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'.
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.
There is a general consensus, among what Geoff Wisner refers to as more "attentive readers", that The Sheltering Sky begins and ends in the city of Oran, on the coast of Algeria. Algeria, rather than Morocco, would make more sense as the setting for The Sheltering Sky because its action ranges over much of the Sahara, a large portion of which lies within Algeria's borders.
Oran is also the setting for Albert Camus's 1947 novel The Plague. Camus describes the city as "the capital of boredom besieged by innocence and beauty." Today it is Algeria's second largest city, a major commercial centre with three universities, where floating hotels are being built to accommodate visitors.
Oran is also likely as the starting point for the Morsebys' journey because it is the place to which Kit is returned at the end of the novel. And indeed one line of dialogue in Chapter 29 may clinch it: "The Consul at Dakar advises sending her back to Oran." One of the last images of the book is the sun "dropping behind the bastions of Santa Cruz":
"It's funny. The desert's a big place but nothing ever really gets lost there."
From Tangier/Oran, Kit, Port and Tunner burrow south, pushing deeper and deeper into the Sahara Desert. The remote towns, isolated military outposts and oases are real places. Most of them were in French-occupied Algeria, rather than in Morocco. However, Bowles was not concerned with setting the novel in a particular country (neither of which existed then as they do today) but rather in the amorphous North African desert.
The sprawling and busy Boussif is the last "civilized" stop before they plunge into the desert proper, embarking on a harrowing and hallucinatory journey via the fly-infested Ain Krorfa, Messaad, Bou Noura, El Ga'a and Sbaa, Godforsaken places where the sand devours them grain by grain.
The desolate, devouring and savage nature of the desert, as portrayed in The Sheltering Sky, is nowhere better evoked than in the "caravan scene" of Bertolucci's film.
The Ghardaia in whose cafés the three girls dance while waiting wistfully for "tea in the Sahara" lies in eastern Algeria, in the traditional heart of the M'Zab valley. The city actually comprises a cluster of five Medieval villages, the oldest of which was built in the eleventh century, erected on the five highest hills of the M'Zab - now a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Ghardaia, which operates as a market town for the agriculture of the surrounding oasis, lies along the left bank of the Wadi Mzab in the northern Sahara. It was built around the cave (ghār) reputedly inhabited by the female saint Daïa. Bou Noura, one of the places visited by Port and Kit, is also in Ghardaia province.
Each hilltop town is crowned by a mosque whose lone minaret stands like a sentinel looking out across the oasis and into the desert beyond. The people in Ghardaia, the main oasis cluster in the M'Zab valley, continue to follow a traditional way of life.