Tangier Twilight | Essay | Chicago Reader

Tangier Twilight 

Until his death last November, the author of The Sheltering Sky continued to receive a steady stream of visitors in his tiny Moroccan apartment.

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For more than half a century, the late American composer and writer Paul Bowles lived in his adopted city of Tangier. When Bowles first arrived for a visit in 1931, at the urging of Gertrude Stein, the African port was an international city governed by eight foreign powers. A reputation grew in the seemingly lawless atmosphere of the ancient town: anything could be had for a price--usually next to nothing.

Tangier, it was said, attracted smugglers, spies, and disreputable characters on the lam. Lured by Bowles's writing about the city, William Burroughs fled there in 1954 after accidentally shooting his wife in Mexico City. The privileged and the famous came to Tangier for its exotic setting, Mediterranean climate, and easy access to every vice imaginable. Bowles was at the center of an expatriate community of artists and socialites, and a constant stream of visitors showed up at his door. He sometimes complained about the intrusions, but seldom turned anyone away.

After Morocco reclaimed its independence in 1956, the cost of living soared and freedoms eroded. The rich and the fashionable began to leave Tangier as the city fell into neglect and disrepair. The Grand Socco--once the bustling central market--is now a parking lot. Raw sewage runs through the cramped streets and alleyways, and far fewer tourists visit on their way to Fez or Marrakech.

One of the few remaining attractions was Paul Bowles. He and his wife, writer Jane Bowles, became icons of individualism for a new generation. The pair were committed to each other, though they were both bisexuals and carried on their own affairs. The Beats' progeny romanticized the notion of an artist living apart from the mainstream, and they sought out Paul Bowles for his biography as much as his talent.

In 1993 I read Bowles's first novel, The Sheltering Sky. I was seduced by the grace of his prose, even as it wove a bleak story of alienation and death in the deserts of North Africa. The protagonists, Port and Kit Moresby, seemed to be a clear reflection of Paul and Jane--leisure-class Americans pursuing their own amusement, fleeing the "civilized" world in the vague hope of escaping the emptiness of their pampered lives. The vast Sahara echoes the barrenness of the characters' souls. When Port dies of typhoid in a desolate French army post, Kit runs away with a bedouin camel caravan, becoming the concubine of the tribe's young leader.

Next I read Their Heads Are Green and Their Hands Are Blue, a collection of essays detailing Bowles's travels in North Africa, India, and Ceylon. Once again I was won over by his elegant, understated style, this time enlivened by humor, and I became a die-hard fan. But like many of Bowles's admirers, I'd always been as fascinated by the author himself as by his work. He appeared to be fearless, ready to cast aside the security of past successes to plunge into the future, constantly pursuing what pleased him at the moment. He had managed to support himself with music, composing theater scores for Orson Welles, William Saroyan, and Tennessee Williams (including The Glass Menagerie). Then after editing his wife's first and only novel, Two Serious Ladies, he decided to turn his attention to writing fiction (even turning down an offer to write the score for Oklahoma!). On the side he translated Jean-Paul Sartre's play Huis-Clos, retitling it No Exit. He had lived in Europe, Mexico, the Caribbean, North Africa, and South Asia. And he had known virtually every major artistic figure of the 20th century, from Ezra Pound to W.H. Auden, Jean Cocteau to Salvador Dali, Truman Capote to Gore Vidal, Aaron Copeland to Mick Jagger.

Despite his cult status, Bowles was never prolific. He produced a few dozen short stories, some travel essays and poetry, and just four novels: The Sheltering Sky (1949), Let It Come Down (1952), The Spider's House (1955), and Up Above the World (1966). After Jane's death in 1973, he began to devote himself almost exclusively to the work of others, translating and transcribing the folktales of Moroccan storytellers.

The product of a New England patrician upbringing, Bowles was known for his charm and impeccable manners. Yet he preferred to live in a culture that was often hostile to outsiders, and his work could be unremittingly cruel. How did this elegant, aristocratic man write such horrifying stories? In his short story "A Distant Episode," an American linguistics professor traveling in the Sahara is taken captive by a nomadic tribe who cut out his tongue and hold him in a cage. They release the professor only to make him dance for their amusement. In "The Delicate Prey," a murderer is punished by being buried up to his neck in the desert. The story ends with the wind blowing sand into his mouth.

