Tennesse Williams reviewed The Sheltering Sky for The New
York Times: "There is a curiously double level to this novel. The
surface is enthralling as narrative. It is impressive as writing. But
above that surface is the aura that I spoke of, intangible and powerful,
bringing to mind one of those clouds that you have seen in summer, close
to the horizon and dark in color and now and then silently pulsing with
interior flashes of fire. And that is the surface of the novel that has
filled me with such excitement."
PAUL BOWLES, the American writer, composer, and expatriate, died eleven months ago in Tangier, the northern Moroccan city where he had lived for more than half a century. Bowles was controversial in Morocco, and his death was a major news event there; yet the Moroccan response to Bowles has not made it into American accounts. Next to nothing has been written here about the last decades of Bowles's life, nor about his often tense residence in Morocco, where he had as many enemies as friends. Even with various articles and memorials planned to commemorate the first anniversary of Bowles's death -- a two-day tribute is planned at New York City's 92nd Street Y on October 29 and 30 -- it's safe to wager that his fans will be fed the tired and typical version of Bowles's life abroad. We can expect little more than the usual and unrevealing stereotypes about the "mysterious" and "primitive" country of Bowles's self-imposed exile. It's become a familiar routine, and a comforting one, though in a rather disturbing way.
The same stories are circulated about Bowles: his expat apprenticeship in Gertrude Stein's Paris salon (Stein insisted on calling him Freddy and made him wear lederhosen); his initial trip to Tangier with Aaron Copland (Copland hated it, Bowles loved it); his reign over the Tangier literary scene in the fifties; his queer marriage to Jane Bowles; the affairs both were having; her spiral down into heavy drinking, mental breakdown, and an early death. They are entertaining tales, but they're wearing thin. In them, Morocco remains a mere backdrop, an exotic scrim upon which writers project love triangles and kif reverie. Much as Hollywood's Casablanca is confused with the real city by many Americans, Bowles's Morocco stands in for the living, breathing one; it becomes little more than "a projection of his inner geography," as one critic described it. But Bowles didn't invent Morocco -- he lived there and was affected by it. And he wrote about it through the last decade of the colonial period, the ensuing independence struggle, and for more than thirty years of the postcolonial period.
Western obituaries had Bowles's life petering out with Jane Bowles's demise in the late fifties and sixties, and pretty much stops by the time of her death in 1973. It is no coincidence that these years correspond with the first decade and a half of Moroccan independence -- a period where Paul's Moroccan friends and collaborators increasingly became central to his life and his output turned largely to translations of their work. The quasi-official Bowles Story then resumes, heroically, in the nineties, with the rediscovery and celebration of the grand maître in America; he returns to New York for his first visit in decades to attend Lincoln Center performances of his own music he hasn't heard since the thirties. The intervening years are covered by the passing reference to the Moroccan Arabic tales Bowles translated -- a major and prolonged endeavor that is brushed aside in a phrase -- which serves as additional evidence of the author's originality or idiosyncrasy. It still seems, after all, as if Bowles was really just another New Yorker with a strange hobby.
But the idea that Bowles preferred to live in isolation from the world -- because he never moved back to New York -- is an enabling fiction: it lets journalists and critics off the hook for not bothering to learn about Morocco or Bowles's life there. It seems that Bowles specialists never bother to talk to any Moroccans, even those Moroccans with whom Bowles worked and lived. That does his readers a disservice. For the experience of living in North Africa radically altered Bowles's life and work, in ways we have not yet fully appreciated. From his 1949 novel The Sheltering Sky, and his shockingly explicit and violent short stories of the forties and fifties (which provoked Norman Mailer to write that Bowles had "opened the world of the hip"), to his lesser known publications of the seventies, eighties, and nineties, the bulk of Bowles's writing was set in the Maghreb. Throughout, the rhythms and voices that had fascinated him since the thirties played a central part in his life and work. Without understanding that context, we can't understand the turns his later writing took. Perhaps Bowles isn't as familiar as we thought.
