Stranger in a Strange Land
Notes, anecdotes, and memories
of a weeklong interview with Paul Bowles in Tangier, Morocco
by Gaither Stewart
When the first stories of Paul Bowles appeared in
New York at the end of the 1930s critics noted the emergence of a remarkable
new talent. Subsequently Bowles was to make his reputation on only a handful
of books: four novels and five collections of stories. But what novels
and what stories! Stories that Gore Vidal considers “among the best ever
written by an American, with few equals in the 20th century – even though
he is odd-man out for American academics because he writes as if Moby Dick
never existed”. Likewise his friend of many years Tennessee Williams claimed
that Bowles was a better writer than Hemingway and Faulkner.
I had the good fortune to meet Paul Bowles in a cold,
rainy winter in the middle 1980s in Tangier. I had just read his novels
“Under The Sheltering Sky” and “Let It Come Down” and his collection of
stories in “The Delicate Prey” and was already a convert to his works. After
an exchange of several letters to establish the timing – for years he had
no phone, no fax or such, only a post box at Tanger Socco - I spent a week
in Tangier for an extended interview with the mystical cult figure.
I was as excited about meeting him as the many others
who traveled to Tangier had been during the 1960s. However by the 1980s
figures like Allan Ginsberg, William Burroughs, Truman Capote, Jean Genet
and the Rolling Stones no longer crowded the Moroccan scene. Young people
no longer made the pilgrimage to exotic Tangier to search for the strange
man who lived in quiet exile among his Moroccan friends. The Tangier craze
By then Bowles had been living in Tangier since 1947,
the last 30 years in the same apartment just opposite the residence of the
American Consulate on the hill of Marshan looking over the old town. He
had suggested in his last letter that I drop by each afternoon, after he
had finished his day’s work: he was then transcribing a group of his early
songs for publishing in the United States.
When I arrived on the first afternoon at around six the
tape of a piece for oboe by his friend Aaron Copeland was playing. Paul
Bowles was waiting at the door of his fourth-floor apartment. A fire was
blazing, the unpretentious Moroccan-European salon inviting. Beguilingly
the elegant maestro did not appear mysterious. His warmth and simplicity
contrasted with his exotic reputation and the unreal world of his art. It
was the aura around him that was mysterious, not he the person. In the United
States he was considered mysterious chiefly because little was known about
him since he lived his life abroad and wrote little about the American experience.
My host first proposed a cup of tea, only to discover
he had no cooking gas. But in that moment his friend the Moroccan writer
Mohammed Mrabet arrived, put in a full bottle of gas, and water was soon
boiling. His Spanish speaking chauffeur then walked in and took a seat along
the wall as if it were his assigned place. He was followed by two servants
who set in cleaning rather ineffectually. Paul blithely didn’t seem to care.
While we were drinking tea and smoking kif - fresh kif-filled
cigarettes were always drying by the fireplace as every afternoon in the
Bowles household – the door banged open. Another Bowles literary discovery
entered, Mohammed Choukhri, whose stories like those of Mrabet have been
published in various languages. Choukhri presented Bowles with his latest
essay on Jean Genet, which he on the spot dedicated to his friend, drank
a cup of tea, smoked a kif cigarette, and hurriedly left.
Unexpected entertainment was then offered by a “jilala”
musician, the quaspah player, Abdalmalek, an illiterate for whom Bowles
had promised to write a letter. Bowles explained to me that when a sick
or depressed Moroccan says “I think I need to dance,” it means he needs
“jilala” therapy. Abdalmalek provides it. His music-therapy group
plays the flute-like quaspah, bendir drums and bronze castanets called quarquaba
until the frenetically dancing patient falls into a trance and leaves his
body so that his saint can enter and clean house. Scenes like that appear
not infrequently in Bowles literature.
“Probably no worse than many other treatments,” Bowles
commented at the end of the impromptu 15-minute concert.
I never understood if Bowles had staged this Moroccan theater
to impress the visiting journalist. I still doubt it.