Bowles died November 18. Seeing his obituary took me back to a hot afternoon in May of 1997, when I made the pilgrimage to meet him in Tangier. He refused to have a telephone, and I didn't know his address. I had no way of arranging the visit in advance. Like many before me, I just had to go. I knew I wouldn't be the first to seek out the writer, but I wondered if I might be among the last.

At the time I had traveled to Europe to write an article on Amsterdam for the Tribune. Then I took a series of trains to Madrid and the south of Spain, where I wrote travel pieces for the Los Angeles Times Syndicate. I started reading Let It Come Down in Spain. It tells the story of an American who leaves behind a dull existence to accept a job in Tangier. Once he arrives, he discovers he's a pawn in a smuggling operation. He conceives a bold and dangerous plan to double-cross the smugglers, a move that will push him into madness and murder. As in much of Bowles's work, the main character faces an existential abyss. The story is told with deceptively simple clarity, lulling readers toward an unexpectedly disturbing climax.

I stood on the top deck of a ferry during the three-hour trip from Algeciras, Spain, to Tangier. The green mountains of Andalusia rolled in the distance. Dolphins burst from the boat's wake, shining for a second in the sun before diving back into the surf. Both the sky and the water were a deep blue. As the ferry approached Tangier, I saw a maze of whitewashed cubes clinging to a series of hills atop a cliff overlooking the Strait of Gibraltar.

At the El Minzah Hotel, I met a guide who said he knew someone who knew Bowles. He took me down a crowded street to the Cafe de Paris, an old haunt across from the French Embassy. Inside the cafe, Frenchmen in suits and Moroccans in hooded robes were sitting around smoking cigarettes and drinking mint tea. After a glass of tea and a shoeshine I was introduced to Muhammad, who drove me through the narrow, jumbled streets to a four-story concrete apartment building in Ville Nouvelle, where Bowles had lived since the 1940s.

The building's shabby elevator was scarcely larger than a phone booth; its red interior was carved with Arabic graffiti. It slowly ascended to the third floor as the surrounding staircase wound its way to the top. At about five o'clock in the afternoon I knocked on Paul Bowles's door. A Moroccan servant answered. I gave him my business card and made it clear I was not seeking an interview--I only wanted to say hello. After disappearing into the dark apartment, the servant returned and said I could have five minutes.

I stepped into an entrance hall that I had read about and visualized many times before. It was stacked with old suitcases and trunks from the writer's travels. Walking down the dimly lit corridor, I cast a quick glance into the kitchen and was surprised to see a huge pile of dirty dishes in the sink. I waited while the servant went into Bowles's bedroom. The living room was small and dusty; its furniture and walls were decorated in earth tones. Along one wall stood a bookcase filled with Bowles titles in different languages. Through the open door I could see a young man sitting on the floor in the bedroom--one of the endless current of visitors who appear daily at the author's apartment. Bowles himself was out of view, though I heard him conferring with the servant. I was then told I could go in.

I walked into the tiny cluttered bedroom. Bowles was sitting in bed wearing a robe. He leaned against the wall, propped up by a bunch of pillows. A heavy black drape covered the window, blotting out the sun. The room was a mess: nearly every inch of floor was covered by disorderly stacks of books, photographs, letters, postcards, boxes of crackers, and videotapes of movies like Taxi Driver and Blade Runner: The Director's Cut.

Bowles was 86 years old. He looked thin and frail, but he still had a full head of wavy gray hair. I introduced myself and shook his hand, pleased to note the firmness of his grip. I told him I was in Tangier on assignment for the Los Angeles Times Syndicate, writing on the El Minzah Hotel and its restaurant. Bowles looked confused. "I don't know anything about that," he said.

"No, no," I replied, eager to clear up any misunderstanding. "I'm in Tangier to report on those places, but I came to see you just to say hello." The truth was I had contrived the assignments so I could meet him.

I was standing at the foot of his bed, a mattress and a box spring on the floor. He looked somewhat unsettled as I towered over him, so I sat cross-legged next to the bed. Our eyes were level. "I want you to know that I admire your work very much," I said.

