Tangier, the iconic port city of Morocco, has lured many artists, writers, scholars, spies, pirates and conquerors over centuries. It was where ‘the founder of Morocco’, Idris bin Abdallah, arrived in 789 after fleeing Baghdad, where French artist Henri Matisse painted his famed Landscape Viewed from a Window in 1913 and where James Bond played by Daniel Craig went looking for clues in 2015’s Spectre.
It’s also where the inimitable Rolling Stones lazed around in the 1960s. One of their regular haunts was a hole-in-the-wall café amid the white buildings of the historic casbah from where you can stare across the Strait of Gibraltar at Spain. Called Cafe Baba, the family-operated safe haven of Mick Jagger and the other Stones still attracts many visitors, like myself, to this day.
The entrance to Cafe Baba tells the story of neglect that some of the other structures in the ancient seaside city also speak of. But it doesn’t seem to mind its dishevelled appearance. You go up faded stairs lined with plants to a small doorway with a simple sign hanging above it, featuring the cafe’s name in Arabic and English as well as the self-proclaimed title of being the ‘best cafe in the medina’. As you stand at the entrance, where the chipped tiles on the floor simply spell out Baba’s, you get a whiff of kif (also kief) — unpressed hashish mixed with tobacco, commonly smoked out of a ‘sebsi’ pipe.
Of Stones and sebsi pipes
Cannabis in Morocco is illegal on paper but according to locals, a small quantity won’t get you in trouble unless you’re smoking it on the streets. The country has been cultivating it for centuries and the mountainous area of Rif, which we passed on our drive from the blue city of Chefchaouen to Tangier, is best known for its marijuana plantations.
Kif is said to be derived from the Arabic word kayf meaning pleasure or enjoyment, and while Morocco’s enduring relations with cannabis aren’t only about the mood it induces, the cafe’s relationship with the substance has been of pure indulgence.
Completing 80 years in 2023, Cafe Baba proudly displays a catalogue of its famous visitors on its mediterranean-blue walls. And among the photos of Kofi Annan and royals from Sweden and Spain, I spot the Stones. One black-and-white photo is of the band with the cafe owner Hnifza in 1967 and another of Keith Richards from 1966 at Cafe Baba, smoking a sebsi pipe with one hand and holding a half-burnt cigarette in the other.
Perhaps Richards had read the words of writer Truman Capote in the 1950 edition of Vogue: “If you are someone escaping […] then by all means come here: hemmed with hills, confronted by the sea, and looking like a white cape draped on the shores of Africa.” Or it could have been the bohemian persona of the city that pulled many other artists to it — whatever the pull may have been, after their eventful first visit, the Stones returned in 1989 to record the song ‘Continental Drift’ with the Master Musicians of Jajouka for the Stones’ comeback album Steel Wheels.
Bachir Attar, leader of the Sufi trance music group, told The Guardian: “They loved to smoke kief. I remember once, after dinner at El Minzah, Mick Jagger turned to me and said, ‘Bachir, I need a pipe and some kief. Will you go and find some?’ I went out and found a guy who was selling but realised I had no money! I had to persuade him to give me the pipe and kief for free because it was for the Stones.”
After the recording sessions, Mick Jagger visited the village of Jajouka, which Brian Jones — the man who started the band and one of the first members of the tragic 27 Club — had visited in 1968.
“It was not just the hashish, jetted up through a hookah or smouldering in the bowl of an intricately carved pipe. It was not just the clothes, caftans, djellabas, cloaks and waistcoats, beaded with glass or silver,” wrote Stones’ biographer Philip Norman. “In Morocco, Brian found a country whose daily life, both spiritual and secular, is indivisible from music.”
A historic city, but make it tangy
Standing in the cafe looking at the pictures on the walls of this legendary rock band, I would have paid good money to hear the stories of their Moroccan journey from them. An easier ask was imagining them blending into the smoke-shrouded crowd of the nonchalant young and hip.
It was a sleepy hour in Tangier when I visited Cafe Baba with my two travel companions a little after noon — scarce customers occupied the wooden tables and chairs, some in their own company and others in small groups. We took stock of each wall, the pictures hanging from them, and briefly chatted to Abdoul, who has been running the cafe since 1996 when his father died, as he plucked mint leaves.
“If you were a bad boy of your time, you liked drugs, the kind of sex that was frowned upon at home, and an affordable lifestyle set against an exotic background, Tangier was for you,” he said of those who had come before him.
Bourdain didn’t focus on the food and neither will I as Cafe Baba is more about who it has served as opposed to what it serves. Don’t expect an extensive coffee menu or fresh croissants coming out of an oven. This establishment is mainly known for three drinks: the really sweet Moroccan mint tea, super strong Turkish coffee or a “nuss-nuss” — Arabic for “half-half” — milky coffee.
Unlike the small cups in Marrakech and Fes, the tea comes in tall glasses with an ample serving of mint. You could sip on this drink for a while on the terrace overlooking white buildings with green canopy windows, surrounded by tall trees and magenta bougainvillaea, as people come and go, some staying longer than others over games of parcheesi (ludo).
As we exit the cafe, I think to myself that there’s no one particular feature that stands out to justify all the famous people who walked through its doors — but hey, if it was good enough for the Stones, it’s good enough for me.
Header image: Inside the iconic Cafe Baba, established in 1943. — Photo by Ayesha Mir
This is a 4-part series on the author’s travels to Morocco.