|The novelist and horticulturist Umberto Pasti in his sitting room in Tangier, Morocco. Photo: Will Sanders.|
|Umberto Pasti's rainy season house in Tangiers. World of Interiors, photo: Christopher Simon Sykes.|
People talk about his house as if it were a mirage, a thing of perfumes and flowers and mountain vapors, one man’s paradise. In Tangier, you mention the name Umberto Pasti and people often say, “Have you been?” And what they’re referring to is the house and its gardens, standing in the hills not far from the center of the city. As we came outside one evening, the light was going. I could hear running water and the dog leapt up, just as the call to prayer came rolling over the secluded garden. “It used to be very different,” Pasti said, in a near whisper. “Tangier was a small town. It was physically very unspoiled and neglected. I arrived here by accident: I was escaping Marrakesh and social life. It was always very charming, this place, because you were dealing with people who are very used to foreigners.” And this is an idea I hang on to about the life of eccentrics in Tangier: The locals care for the comfort of strangers.
In a large old room smelling of narcissi, Pasti sat me down and smiled through cigarette smoke. The tables around us were filled with strange shells, bones and Neolithic pottery. I looked around as he spoke and you could almost breathe the beauty: a piece of an Islamic column from Spain, an Italian Renaissance stemma, many Berber pots, pine cones and marble busts. Past a big 17th-century German armoire was a fireplace of the same period. An 18th-century Venetian screen held back a little of the evening air, which came, nonetheless, rosemary-scented and chilled. Painted Moroccan chests and side tables were dotted everywhere — “I love patina,” he said — and around the walls was a multitude of astonishing tile panels, some from Seville and Portugal and fired 200 years before the birth of Shakespeare. Pasti writes novels and makes gardens. He is both intensely sociable and extremely private. Walking from room to room in his perfect house, he seemed somewhat like a man in a fairy tale, lost in beauty, hiding behind windows in a secret garden. But then he laughed and puffed on his cigarette and seemed quite normal again. Pasti started as a literary critic and then began collecting strange fragments and rare bulbs, which he would plant in his garden in the Moroccan countryside, and also in pots at his house in Tangier. His first novel is the story of a botanical obsession. “I started collecting wild bulbs more or less 15 years ago,” he said. He sometimes sleeps outside among the plants. In some ways he considers himself to be a kind of doctor to sick plants and sees his place in the country as a kind of botanical hospital.
“So, this is not a retreat?”
“I go to Milan to relax,” he said. “Life here is easy but you are always fighting against pressures, rich foreigners behaving like pigs, and what I find sad is that many are happy with their little drinks and their little pieces of silver on the table. Unless one is blind, one has to suffer a little about what is going on.” He spoke of the threat to “poor Moroccans” and the horrible new marina being built in Tangier. He is generally appalled by change, it seems. His whole life is about restoring and preserving and putting together. He is an obsessive. “This is what I like about interior decoration, the history,” he said. As we left one of the rooms, he pointed past a dozen curiously vibrant fabrics to a wall of grotesque photographs. “I’ve started a collection of Moroccan monsters,” he said. The wall was covered with images of people with genetic abnormalities. “You think I’m mad?” he asked, his bright eyes chuckling. He twisted the stem of his glasses and then let them bounce on his hand-printed Indian shirt.
Interview sourced from