His face softened and he smiled. "Well, thank you very much," he said.

I told him I had read The Sheltering Sky, Their Heads Are Green and Their Hands Are Blue, his autobiography (Without Stopping), and a handful of his short stories, including "The Delicate Prey," "A Distant Episode," "The Circular Valley," "Call at Corazon," and "Pages From Cold Point." I was in the middle of reading Let It Come Down--I wanted to read it while visiting Tangier.

"Well sure," he said, "because it's set here."

I told him I had read The Sheltering Sky while traveling in the Sahara.

He talked about crossing the Atlantic with Tennessee Williams, traveling by ship from New York to Tangier in the late 40s. During that voyage Bowles wrote his short story "The Delicate Prey." After he had finished writing the story, he showed it to Williams. "I think it's wonderful," Williams later told him. "But for God's sake don't try to publish it. People will think you're a monster!" In the story, a desert thief ties a teenage boy to stakes planted in the ground. He cuts off the boy's penis, then slashes open the boy's stomach and stuffs the severed organ into the wound.

I told Bowles I liked the way he analyzed the politics of conversation--laying bare the ulterior motives and hidden meanings behind words. "I hadn't thought of that," he said, as if he'd never heard this observation before.

By then the place occupied by the young man who had been sitting in the room when I arrived--an American who lived upstairs--had been taken by a young couple from Guatemala. They appeared to be neighbors too. Bowles greeted them in Spanish.

"What do you think?" Bowles asked the man in English, referring to my theory on his handling of conversation. The young man said he agreed. He and his girlfriend were preparing to leave on a trip into the desert, and the young lady hopped on Bowles's bed to give him a good-bye kiss.

Bowles never had children of his own, and he clearly relished the attention of the young people. He seemed equally pleased to be discussing his books.

I asked what he thought of the movie version of The Sheltering Sky. "I deplored it," he answered dryly. He said he didn't like appearing in the film as "the narrator," and that the ending "just fell apart."

"But that was what Bertolucci wanted," Bowles said, "and usually the director gets what he wants."

I said I couldn't remember how the end of the movie differed from the end of the book. He launched into a ten-minute recounting of the book's conclusion.

We discussed his health problems. For years he had suffered from sciatica, which had left him mostly bedridden. When he did get up, he said, he was bent in half. He had recently undergone surgery in a Paris hospital to remove a cancerous growth from his nose. "But I don't know if they got it all," he said. "It tends to spread through the body, rather like the tentacles of an octopus." He had to fly to Atlanta twice to be treated at Emory Hospital.

"Do you still have an aversion to flying?" I asked.

"Of course," he said.

"That's something we have in common," I told him.

He asked if I lived in Los Angeles. I said no, and we talked about our mutual dislike for that city. I brought up a writing class he had taught there for one semester in the 1960s. "But you didn't like teaching, right?"

"That's right," he said.

He made a disparaging remark about teachers, and I told him his books had taught me quite a bit--he was more of a teacher than he cared to admit.

"Admit!" he repeated with soft indignation.

While we were speaking of California, I asked if he had ever been to Yosemite.

"No, and I don't suppose I ever will now," he said sadly.

I said I was impressed by his linguistic talents.

"But I have none!" he cried, with his characteristic mix of self-effacement and gloom.

"Oh, come on!" I countered. "You speak English, French, Spanish, Maghrebi!"

"My English isn't very good," he said.

We laughed.

I asked why, of all the places he had ever traveled, he chose to stay in Tangier for so long.

"I can't get out," he replied, less than ingenuously. My guess was he loathed America, and his money went much further in Morocco.

A Texas militia group's standoff with the police had been in the news. Bowles was delighted by their antics. I mentioned a collection of interviews called Conversations With Paul Bowles. He said he had never heard of it. I offered to send him a copy.

"That's kind of you," he said politely, "but no."

I had been there for about 40 minutes. The young Guatemalan woman had left, but her partner remained sitting on a bureau. The servant appeared in the doorway. I took that as a cue and got up to leave.

"Thanks for letting me bother you for a while," I said.

"It was no bother," Bowles replied.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Archer Prewitt.

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