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Tangier, Morocco
Tangier
Public DomainTangier

Commentators are divided as to the identity of the unnamed North African port in which The Sheltering Sky begins. Several (including Michael Hofmann, in his introduction to the Penguin Modern Classics edition) refer to it as Oran - a port on the Algerian coast, while others assume it is Tangier on the Moroccan coast. In many respects, it does not matter. At the opening of The Sheltering Sky, Port "heard all three of the town's native tongues: Arabic, Spanish and French" and some argue that this settles the debate in favour of Tangier. The book was written in Tangier, and the city is likely to have provided much of the descriptive detail, even if it makes more geographical sense for the trio's journey to have begun in Oran.

Tangier is a Mediterranean port city located on the Strait of Gibraltar with views of the southern Coast of Spain. Today it has a population of over a million and is part of Morocco, which it joined in 1956 (after the book's publication). It has a warm sub-tropical climate with good beaches that are the mainstay of its developing tourism industry.

The Tangier in which Port and Kit Moresby arrive in the aftermath of the Second World War, however, was a different kind of place. It was much smaller, with a population of around 60,000, and had an anomalous international status. This was the Tangier with which the author was familiar, having settled there permanently in 1947. It was then a true city of tongues, an International Zone under the control of seven foreign powers, including Britain, France and Spain. It became notorious for its lax morals and louche lifestyle, attracting artists, writers, spooks and scoundrels. 'I have loved the white city," wrote Paul Bowles in The Worlds of Tangier (1958), that sits astride its hills, looking out across the Strait of Gibraltar to the mountains of Andalucia'.

Tangier
Public DomainTangier

While much in 1940s Tangier was changed from when Bowles first visited in 1931, certain corners would have remained constant, such as the Medina: "the back streets of the Medina, crooked, sometimes leading through short tunnels beneath the houses, sometimes up long flights of stairs, lend themselves to solitary speculative walks" (The Worlds of Tangier, Paul Bowles, 1958). It is through these crooked streets that Port Morseby walks at the beginning of his fatal odyssey.

There is now a room dedicated to Paul Bowles at the American Legation Museum, the oldest American diplomatic property in the world. The Paul Bowles Room was inspired by Tangier resident Gloria Kirby, who donated furniture, photographs and other memorabilia.