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Paul Bowles, the Ultimate Dreamer in Tangier, Morocco


Each time I go to a place I have not seen before, I hope it will be as different as possible from the places I already know.

 

-Paul Bowles
Their Heads Are Green and
Their Hands Are Blue

Paul Bowles, May 1999. © Victoria BrooksThis issue of Greatest Escapes is dedicated to the famous self-exiled American writer, composer and translator Paul Bowles, who died on November 17, 1999 of heart failure in the Italian Hospital in Tangier. He is best known for his novel The Sheltering Sky and the 1990 Bernardo Bertolucci movie adaptation starring John Malkovitch and Debra Winger. I was fortunate to have spent three memorable afternoons with him last May.

I traveled to Tangier with the express purpose of visiting Bowles, who had resided there for over 50 years. During our time together, the aging icon treated me with kindness and against all physical odds wrote the foreword to a new book to be published by Greatest Escapes.com next year. Its title is Literary Trips for Travelers: Following in the Footsteps of Fame, and it was Bowles' life and work that inspired me to produce it. I like to think he agreed to write the foreword and allowed me to write a story about him because he believed in me.

Although he was 88 and in ill health, I was not prepared to hear the news of his death, passed on by a friend who heard it on the radio. I had already made plans to travel to Tangier to personally deliver his copy of Literary Trips as soon as it is published. I had hoped to take a second copy for me to treasure after he had autographed it in his shaky, talented hand. I had been immensely excited about seeing the great man again. I envisioned myself sitting beside his single bed, nervously reading the story about him and Tangier that I had written. I worried I’d depress him with my descriptions of his frail, aging body.

During our last correspondence by fax (he never had a telephone), he said he looked forward to my return and made mention of my picking up "the little black tape recorder" I'd left with him. He had not dictated into a tape recorder before, but his failing eyesight made it impossible for him to put words on paper.

The following is a shortened version of the story I had so wanted to read to Paul Bowles. It is his story. I would have sat by his narrow bed and maybe even held his old gnarled hand, one last time.

Paul Bowles, the Ultimate Dreamer in Tangier, Morocco

By Victoria Brooks

It is a balmy night of a thousand and one stars. Outside my suite overlooking the mosque is a sitting room shaped like a cupola. I have thrown the windows wide to the sounds of the medina, to ancient walled city; to the drums of the women, to the ancient and reverent song of the muezzins -- to my dreams. When the 4 a.m. call of the muezzins comes, I dream of a young man who invites me to a musical concert held in a large, timeless garden edged like sunset with fragrant mimosa and purple bougainvillea. The garden is shaded by date palms that sway like belly dancers and is flanked by high walls washed in white. Above, the sky is a sea of shimmering blue.

Courtesy of Black Sparrow PressThe young man in my dream is well-spoken, elegant. He exudes brilliance like a hot, white light. I wonder if he is the actor Steve McQueen. I know he is famous. His words to me evoke mystery and promise, maybe even wisdom. As he speaks, the concert of sound becomes a yellow desert lit with the melody of flutes and drums. He speaks gently of his passions: travel, music, literature, and Morocco. I gaze at him, marveling at the oceanic depth of his teal eyes -- his gaze as profound and entrancing as the Sheik of Araby. Moving closer, he gently kisses my mouth. I am awakened. The experience has begun.

Petite Soco, Tangier, Morocco, May/99

The Paul Bowles I finally tracked to the heart of Tangier lies wrapped in an old brown housecoat and woolen blankets in his monastic single bed. Around him are the items usually found in a sickroom: Kleenex, aspirin, sinus medicine, a glass with a straw, books and papers he can no longer see. Outside his comfortably worn apartment, the birds twitter in the tall palms that shudder gently in the still, cool spring Atlantic air, like his lungs when he breathes. With his still agile, fertile, spectator’s mind, he is aware of the life that goes on beyond the walls of his room. He was, he is, the ultimate dreamer, a transcendent creator, a wizard of the written word. His brilliance remains untouched by the heavy cloak of age he is forced to wear. His brilliance, still a hot white light that pierces the veneer of humanity.

