On the fourth floor of a small gray apartment house at the sunny outskirts of Tangier, Morocco, lives an American who may well rank as the premier expatriate of his generation; a rare blend of talents—composer, novelist, short-story writer—who has spent the last 40 years of his life on the move, through Europe, South and Central America, Africa and the Far East, and who settled at last in the odd and exotic blend of cultures that is Tangier.
“The Greeks used to call Greece the navel of the world,” says Paul Bowles. “I always thought it was Tangier.” It seems a fair call: The compact white city perches at the very tip of northern Africa, almost precisely between continents, a mix of influences European, African and Arabic.
Tangier is built on a hillside that slopes down to a long stretch of gleaming white beach, and on the heights of the city, one can sit in cool, tiled hotel patios, or at sidewalk cafes, sipping Pernod and gazing across the warm waters of the Strait of Gibraltar to the rocky outline of southern Spain. Further down, in the old town—the narrow twisting passageways of the medieval medina—one can pass through the separate odors of fresh mint, fresh shit and newly ground spices, all in less than a dozen steps. Above, French-language bookstores, plazas, fountains, galleries, immense hotel swimming pools; in the medina, trachoma-blinded beggars and bolts of bright fabric, fly-covered beef carcasses and dimly lit magic stalls. Tangier is for one who likes sharp contrasts and diverse territory, and for almost 25 years now, it has served Paul Bowles as home base.
Bowles, most likely, could hardly have settled for less. In the course of his 63 years, he has been involved in a series of artistic scenes from Gertrude Stein and company in Paris (it was Stein who first suggested that the then 21-year-old Bowles visit Tangier), to pre-war Berlin (where Bowles provided a last name for Christopher Isherwood’s cabaret girl Sally), to the Beat scenes of the Fifties—Kerouac, Ginsberg, Burroughs and Corso, in New York and Tangier. Even a quick glance through Bowles’s recently published autobiography, Without Stopping, makes it clear that in the course of his travels, Bowles has made the acquaintance of virtually every major artistic figure of the past four decades.
Bowles now considers Tangier his home, and it seems to fit him well. “What to do if you get lost in the medina?” he told one visitor. “But that’s the point—you’re supposed to get lost.” Bowles has made good use of his surroundings. In the late Fifties, he began to travel up into the remote Moroccan hill country, recording the rural folk music and ultimately producing an album for the Library of Congress. In recent years, Bowles has translated stories and novels from the unwritten Moroccan language Moghrebi, with the results appearing in a variety of magazines, including Rolling Stone.
Bowles’s tiny Tangier apartment is a constant flux of Moroccan storytellers, visiting artists and curious tourists. Last summer, during a trip to North Africa, I stopped in Tangier and recorded the following conversations with Bowles over the course of several afternoons. Bowles himself is as interesting an individual as his history indicates—and more than that, a fine talker and teller of stories. And Tangier itself is an endless source of stories to be told.
The city has a reputation for sex, drugs and general decadence, and in fact, the sunny streets—and darker passageways—swarm with diverse hustlers pushing everything from counterfeit Rolexes and stolen American passports (age, sex and height to approximate request, delivered within six hours, 100 American dollars) to bad hashish, superb kif, prescription opium, little boys, little girls, old ladies, spells, curses and vicious poisons made to order.
The Western tide has placed Tangier in flux: Women, veiled and hooded, brush past others made-up and mini-skirted; Hondas and Yamahas share even the narrowest medina passageway with mules and donkeys. But the warm night air still vibrates with odd intrigues, unidentifiable sounds, the promise of forbidden and mysterious goings-on. “In defense of the city,” Bowles once wrote of Tangier, “I can say that so far it has been touched by fewer of the negative aspects of contemporary civilization than most cities its size. More important than that, I relish the idea that in the night, all around me in my sleep, sorcery is burrowing its invisible tunnels in every direction, from thousands of senders to thousands of innocent recipients. Spells are being cast, poison is running its course; souls are being dispossessed of parasitic pseudoconsciousnesses that lurk in the unguarded recesses of the mind. There is drumming out there most nights. It never awakens me; I hear the drums and incorporate them into my dreams.”
On a bright Monday afternoon in Tangier, I walk a short distance into the suburbs. Here the streets widen and grow quieter, lined with large and well-kept houses, the summer homes of wealthy Europeans, or the embassies and government offices. By the time one reaches the American consulate, there is considerable open ground and even occasional goats picking at the scrubby grass covering the vacant areas.
Just across the street from the American consulate, Paul Bowles lives in a several-storied structure of concrete that would not look altogether out of place in Southern California. (“The Moroccans,” Bowles notes, “are always happy if something ancient can be made to look as if it were built yesterday.”) An elevator of recent European manufacture carries one to Bowles’s fourth-floor apartment.
The apartment is small, dimly lit, dominated by a wall of books and a low, round wooden table surrounded by variously colored cushions. More cushions lean against the walls, and a small, ornately carved table contains a set of oddly assorted objects—half of unidentifiable function—that Bowles has picked up on his travels. An immense philodendron plant brushes the ceiling above some small windows, and past the windows, a jungle of potted plants on an enclosed porch filters the sunlight that reaches the room to a soft green glow.
