From the desert to the casbah
Paul Bowles discusses his work as a composer, writerand translator—and why he never leaves Tangier.By John Ryle • 24 June 1990 • The Independent (“A Refuge in the Shadows of the Tangier Casbah”) • Reprinted in Paul Bowles by His Friends • Expanded with afterword • Posted 2016 • 4,424 words
In Tangier, in the casbah, the narrow streets are blocked with sandbags. Bullet holes are etched in pristine white walls: machine-guns stutter in back alleys. Formerly the louche international zone of Morocco, the decayed Mediterranean port city is back in fashion, this time as a film set. On wrought-iron balconies the cameras roll. The casbah stands in for a Middle-Eastern city, or impersonates itself in former days. This could be the 1950s, when Tangier was the Lotus-land of the post-war Bohemian diaspora, a refuge for rich and sexually nonconformist Westerners. Or else the 1960s, when it became a beat shrine, a hippie haven, boarding point for the Marrakesh Express.
Today, as we arrive in the city—myself and the American composer Peter Ash—they are filming the battle of Beirut; one day soon, The Naked Lunch, the beat burlesque that William Burroughs cut up and pasted together in a hotel here in the early 1950s. But the major project of the current shooting season has been The Sheltering Sky, Bernardo Bertolucci’s film of the odd, haunting book written—several years before The Naked Lunch—by the man we have come here to see: Tangier’s most celebrated remaining foreign resident, the American composer, ethnomusicologist, writer and translator, Paul Bowles.
The Sheltering Sky, Bowles’s first novel, published in 1949, is the story of an American couple who wander down into the Sahara from the Mediterranean coast of North Africa. Troubled in spirit, enmeshed in a culture older and tougher than their own, they fall apart, go mad and die. It’s a theme that recurs in Bowles’s work: many of his stories are of hapless Europeans or Americans, “Nazarenes” as Bowles refers to them (an adaptation of the Maghrebi Arabic word for Christians)—who venture too deep into societies that are not their own.
“They are ants,” he has said of the indigenous inhabitants of such countries. “And we are their aphids.”
Today, when Islam presses closer on the citadels of the West, Paul Bowles’ tales have a special interest. Are these chilling narratives part of a out-dated tradition of Orientalist fantasy? Or does Bowles have a more distinctive claim as chronicler of the cultural divide?
From Queen’s to Morocco
Bowles was born in Queen’s, New York, in 1910. But he is the most un-American of American authors. None of his four novels is set in the United States, and very few of his short stories. In his youth he was taken up by Gertrude Stein and introduced to the modernist milieu in Paris; his deepest affinities are with writers of the European tradition—with Kafka and Borges and Beckett. His one native influence is the father of American gothic, Edgar Allen Poe.
After the war Bowles led a peripatetic life with his wife, Jane, a writer of similarly quirky reputation. They lived for some years in Central America and South Asia. Finally, in the late 1940s, they settled in Tangier. This was the Tangier of the international zone, the somewhat sinister Tangier of Barbara Hutton, the Woolworth heiress, a lure for the hip and homosexual and culturally centrifugal. Today Tangier has been returned to the rule of the kingdom of Morocco and the international set are mostly gone. But Bowles still lives here, in the same nondescript apartment block, a mile or so from the casbah, that he and Jane moved into over 30 years ago.
Jane Bowles died from a stroke in 1973. Now, in 1990, Paul Bowles is in his eightieth year. He is looked after by his driver, Abdelouahaid Boulaich, and by one of his longtime Moroccan protegés, Mohammed Mrabet. Over the years he has taped and translated from the Arabic a dozen books of Mrabet’s stories, almost as many as he has published under his own name. Bowles’ relationship with Mrabet is clearly a key element in his life and work, yet it remains largely undocumented.
Next month sees the publication of Bowles’s journal of his life in Morocco over the past two years. The appearance of the journal comes as something of a surprise: he is a noticeably reticent writer. His autobiography, Without Stopping, published in 1972, is elegant but, in terms of his personal life, almost completely unrevealing. He is perhaps the only autobiographer whose friends have complained of an absence of indiscretion. Gore Vidal, one of Bowles’s most consistent admirers, said you would need to read between the lines to discover anything. William Burroughs said that the book should have been called “Without Telling”.