Paul Bowles went to Morocco the first time in 1931, on the recommendation
of his new friend, Gertrude Stein. “I had spent that spring in Berlin studying
music with Aaron Copeland,” he recalled. “In Paris I told Gertrude that
I planned to pass the summer in Villefranche. She found that idea frankly
Alice Toklas said: ‘Tangier!’ And Gertrude said: ‘That’s
the right place.’ So Aaron and I came here together and rented a house.
That summer he worked on his “Short Symphony” and I composed my first piece
– “Sonata For Oboe and Clarinette” - that was played that winter in London.”
If that part of his life is often forgotten by his literary
admirers, music was always important for Bowles. Yet contrary to some critics
who noted the influence of music on his literature - the French critic,
Marc Saporta, mentions the influence of American music forms like jazz and
spirituals - Bowles said that he never felt that.
“I don’t have such highfaluting ideas. I just try to write
as simply and clearly as possible. I’m not thinking about rhythm or music.
I just try to get it into proper English. French critics haven’t a clue,”
he added with a playful smile. “The French can’t play my music either.”
Nonetheless, during the 30s and 40s and occasionally afterwards
Bowles was to compose a lot of music. Just to get some of this on the record:
Bowles did the music for Tennessee Williams’ “The Glass Menagerie,” “Sweet
Bird of Youth,” “Summer and Smoke,” and “The Milkman Doesn’t Stop Here Anymore,”
for William Saroyan’s “Love’s Old Sweet Story,” Orson Welle’s “Dr Faust”
and others, for Arthur Koestler’s “Twilight Bar,” for Jose Ferrer’s film
“Cyrano de Bergerac.” He composed a Mexican ballet and “Yankee Clipper” for
the American Ballet Theater, an opera based on Garcia Lorca’s “Asi Pasen
Cinco Anos”  directed by Leonard Bernstein in New York’s Museum of
Modern Art, and an opera, “Yerma” . His compositions were performed
in that period at Lincoln Center, which was to be his last visit to the United
Like a character from a classical novel, his was a precocious
biography. He was 21 on that first visit to Tangier but he had already been
exposed to the Old World two years earlier. “I then thought Paris was the
center of the world and I wanted to be there. College in America was boring.
One way or another I had to get out. Since I was under age and my parents
refused to sign for my passport, I got one under false pretenses and shipped
out to France in 1929. I worked in Paris as a telephonist and the only people
I met were the surrealist Tristan Tzara and his wife….I was impressed by
his wonderful collection of African art.”
The die was cast. Music studies with Copeland in New York
and Berlin, with Nadia Boulanger in Paris. Young Bowles had already frequented
an art school in New York and written poetry in college. “I knew I wanted
to be in the arts but I didn’t know in which art.”
And in fact, until 1945, music was the chief field of
the future writer, precisely in the period when critics were saying that
music and literature should be combined. Later Gore Vidal was to see that
combination of arts in Bowles’ stories as “something most writers don’t have,
the result of which are his disturbing stories like nothing in English literature.”
In those years Paul Bowles remained the inveterate traveler – North Africa,
Latin America, Asia – until his final escape in 1947 when he returned for
good to his beloved Morocco. He went back to Tangier with a literary reputation.
He was a writer. Three of his first stories in particular had caused that
stir in the New York literary world – “Pages From A Cold Point,” “The Delicate
Prey” and “A Distant Episode” – which proposed one of his main themes: how
inhabitants of alien cultures regard creatures of the civilized world. In
those stories he tells Poe-like stories of horror, told so gently however
that you hardly realize the horror.
When I met him in Tangier, Paul Bowles was no guru. I
didn’t think of him that way. It was more a question of involvement. And
of a man torn between diverse worlds. He helped his friends – “I can never
get enough of them,” he said – and they helped him to bridge the gap between
those worlds. Involvement with Mrabet was a long-standing one. Bowles translated
the Moroccan writer’s first collection of stories, “Love With A Few Hairs”
 and helped him with the six subsequent books. Mrabet spent
much time in Bowles’ apartment where he had his work desk.
Another evening: from downtown the walk uphill along the Boulevards Mohammed
V Pasteur to the Marshan became familiar as was the warmth chez Bowles.
The same dogs were always barking opposite his house. “Careful of those
dogs,” he often warned me, “Packs of them right here in town.” When I asked
him about the presence of dogs in his works he explained that he’d had a
rabies scare after one bit him.