EVEN AS BOWLES lay in a Tangier hospital for twelve long days last fall, cable news channels and Internet news sites around the world prepared the public for his death. When it finally happened, on November 18, The New York Times ran a full-page obituary, in which Mel Gussow perversely concluded that, for Bowles, the "point of life is to have fun" -- an odd analysis of a man who cooped himself up in a dingy flat with drawn shades, and wrote about castration, typhoid, and tongue excision. Then the New York Times Book Review published a tribute by Daniel Halpern, who, despite the fact that he had actually lived downstairs from Bowles for a couple of years in Tangier, could conjure up only the "mystique" of Bowles's life amid Berbers -- a kif-infused symphony of flavors, in which expatriates talk about French literature while wearing bow ties. During these years, however, Morocco was in the midst of some of its most fraught political times, laboring under a tense atmosphere that Bowles followed closely. (Halpern is one of the scheduled speakers at the 92nd Street Y). In London, The Economist wrote disparagingly of Bowles's cult status and of the stream of Western journalists and American beatniks who flowed through his apartment.
In Morocco, where Bowles evoked strong opinions, the story was much bigger and more immediate. Bowles was a well-known figure, his white hair and long features familiar from press photos and to Tanjawis who spotted him on his daily walks or visits to the Café Hafa or the post office. Any young hustler in Tangier could take you to his door for a few dirhams. Interviews with Bowles appeared frequently in the Moroccan press, and his fiction entered the curriculum of Moroccan universities, where it was critiqued harshly. More positively -- but no less controversially -- Bowles was also known in Morocco for bringing the work of illiterate Moroccan storytellers to an international audience. Following the death of King Hassan II by a couple of months (Hassan had ruled Morocco for nearly four decades), Bowles's passing convinced Moroccans that an era really had ended. On the front page of the Moroccan daily Libération, Salah Sbyea made the announcement: "Paul Bowles is dead. The circle of ghosts of Tangier is now fully complete with its guru." Libération carried three stories about Bowles on its front page that particular Friday. Most of the other Moroccan papers ran obituaries or tributes.
For Moroccans, Bowles's death represented much more than the passing of an American writer and composer. Bowles, who first visited Morocco in 1931, and had lived in Tangier since he came with an advance and a book contract to write The Sheltering Sky, had long been the most immediately available symbol of the "Orientalist" writers of the past, plagued by a fascination with the Maghreb. "Many passed through, he remained: a captive," comments Mohamed El Gahs, Libération's editor. For many, the image of Morocco he conveyed to the world was an embarrassment, and his apparent preference for the Morocco of old was an insult to national pride. Bowles seemed to focus too much on Moroccan "primitiveness" -- superstitions, magic, folk culture, and violence -- and many educated or otherwise elevated Moroccans were afraid that the rest of the world would get the wrong idea. Bowles was a frequent target for Moroccan intellectuals, whose existence he barely acknowledged, and the whipping boy for Moroccan writers living in Tangier, a handful of whom he had helped bring to a wider audience. All this despite Bowles's genteel demeanor, and the fact that he spent the majority of his time in bed in his pajamas.
It was Bowles's very presence in Tangier that kept alive the enmity. There, in his gloomy apartment near the center of town, he continued to receive foreign and Moroccan interviewers, fans, celebrity friends, celebrity hounds, television and film crews, and a fair share of confidence men, usually in his bedroom, where he lay in a narrow bed propped up by pillows. The scene was widely known in Morocco and scandalous for many. Though Bowles himself was extremely discreet about his personal life, making a point to avoid discussions of his sexuality with interviewers, rumors of his (and his friends') affairs with Moroccan men circulated widely, adding to the list of Bowles's alleged "sins," in this case the suggestion that Bowles had violated an unwritten rule and flaunted his sexual proclivities. Morocco, which had welcomed generations of gay male tourists with open arms earlier in the century, was now anxious to keep up a front of unimpeachable masculinity. A week after his death, one of the Arabic-language papers in Morocco published a distasteful photo of Bowles's bed, empty, the covers pulled back, the pillow still bearing the impression of his head; the caption translates: "the bed of the American writer after his final departure." It was a final, nasty jab at Bowles, a tabloidish act of revenge against his all too public bed.