The new book is altogether thinner—there are not many lines to read between—and its most animated passages are where Bowles wrinkles his nose in distaste at one Christopher Sawyer-Lauçanno, whose unwelcome attentions resulted in an unauthorised biography, published last year, called An Invisible Spectator. It seems possible that Sawyer-Lauçanno failed to perceive how much his subject resented his questions—Bowles acknowledges this possibility in his journal—but future interviewers reading his remarks there are left in no doubt as to the thin ice they walk on.
The writer in bed
Peter and myself wait for Bowles outside his apartment. Shiny BMWs and Mercedes criss-cross in the street. They have been shipped in by Moroccan Gastarbeiter—migrant workers—on their return from sojourns in Germany. Then, out of the traffic, emerges a distinctive, older vehicle: Bowles’s vintage Ford Mustang, caramel-coloured, with wild horses moulded in relief on the grey leather seats. Out of it, assisted by his driver, Abdelouahaid, steps Bowles, not without difficulty—he is recovering from an attack of sciatica—but with perfectly coiffed white hair, and immaculately dressed in a pale buckskin jacket, fawn Dunhill sweater, tan-coloured, permanent-press trousers and recently polished shoes.
Since the 1960s, when he became required reading on the hippie trail, along with Ginsberg and Kerouac, young admirers have made their way to Bowles’s apartment expecting, perhaps, to meet an ageing beatnik sage, a raddled Buddha. Instead they are confronted with this vision of button-down elegance. What they may not know is that in the 1930s Paul Bowles was the toast of Bohemian Europe—one of his suitors professing himself struck like St Gregory in the slave market by the young man’s blond good looks. Now, in age, Bowles is still dapper and mysteriously radiant.
We accompany Bowles and Abdelouahaid up to the apartment, carrying a huge bunch of flowers sent by Gavin Young, the travel writer and occasional resident of Tangier, with whom Bowles has been having lunch. The living room of the apartment is dark, the curtains drawn, the fire set in the grate. The only light is filtered through a dense mass of dusty green plants on the terrace. The books in the shelves are visibly darkened by years of soot and flame, giving them a Gothic hue. The titles seem to fit: Midnight Mass, The Delicate Prey, The Spider’s House, She Woke Me Up So I Killed Her. Peter, myself, and Bowles sit, Moroccan-style, amid cushions on low divans, drinking tea.
I ask Bowles if he writes here, in this room.
“No,” he says. “As a matter of fact, I write in bed.”
“I got into the habit in the desert,” he explains. “It was cold there at night, extremely cold. There would be ice in the water jar by morning. The only place where you could keep your writing hand warm was under the blanket. Now I find that if I write at a desk I jump up every fifteen minutes.”
Scorched by fire, faded by the sun
Bowles’ writing takes place in a tiny truckle bed in the corner of a room piled with dusty tapes of his musical compositions, and recordings made many years ago on ethnomusicological expeditions to the interior of Morocco. There is an unused synthesizer keyboard in the bedroom, a cassette deck and a supper tray—these days he also eats in bed. In his study, the last room in the apartment, the curtains are open and the afternoon sun pours in. It is the only room with a chair. There is a wardrobe with silk ties poking from the half-closed door: books in French and English are piled on the floor. Where the books in the living room are scorched by fire, the books in the study are faded by the sun. From the window of the study you can see the casbah, houses cascading down the hillside like tumbling dice: beyond them, the Old Mountain, where the last of the rich expatriates live.
The bookshelves in the apartment are dotted with figurines, tiny mementoes thick with dust, some rare and exquisite, some tawdry or kitsch. There are no large objects: the biggest things are books. In the hallway is a stack of leather suitcases: they, too, are layered with dust. Bowles never leaves Tangier. Or hardly ever: he went to Paris last year and regretted it, he says. It is more than a quarter of a century since he visited America.
“I haven’t enjoyed travelling since ships went out of style,” he says. “Jane and I always went by ship. We didn’t travel light—we had two trunks and about 20 valises. That’s why I’m here in Tangier. This is where I was when ships with passengers were taken off the surface of the sea.”
I ask him if the making of the film of The Sheltering Sky showed him anything in the book he wasn’t already aware of.
“I can’t say it did,” he laughs, somewhat drily. “And I sold the rights years ago, so I make no money from it…”
What about his own part in the film?
“It’s a very little one. I’m just a figure in the background, though I did get to spend a few days on the set.”
Did he enjoy being an actor in his own story?
“It would be an exaggeration to say I did. I just sat there thinking: my protagonists, there they go… The amazing thing about the film was the way they rebuilt Tangier as Oran. They even put down rails for trolleybuses. In fact the Moroccans here had never seen a trolleybus. They thought it was something very modern.”