The dim apartment is really the only setting during my visit where Bowles will appear to be comfortable and in place. Bowles himself, at first impression, seems fragile: of average height, but thin, with gray-white hair that emphasizes the paleness and angularity of his face. He moves—carefully pouring tea, fitting a cigarette into a short black holder—but not so much with the caution of age as simply, it seems, with some inner conviction that there is no point to hurry. His gaze is evaluative, his voice generally quite low.
Bowles cannot quite figure out what his interviewer wants. (“I don’t have opinions,” Bowles tells me later in the week, after a visit from Tennessee Williams. “Why don’t you talk to Tennessee? Tennessee has opinions. I reserve judgment.”) But Bowles is, clearly, a person of unflagging curiosity, and he seems curious to discover exactly what his visitor with the tape-recorder is up to. Reclining on the cushions, over cups of strong tea, we begin to talk.
Before coming to see Bowles, I have been in the medina visiting a friend in one of the cheap hotels currently popular with longhairs and backpackers. In better days the hotel played host to F. Scott Fitzgerald for a summer; the French proprietor is still more than happy to display the signature in the register. Now, however, the fading lobby contains only the transient young people who, almost without exception, pass their few days in Tangier monumentally stoned.
For young American visitors, Morocco has one immense attraction: hashish.
But there isn’t any. Yes, you can get sort of pressed leaves from the kif cuttings, but it’s not hashish and it’s no good.
What exactly is kif?
Kif has none of the impurities. It uses a small percentage of the plant, the small leaves around the clusters of flowers, cut very finely and usually mixed with black tobacco. You can get about 200 grams of kif from a kilo of plants. The tourists here buy the leftovers—the big leaves.
That’s the hashish you see on the streets?
Yes. It’s only the Americans and British who’ve come in the last 15 years who have shown them how to make it. There’s no good Moroccan hashish. It’s not a product they ever used. The first ones who made it were mostly American blacks who brought presses with them and showed the Moroccans how to do it. What the Moroccans sell as hashish is just the garbage left from kif-cutting. You wouldn’t smoke it, normally. The hashish in Morocco is an American product and it’s sold to Americans. The only thing they had here was kif and majoun.
Cannabis jam. Made with honey and nuts and kif and sometimes dates and figs.
Depends. It can be very strong.
What does it taste like?
You should try some.
Good Ole-Fashioned Moroccan Majoun
2 lb. kif
1/2 lb. unsalted butter
1/2 lb. wheat grain
1/4 lb. dates
1/4 lb. figs (dried)
1/4 lb. walnuts
1 oz. caraway seed
1 oz. aniseed
1 lb. honey
part of whole nutmeg
Add kif (plus stalks) to 2/3-full cauldron of boiling water. Add butter, let simmer. Stir occasionally over low heat for eight hours.
Grind wheat grains. Chop walnuts, dates and figs very fine. Pound caraway and anise and nutmeg in mortar, then mix fruits, nuts and spices with the honey.
After eight hours, remove kif cauldron, let cool and scoop butter off top. Discard remaining water and kif. Put a small amount of wheat powder in frying pan and stir in some butter, heating until brown. Continue until all butter and wheat are used, then knead resultant paste into fruits/nuts/spices/honey mixture.
Will last indefinitely if stored in hermetic glass or metal containers. Serve two teaspoons, on biscuits, per day.
What is the official Moroccan government position on cannabis?
Well, they’re trying to get rid of it, but it’s very hard because everybody smokes. Once in a while, they have a campaign and go into the cafes and break the pipes over their heads.
But they don’t arrest the smokers?
Not really. They arrest the dealers, certainly, and if you have a big wad of it they’ll fine you according to the weight—a very high fine. But, like all the laws here, they’re made in such a way that everyone has to break them; therefore, anybody can be grabbed at any moment. You can’t keep within the law because the law is so arranged that you have to break it. But they don’t generally arrest you unless they want something—usually money.
Did you smoke when you first came to Morocco?
The first four years I was here I didn’t smoke at all. If they passed the pipe, I smoked it, but I didn’t inhale because for four years I thought it was just very bad tobacco. It shows you how innocent you can remain living here year after year. Finally, I realized that it was a special plant.
Well, I smoked huge quantities regularly over a period of about 25 years. That’s a very long time. I chain-smoked, all day, in a way I couldn’t have done with tobacco. An overdose, I’m sure, for anybody. So there must be a certain amount of habituation. It’s certainly not an addicting drug, but you can make anything addicting if you want. Soda crackers.
Did you ever smoke when you were trying something creative?
Theater scores, yes, but serious music, no.
How about writing?
Oh, I wrote with it a great deal. In fact, I used it consciously in most of the books. In The Sheltering Sky, I got to the death scene and I didn’t feel up to tackling it, so I ate a lot of majoun and just lay back that afternoon and the next day I had it resolved.
Have you tried the stronger psychedelics?
Mescaline, yes. LSD, never. LSD is too raw and too hard to get the proper dosage. I’ve seen it do things to people I’ve known—depersonalize them. After a few years and a lot of acid, they no longer have the same minds. They may be working fine internally, I don’t know, but they’re no longer good conversationalists.
Did you ever meet Timothy Leary?
