Thriller novel set in Morocco - 'Shadows the Sizes of Cities' by Gregory W Beaubien - buy now


Author Gregory W Beaubien on sand dune in Sahara Desert Morocco 1993

Author Gregory W. Beaubien in the Sahara desert near Tinfou, Morocco, 1993.

What Drew Me to Morocco,
Land of Dreams

Article and photos by GREG BEAUBIEN     Nov. 17, 2018

MY FASCINATION WITH MOROCCO began when I was about nine years old. On summer afternoons a movie theater near our house in the Chicago suburb of Mt. Prospect would sometimes let kids see a matinee for the price of a few Pepsi bottle caps. The movies were terrible, low-budget fare you’d never find anywhere else, usually some variation on Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves set in an exotic North African or Middle Eastern country.

Parents dropped off their children and the theater was packed with kids going wild. Popcorn and flattened popcorn boxes flew through the air and you could hardly hear the movie through the screaming. The boys went crazy when a sexy woman in a purple harem dress performed a belly dance onscreen.

Movies have always portrayed Morocco as a romantic, mysterious place. In pre-code Morocco (1930), a film swept with sensual shadows, Marlene Dietrich finds sexual freedom and leaves the Casbah walls to venture into the Sahara, passing through a bulbous Moorish gateway that is at once phallic and vaginal. Audiences fell for the louche elegance of Rick’s Café in Casablanca (1942) and were seduced by the desert’s majestic emptiness in Lawrence of Arabia (1962), a movie set in what is now the United Arab Emirates, but which included scenes filmed in the Moroccan Sahara.

Marrakesh Morocco djemma el fna vendor in lantern light

A perfume vendor in the djemma el fna square of Marrakesh, Morocco.

During college I started reading William S. Burroughs and Paul Bowles, American expatriate authors who had lived in Tangier, Morocco (Bowles still did) and written novels and stories about the country. “I relish the idea that in the night, all around me in my sleep, sorcery is burrowing its invisible tunnels in every direction, from thousands of senders to thousands of innocent recipients,” Bowles wrote of living in Tangier. “There is drumming out there most nights. It never awakens me; I hear the drums and incorporate them into my dreams.”

I traveled to Morocco for the first time in 1993, when I was 29 years old. From the Spanish port of Algeciras my companions and I crossed the Strait of Gibraltar on a ferry. The water and sky were the deepest blue I’d ever seen. Through the mist over the sea Tangier appeared as a jumble of white cubes atop a cliff.

After arriving and fending off the city’s street hustlers we spent the next three weeks backpacking by train down the Atlantic coast to Asilah, Rabat and Marrakesh, and then by taxi over the Atlas Mountains and into the Sahara. Another car took us to where the road ended in the village of M’Hamid, near the Algerian border. I wrote an article about traveling in Morocco for the Chicago Sun-Times. In 1997, I returned to Tangier and interviewed Bowles in his apartment for the Chicago Reader newspaper.

Marrakesh Morocco djemma el fna men in cafe

A cafe on the djemma el fna square in Marrakesh, Morocco.

In 2014, my thriller novel Shadows the Sizes of Cities was published. The story of wayward travelers who turn against each other and against themselves takes place mostly in Morocco. My publisher’s name, Moresby Press, is an allusion to the character of Port Moresby in Bowles’s novel The Sheltering Sky (1949), whom he named after the city of Port Moresby in Papua New Guinea.

A large part of the audience for Shadows the Sizes of Cities has been readers who’ve been to Morocco themselves, or have dreamt of going there. Indeed, visiting Morocco is like slipping into a dream.

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People often think of Arab cultures as being Middle Eastern, and many of them are. But Morocco, located in the northwest corner of Africa, is geographically farther west than Paris or London. What makes Morocco so exotic and alluring? Intrinsically, it’s a sensuous country. In its architecture, design, music, food and clothing, with its warm sun, coastlines, mountains and deserts, Morocco bombards the senses with pleasing sights, sounds, smells, tastes and textures. They all come together in the tunnels of the market souks, where goods from spices to rugs are sold and sunlight breaks in shifting beams through the thatch ceilings. In the outdoor djemma el fna square in Marrakesh, vendors, acrobats and snake charmers entice visitors and stir imaginations. At night, the aroma of burning hashish wafts from lantern-lit cafes.  

Part of Morocco’s appeal is the mystery it holds. Its language is unfamiliar, its homes hidden behind walls, women obscured by veils, men’s faces lost in shadow under hooded robes. Over it all, the call to prayer rises, notes sustaining before descending like steps down a spiral staircase.

Camel in Sahara Desert Morocco Tinfou

A camel stands near a well in the Sahara desert in Tinfou, Morocco.

When I traveled through Morocco in the 1990s, I assumed that I had missed the most interesting time to visit the country—the post-World War II era when Tangier was a lawless “International Zone” loosely governed by a half-dozen foreign powers. Back then, the city’s expats lived cheaply and could indulge their favorite vices with impunity. But as it would turn out, the ’90s were the end of an era, too—the last time that we could lose ourselves in the wonders of travel without always being connected to home, friends and work through cellphones, social media and the internet.

I don’t know how I would feel if I were to go back there today and see the changes that technology has wrought. But one thing is certain: I will always return to Morocco in my dreams.


Moresby Press

Thriller novel set in Morocco - 'Shadows the Sizes of Cities' by Gregory W Beaubien - buy now

Paul Bowles in Tangier Morocco, photo courtesy of Black Sparrow Press

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Visiting Paul Bowles in his Tangier, Morocco apartment


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