“To make it more authentic they set out to remove every single piece of plastic from the city. Even from the city dump—imagine! Just so Debra Winger could walk through pristine garbage . . .
“Then they dressed everyone in rags. They paid someone to put rips and tears in all the burnouses. They looked terrible. Actually, as I remember, people looked much better in 1947 than they do today.”
As we talk there is Japanese kodo music playing in the room. Bowles switches it off.
“They’re threatening to use this for the soundtrack of the film,” he says with evident distaste.
I ask if they have sought his view on the music, Bowles being a composer himself.
“Oh, I don’t think they know I do anything other than write books,” he says.
The tune fits the text like a peach in its skin
This is, perhaps, false modesty on Bowles’ part. The film-makers surely know—and he must know they know—that in the 1930s and 1940s, Bowles wrote the scores for more than a dozen Hollywood films. A pupil of Aaron Copland, with whom he first came to Tangier, Bowles earned a living for some years as a composer, writing incidental music for most of Tennessee Williams’s plays and for the stage version of South Pacific.
To listen to Bowles’s music after reading his books is to enter a different world. The mood is one of lightness, with touches of absurdity. Cigar boxes and milk bottles vie with the conventional instruments of the orchestra. Despite his long sojourn outside America, and his detailed knowledge of Moroccan folk music, his compositions show hardly any exotic influence at all.
“Yes, that’s what people say,” says Bowles. “That my music has nothing to do with my writing. I don’t know whether I’d agree. Quite a few of my pieces are songs that I wrote the words for myself.”
This is true enough: tender and mildly nonsensical, the lyrics of Bowles’s songs are perfectly at ease with the music he puts them to. I remind him what Virgil Thompson said of them: the texts fit the tunes like a peach in its skin.
“Should be the other way round, really,” says Bowles, with nonchalant precision.
Perhaps one should rather say, then, that Bowles’s prose has a depth and austerity not present in his musical compositions. It is the difference between the fire-stained, shadowy world of his living room on the one hand and his sunlit study on the other. And there is a link at the level of form. Like Chopin, Bowles is a musical miniaturist. He is also a miniaturist of prose. His most perfect works are not novels but short stories; and his best musical pieces are songs and short instrumental works. This seems to be a view that Bowles concurs with:
“My short stories are generally better than my novels. As you say, I am a miniaturist. I don’t mind at all having written small things. It’s a question of the desire to be impressive. That’s what wrong with opera, its desire to be impressive.”
“In fact I started writing short stories when Jane was ill. She lived in the downstairs apartment. There was a telephone between her room and mine and she’d call about every fifteen minutes, so I didn’t have the isolation or the leisure to sit and invent at length. But now they are my chosen form.”
A special penalty of exile for Bowles is that he never hears his work performed live: the last time, he says, was in 1948. Tapes and scores gather dust. Many have been lost. The maid, he says, steals the cassettes.
“She likes your music?”
“Oh no. She likes to record over it. Mrabet thinks I should sack her.”
“Of course,” he adds, “he also thinks I should also sack Abdelouahaid.”
Bowles seems strangely invigorated by the ill-will between members of his household. But it is not, one feels, schadenfreude on his part, more a form of existentialism: recognising the ubiquity of malice relaxes him, even makes him merry. There is a telling video clip of him talking to Mick Jagger in this same room a year ago.
Jagger, who seems to have done some homework, says to Bowles:
“Er—you’re quite pessimistic, aren’t you?”
Bowles, expressionless hitherto, gives him a brilliant smile.
“Yes,” he says. “I guess I am”.
A heart of tar
It is early evening now in Bowles’ apartment. Mohammed Mrabet is due to arrive at any moment.
Mrabet plays a distinctive role in Bowles’s world. Street-boy and beach-comber, now married with a family, Mrabet is Bowles’s long-time collaborator in life and in work. He comes every evening to light the fire and cook Bowles’s dinner. His name as author is on the spines of dozens of the books on the shelves in the apartment. Yet Mrabet cannot read or write. The books, including several novels and a scabrous autobiography, were all recorded and translated by Bowles.
Mrabet’s autobiography, Look And Move On, describes, among other things, a brief sojourn in the United States. Picked up by a gay American in Tangier and taken to Iowa, he scandalises his hosts there by killing robins from the garden—the super-sized American kind—and cooking them in a stew, a tajine. In a subsequent chapter he describes a visit to California under the title “Like The Sahara Only Dirty”.