The fire was right, the teapot full and a row of kif cigarettes
ready on the hearth when Bowles began recalling the old days in Tangier.
“Morocco was a magic land when I first came. But it had changed radically
when I returned in the 40s. It had become very Europeanized. After the war
artists came here because of the monetary advantages and the cheap life.
“Tennessee Williams, Jack Kerouac, Gregory Corso, Alan
Sillitoe, Cecil Beaton all passed through post-war Tangier; yet, there was
never a real Tangier group. It was a fluid affair, with much coming and going.
I was the only constant and I simply observed that movement. I was never
a beat poet as some critics believe. I never felt close to Kerouac. I saw
that group in New York and they came here for visits and I once took Allan
Ginsberg to Marrakech but that doesn’t make me a beat poet. I knew them personally
but I was not associated with the movement.”
Bowles seemed to enjoy reminiscing about old friends and
that fantastic Tangier period that still has a limited literature: “Tennessee
had lent his name to be used on the stationery of some ‘red network’ organizations
and Senator McCarthy was breathing on his neck. In December of 1949 his agent
asked me to get him out of the country, so we came here. He brought his
car and we traveled to Fez and to south Morocco before he went on to Rome.
He returned here many times though. You know, Tennessee was always rootless,
he didn’t belong anywhere and had to move about. But he wouldn’t travel
alone. Unlike me, the only good way to travel is alone.
“Then there was Daisy Valverde!” - a character in his
novel about Tangier in the 1950s, Let It Come Down. “Daisy was mad.
And very rich. Her wild parties were famous all over Europe. For one party
she installed a whole Berber tribe in the ballroom and an entire village
on the roof. After 1965 the hippies arrived! They came chiefly to smoke kif
- or to look for LSD. Marrakech was the big attraction. They were romantics
and felt at one with Moroccans … but they didn’t really know anything about
Let It Come Down is Bowles’ most existentialist novel. A young
American swept up in that Tangier life is attempting to establish his real
identity in a world he sees as made of winners and losers. Alienated, with
no character, no authority, no volition, he is a born loser. He commits
a murder and that, ironically, is by accident, not by choice. High as a
kite on majoun and kif, he confuses the ear of his sleeping friend with
a banging door and drives a nail into it.
“That really happened in France,” Bowles said. “Sounded
like a good book ending. Yes, I’m an existentialist, but not of the Sartrian
type. [He by the way was the translator of Sartre’s play, “Huis Clos,” which
he entitled “No Exit,” Daniel Halpern reports because of that phrase written
over a subway gate that blocked his way.] I’m closer perhaps to Camus. I
liked “L’Etranger.” I believe that that which is to happen will happen.
In the early years I found it hard to write fiction because I couldn’t identify
with the motivation of human beings. But then I don’t see man as naturally
isolated, not any more than he wants to be.”
Yet, despite the daily visitors to his apartment that
week, I thought of him as isolated. A hermit. In a permanent, self-imposed
exile. He didn’t travel any more. He said that he only liked to travel with
huge amounts of luggage, impossible today. So why move?
During those days I kept wondering where his ideas came
from. Was he even an American writer? Or simply a writer who by chance wrote
in English? The only thing he wrote about America was in his autobiography.
“Yes, I’m an American writer,” he claimed. “I loved the
New York of the 1930s, until the FBI and later McCarthy began pestering
me about my 20-month stay in the Communist Party in 1938-39. I always wanted
freedom … chiefly freedom from my parents. Like many things in my life,
I joined the Communist Party to spite my parents. That was the worst thing
I could have done to them, except go to jail! I was never a Marxist. It was
all a personal matter. No, I’m not de-Americanized. I’m delighted to be an
American. Still I don’t write about American themes. What I remember of America
is of three decades ago. But I can write about expatriated Americans because
they don’t change much. Anyway I’ve never thought autobiographical material
proper for fiction! My idea is to write about things I’ve never experienced.”
