Wednesday, July 14, 2010


We tend to think, in these days of Google Earth and GPS, that we've filled in all the blank spaces on the map, but in the last few days I've come accross a fascinating exception to this, an area that appears to be exempt from the attentions of cartographers and also, it would seem, from the normal rules of space-time.

For reasons that I can't go into (shop) I've been doing a lot of research on the city of Tanger (or Tangier, or Tanja, or Tangiers) in northern Morocco. We had a problem with a piece of text, namely that it contained a wealth of information about the fascinating history of the place, but very little about the city today. As part of my research I found myself firing up google earth, so I could get an idea of the layout of the city. Since most of the interesting history involves the Medina (old walled town) and its environs, I was curious to know where things were. I drew a blank. Literally. Google Earth has no streets marked within the medina, and only a fairly low resolution image of the town. I've you've ever seen a medina before, you'll know that aerial photography is not going to be much use. The streets are so narrow, so overhung with balconies and walkways, clotheslines and wires, that it's impossible to figure out where one building ends and the next begins, let alone chart the course of a narrow alleyway. I then went in search of other maps of the medina. I found a few. The first was an old 1930s map that a literature professor had unearthed while researching William Burroughs (who came to Tangier for the low cost of living, but stayed for the plentiful opportunities for pederasty and heroin). It had lots of streets marked on it, but the street names were all in French and, with names like "Rue Joan D'Arc" and "Rue Charlemagne" it seemed unlikely that they would have survived the departure of the colonial administrators anyway. I then found several other maps of the medina. Mostly in travel guides and from Moroccan tourism promoters. The reason why I gathered so many was because I was hoping to spot some sort of pattern. While they agreed on size and shape of the medina, as well as the location of a few major landmarks (such as the Petit Socco and the Kasbah) they disagreed on pretty much everything else. Sometimes they even disagreed with themselves, putting the same landmark in more than one place. The roads didn't just have different names, there was a completely different road layout in each book. I kept looking at the maps, then scrutinizing the aerial photography, but no one road layout seemed any more plausible than any other. Perhaps they were all correct, perhaps they just selected different roads to highlight and mixed them names up in a tombola.

This wouldn't have been quite so bad if it wasn't for the fact that the blog posts and travelogues I found about tangiers gave wildly contradictory information about the location of specific places. Different people would give completely different addresses for the same museum, for example, or give directions that made absolutely no sense. They all railed at the fact that none of the maps or travel guides were correct, and expressed confusion at the layout of the place. Several of them remarked that giving up any hope of figuring out where you were going was the only way to find anything.

There are only two explanations for this. The first is that Tangier's medina makes use of extra dimensions, disobeys the rules of the universe. This would explain the church that seems to wash up and down a hill with the tide, and the historic diplomatic building that is simultaneously next to the Kasbah and down by the Petit Socco. There is another, perhaps more plausible explanation. As part of my research I discovered that Morocco, specifically the hills around Tangier, produces around half of Europe's cannabis. Seriously massive quantities of hashish make their way down to the docks in Tangiers every day, to be shipped to the needy stoners of Europe. Of course, some of it never leaves the country, enough for the stuff to be cheaper than tobacco and easily obtained. Although none of the cartographers or travel writers mention this, I suspect they may have done their investigations of the city while baked off their tits on hash. This would explain the apparently baffling geography of the old town, as well as the inordinate amount of column inches travel writers devote to "these like, fucking amazing little stands that sell these enormous sugary pastry things..."