Photo by Juan Alcón and Maggie Schmitt

Strike up a conversation with any elderly man in Tangier and he's likely to wax nostalgic about what the city used to be: an international zone jointly governed by legations from France, Spain, Britain and Italy.

Tangier was a safe haven for exiles from European wars (Spanish Republicans, European Jews), the home of an extraordinarily mixed population in which Christians, Muslims, and Jews lived side by side, celebrated each other's holidays, and cooked each other's recipes in an improvised pidgen of Spanish, Arabic and French.

If, by odd chance, your elderly interlocutor happens to be a bit intellectual with certain bohemian leanings, he might even speak with cautious regard for the world of artists and writers -- notably the Beats -- who frequented the seedy bars near the port and immortalized Tangier as a place where "anything can happen and nothing stays the same." (Ángel Vázquez)

Indeed, little has stayed the same. Tangier still breathes the exuberance of a port city whose economy relies on contraband and transit, but since it was reunited with Morocco much of its diversity has diminished: the synagogue that once served 10,000 now houses a congregation of just 80. The famed gay cruising scene has gone underground, and the bars and taverns that once flourished all over town are reduced to a mere handful.

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Photo by Juan Alcón

But those that persist are fascinating. Clustered around the Place de France and the Avenue Pasteur are several bars whose faded décor speaks of the old international zone. Some, like the Coeur de Tanger, feel like Hollywood spy dens. Others, like the Number-One, have the genteel air of grand salons. But most, like the Rubiz, feel like taverns plucked directly out of the Andalusia of the 1950s: a timewarp to the sound of guitar strings. What these bars have in common, besides serving alcohol, is that with each round of drinks come tapas of a quality and quantity not to be seen on the other side of the Straits in decades.

The recipes would seem an impossible challenge -- maintaining the spirit of Spanish tapas without using any pork products. The result is some of the best tapas I've had: fresh fried boquerones, salpicón de marisco (a salad of chopped peppers, onions and marinated seafood), a rich fava bean stew, chicken in a saffron almond sauce, paella. An Andalusian friend traveling with me lapsed into a sort of reverie, stunned as he caught up with his own youth in Tangier.

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