Caption: Mr. Bowles’ living room. © Victoria BrooksPaul Bowles was lured to Tangier by a dream of translucent memories on a balmy New York evening in 1947, the smell of spring, of change itself tangible in the city air. It was a dream that took him back to Tangier where he’d spent a deliciously exotic summer sixteen years earlier in 1931, with his friend and mentor, composer Aaron Copland. The dream was initiated on the advice of novelist Gertrude Stein. "Go to Tangier," she said. "It was to be a lark, a one-summer stand," muses Bowles when I meet him seventy years later.

Bowles had purchased passage for Copland and himself to Tangier, but mid-crossing, the Captain of the Imerethie II announced an itinerary change to Ceuta, Spanish Morocco, a peninsula that juts into the Mediterranean seventy-five miles east of Tangier. A young Bowles stood alone on the ship’s planked deck at dawn, imagining the summer heat of Tangier "like a Turkish bath" as he leaned against the salt-sprayed rail deep in thought. His still sharp, young eyes were trained on the rugged scribble of the mountains of Algeria, and he was filled with a sense of excitement. Then his dreamer’s vision turned inside out as he gave form to what he described in his autobiography Without Stopping as "…unreasoned conviction that certain areas of the earth’s surface contained more magic than others." This conviction began his self-exile to Tangier. To Bowles, it was akin to escaping from a prison whose bars were the conventions and confines of the Western world. Tangier was a city without bars, a city Bowles describes to me with this phrase "a place where anything goes."

 

****

Composers Bowles and Copeland disembarked for their summer lark in Tangier in Ceuta, with so much luggage they needed a small detachment of porters. The pair boarded a narrow-gauge train for Tangier. On arrival they booked into El Minzah, and what Paul Bowles still refers to as "Tangier’s best hotel."

Paul Bowles wonders at the reason for the change in the ship’s itinerary. "It’s still unknown to me," he says with a shake of his head, his old eyes clouded with the past and the mystery of the unknown.

Nevertheless, this change in destination did nothing to transform destiny. Bowles’ initial look at the North African landscape was to become the first few strokes on a paper canvas that would soon be sealed and signed with the color and indelible ink of his life in Tangier and his travels through Morocco. He reminisces that the first time he saw Tangier he knew he "loved it more than any place I’d seen in my life."

The clutter of papers and books shows a fertile mind’s inspiration. © Victoria Brooks

It was not until 1947, after World War II, when the self-imposed exile from New York was ready to settle permanently in Tangier, to leave the Western world with its confining Western mores well behind. Bowles had already gained a considerable reputation as a composer of American theatre music in the mid-thirties. He wrote scores for Tennessee Williams' The Glass Menagerie, Summer and Smoke; William Saroyan’s Love’s Old Sweet Song; Lillian Hellman’s Watch on the Rhine; and Horse Eats Hat, directed by Orson Welles for the Federal Theatre Project.

His short story "A Distant Episode" had been accepted by Partisan Review in January 1947 and received critical acclaim. The story tells of a condescending American linguistics professor whose tongue is cut out by nomads when he wanders off the tourist path. The professor becomes a captive, made to parade through the North African desert miming obscene gestures taught to him by those he once regarded as his inferiors. It is a story that renders the so-called civilized world and all its intellectual trappings meaningless, a story of the perils of westerners straying into uncharted territories. Tangier and Morocco was, and is, such a place. It is a Bowles' theme: his trademark and his warning.

It was after his literary talent had been recognized that Doubleday offered an advance for a yet to be written novel that he would title The Sheltering Sky. On the brink of literary success, Bowles booked one-way passage to Morocco. Jane Auer Bowles, writer, wife and close companion was to follow in six months. She was a lesbian; he, a homosexual.