Yes, he was here in ’61, and he seemed . . . well, he was on the top of the wave, and riding. But when he was here three years ago, it seemed as if the wave had broken over and crashed, you know? Whether up was there, or there. He spoke with a constantly changing choice of symbolism, as if what was coming out of his mouth was a reflection of a kind of stroboscopic display going on in his head, where nothing seemed to last longer than one sentence. And, although he made sense on whatever he was saying for a moment, by the end of the evening it was very depressing, because he was exactly where he came in. It’s his fighting spirit, though, that I admire.
On Tuesday, when I go to visit Bowles, I meet Mohammed Mrabet, a Moroccan storyteller. About 35, quite handsome with dark, wavy hair, and in superb physical condition, Mrabet lounges around Bowles’s apartment and tells endless series of stories. Bowles has tape-recorded and translated some of these from the unwritten Moghrebi to English and by now Mrabet has two novels and two collections of short stories to his credit (Rolling Stone Issue No. 106).
His literary success is a source of some amusement to Mrabet, who does not, himself, think too much of writers, intellectuals and kindred occupations. Mrabet wears two wrist watches, each consistently reading a different time. He tends to laugh loudly at random points in conversations and refuses, generally, to speak English, although one soon suspects that he understands it rather well. When he does use English, it is likely to be something like this: Grinning across a low table, white teeth gleaming, he will announce in a husky, smoke-roughened voice, “Hey. You, my friend.” The grin widens and the eyes wander just a bit and then suddenly return. “Someday I come to your house and kill you.” He leans back; big smile.
Another afternoon I wander into Bowles’s apartment and find Mrabet there, sitting on the low cushions with his pipe.
“Uhhhhh . . .” Mrabet groans softly, concentrating on his pipe. “Muy, muy mal.”
“So bad? Why is this?”
“Ahhhhh . . .” Mrabet shakes his head very slowly. Clearly he is greatly burdened. “Today,” he says, “I have syphilis of the mouth . . . tuberculosis of the liver . . . cancer of the heart”—he gazes up mournfully—”and also, this morning, I was in a fight with three Spaniards and”—he pauses, looks down at his pipe—”they kicked all of my teeth out.” And then, grinning toothily, he reaches for his cup of tea.
Mrabet is quite a storyteller.
It starts at night; he tells five or six stories in a row, one right after the other, and each one you wish you could put down. I always say, don’t tell it now, I’d like to record it—but he tells it anyway and it gets lost. He can never remember them.
He makes them up on the spot?
I don’t know whether he makes them up or synthesizes them. I don’t think he knows. The Moroccans don’t make much distinction between objective truth and what we’d call fantasy.
Power to the perceiver.
That’s what they say, strangely enough. What do you want to believe? What do you want to think? There’s a truth for everyone, and no one truth carries away all the others. Statistical truth means nothing to them. No Moroccan will ever tell you what he thinks, or does, or means. He’ll tell you some of it and tell you other things that are completely false and then weave them together into a very believable core, which you swallow, and that’s what’s considered civilized. What’s the purpose of telling the truth? It’s not interesting, generally. It’s more interesting to doctor it up a bit first of all, so it’s more decorative and hence more civilized. And besides, how could anyone be so idiotic as to open himself to the dangers involved in telling the unadorned truth to people? You even have two pockets in your kif pouch—one for the kif you smoke yourself and one for the less good you give your friends.
But everyone knows that, right?
Oh sure, but they’re not sure which part you keep the good in and which you keep the bad in. You change from day to day.
Well, the Moroccans can read each other’s lies pretty well, so it’s a whole art of pulling the pieces together and trying to get the truth from the other’s invention. Europeans have the reputation of swallowing everything, because they’re too polite to say, “Well, I don’t believe that.” They say, “Oh, really?” and perhaps some of them really do believe what the Moroccans tell them. I don’t know . . . they must think we’re pretty foolish people. I think they look upon us with a certain amount of pity and some tolerance. There’s a popular song which begins, “Our love was so nice at the beginning and then it turned Christian. . . .”
Which means it became . . . ah—messed up, not straight. They’ll say, “Now you’re talking like a Christian,” and that means, now you’re saying what you don’t believe.
On the other hand, they trust us. If you say, I’ll take your wrist watch and give it back tomorrow, they would certainly rather give it to you than to a Moroccan. They’d rather work for you than for a Moroccan, because they believe you’ll more likely pay them their wages. If you ask them why we exist, they will explain immediately that Allah made the Christians for us to live on. The Christians are for the Moslems to live off of, by milking. That’s what life is all about.
They used to capture us, of course, and carry us off and make slaves of us, for centuries. The Barbary pirates—all Morocco was pirates, the whole coast of the Mediterranean, at least.
Is there still a slave trade in Morocco?
There are slaves in the south, but on paper they’ve been liberated. They just don’t want to scatter because they couldn’t live as well as they do being slaves. But nothing is said about it. There are still slaves, certainly. Occasionally there are slave raids. About 11 years ago, just two weeks before I arrived in the village of Tata down in the Sahara, they had come over the border and raided the whole village and carried off women and children. There’s still a large slave market, but not in Morocco. Officially, naturally, no country would admit that it has one. It’s probably either Mali or Mauritania. I’m not sure which.
