||Remembering Paul Bowles
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|| We began to talk of Morocco, and he seemed pleased that I knew some Moroccan Arabic. (I had been chatting with his housemaid in the dialect when he came in.) I had read somewhere that The Sheltering Sky was now being used in Peace Corps training for Morocco, and Bowles was incredulous. What can fiction about ignorant expatriates in the 1940s, set in French Algeria, help in training community development workers? He agreed that one of his books made from the tapes of Moroccan storytellers might offer more to Volunteers in training.
By the time I met him, Bowles was writing little of his own fiction, and his main literary efforts were translations of Moroccan storytellers Tangier residents like Mohamed Choukri and Mohamed Mrabet, both of whom I later met. Bowles was fascinated with those parts of Moroccan society which have been little affected by western civilization. In the 1950s, he traveled to remote parts of Morocco to record native Berber music which is slowly dying out, and he deplored the effects of radio and popular music on traditional Moroccan culture. In his fiction about North Africa, he has written of characters moved by such music to feats of self-mutilation. Thus he has been viewed by some as an enemy of development, a kind of primitivist. My Moroccan colleagues at the university, young professors who had been trained in the U.S. or the U.K., didnt think much of Bowles. One of them remarked, What would you think of a Moroccan who lived in the U.S. and presumed to understand American culture because he had spent time with the Apaches?
The drug of choice
Bowless first collection of short stories is dedicated to his mother, who first read me Poe, and his fiction is distinguished by torture, mutilation, murder, incest, and various nightmare visions and death agonies. So visitors are surprised to be met by a rather formal, proper, gentle, soft-spoken figure. The only reminders of his fictional world were the small skull on the mantlepiece and the hashish smoke that gathered in the small room as we talked. Bowles would take a cigarette from a pack, roll it lightly in his fingers to remove the tobacco, which he replaced with hashish from a pouch. He smoked constantly, and I was amazed at how lucid he remained. As with each of my subsequent visits, even though I wasnt smoking, after an hour or two of conversation my clothes became saturated with the pungent odor of the kif, and I felt the effects of second-hand smoke.
Again, I was reminded of how innocent we had been in the Peace Corps in the early 1960s. Alcohol was the drug of choice then, and we made do with the watery local beer or the more potent red wine of North Africa, both developed by the French during the colonial days. When we would come to Rabat or Casablanca for an in-country meeting, we would try to get Scotch or Bourbon from one of the Americans who had PX privileges. (One of the ironies of being in the Peace Corps in Morocco was the presence of U.S. military bases, where B-52s loaded with nuclear weapons regularly patrolled the skies of the Atlantic and Mediterranean.) One could get onto the bases with a U.S. passport, but we couldnt get into the PX or buy liquor, though it was readily available from American servicemen or embassy types. The marijuana-smoking generation of American youth was still in the future. For us Volunteers, kif was just something that old Moroccans smoked in seedy cafes in the medinas, the old quarters of the cities. Once I remember a group of Volunteers experimenting with hashish. Someone had gotten a small bag, and we sat in a circle and passed the pipe. We were all giggling, because we thought of ourselves as imitating old Moroccan men. No one got high (we probably wouldnt have known what that was), and no one thought enough of the experience to repeat it.