Paul Bowles’ books have been translated into many languages. © Victoria BrooksBut it was not only the Bowleses who were lured by the exotic and easy. European emigrés, American expatriates and literary renegades descended on Tangier, sybaritic city where anything could be had for very little money, where homosexuality was forgiven, where drug use of the local kif (cannabis and tobacco) and majoun (hashish jam) were commonplace, and the lifestyle was decadently delicious, sometimes even depraved.

To Bowles it was "a pocket out of the mainstream," and a vision with "streets that were like corridors in an old house."

In his autobiography, Without Stopping, Bowles writes, "If I said that Tangier struck me as a dream city, I should mean it in the strict sense. Its topography was rich in prototypical dream scenes: covered streets like corridor…, hidden terraces high above the sea, streets consisting only of steps… as well as the classical dream equipment of tunnels, ramparts, ruins, dungeons, and cliffs."

On arrival in Morocco, Bowles wrote as he traveled, constructing his novel from within his soul; layering it with the details and textures of exotic North Africa. Much of his writing was done while lying in French pension hotel beds. In the autumn of 1947 he settled, purchasing a villa in Tangier for $500. It was here that he completed The Sheltering Sky.

Paul and Jane Bowles would always travel often and far, but their hearts and home would remain caught in the gossamer web that is Morocco. The dreamer’s talented and tempestuous wife often flitted like a nervous butterfly from Connecticut or New York and back; following her whims and women (New York ladies and Berber country girls). In-between, she practiced her craft (the novel Two Serious Ladies, the play In the Summer House, and a short story collection Plain Pleasures). After a long illness, Jane Bowles died of a stroke in 1973. She was 56.

Boulaich, his loyal ‘manservant,’ cared for Mr. Bowles for more than 30 years. © Victoria BrooksA fashionable parade of socialites, artists, exiles and escape artists passed through Tangier’s fast revolving door, thrusting Bowles into the role of unofficial, often reluctant, ambassador to Tangier. Cecil Beaton, Truman Capote, Gore Vidal and Tennessee Williams visited him frequently.

 

In the '50s, a motley raft of literary renegades including Beat writers William Burroughs, Allen Ginsberg, and Jack Kerouac made Bowles’ Tangier scene. "Bill" Burroughs followed Bowles to Tangier after reading The Sheltering Sky; a novel written in a brilliant, visionary stream-of-conscious in the genre of Albert Camus and Edgar Allan Poe, the writers Bowles most admired. Bowles’ masterpiece of three American postwar travelers adrift on an emotional and cultural voyage in the desolate, yet beautiful, North African Sahara explores Bowles' powerful theme: the dream/nightmare that awaits the culturally and morally estranged.

Bowles wrote most of The Sheltering Sky while journeying through the Sahara and finished it in Tangier. Doubleday, who had already paid him an advance, immediately refused to accept it "for not being a novel." The manuscript began a yearlong journey across publishers' desks before publication in September 1949 by John Lehmann (England). A month later an American edition was published by literary house New Directions. The novel became an international bestseller and received powerful critical praise. In 1959 Norman Mailer wrote, "Paul Bowles opened the world of Hip. He let in the murder, the drugs, the incest, the death of the Square…the call of the orgy, the end of civilization; he invited all of us to these themes."

The novel’s mystique was heightened by the fact that Bowles contracted and almost died of typhoid; and he put himself into a majoun induced state to write his character Port’s grippingly horrific death scene. Local drugs were often used by the Tangier literary set to induce an altered state of consciousness that freed the mind to write in what Bowles calls the "proper style."

***

If a man was not on his way anywhere…then the best thing for him to do is set back and be. Paul Bowles Let It Come Down

The literary, the louche, the loaded were drawn to Bowles' vision of a Morocco as a place where keyhole doors lead into the dark recesses of the human mind. Filtering light and shadows, drums, and shifting deserts established the truth of his unreasoned conviction that certain areas of the world contained more magic than others.