Look and Move On, despite the resonance in the title, is the opposite of Without Stopping. Where Bowles is mild and discreet, Mrabet is racy and subversive. It seems reasonable to surmise that Mrabet’s literary persona serves, among other things, as an alter ego for his translator. He has a unsavoury reputation among Bowles’s expatriate friends: they roll their eyes at the mention of his name. In Bowles’s journal their two worlds collide. He records how Mrabet assaulted an American photographer friend because she brought a larger bunch of flowers than he had already provided for the apartment.
“Mrabet,” Bowles records in the journal, “began to bellow that he was in a room full of Jews who should be killed and not allowed to pollute the air breathed by a Muslim.”
“Abdelouahaid,” Bowles continues, “sat shaking his head. He whispered: ‘A horrible man. Heart of tar.’”
And now we are waiting for Mrabet. His daily visit is due. I glance at the bunch of flowers we have brought on behalf of Gavin Young. Perhaps, I reflect, it is time for us to leave. Before we can move, though, the key turns in the front door lock.
“Here he comes,” says Bowles.
The man who enters the apartment is about fifty years old, quite short of stature, the same height as Bowles. Bowles introduces us.
“Enchanté,” says Mrabet.
He fills a kif pipe and lights it. Twice, three times. The flaring match illuminates his face. He smiles at us.
“You are from London?” asks Mrabet. “Many of my family are there. London is perfect. It’s cold. It rains. The police are kind. Let’s not talk about Tangier. Let’s talk about London.”
We discuss Hyde Park, and the Moroccan community in Kensington, in French and Spanish and English, which Mrabet speaks quite well. English robins, we decide, unlike the American kind, are too small to make good tajine. I learn that one of Mrabet’s novels, Love With A Few Hairs, as translated into written form by Bowles, was adapted for television and broadcast by the BBC in the 1970s.
Mrabet seems genial, positively mellow. Can this be Bowles’s Caliban? His Scheherazade? The man with the heart of tar? It must be a good day.
Then Bowles speaks, smiling slightly.
“Mrabet thinks I should charge for interviews,” he says. “Five hundred dollars a time.”
In that case, I say to Mrabet—in what I hope is the same spirit—perhaps he would like to conduct the interview with Bowles himself—and pay the fee too. What, I ask him, is the question he would most like to put to his translator, the five hundred dollar question?
Mrabet answers in Spanish, the language he mainly uses with Bowles.
“I would ask him,” he says with a mock-serious air, “about all the people he has made love to—since I met him.”
Bowles translates without comment. It’s a subject he has never written about. And both of them know that decorum prevents him answering it, at least while visitors are here. It seems this is Mrabet’s way of teasing Bowles—and bringing our visit to an end.
Leaving Bowles’ apartment and walking down the hill towards the casbah in the twilight with Peter I am left wondering, like many another visitor, about the relationship between Bowles and Mrabet. Story-teller and translator, servant and employer, Muslim and Nazarene, ant and aphid—it would be something to hear an account from either of them of their long and productive collaboration. It’s a subject barely touched on in either of their autobiographies. Yet for Mrabet it has generated a body of published work almost as substantial as Bowles’s own, while for Bowles the act of translation—and the ambiguous dependencies it entails—seems to have saved him from the fate of one of his own characters. Instead of wandering off to his death in the desert he has earthed himself in other people’s stories, immersing himself in representations of the moral world of his hosts, bringing their worlds, as well as his, to written form.
This interview with Paul Bowles was conducted in Tangier in April 1990. Bowles’ journal, Two Years Beside The Strait: Tangier Journal 1987-89 was published earlier in the year. In May 1990, in London, there was a rare performance of Bowles’ music at the Almeida Theatre, and a reading of Jane Bowles’s play In The Summerhouse, directed by Peter Eyre, with Paul Bowles’ incidental music. A recording of works by Virgil Thomson, Paul Bowles and others, sung by William Sharp, accompanied by Stephen Blie, was issued by New World Records (CD NW 369-2).
Bowles died in 1999. He bequeathed his apartment and most of his possessions to his driver, Abdelouahaid Boulaich. His literary estate was left to the Guatemalan writer Rodrigo Rey Rosa; his musical estate to the pianist Irene Herrmann.
Useful sources on Bowles’ life and writing are gathered at www.paulbowles.org including interviews, conversations, timelines, bibliographies, and biographical articles on Bowles himself and his friends and associates.
