The International Zone / by George Bajalia

I spent this past weekend in Tangier, for their 12th annual TanJazz Festival. It’s a gathering of jazz and blues musicians from all over the world, not the least of which is fellow Florida native Ben Prestage (check him out here The festival consisted of concerts all of the city, but the main attraction was the series of concerts that took place in one of the city’s palaces. The Moroccan government gave this particular palace to the Italian government earlier in the 1900s, when Tangier was an International Zone. 

Besides access to the legal loopholes that came by living in an area regulated by 5 different governments, ex-pat residents of Tangier were notoriously famous for their lusty and lawless ways. In a way, this reputation persists among the countless Spanish, French and American ex-pats who call Tangier home. These days, though, the city is cleaned up and integrated into the larger Moroccan kingdom, a change that came with the current king’s economic embrace of the city. It’s home to the largest port in North Africa and Tangier and its surrounding beaches are many Moroccan’s favorite vacation spots. 

Its international past, though, shines through in more than a few ways.

Here, though, the most obvious example is the jazz festival itself. In a Moroccan palace owned by the Italian government, Moroccans, Americans, and Europeans danced the night away to music popularized by 20th century America. It was a frenetic gathering of people that, at times, seemed too filmic to really exist. Think the scene at the Jazz club in The Talented Mr. Ripley ( Actually, Patricia Highsmith’s novel that inspired the movie is itself a though-provoking look at ex-patriotism and the re-creation and performance of self. But that’s another post that’s surely on it’s way. Anyway. Other cities may host international festivals, but the term takes on a new meaning here. Sure, there were a myriad of international artists, but the concert going population was itself the truly international part of the festival. Despite all attempts I might make to emphasize the linguistic diversity of Tangier, the following anecdote seems to encapsulate my point quite well: 

Standing at the bar set up in the courtyard of the palace, I asked (in my American accented darija) the bartender for a Casablanca, a Moroccan beer. A woman standing a few feet away turns to me and retorted, “Lo siento, pero Casablanca es más de 200 kilometeros de aquí.” (“Sorry, but Casablanca is more than 200 kilometers from here”- maybe a redundant translation, I admit.) Laughing, she turned away and walked off, chattering in French with her friends. 

At first glance, it’s just a (sort of) funny story. Taking a step back though, the linguistic channels our interaction went through are astonishing. First, I asked in Arabic for a beer. She responded to me in Spanish, assuming that I would understand. Immediately afterwards, she resumed her conversation, with fellow Moroccans, in French. Moroccans (especially in Tangier) speaking in Spanish or French is no great phenomenon. Actually, it’s a big part of why I love this city so much- often times I can speak in Spanish (in which I can actually form reasonably complex sentences) just as often as Arabic. The ease with which people switch from language to language is a testament not only to the city’s past, but also to the strength of the Mediterranean itself.

 For centuries the waves of the Mediterranean brought travelers and traders into the Tangier; it was an entry point into the continent and well-traveled trading post for merchants making their ways through Morocco from Sub-Saharan Africa. The goods that flowed into Morocco through Tangier left more than an economic mark, they left a linguistic mark as well. A faucet, which has a name in darija that I can’t ever seem to remember, is mainly known in Tangier as a grifo, directly paralleling the Spanish word. Certain styles of shoes are known as zabat, referencing zapato (and its other Romantic kin). At the Grand Café du Paris, ordering a café noir is just as common as ordering a qahwa kehela (a bad transliteration of the Arabic قهوة كحلة). It’s likely that I’m romanticizing the Mediterranean a bit, in fact it’s definite. However, as Croatian historian Predrag Matvejevic notes in a beautiful book on the Mediterranean (, there sea has undeniable pull on the people who live around it. It draws them in, and as cultures flow in and around it it creates polises that are often more distinctly Mediterranean than anything else. As this collided with the rise of the nation-state, Tangier’s international zone rose to prominence. As that waned, festivals such as TanJazz started cropping up, providing an outlet for the passions of the sea. 

In fact, I would propose, and indeed I am proposing, that the performing arts are often one of the most interesting glimpses into the transnational influences into an area’s culture. It’s a hefty proposition, so I won’t get too much into now. To be honest, I don’t know if I can just yet- it’s basically my project for the next year here, so it might be problematic if I could summarize into a blog post right now… That said, a quick example from another situation comes to mind. Since it seems I’m on an Adriatic kick, I’ll keep going just a bit longer. Croatian playwright Marin Drzic wrote a 16th century play called Uncle Maro. It took place across the Adriatic from his home city of Dubrovnik but it featured a Croatian (actually a citizen of the Ragusa empire based in Dubrovnik, but we’ll just call him Croatian for right now) who was abroad for business sake. As he goes about his business, he gets enraptured by a Austro-Hungarian courtesan and swindled by a Italian merchant. He meets Frenchmen, Spaniards, and the play hints at some peoples who just might be from the other side of the Mediterranean. Drzic, writing from Dubrovnik, reveals just how much his own culture drew influence from the other sea-going empires. Futhermore, it also gives a glimpse of how Ragusans like Drzic viewed themselves in comparison with the other peoples who populated this seemingly small sea.

Today, when financial and cultural globalization are making the “world sea” increasingly smaller, I think that we can learn quite a bit from contemporary examples of Drzic’s Uncle Maro. And before I get sentimental and try to wax overly poetic, I leave this post here for now.