The Bowles artistic world is thus non-American. Alien. The setting is
primitive, in the jungle or in the desert or on the edge of Europe. His tension
results from the clash between civilized man and an alien environment. The
Westerner is inevitably defeated by primitive man. For Bowles, modern man
is lost. And therefore he is searching.
But in the jungle or in the desert he is not only lost
but also a victim of the primitive environment. Like the sage linguistics
professor in “The Delicate Prey”: savages cut out his tongue and make of
him a dancing clown for their entertainment. Or in the novel, “The Spider’s
House,” the 15-year old Amar of Fez wins out over the American writer.
Natural man is superior and defeats the neurotic product
of technological society. Someone called Bowles’ modern-man protagonists
“fellow-travelers of primitive society”: they search it out, love it, need
it, but in the end are defeated by it. For Bowles they are two incompatible
cultures. And that is his theme.
“Perhaps this has no significance,” he said and reached
for another of the kif cigarettes that seem to keep him going. “I simply
want to show how badly prepared the average Westerner is when he comes into
contact with cultures he doesn’t know – or only thinks he knows. The more
he tries to penetrate it, the worse it gets. Primitive man has retained
things that western man has lost and can operate in natural surroundings.
Americans are less prepared than Europeans in such circumstances because
they think everyone must do it the American way. Therefore it’s hard for
them to establish real contact with others. It’s a paradox that self-subsistent
primitive man is more adapted for communal life than is dependent western
man, whose attempts at communal life are disasters.
“Primitives have a communal life. No one owns anything. Everything
belongs to all. This couldn’t work in advanced societies. As soon as personal
property appears, you have to invent another system. Before arriving in
the desert, Port – in “Under The Sheltering Sky” – said he didn’t need a
passport to prove he is a member of mankind. But when he loses his passport
traveling around in the desert, he is lost: he loves and needs the primitive
world and seeks salvation in it, but he is demolished by the loss of his
passport. He says he is only half a man without it, that he no longer
knows who he is. Like his wife, who likes to spread her things around the
room and look at them; by observing familiar objects she regains her identity.
Dinner at Bowles’: He cooked a dinner of roast chicken and rice in a
non-American kitchen, haphazardly, distractedly but with great delicacy,
claiming that he cooks only to survive. I believed he liked the preparation
and the intimate ceremony more than the actual consumption. Thin, wiry,
resilient and underneath tough, he only nibbled at his food.
“I’ve had about every disease,” he claimed, “from
typhoid to hepatitis to dysentery but I think I’m healthy. I don’t even
want to think about illness for there are no doctors here and little medicine.
I’d have to go abroad if I fell ill. If it comes, it comes, I don’t worry
about it.” Let it come down was his philosophy.
He was sitting on the floor with his back to the fire
while we dined from a low Moroccan table. The room was half dark, the logs
crackled and we could hardly hear the rain, for me omnipresent in his literature
– which he denied. Instead we talked about the desert, the setting of his
first novel, Under The Sheltering Sky.
“I had written poetry about the desert before I visited
it the first time. I had a feeling for it. It has always provided me with
many materials. The desert for me is exciting, more romantic than the sea,
hard to encompass in words. I had always imagined the desert with dunes every
place; it isn’t like that at all. Few dunes, mostly wasteland.”
His desert is endless. In the same novel about an
American couple in the Sahara, each is seeking – the minor characters too
- himself in that primitive world. “They made the fatal error,” Bowles said
rather distantly as if it no longer concerned him, “of treating time as
non-existent. They imagined that nothing would ever change, that it didn’t
matter if you did something this year, or in ten years. Perhaps those who
live here a long time begin to think that way.
“But what can we do about time? It goes very fast
and I’ll soon be dead. [He was in his late seventies but in fact lived a
number of years afterwards.] I regret that our life span is limited but
I can do nothing about it. When you get to the end you have to accept it.
“Despite the grim endings in my stories I’m not interested
in death except in that it puts an end to life. Everyone shares that fate.
I can’t really think about it because for me it is non-existence. I’m only
interested in what can be seized by consciousness. Once that’s gone, there’s
nothing left. If you think there is life after death then you can fear death.
If not, then there is nothing to fear except the act of dying. You can hope
for a quick death. That’s the moment when you’re most alone. Of course if
one is not certain there is nothing afterwards, it’s another matter. You
believe what you want. A matter of volition. I just think about how long
it will take.