The classiest of the Moroccan pirates Bowles mentions lived at the foot of the Rif mountains along the Mediterranean. The Riffians were apparently the original source of the old image of pirates swimming out to their hapless prey with long cutlasses clenched in their teeth. If it was a slow day and the pirates felt too lazy to pursue their victims, there was an alternate game plan: After dark, a line of 15 or 20 pirates would stand on a rise at the shoreline, each with a lighted lantern in hand. In what must have been a very precise—if perhaps kif-flavored—choreography, they would raise and lower the lanterns sequentially, up and down the line, and thereby create the effect of a row of lanterns hanging on the side of a gently bucking sailing vessel. The ship passing through would draw closer to investigate its apparent companion, wreck on the rocks, and the Riffians would then be able, at their leisure, to walk out on the shoals and conduct business.
These Riffian pirates seem to occupy something of the same romantic position in Moroccan folklore as do the cowboys in America. Even the 70-year-old kif-cutter beneath the steps of one’s hotel beams more brightly when he announces “Soy del Rif.” Mohammed Mrabet is from the Rif, as well, and he likes particularly to tell stories about his grandfather—a good old Riffian boy who displayed, among other things, the classical Moroccan attitude toward one’s women. Once, for example, Mrabet’s grandfather was up in the high country hunting with his rifle, and at the end of the day he started back down toward his village. Still high above the village, he looked down to view his own house. (The Riffians are noted for eagle-sharp eyesight, and at this point in the story Mrabet places one hand over his brow for shade and narrows his eyes to slits.) Ah ha! The returning hunter sees nothing other than one of his own wives, standing in the doorway of their house. Mrabet’s grandfather decides to teach this wife a lesson for flaunting herself so publicly. He takes aim from the heights with his rifle, sights carefully, and—blam! Mrabet rocks back on the low pillows with the percussion of the blast and then grins, pointing with one index finger exactly between his eyes.
What? Mrabet’s grandfather shot his wife dead for standing in the doorway of her own house?
Mrabet shakes his head vigorously, affirmatively. Of course, he explains—a woman who would come out of her house like that can only be a puta—a whore.
The listener thinks he will have to ponder this one a bit, and while he does, Mrabet decides that he will explain how his grandfather got the rifle in the first place.
It seems that word arrived in his village that a man in the neighboring village had rifles for trade, and, being without a firearm, Mrabet’s ancestor decided he would obtain one. He put a tether on one of his best young bulls and led it over the hills to the next village and located the man with the rifles. They discussed the matter, bargaining back and forth, and at last arrived at what each thought an equitable arrangement: the young bull for one rifle. The man turned over the rifle, and Mrabet’s grandfather surrendered the bull’s tether. When Mrabet’s grandfather had the rifle in his hands, however, he suddenly felt a powerful urge to use it. He looked all around, but could find nothing to shoot, except the man who traded him the rifle, so he shot the man, picked up the bull’s tether, and walked home.
I was thinking about some of Mrabet’s stories and wondering about the Moroccan sense of machismo, which seems somewhat unique. According to Mrabet, what is a real man?
For them? I suppose someone who has suffered as much as they have. It’s a question of suffering: How much can you take? The more suffering you can take, the more you’ve been mistreated, the more you’ve been in jail, the more of a man you are. They think we live a very namby-pamby, white-bread sort of life.
What about women in Morocco?
Well, if you hear noise in the street and send a Moroccan to the window and say, “What is it? A lot of people in the street?” they may say, “No, only two.” But you can hear a terrible noise so you say, “Only two?” and they’ll answer, “But the rest are women.” Women are not people. Women are decoration and they’re sent by God to perpetuate the race. For instance, you can’t get characteristics from the maternal side of the family—it’s impossible. They can’t explain how a baby can look like its mother since the mother is just a vessel.
Does Islam teach that?
Not exactly. Islam teaches that women are very dangerous creatures and one must stay away from them if possible. Have no truck with them, except, naturally, it’s a necessity to marry and have children. That’s the only reason you’re supposed to go near a woman at all.
Better to marry than burn in hell. . . .
Right. But it’s no good being married without having children—you’ll go to hell anyway. Unless you happen to not be able to have children, and that is always sad. You’re not a real man either.
I’ve heard that a certain amount of hostility has arisen toward European homosexuals who come to Tangier—a corrupting influence—something like that.
[quiet laugh] That would be the day, the Europeans come here and corrupt the Moroccans.
It’s really a very bisexual culture, isn’t it?
Well, yeah. More or less. Although they wouldn’t define it as bisexual. Remember Mrabet, last night, saying that if a man went to jail for defending his rights, he’s a good man, but if he goes to jail for ruining a girl or a boy—one always adds the “boy.”
I think that’s what gives Moroccan machismo its odd character—in most machismo cultures, the homosexual is scorned and secretly feared.
Well, that’s something that may be changing here. There never was such a concept at all before, but as it’s become more urbanized, there has come up a younger generation which could be called homosexual, I suppose. They’re all bisexual, but there are also now those who are very obviously homosexual, more than bi. But that’s conditioning—15 years ago, it was taken for granted all over Morocco that anybody slept with anybody. No holds barred. But nowadays—I’ve asked, I’ve gone into it with them, and they say it’s old-fashioned to be bisexual, because you can see on television and in the films that there’s no question of it; therefore it’s out of style. Passe. Demode. People don’t go in for that any more.
