drop off their fresh catches throughout the day. Back in Tangier, near the port, is the best place for a stiff cocktail: the divey Tanger Inn, lined with red Naugahyde banquettes. One of the few surviving bars from the international zone days—William Burroughs wrote Naked Lunch in a room upstairs—the place still has a rowdy, underground feel, and it fills with young artsy types on weekends.
Whether the bar will still be here next year is anyone’s guess. Tangier’s rebuilding campaign is reaching into all parts of the city—including the old port, which is slated to become a luxury marina, catering to yachts instead of oil tankers. The man in charge of it all is the new regional prefect, Mohamed Hassad, recently transferred from—where else?—Marrakesh. “He turned Marrakesh into Disney World,” scoffs one expat homeowner. “And now he wants to turn Tangier into Dubai.”
But most agree it would take years to dampen the rebel spirit of Tangier. Tessa Wheeler and her daughter, model Jacquetta Wheeler, are two of the many regulars who hope it won’t happen any time soon. Tessa, who spends several months a year at her grandfather’s old villa, Dar Sinclair, where the garden brims with purple agapanthus blossoms, is working on a photo book about Tangier that questions its rush toward so-called progress. An old friend of Paul Bowles’s, she remembers the city in the Seventies, “when this place was in the doldrums and everyone was smoking far too much dope. Nobody chic was coming anymore, until recently,” she says. “Now I wish they’d stop.”