Over mint tea, sherry, kif, and Marlboroughs, sybarites and eccentrics reclined low in the scuffed brown leather chairs of the Café de Paris on the Rue de la Liberté. They basked in the bright light of Bowles’ oracle, and his talented, beautiful wife, Jane.

***

Bowles' Flat © Victoria BrooksBowles' three-and-a-half room flat, in an almost-forgotten four-story apartment building, is within walking distance of Tangier’s Ville Novelle (new city) and the Rue de la Liberté. It sits atop a convenience store stocked with detergent, Coca-Cola and plastic bottles of Sidi Ali and Olmos d'eau mineral. On the Saturday I visited, the convenience store is closed and the cheap goods protected against thieves by rolling aluminum shutters. The entrance to the apartment is in the rear of the building. The small metal elevator that brings pilgrims to his door is creakily still. The safe and middle class street outside is empty except for a few neighborhood children playing jacks.

The flat is a twenty-minute walk from the Café de Paris that sits languidly in the crossroads of the Petite Soco. It is no longer the cosmopolitan literary salon it was when the Bowleses and other high-minded renegades discussed the muse. It brims with unemployed Arab men, a desultory lack of purpose, sipping endless glasses of mint tea, cloudy with milk.

For all but Paul Bowles and his wife Jane, the thrill of Tangier disappeared soon after 1956 when it lost its special international status. The renegades, infidels and exiles drifted away and scattered. But Paul Bowles stayed, centered in his own vision, in his Morocco, his Tangier, to write and mature and translate the works of talented Moroccan writers and poets -- to ultimately offer his revelations to the world: a rare gift, wrapped in sunlight and shadow, extreme beauty and disturbing discovery. After Jane's death he lived alone and aloof, looked after by a trusted and loyal manservant. He returned to music late in his life, composing the score in 1992 for an Arabic language production of the Greek tragedy Hippolytus.

Paul Bowles and me. © Victoria BrooksWith the announcement of his death, I am left with vivid, bittersweet memories of those delicious afternoons when I sat like a disciple at his feet. I raise my eyes to the pale horizon. It is like a scribble of mauve ink on a page of his dream; it is Paul Bowles' Tangier, refracting like a diamond through my gossamer veil of tears.

© Victoria Brooks

Bowles had purchased passage for Copland and himself to Tangier, but mid-crossing, the Captain of the Imerethie II announced an itinerary change to Ceuta, Spanish Morocco, a peninsula that juts into the Mediterranean seventy-five miles east of Tangier. A young Bowles stood alone on the ship’s planked deck at dawn, imagining the summer heat of Tangier "like a Turkish bath" as he leaned against the salt-sprayed rail deep in thought. His still sharp, young eyes were trained on the rugged scribble of the mountains of Algeria, and he was filled with a sense of excitement. Then his dreamer’s vision turned inside out as he gave form to what he described in his autobiography Without Stopping as "…unreasoned conviction that certain areas of the earth’s surface contained more magic than others." This conviction began his self-exile to Tangier. To Bowles, it was akin to escaping from a prison whose bars were the conventions and confines of the Western world. Tangier was a city without bars, a city Bowles describes to me with this phrase "a place where anything goes."

****

Composers Bowles and Copeland disembarked for their summer lark in Tangier in Ceuta, with so much luggage they needed a small detachment of porters. The pair boarded a narrow-gauge train for Tangier. On arrival they booked into El Minzah, and what Paul Bowles still refers to as "Tangier’s best hotel."

Paul Bowles wonders at the reason for the change in the ship’s itinerary. "It’s still unknown to me," he says with a shake of his head, his old eyes clouded with the past and the mystery of the unknown.