Ce n’est plus la mode.
One afternoon the doorbell of Bowles’s apartment rings, and Bowles is mildly upset—as upset as he ever seems to become—since a constant flow of visitors this afternoon has tended to make our taping rather sporadic. He says he will go to the door and look through the peephole and when he does, he stands for a moment, staring, and then opens the door. In strides Tennessee Williams, appearing tan and fit, with two pairs of glasses on chains around his neck, a medium-blue jacket over a nicely styled Italian sports shirt and, in one hand, a fifth of Johnny Walker Red.
“Tennessee,” says Bowles.
“Paul!” says Tennessee, and then introductions are made. Tennessee is accompanied by his secretary, a tall blond ex-BOAC steward faintly reminiscent of a well-tamed Malcolm McDowell. Tennessee has just fled the villa he had taken for the summer at Positano, abandoning it, patriotically enough, to some recent Vietnam veteran. (“A beautiful boy,” Tennessee confides. “But he just didn’t know when to stop.”)
Tennessee sips his Johnny Walker and Bowles puffs his cigarette and they briefly reminisce. Their previous meeting, it is clear, was under somewhat less pleasant circumstances somewhere in the United States. (“Baby!” Tennessee tells him. “They were holding me captive there!”) As the talk proceeds, Tennessee grows more effusive, a bit flushed beneath the Italian tan, and Bowles seems to shrink back in his cushions, nodding, evaluating, interjecting a name or a date here and there, but for the most part simply listening and fiddling with his cigarette holder.
After half an hour Tennessee has grown mellifluous behind the Scotch and punctuates his conversation with long laughter that starts as a cackle and winds up, long past when one might expect it to end, as something closer to choking. He laughs, invariably, for a very long time. At about this point, Tennessee decides to return to his hotel; his secretary efficiently slips the sleek sports coat on his shoulders and caps the Johnny Walker and then Tennessee departs, as quickly as he arrived.
“Oh,” says another American, a young woman who has arrived in the middle of Tennessee’s visit. “Did you hear his laugh? The poor man has suffered so much.”
Bowles leans back, fits another cigarette into his holder, considers the observation. “Yes,” he says slowly, “that’s true, but he’s also achieved a success in his lifetime that almost no artist ever manages.”
The young woman is briefly silent, considering this.
“He looks much better than he did, though,” Bowles says, nodding. “Much, much better.”
Tangier seems to attract a steady flow of American writers, doesn’t it?
I guess so. Some like it and stay and some leave right away.
Truman Capote was among the latter, right?
Well, he couldn’t have liked it all that much. He stayed about two months, in ’49. He’s never come back. And while he was here, he wouldn’t even go to the medina. Said he wasn’t interested.
Gore Vidal was here at the same time?
Just for a week. I think he came principally to annoy Truman Capote. I know he did.
Both of them strike me as people to whom Morocco might not appeal.
No, I wouldn’t expect them to be interested in it. I don’t think they’re really interested in any kind of ethnology except American. And that’s all right. I think it’s probably more important for a novelist to be interested in his own country.
There was something of an American writing scene here in the summer of 1961, wasn’t there?
Sort of. Let’s see . . . in ’57, Allen Ginsberg and his sidekick, Peter Orlovsky, and another man named Alan Ansen came here, and were staying in a hotel where Bill Burroughs lived. They were trying to put together all these yellow papers on the floor of Bill’s room. The whole floor was covered with pages of manuscript, without numbers. He was just writing them and throwing them on the floor, all over the place, rat droppings among them—oh, it was a mess. And some of the pages were illegible but they managed to put it together for Olympia one way or another, and when they got the manuscript out they called it Naked Lunch. I didn’t believe it would be possible.
This was 1957?
Yes. Four years later, they all came back in a more relaxed frame of mind, and also brought Gregory Corso along, and Tennessee was here; and Brion [Gysin] and Bill Burroughs, so there was a good nucleus . . . not that anything happened. I took Allen to Marrakech. He’s a good person to travel with, easy to get along with, never complained about the food or anything.
Was everybody working that summer?
Oh, they were all working like mad, if you call it work. They were writing things together, and it was sort of fun to watch them work. The next year I went back to New York and they kept on working like that. Kerouac said, “I’ve got to write an opera. How do you do it?” No, it was a ballet. A ballet with spoken lines. And Kerouac would say, “Hey, Gregory, look, this guy comes in the bar and he begins bothering a girl there and someone stands up for the girl. What would he say?” And Gregory would say, “Don’t bug the chick.” And Kerouac would say, “Gee, that’s great”—literally, in 1962, they hadn’t thought of it. Only Gregory knew how to say it. And Kerouac immediately typed it down . . . Don’t bug the chick. Then Peter Orlovsky would come in and say, “Why not put in” – I don’t know—”somebody riding a bicycle.” “Yeah, that’s great,” Kerouac would say. Everybody making suggestions. I’d never seen anyone write that way.
What did it turn into?
Well, he got paid for it, that’s all that matters. He did an article for Esquire, too, I remember, the same time I was there. I read it later. It was pretty silly.