In 1997—in an issue of The Threepenny Review dedicated to translation—Bowles published an article in which he described the sometimes bitter disputes that developed between him and his three principal Moroccan collaborators: Mohamed Mrabet, Larbu Layachi and Mohamed Choukri. (An article by Brian Edwards, based on interviews with some of them, published in 2011, adds useful information about the disputes, and further reflections on the relationship between Bowles and Mohamed Mrabet. )
Test of Bowles’ contribution to “A Symposium on Translation”, published in The Threepenny Review 70, Summer 1997:
If you are translating from a language that can be written or printed, you are substituting the words of one tongue for those of another. The principal problem there is the removal of all odor of worked-over syntax, which can cling tenaciously to the new text, marking it unmistakably as a result of translation. If, on the other hand, you are working from a language which can’t be written or printed, you are not working with words, but with ideas, and you must manage to find the most succinct and precise manner of handling the concepts. Darija Arabic is spoken, with wide regional modifications, throughout the lowlands of North Africa. Like demotic Greek, it bears visible inherited traits of the parent classical tongue. The difference between spoken Greek and spoken Arabic is that the latter cannot be written down or printed. It would be simple enough to devise an orthographical lexicon, but to the Muslims such a thing is unthinkable, because the characters of the Arabic alphabet have been sacralized by forming the words of the Koran, and thus cannot be used for any other purpose. This prohibition places an obstacle in the process of education. The students do not know classical Arabic, but all subjects must be taught in that language. Thus the children must learn Arabic before they can pursue their studies. In many rural regions the people do not know any form of Arabic, even darija, but use their own native African tongues. Very recently the King of Morocco lifted a ban on the use of Moroccan languages in the schools. (The Moroccans, like the Americans, are inclined to forget that they are colonizers, and not natives of the land they inhabit.)
So, you are reduced to working from an oral text, with nothing stable to support you when you come to a difficult phrase. Nevertheless, the hazards met with in the act of translation are dwarfed by those inherent in publication and consequent remuneration. Like the Mexicans, who never let pass an opportunity to replace “Estados Unidos” with “Estamos Sumidos” for the purpose of reminding the gringo that he is not accepted as a peer and that complete confidence is not to be thought of, the Moroccans, when dealing with a European or an American, cannot rid themselves of the conviction that they will sooner or later be cheated. The three Moroccans of whose novels I have made English versions have shown continuous lack of trust in my motives each time the question of money arose. Publishers’ advances were minimal. This was accepted as a matter of course, but later they began to ask why no royalties were forthcoming. Small sales, I explained. They found this quite unsatisfactory. Eventually I had to agree to pay Mrabet a thousand dollars for each of his twelve books published.
Larbi Layachi went to San Francisco in 1963. From California I began to receive minatory letters from two different lawyers, saying that Layachi had consulted them, accusing me of having stolen not only his royalties, but also the material for my own books. Mutual friends in San Francisco explained that Larbi was suffering from a brain tumor which needed to be extracted. He continued to send money to me to be given to his wife and children, but at the same time he went on writing me threatening letters. Eventually he had the necessary surgery, which he withstood, but he died shortly afterwards.
The third Moroccan, Mohamed Choukri, chose a more dramatic method of denouncing me. Without warning, an article in German appeared in the Suddeutscher Zeitung with the simple headline “Paul Bowles Is An Exploiter.” I thought it best to overlook the piece. But then Shark el Aoussat, a daily Arabic paper published in London, financed by Saudis, began to issue a series of articles, appearing once a week, in which I was excoriated as a spy in the pay of the CIA, a racist, a neo-colonialist, a dangerous criminal who ought not to be allowed to continue living in Morocco, and a robber whose considerable fortune had been amassed by depriving Moroccan writers of their royalties. Simultaneously with the publication of the twelfth installment, the text appeared in book form. Then Choukri announced that he would hold a meeting in the auditorium of the French Cultural Center in Tangier, at which he would destroy my reputation. Friends tell me that the hall was filled with Moroccans and Algerians, including reporters sent by radio stations and journalists for newspapers here and in Rabat. These last continue to harass me, demanding my “‘point of view.” I have already explained in the local newspaper that I consider M. Choukri to be suffering from schizophrenia. I’m careful not to add that I should have known beforehand that something like this would happen, and that I shall see to it that there will be no repetition of such non- sense because I shall not collaborate again with a Moroccan. Now I am a true racist.