Nevertheless, this change in destination did nothing to transform destiny. Bowles’ initial look at the North African landscape was to become the first few strokes on a paper canvas that would soon be sealed and signed with the color and indelible ink of his life in Tangier and his travels through Morocco. He reminisces that the first time he saw Tangier he knew he "loved it more than any place I’d seen in my life."

The clutter of papers and books shows a fertile mind’s inspiration. © Victoria Brooks

It was not until 1947, after World War II, when the self-imposed exile from New York was ready to settle permanently in Tangier, to leave the Western world with its confining Western mores well behind. Bowles had already gained a considerable reputation as a composer of American theatre music in the mid-thirties. He wrote scores for Tennessee Williams' The Glass Menagerie, Summer and Smoke; William Saroyan’s Love’s Old Sweet Song; Lillian Hellman’s Watch on the Rhine; and Horse Eats Hat, directed by Orson Welles for the Federal Theatre Project.

His short story "A Distant Episode" had been accepted by Partisan Review in January 1947 and received critical acclaim. The story tells of a condescending American linguistics professor whose tongue is cut out by nomads when he wanders off the tourist path. The professor becomes a captive, made to parade through the North African desert miming obscene gestures taught to him by those he once regarded as his inferiors. It is a story that renders the so-called civilized world and all its intellectual trappings meaningless, a story of the perils of westerners straying into uncharted territories. Tangier and Morocco was, and is, such a place. It is a Bowles' theme: his trademark and his warning.

It was after his literary talent had been recognized that Doubleday offered an advance for a yet to be written novel that he would title The Sheltering Sky. On the brink of literary success, Bowles booked one-way passage to Morocco. Jane Auer Bowles, writer, wife and close companion was to follow in six months. She was a lesbian; he, a homosexual.

Paul Bowles’ books have been translated into many languages. © Victoria BrooksBut it was not only the Bowleses who were lured by the exotic and easy. European emigrés, American expatriates and literary renegades descended on Tangier, sybaritic city where anything could be had for very little money, where homosexuality was forgiven, where drug use of the local kif (cannabis and tobacco) and majoun (hashish jam) were commonplace, and the lifestyle was decadently delicious, sometimes even depraved.

To Bowles it was "a pocket out of the mainstream," and a vision with "streets that were like corridors in an old house."

In his autobiography, Without Stopping, Bowles writes, "If I said that Tangier struck me as a dream city, I should mean it in the strict sense. Its topography was rich in prototypical dream scenes: covered streets like corridor…, hidden terraces high above the sea, streets consisting only of steps… as well as the classical dream equipment of tunnels, ramparts, ruins, dungeons, and cliffs."

On arrival in Morocco, Bowles wrote as he traveled, constructing his novel from within his soul; layering it with the details and textures of exotic North Africa. Much of his writing was done while lying in French pension hotel beds. In the autumn of 1947 he settled, purchasing a villa in Tangier for $500. It was here that he completed The Sheltering Sky.

Paul and Jane Bowles would always travel often and far, but their hearts and home would remain caught in the gossamer web that is Morocco. The dreamer’s talented and tempestuous wife often flitted like a nervous butterfly from Connecticut or New York and back; following her whims and women (New York ladies and Berber country girls). In-between, she practiced her craft (the novel Two Serious Ladies, the play In the Summer House, and a short story collection Plain Pleasures). After a long illness, Jane Bowles died of a stroke in 1973. She was 56.

Boulaich, his loyal ‘manservant,’ cared for Mr. Bowles for more than 30 years. © Victoria BrooksA fashionable parade of socialites, artists, exiles and escape artists passed through Tangier’s fast revolving door, thrusting Bowles into the role of unofficial, often reluctant, ambassador to Tangier. Cecil Beaton, Truman Capote, Gore Vidal and Tennessee Williams visited him frequently.