“I’ve never been tempted by suicide but I have thought
about it. My wife Jane – the writer Jane Bowles – was sick for a long time
before she died. She begged me to end it all for her. And I would have done
it if there were no law against it for I believe in euthanasia.”
Volition is a word Bowles used frequently. However,
not didactically. His existentialism, he said, derived from instinct rather
than from active intellectual search. Yet he was not anti-religious as such.
“Although religious ideas permeate everything, they have played little role
in my life. I never had religious instruction as a child since my parents
and grandparents were agnostics. I’m not even anti-Christian and I don’t
think Christianity is negative; all religions offer something. Christianity
interests me in the same way as do Judaism, Buddhism, Hinduism or Islam.
Islam is no better than Christianity.
“I think each religion is made for certain people. Religions,
unlike invented political ideologies, sort of grew along with man. Religions
are part of man. But if I say that all religions are interesting, in general
I would say it’s better to leave them alone.”
I remember my feelings of nostalgia and a certain sense of incompleteness
when I left Bowles’ apartment the last day. Nostalgia for the former times
he experienced in his life; incompleteness for the little I had learned
about this complex man. Paul Bowles, outwardly exquisitely polite and considerate,
was distant from the world. He didn’t need it any longer.
“It’s dark and drizzling walking down from the Marshan,”
I ’m reading from a faded draft of my interview with Paul Bowles. “A light
fog hangs over the rooftops of the elegant El Minzah Hotel on Rue de la
Liberté, one of Bowles’ locales. But he doesn’t go to such places
anymore. No more trips to the desert. No more walks through the old cities.
His life is now quiet and meditative. The Bowles path leads across the Zocco
Grande into the labyrinth of his Tangier medina, to the Café Tingiz,
ringed by a maze of passages, the Casbah above, the port below, the setting
of “Let It Come Down”. Bowles knows every nook and corner of it. He doesn’t
have to visit it anymore. Nor does he visit the great Fez medina, the background
of “The Spider’s House.” They somehow belong to him.”
P.S. Like many writers of his generation, Bowles was interested
in and wrote for the cinema. In a letter to me in Rome he later reminded
me of the time he was holed up in a Rome hotel to write the dialogue for
Visconti’s famous film, “Senso.” He wanted to set the record straight for
me: “I shared credits on it with Tennessee Williams, whom Visconti called
in afterwards to rewrite the love scenes because he found mine too objective
and removed. That was all right with me; I left Rome and went to Istanbul.”
A few more words about Paul Bowles and the cinema
world: shortly after my interview with Bowles appeared in Rome’s Espresso
Magazine – one of the first interviews with the writer published in Italy
– I had the privilege of interviewing the film director, Bertolucci 
who said he was looking around for ideas for his next film, which he wanted
to do in some exotic place. He had Africa in mind. I only mentioned Bowles’
book “Under The Sheltering Sky” and my recent interview with him, so great
was my surprise when some time later Bertolucci announced he was going to
do a film version of that novel, with Paul Bowles himself as consultant.
In the end, Bowles, still active, an unwilling traveler, did travel some
with the cast in the Sahara. Unfortunately I can’t say what Bowles really
thought of the Bertolucci film entitled “Té nel deserto.” [Tea In
At the time I published the same interview with Paul Bowles on the cultural
pages of the Dutch newspaper, NRC Handelsblad, under the title “Stranger
In A Strange Land.” Since then books and many articles, like “The Last Existentialist”
by the poet Daniel Halpern in the New York Times Book Review, have been
published about this still mysterious American writer.
If the totality of Paul Bowles’ literary production
is not voluminous, his works taken together nonetheless constitute a consistent
statement about life – an accomplishment for any artist.
Gaither Stewart is
a journalist who currently makes his home in Italy. A regular contributor
of both essays and fiction to Southern Cross Review, Gaither has also authored
several novels published by SCR
E-Books, His latest collection of short stories, To Be A
Stranger has just been published by Wind River Press. See http://stewart.windriverpress.com
for more information, including how to order.
Email: [email protected]