In Tangier with Paul Bowles, William S. Burroughs, and the Rolling Stones
A man named Ba Mohamed opened Café Hafa
in Tangier in 1921.
Tangier is on the northern coast of Morocco
in far northwestern Africa.
The café was built at the edge of a very steep slope,
really a cliff in places, overlooking the Atlantic end
of the Strait of Gibraltar.
The café opened at the beginning of a period of about 35 years during which Tangier was a hotbed of international intrigue, espionage, and drug trafficking. The intrigue lasted until about 1960, but the drug traffic has held on longer.
Major figures of literature and popular music spent time at Café Hafa, drinking the strong sweet mint tea and smoking hashish. And with all that tea, using the rudimentary but functional toilets.
In 2022 the entrance and the interior still looked much as they did over a century before. Cheap plastic chairs have replaced cheap metal and wooden ones. The menu is shown above the door now — just 10 dirham (a little under US$ 1) for mint tea, 12 dirham for coffee. The café has recently added food, those choices are listed inside.
Tangier International Zone
Café Hafa opened in 1921, during the time when France controlled much of today's Morocco through the French Protectorate of 1912-1956. Spain controlled a narrow strip along the northern coast, including Tangier, and another narrow strip along the southern border. Just two years later, in 1923, France, Spain, and the UK finalized the Tangier Protocol and made the city a neutral zone, the Tangier International Zone, under their joint administration. There was no military presence, no taxes, and no tariffs.
Over the years Ba Mohamed refused many enticing offers of purchase, maintaining the simple atmosphere of the café.
Meanwhile, the Zone became a hotbed of intrigue and espionage. It was already a hotbed of trafficking in marijuana and hashish, produced just to the east in the Rif mountains, and in opium derivatives due to Tangier having been granted the monopoly on the importation of opium to Morocco in 1880.
Temptations of TangierPaul Bowles
Paul Bowles was an American composer, author, and ethnomusicologist. He settled in Tangier in 1947 and lived there until his death in 1999. In his book "Tangier or the City of a Thousand and One Lights", Bowles wrote:
I go back to the Hafa café, however. It is on its terrace that I continue to dream. Time has changed everything except this place. Secret and silent, the Hafa café has remained as before, magical. Generation after generation, this is where chess players, poets, writers, and artists meet. And, installed on the old straw mats, they still abandon themselves to the sweet illusions of Kif.
As for the mention of Kif or Kief...
Hashish is a concentrated product made by compressing and processing parts of the cannabis plant, focusing on the flowering buds containing the majority of the trichomes or resin glands. The resulting resin contains tetrahydrocannabinol (Δ9-THC) and other cannabinoids, but in higher concentrations than in the unprocessed cannabis flower. Mechanical separation uses physical action to remove the trichomes from the dried plant material. The resulting powder is called kief or drysift. It is heated and compressed into blocks of hashish, which can be consumed by smoking or eating. Hashish has been produced and consumed in several countries from North Africa east through India for many centuries.
The café is known and loved for its ramshackle construction. The different seating levels are joined by awkward stairs with too-tall steps of inconsistent heights.
The tables are either rickety affairs of metal and wood, or simple structures of blocks and concrete topped with simplified versions of the typically Moroccan zellij mosaic tilework of intricate geometric patterns. The chairs are cheap plastic ones, several of which will be broken on any given day.
But it's been good enough for Paul Bowles and Jean Genet, a French thief turned author who became an inspiration to the Beat Generation; William S. Burroughs, the Gentleman Junkie, the elder statesman of the Beat Generation who wrote much of his notorious Naked Lunch while living in Tangier; The Rolling Stones; the painter, writer, and performance artist Brion Gysin; and many others.
Besides, you don't come here for the furniture.
The view is fantastic, looking out over the Stair of Gibraltar.
Below, looking toward the right, you're looking toward the east and you can see the far side of the bay, across the port of Tangier.
The southern tip of Spain is visible to the northeast in especially clear weather. But when I've been there the far shore, a little over 30 kilometers away, has been hidden in the haze near the water surface.
On most days you can see cargo ships passing through the Strait, at least the east-bound traffic which passes closer to the southern shore.
The Marine Radar smartphone app lets you figure out what you're seeing.
The local specialty is bissara, split-pea soup made with garlic, cumin, and olive oil. A bowl costs just 10 dirham.
Accompanied, of course, by thé à la menthe, boiling hot tea made with a lot of sugar and spearmint leaves.
But you're looking for pictures of the toilets at Café Hafa. If you have drunk enough tea, you may be rather anxious. Here they are. They are simple, but there are several of them, clustered near the entrance.
First, the signs and the doors:
And now, the actual toilets. They have been renovated recently.