One night we are at a large party—a yearly event timed to coincide with the full moon—in the gardens of a villa at the beach. The gardens are huge—a lush collection of everything from cacti to ferns—covering a gentle hillside, and the winding rock paths have been lit with hundreds of candles, placed every step or so. A large patio contains a number of low tables and cushions, arranged around a bonfire of logs, each five feet in length, bound together with wire and placed on end to stand as a blazing column in the center of the gathering.
She’s not a snob,” Bowles says of our titled hostess. “She invites anybody she thinks would be amusing.” Indeed, the guests range from elaborately costumed young men with faces painted as checkerboards to plump English novelists in suits and ties; exceedingly beautiful women and equally beautiful boys and the older, well-maintained faces of the Tangier summer regulars. A band of Moroccan musicians – 12 or 13 in number—has been hired to entertain, and they remain in constant motion around the fire for the entire evening. They are Jilala, and as they circle the blaze they keep up a steady and hypnotic beat on large flat hand drums, punctuated by a low-pitched, modulated wailing on long cane transversal flutes.
The music is odd, dissonant, at first impression rather monotonous. But it possesses a quality sufficiently compelling that soon a number of the party-goers are dancing along with the band as they circle the bonfire. The music goes on for hours and so do some of the dancers. At one point, the band approaches the cushions where Mohammed Mrabet reclines and they beckon for him to join. He shakes his head and smiles in an unusually sheepish manner. One of the flute players is particularly persistent and he begins to tug at Mrabet’s arm while the rest of the band draws closer. Mrabet throws the musician’s hand away with some violence; clearly, Mrabet doesn’t want to dance, and the band moves away to another group of Europeans.
Jilala is one of the dance cults in Morocco [says Bowles]—I shouldn’t think that more than half of the population of Morocco is clearly affiliated with one or another of the dance brotherhoods. The ceremony is a kind of purification ritual – the adept dances to the music until he is inhabited by the saint, and then he can slash or burn himself without harm.
And that’s why Mrabet didn’t want to dance last night.
Yeah. Because nobody there was in a trance and he very easily falls into one, and didn’t want to be an exhibitionist. He can go into the trance much faster than most—three or four minutes and he’s off—and he only does it when there’s no one around except the musicians. Partially because of the accidents he’s had. We had a Jilala party three weeks ago and he did dance, but in the first place he cut his hand badly, and then he gave another man a black eye, he cut his face, cut someone’s leg . . . there’s always blood flowing because he gets much too violent. He throws himself around and hurts himself and other people.Sounds pretty spectacular.
Some of it is very spectacular. Once they have danced themselves into the trance state, the Aissaoua, for example, eat scorpions and cobras, bite off their heads and swallow them, or drink boiling water, or they’ll break bottles and chew the glass—I’ve watched them do it—or throw themselves into piles of cactus. I’ve seen dancers with skin simply bristling with thousands of cactus needles, and blood everywhere. That’s the Aissaoua.
The Jilala throw themselves into fires and burn themselves. You can see a dancer jump into a fire and lie in the coals—and you think, my God, he’s dead—and then he comes out with an ecstatic expression on his face and rubs handfuls of embers all over his body, in his mouth, smearing himself, and half an hour later he’s dancing again, and he’s washed off, and there’s no sign of anything—no burn marks. Or, I’ve seen people slash themselves with knives until they’re bathed in blood and lying on the floor rubbing it on their faces—and then they’ll get up, kiss everyone, kiss all the musicians, pay the musicians, walk out and wash off, and there’ll be no scars. It’s not a trick. I don’t understand it at all.
Mind over matter?
It must be. Mrabet says the trance state is a way of going out of one’s house. If you are inside your house and you set it on fire, you will get burned. But if you go outside your house, and your house burns, you won’t be harmed.
It’s not a trick?
It’s more a kind of hypnotism. A child in a given dance cult is exposed to the cult’s music from infancy, until it operates as a hypnotic device. They often can’t even help it.
One of my drivers a few years ago was a Jilala; his whole family were Jilala. One night he took his family out to see a movie and they left the old grandmother at home. She went to bed, and to sleep, and then a Jilala party started in another house about a quarter-mile away. Still asleep, the old lady got up, started walking – somnambulistically—toward the sound of the music. The music stopped when she was halfway there, in the middle of a canebrake, and she fell down in a coma, among some cactus and lying on an anthill. When the family returned, they searched all night with lamps but didn’t find her until morning. She was covered with ants and cut by the cactus but they couldn’t awaken her from the state. At last they realized what had happened, and they had to go after the Jilala band, who had already left town, and bring them back to play for the old lady again, and it was only after a specific program had been gone through that she regained consciousness.
That sort of thing requires an incredible belief.
It isn’t even belief, it’s certainty—knowledge. And, of course, we can’t have it. No matter how we train ourselves there would be an element of the impossible, of disbelief. As for them, there’s no possibility of doubt. They know when they leave their bodies, nothing bad can happen.
But, for them, even death is not something to fear. One must never fear death because that ruins life. Death is a part of your life, and to push it away is a sin. It’s almost a sin to weep if someone dies.
Almost opposite to Western religion, where it’s at least a social sin not to weep.
Yet it’s the Christians who promise immortality. Here, they always say, “The worms begin eating and eating and everyone has a wonderful time under the ground and finally there’s nobody left,” and that’s part of life. Christianity, I never understood. Catholicism, perhaps, makes some sense in its formula. But all the various Protestant clans make no sense whatsoever. So pagan, the whole thing, but it’s not even free pagan. Fake, kitsch, directed pagan.