In the '50s, a motley raft of literary renegades including Beat writers William Burroughs, Allen Ginsberg, and Jack Kerouac made Bowles’ Tangier scene. "Bill" Burroughs followed Bowles to Tangier after reading The Sheltering Sky; a novel written in a brilliant, visionary stream-of-conscious in the genre of Albert Camus and Edgar Allan Poe, the writers Bowles most admired. Bowles’ masterpiece of three American postwar travelers adrift on an emotional and cultural voyage in the desolate, yet beautiful, North African Sahara explores Bowles' powerful theme: the dream/nightmare that awaits the culturally and morally estranged.

Bowles wrote most of The Sheltering Sky while journeying through the Sahara and finished it in Tangier. Doubleday, who had already paid him an advance, immediately refused to accept it "for not being a novel." The manuscript began a yearlong journey across publishers' desks before publication in September 1949 by John Lehmann (England). A month later an American edition was published by literary house New Directions. The novel became an international bestseller and received powerful critical praise. In 1959 Norman Mailer wrote, "Paul Bowles opened the world of Hip. He let in the murder, the drugs, the incest, the death of the Square…the call of the orgy, the end of civilization; he invited all of us to these themes."

The novel’s mystique was heightened by the fact that Bowles contracted and almost died of typhoid; and he put himself into a majoun induced state to write his character Port’s grippingly horrific death scene. Local drugs were often used by the Tangier literary set to induce an altered state of consciousness that freed the mind to write in what Bowles calls the "proper style."

***

If a man was not on his way anywhere…then the best thing for him to do is set back and be. Paul Bowles Let It Come Down

The literary, the louche, the loaded were drawn to Bowles' vision of a Morocco as a place where keyhole doors lead into the dark recesses of the human mind. Filtering light and shadows, drums, and shifting deserts established the truth of his unreasoned conviction that certain areas of the world contained more magic than others.

Over mint tea, sherry, kif, and Marlboroughs, sybarites and eccentrics reclined low in the scuffed brown leather chairs of the Café de Paris on the Rue de la Liberté. They basked in the bright light of Bowles’ oracle, and his talented, beautiful wife, Jane.

***

Bowles' Flat © Victoria BrooksBowles' three-and-a-half room flat, in an almost-forgotten four-story apartment building, is within walking distance of Tangier’s Ville Novelle (new city) and the Rue de la Liberté. It sits atop a convenience store stocked with detergent, Coca-Cola and plastic bottles of Sidi Ali and Olmos d'eau mineral. On the Saturday I visited, the convenience store is closed and the cheap goods protected against thieves by rolling aluminum shutters. The entrance to the apartment is in the rear of the building. The small metal elevator that brings pilgrims to his door is creakily still. The safe and middle class street outside is empty except for a few neighborhood children playing jacks.

The flat is a twenty-minute walk from the Café de Paris that sits languidly in the crossroads of the Petite Soco. It is no longer the cosmopolitan literary salon it was when the Bowleses and other high-minded renegades discussed the muse. It brims with unemployed Arab men, a desultory lack of purpose, sipping endless glasses of mint tea, cloudy with milk.

For all but Paul Bowles and his wife Jane, the thrill of Tangier disappeared soon after 1956 when it lost its special international status. The renegades, infidels and exiles drifted away and scattered. But Paul Bowles stayed, centered in his own vision, in his Morocco, his Tangier, to write and mature and translate the works of talented Moroccan writers and poets -- to ultimately offer his revelations to the world: a rare gift, wrapped in sunlight and shadow, extreme beauty and disturbing discovery. After Jane's death he lived alone and aloof, looked after by a trusted and loyal manservant. He returned to music late in his life, composing the score in 1992 for an Arabic language production of the Greek tragedy Hippolytus.

Paul Bowles and me. © Victoria BrooksWith the announcement of his death, I am left with vivid, bittersweet memories of those delicious afternoons when I sat like a disciple at his feet. I raise my eyes to the pale horizon. It is like a scribble of mauve ink on a page of his dream; it is Paul Bowles' Tangier, refracting like a diamond through my gossamer veil of tears.

© Victoria Brooks