AN ANECDOTE: Once, in 1995, after I had lectured on American writers who had written about Morocco to a group of several hundred Moroccan students at Sidi Mohammed Ben Abdellah University in Fez, a veiled undergraduate asked me a question about Bowles's portrayal of Moroccans. "Why does he say such bad things about us?" she asked earnestly, seemingly hurt. As I began a nuanced answer, I sensed my host, a professor who sat to my side on the dais, begin to fidget. At the first polite moment, he reached for my microphone and intoned deeply: "Paul Bowles is a homosexual. The way he lives up there in Tangier is sick." A hush spread across the room. The Moroccan professor would not debate: "Next question."
The idea of "exposing" Paul Bowles gained ground in the late nineties with the publication of Mohamed Choukri's book Paul Bowles wa 'uzla Tanja ("Paul Bowles and the Solitude of Tangier"). An angry book written by a former collaborator, published in Arabic in Morocco in 1996, and then the next year in French translation in Paris, Choukri's book accuses Bowles of a variety of crimes -- from homosexuality to poor pronunciation of Moroccan Arabic to loving Morocco while hating Moroccans. Hoping to stir up some controversy, the Tangier weekly Les Nouvelles du Nord interviewed Bowles in 1997, allowing him the chance to respond. Bowles backed down from a fight. "He's lost control of his mind. There's no logic, no explanation except his illness," was Bowles's published response. As for his life in Morocco, "I have the right to stay here as long as the government permits me... It's a magnificent country."
DESPITE THE CHARGES continually leveled against him by Moroccans, the elderly Bowles -- he was days shy of his eighty-ninth birthday when he died -- seemed unable to comprehend the symbolic burden placed upon him. Although he had a brief affair with the Communist party in the thirties -- by all accounts with only tepid conviction -- Bowles was an outwardly apolitical figure, a practicing existentialist with the firm conviction that chaos was just beyond the next corner, and an experienced expatriate who avoided political pronouncements and controversies that might jeopardize his position in Tangier. This was partially due to a deeply felt sense of being an outsider, an "invisible spectator." "I think that having spent my life trying to hide everything from everyone, I've ended up by no longer being able to find many things myself," he wrote in a 1975 letter, just after publishing his autobiography. But it was also the learned behavior of a foreigner who didn't want to be kicked out of the country.
Bowles was never censored officially, though his 1974 translation of Choukri's al-Khubz al-Hafi (rendered by Bowles as For Bread Alone) was pulled from Moroccan shelves for obscenity. The book is still banned. Nonetheless, Bowles comes under a lot of criticism by Moroccan scholars. He is a frequent topic of discussion at academic conferences in Morocco, and a popular subject for dissertations.
The bulk of Moroccan criticism of Bowles's writings focuses on his early writing, particularly The Sheltering Sky, set largely in Algeria, and a handful of his short stories from the forties and fifties. In those works, Bowles's characters flee a decadent West by embracing aspects of the Maghreb that seemed most "primitive." Between the lines, Bowles expressed a concern about the loss of Maghrebi distinctiveness in the face of an onslaught of Western, mechanized culture. From a Moroccan point of view, Bowles's writings and comments seemed to belittle national projects and to replicate a French colonial attitude that Moroccans had little hope of entering the modern age without Western help. In an interview published in 1993, Abdelhak Elghandor asked Bowles whether it was true that he believed that that which "came into this culture after Independence is not worth one's attention." "After Independence?" Bowles responded. "No! Since the ninth century. That's what I'd say."
