In Search Of Burroughs
by Carol Neuman, seemagazine.com
April 21st 2011
It’s our last meal in Africa and the service is as predictably slow, silent and surly as anywhere in Morocco.
Cottony light from beaded art deco lamps softens the edges of the long wait between visits from our server. We examine the heavy silverware, admire the gleaming cedar staircases, and moan about the unmistakable aroma of Galouises from a nearby table of fellow tourists.
No worries. We weren’t there to indulge in the decadent menu of freshly caught fish, scandalously good martinis, or fresh in-season vegetables.
We were there to drink in the aura of authentic fakery. After all, this is Rick’s Cafe — the tourist trap to end all tourist traps.
If the restaurant is a celluloid dream come to life, it flirts with Groundhog Day almost as much as Casablanca. Downstairs from our table, the Bogey and Bergman classic plays silently on endless repeat, the centerpiece of a perfect-replica dance floor with the almost-same piano where Sam played it again.
Here, the movie lives on in perpetuity, acted out in the unchanging rhythms of the cafe’s costumed servers and era-appropriate background music.
The restaurant is an island of eerie comfort in a sea of regional tension and urban disaffection. In the crowded streets of Casablanca, where tourists are few and far between, the city is remaking itself. The colonial Parisian grandeur of Bogey’s supposed stomping grounds is now covered with a patina of soot. Construction workers are carving deep incisions for coming light-rail transit lines.
Even if it doesn’t reflect contemporary Morocco, at least Rick’s Cafe is located in its borders. Casablanca, by contrast, was shot entirely on a Hollywood soundstage. Yet almost 70 years on, it’s still a gateway drug for grasping the country’s intoxicatingly complex, storied, and contested history.
Pop culture travel isn’t simple pilgrimage or re-enactment. It’s about traveling to a feeling, a memory that you dreamed you had. Or better still, a memory of someone else’s life. It’s a post-modern mix of legend, fact and sheer marketing magic.
Take Essaouira, a beach town on Morocco’s southwestern coast. It boasts Hendrix as its dead rockstar laureate. The myth? That he was inspired to pen ‘Castles Made of Sand’ by a sandbar off the Essaouira beach. The truth? He wrote the song seven years before his trip across the Atlantic to Morocco. The marketing magic? His face, along with fellow hazy music man Bob Marley, adorn the illicit head shops and backpacker bars. It’s a bit disappointing not to hear Hendrix cranked through the loudspeakers between calls to prayer, but his touch is unmistakable: you don’t even need to ask to have heroin, cocaine, hash, pot, ecstasy and kif offered up as readily as thuya wood souvenirs.
Still, it’s a far easier pill to swallow than the dizzying labyrinth of Tangier, a few hours to the north. Some landmarks have changed since William S. Burroughs immortalized the seedy city in the pages of Naked Lunch, but step inside the medina walls and the unshakeable unease grips you quicker than a tout with a con game.
Night is falling and we’re retracing Burroughs, who himself was following fellow writer Paul Bowles. Few non-locals dare to come to the medina after dark, when the smell of donkey dung and a flickering garland of bare bulbs are the only navigational signposts. Women have retreated home, bored young men fill the cafes and any remaining tourists become unwitting game in the sport of distraction.
We’ve been on our quest for over an hour when we finally slap down a few dirhams for gum.
“The Petit Socco?” we ask the shopkeeper. “Around the corner. Left, then two rights, then left,” he says. Skeptical but desperate after both Google and our earnest map-scanning fail us, we follow his advice and slink through narrow alleys to our purported destination. It’s a dead end. Half-lit neon signs buzz above our heads, luring us into one of the sketchy rooming houses Burroughs himself might have holed up in.
We do our best to reverse course, and emerge into another mini-square, this time with new landmarks and new faces. Without asking and despite our increasingly short-tempered rejections, we’re given advice on where to find our mysterious socco.
“Keep going straight!” says one smirking tout.
“You’ll need to take a taxi; follow me to my brother’s cab,” offers an enterprising other.
Claustrophobia has set in. We’re feeling as Burroughs might: paranoid and punchy. But we’re determined to give it one last try.
A final scan of the barely-readable map suggests we should head uphill. We trudge up a gentle incline toward the smell of Sanka and sizzling lamb skewers. A café. And not just a café but a big one. The café. Café Centrale. The Petit Socco sprawls out before us.
Weren’t we here an hour ago? Didn’t we pass by that hostel twice before? No matter.
We’re awash in the relief of arrival. All the exposition of Burrough’s Interzone emerges, like a puzzle solved: The house he shot up in. The balcony he fought from. The corners he hustled on.
It’s a leap through the wormhole that partitions the grind of independent travel from the fantasy of pop culture. Finally, the distance between the two worlds collapses, and so do we, happy to sip some bad coffee and ponder our own would-be Tangerine memories.
Original Page: http://www.seemagazine.com/article/city-life/lifestyle/in-search-of-burroughs-5511/
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