The Groove of Routine

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A Travelogue in Five Parts By Nicholas Kulish

Nicholas Kulish spent more than half a decade tracing the path of Aribert Heim, a Nazi concentration camp doctor who fled postwar justice in Germany. The research for his book on Heim, The Eternal Nazico-authored with Souad Mekhennet, led him to Denmark, Austria, Egypt, Morocco, and across Germany. This week on the Logger we’ll be posting five entries from his travels. Catch up with Part I. Part II, Part III.

IV. Tangier, Morocco

From some of the places that I visited, a single image remains lodged in my head. I am on the roof of La Tangerina hotel in Tangier. The sky is blue, the sun is bright, and Spain—Europe—is distinctly visible across the straits. Two bees will not leave the bright orange ashtray on my table alone, hovering, they land palpating with antennae, tasting. Does the color fascinate them or is it some sticky syrup stuck to the side? I keep taking pictures that do not capture the beauty of the moment or the fresh air or the feeling of gazing from one continent to the next and wanting to swim the distance. Instead I keep zooming in on the screen of my digital camera to marvel at how vividly sharp the bees’ legs and wings are in the picture, even though they are in flight.

In the morning I walk the hilly, winding roads, paint peeling from shutters and walls, elegant balconies fallen into disrepair. The sans serif lettering on the businesses describe a 1950s heyday unmatched since. I pass a motorcycle held together by packing tape. Every day the same old man is sharpening knives on a whetstone spun by what looks like a stationary bicycle. The old mailboxes with four slots—Correo Español, Poste Cherifienne, British Post, Poste Française—testify to Tangier’s past as William Burroughs’s Interzone. I pass the sign for Dean’s Bar 1937 where the night before I had watched a man in electric blue robes and visiting from the countryside, drink wine, liquor, and beer, a triple-fisting round robin that ended with him slumped down beside me so close I could trace the wriggling path of each wiry white hair in his beard.

The teenagers all want to follow you, give you the amateur tour guide treatment, harass you for a donation, but a purposeful walk and a curt “trabajo” and they leave you alone. It’s as if there’s a tacit agreement: You’re not a tourist, not a mark, just someone doing his job like everyone else.

Morocco was the first country to recognize the fledgling United States back in December 1777. The Moorish-style stucco building that houses the American Legation was a gift from the ruler of Morocco in 1821. With its galleries and exhibits, the legation is a top tourist attraction, one of the prime destinations in the city, but my room there is a glorified supply closet. I can’t decide which is less comfortable, the tiny office chair facing the PC or the smudged old armchair, and I keep switching back and forth.

As long as the archivists bring me bound volumes of the Morocco Mail from 1963 I could sit on the scuffed red and white tile floor and still be happy. Tangier was Heim’s first stop during his decades as a fugitive and we are searching for any trace. The columns in the English-language newspaper about the debauched expat lifestyle in its waning days, the politically incorrect explainers on the difference between a tarboosh and a takiya, keep me enthralled right up to the moment the Moroccan government bans the paper and it all comes to the archival version of an abrupt halt.

The closest thing in Morocco to a real Rick’s Cafe is the El Minzah hotel in Tangier. Tangier was the Hong Kong of North Africa, the international zone packed with spies during the war, debauched artists and beatniks after. The El Minzah bar was and still is an Orientalist fantasia. I’m in the bar and the old bartender from fifty years ago sits across from me. They’ve brought him in from a village to answer my questions about a fugitive to whom he may have served drinks many years ago. He doesn’t want to use his name but he’s happy to talk.

It has taken days to arrange, hours to bring him here, and seconds to realize that the photos I’m holding mean nothing to him. There is not the faintest hint of recognition. A long, awkward pause ensues as neither of us is ready to concede that our days of planning and calling add up to less than a minute of productive discussion. His apprentice, now a middle-aged man and the head bartender at the tourist attraction tries to keep us talking. Only when they realize that I used to tend bar do things immediately loosen up. The talk can turn technical.

He quizzes the apprentice on drinks he taught him to mix: the Sidecar, the Brandy Alexander, the Harvey Wallbanger. The lightness begins to dissipate as the apprentice confesses to the old bartender that no one drinks those old drinks anymore. People want something called a “margarita” or a “cosmopolitan.” This requires explanation. Ingredients and proportions are detailed; an empty shaker glass is shaken, miming the steps of preparation. The margarita meets with approval, or at the very least acceptance, the disdain over the cosmopolitan is obvious.

As I try to explain mojitos and caipirinhas—in a mix of Spanish, English and one or two garnishing words of Arabic—exhaustion begins to set in for the elderly man. He brings out a few old photos of his own, pictures of himself in a smart red jacket, at a big New Year’s Eve party in the ’60s. He was proud, a young man basking in the reflected glow of the rich people he was serving, enjoying the tips and the ambience and the fact that his hometown, Tangier, is where everyone wanted to be. He puts away the pictures, pats me on the arm, pats the apprentice on the cheek and shuffles off into the rain with his photos and his memories of the swinging set that drank Brandy Alexanders.

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See Part I. Part IIPart III.

Nicholas Kulish is the East Africa correspondent for the New York Times. His latest book is The Eternal NaziFollow him @nkulish.