Is Morocco pretty unstable politically?
Extremely unstable. Everyone feels that it’s hanging by a silken thread, and wonders how it’s managed to hang this long and not break.
King Hassan has quite a high lifestyle. . . .
Oh, certainly, fantastic marvelous palaces all over the place, and—I don’t know—175 different kinds of automobiles in his garages, racing cars, helicopters to fly between his palaces.
Is there a cohesive revolutionary movement in Morocco?
None whatever, my God. Revolution? There’s no such word. The trials are still going on from the last coup attempt, against Hassan’s plane. The executions are still going on – hundreds, so far.
It’s common enough. I remember in 1956, after the restoration of Mohammed V, when the Sultan returned from Madagascar, there was a great celebration at his palace. A German photographer went there, and there was such a crowd he could see nothing of what was going on, so he just raised his camera over his head and snapped away.
I saw the pictures and they gave me nightmares, and it takes a great deal to give me nightmares. Hundreds of people had been killed, their arms and legs sawed off, and their torsos tossed in an immense pile, dripping blood—with people in white costumes, smiling, dancing on top of the pile.
The country people who move to the city will change the face of the nation. They settle outside in shacks, miles and miles of shacks, because they’ve sold all their land and animals—they were told that the city’s paved with gold. When there is a new form of government, it will probably come from the disenfranchised people. There’s more and more of them all the time.
Morocco is changing very quickly.
The country is in such a state of transition you can’t even use the present tense, really. The impact of technology on the culture, for example. Television, automobiles, gas pumps—they know how to make them work, but they have no idea why they work. Several years ago there was a student at Meknes military school who was explaining something to Brion Gysin and he said, “It works by magic —just like an airplane.” And everyone realized that, God, here he is just about ready to go to St. Cyr in Paris, a man of 18 or 19 who’s studied geometry and all the rest, but says it works by magic like an airplane.
And that means, of course, at any moment it might not work—and they’re delighted when the machine breaks. Since it’s magic, it’s obvious that when you break it, then you’ve really won, you’ve proven that it doesn’t exist. They love to see machines fail, or medicines fail, and then say, see—man can’t do anything, only Allah can do it. All these things we think are so important are just toys and one day they’ll all break and then we’ll have to live in front of Allah without toys. But, of course, as long as the toys are here. . . .
I’ve noticed that in your fiction you like to set up situations with the civilized man—the faintly decadent European—who deals with a less civilized culture and loses disastrously.
Yes, the degenerate European who feels able to cope with his own culture and therefore imagines he can cope with any culture, imagines wrongly.
It’s a common fantasy among travelers of my generation that it’s possible to shed, say, one’s Americanism, go barefoot and wear a djellabah and thus be part of a native system.
Well, that’s a recurrent fantasy. Rousseauesque.
But there is no such thing as going backwards, really. You can’t identify with a culture that is several centuries behind what you know. If you were able to become part of a truly archaic culture, it would imply something wrong with the psychic organism, I’m afraid. If a Westerner encounters an archaic culture with the idea of learning from it, I think he can succeed. He wants to absorb the alien for his own benefit. But to lose oneself in it is not a normal desire. A romantic desire, yes, but actually to try and do it is disastrous.
What is the situation in Tangier with respect to hostility toward the European and American residents?
I don’t find hostility. I find hostility on the part of groups of small children, but then groups of small children are likely to act like monkeys anywhere in the world.
How about toward American longhairs?
Well, that attitude has changed considerably. When they first came, they were welcome and everyone thought they were marvelous, but it didn’t last long because they were poachers, actually, on the Moroccan’s territory. They tried to sell their chicks, as they called them, to the Moroccans. They would buy up large quantities of kif and begin selling it. But those were the prerogatives of the Moroccans and naturally they got very indignant about it. If anybody was going to get pinched as pushers, they were going to be and not the Americans. The Americans were supposed to be their clients.
Finally, the police started coming to, say, a house where eight or ten hippies were living and they’d take the whole house to the station. The hippies would have a certain number of typewriters and tape recorders and cameras, so the police would herd them all out, keep them overnight, and empty the house of all their belongings. The next morning they’d take them in station wagons down to the port and put them on the ferry to Spain. That got around pretty fast and Tangier was quickly marked off the list of possible Shangri-las.
Last night I was walking in the medina about midnight when I saw a Moroccan, middle-aged, dressed in what appeared to be a pirate’s outfit—lots of jewelry, an odd kind of turban thing—and he was carrying a long sharp cutlass and chasing a bunch of kids down an alley. The kids were laughing and he was yelling something and swinging this sword around his head like a scythe, but nobody on the street seemed very bothered.
Perhaps he was a mejdoub.
A cherif. Supposedly one of the direct descendants of Mohammed, but a demented one. Everything they say, goes. Because they’re a kind of prophet. If they misbehave in public, break things, whatever, they just calm them down. If he’s not a cherif, then he’s merely crazy.
What does it take to be considered crazy in this country?
Well, a bit more than by our standards. The place is full of what we would call lunatics. As long as they don’t hurt anybody, it’s all right. When they do hurt someone, they either put them away or they don’t.