Although his politics were explicitly anti-colonial, Bowles worried about what would be lost and gained in a modern, independent Morocco. His 1955 novel The Spider's House, set in Fez during the struggle for independence, signaled a more immediate engagement with Moroccans as individuals than the writing that had preceded it. With Moroccan independence in 1956, Bowles began a long effort to preserve elements of folk culture he felt certain would be lost to modernizing. Funded by a Rockefeller Grant, he lugged a large Ampex tape recorder a total of 25,000 miles around Morocco, collecting at least 250 musical selections, which are archived with the Library of Congress.
Motivated by a similar impulse, at about the same time, Bowles became especially interested in recording Moroccan narrative. Though Bowles had never studied written Arabic, he claimed enough fluency with the spoken dialect (darija) to translate tales told him by a number of illiterate Moroccan friends. With one in particular -- Mohammed Mrabet, a Riffian born in 1940 -- he developed a close relationship that flourished in the sixties, seventies, and eighties. Together the two collaborated on a dozen volumes, all published originally in English in the U.S. and England; there have been no Arabic versions to date, though Radio Tanger has broadcast Mrabet telling his stories.
While the Mrabet books were not outwardly political, it was the collaboration of an illiterate Moroccan and a famous American novelist itself that garnered attention. Mrabet became estranged from Bowles at the end of his life -- he promises a tell-all exposť and accused Bowles of literary and financial theft in interviews with me, a charge other Moroccans familiar with the case deny -- but there is little doubt that his collaboration with Bowles brought this brilliant story-teller and artist international attention. The collaboration has not been without its detractors -- the Moroccan novelist Tahar Ben Jelloun called it a "bastard literature" marked by a "technique of rape" in Le Monde in 1972 -- and Mrabet is still little known within Morocco, since his books exist primarily in English.
BUT THAT is changing: Bowles's translation projects may be his most lasting legacy in Morocco. Mohamed El Gahs, writing in Libération, notes that though Bowles was clear that he didn't write for a Moroccan audience, he did bring attention to Moroccan authors. "Perhaps if we must pay homage to this man," El Gahs writes grudgingly, "it would be for his capacity to give a push to the vocations of others while sacrificing his own." In forwarding Moroccan narrative, Bowles's translations represent a significant turn away from the colonialist tone of his earlier writing and demonstrate the deep respect he developed for the intricacies of the Moroccan voice. For a novelist, that is no mean tribute.
In an era when American attitudes about the Arab world have largely been formed by literature and film -- Bertolucci's 1990 film version of the 1949 best-seller The Sheltering Sky, brought Bowles's novel a new generation of readers -- the story of Bowles's reception in contemporary Morocco is an important one.
In Morocco, a longtime political ally that fought alongside American troops during the Gulf War, American attitudes about the Arab world are closely attended to. (There was widespread protest in Morocco against Hassan's decision to join the American coalition against a fellow Arab nation, and stronger opposition to Clinton's more recent "degrading" of Iraq.) And, for many Moroccans, Bowles's work stands for the attitudes Americans hold of the Maghreb. The danger in Morocco, then, as in the United States, is that the author's first major work set in the Maghreb will be remembered as his definitive statement about North Africans.
By romanticizing Bowles's expatriate life abroad -- imagining the author as another Kipling, with Moroccans as natives who couldn't possibly represent themselves -- American critics direct our attention away from the very real effects of American culture out in the world. And not paying attention to Bowles's environment -- which shaped his work as it shaped his later life -- gives his readers and his imitators a skewed vision of what it means when an American author sets up shop abroad.
Brian Edwards is assistant professor of English and comparative literary studies at Northwestern University. His articles about Morocco have appeared in The Los Angeles Times, The Boston Globe, the online edition of Index on Censorship, and other publications. He is currently working on a book called "Morocco Bound: American Adventures in the Maghreb."