I’d imagine there are some incredible kinds of mental conditions here.
Well, there’s one very strange phenomenon here that I don’t know of anywhere else. Perhaps in someplace like Malaysia . . . it’s a mass psychosis around a character called Aicha Qandicha. You ever heard of it?
She’s a woman—a spirit in the form of a woman. Practically every Moroccan has had contact with her some way or another. She’s legion, she’s manifold, like Santa Claus. I have a book that says, about 25 years ago, there were 35,000 men in Morocco married to her. A lot of the people in Ber Rechid—the psychiatric hospital—are married to her.
She appears to people?
She appears to men, yes, never to women. Women don’t need to worry about her. Except that they’re even more afraid of her. I don’t know why—you say her name and they go to the corners of the room and whisper a prayer to clean the room of her name. Especially when they’ve just come from the country, the women are terrified of Aicha Qandicha.
If you’re a man, it’s always late at night that she calls you, when you’re walking, and it has to be by running water. With a certain amount of vegetation. She will call you from behind, and of course you know better than to turn around. She often calls you in the voice of your mother. If you turn around, you’re lost, because she’s the most beautiful woman in the world and once you look at her you have no power against her at all. You must never see her, keep going, and if possible, have a piece of steel in your hand. Anything made of steel, plus the right prayers, and so on.
What exactly happens if you look at her?
Then you’re married to her and that’s that. You begin behaving very strangely. There are several well-known husbands of Aicha Qandicha around Tangier. They walk along brooks and river beds, hoping to hear her voice—you see them wandering. They’ll come into cafes and sit down and be quite normal, but if anybody mentions Aicha Qandicha, they very quietly get up and leave. Most people know better than to mention it. But they all know when the man comes in.
A contagious psychosis . . .
Right. And when they find Aicha Qandicha again, they may make love to her right there, doesn’t matter who’s there. What you see is they’re sort of screwing the ground, that’s all. Children standing around, watching, laughing. Of course, then the police catch them and take them away. They don’t beat them, just shut them up. Then they ship them to Ber Rechid.
Amazing . . .
Mental illness is very different in Morocco from in Europe or America. Based on different things. There was an American here who decided to set himself up as a psychiatrist in Casablanca, taking both Moslems and Christians, but his interest was in Moslems. And all he could discover in 13 years of practice was that everything was undifferentiated for the Moroccans. And Freudian therapy had nothing at all to do with it. You want a cup of tea?
One afternoon we go up into the hills above Tangier and sit on a grassy slope high over the deep water of the Strait of Gibraltar. In the distance, to the north, one can just make out the mountains of southern Spain. As is much of Tangier, the houses of the very rich are mingled with the more humble, and as we sit, surrounded by large walled estates—many inhabited by Tangier’s European residents—a goatherd hurries his flock of 30 or 40 up the hill and the goats part noisily to flow around us.
The air is quite cold for Tangier in the summer—the weather in all of North Africa has been odd this year—and Bowles pulls his coat closer around his shoulders.
Did Tangier change much after Independence?
When Morocco was still colonial it was a place where any European could have anything. You could do anything, because you ran it. Americans used to go up to the police and take hold of them and slap them in the face. The police couldn’t do anything about it—Americans could be tried only by a court of Americans at the consulate. They couldn’t even be taken to a police station.
That’s an incredible amount of freedom.
Yes, and they abused it. Certain Americans, the drunken types, with large racing cars—Aston Martins or something—they misbehaved.
That must have been quite a scene, those days. Was that when Barbara Hutton was giving her big Tangier parties? What was one of those like?
Big. Sort of a multiple party. She would have, say, in one part of the house, an Andaluz orchestra and then on the roof a Cuban orchestra. One party she had a whole village of blue men from the Sahara with about 30 camels and their women and tents and fires and everything. In the patio she had a whole group of Gypsies from Granada singing and dancing and playing. That sort of thing. Hundreds of guests and lots of secret police in every room, watching to make sure that no one took the pearls, rubies and emeralds off the walls, since everything was encrusted. You could see where people had pulled gems out of the cushions as they sat. At that party, a friend of mine knew the head of police and how much each thing was insured for, and he went around telling me, “This is insured for one million, this for . . .”
She still keeps her house here?
Oh yes. She may be in it right now, I don’t know. With her seventh husband. Who I knew before he married her, and who was a very charming man, but since he’s married her, everyone says he’s gone completely crazy and doesn’t know any of the people he knew before. Before he became a prince.
She made him a prince. His name is now Prince Champassak. Before that, he was a mining engineer in Marrakech; a Eurasian, half Vietnamese and half French. She bought the title for him. She said, “I’ve been all sorts of things, but not a princess, and now I want to be a princess.”
So she bought a title?
The story I heard is funny. She went to Rabat, to the Hilton, and called up the Vietnamese embassy and said she wanted to buy a title immediately. A Vietnamese title. And she would pay $50,000, but she wanted it the next day. And they said, but Madame, this is scarcely possible. And she said, well, you try. And then someone remembered that there was an old Vietnamese working in the embassy as a typist or something, who was a broken-down aristocrat who did own an estate and was titled. One of the embassy people went to this old typist and said, there’s a crazy American woman who’ll pay $10,000 for a title, want to sell yours? And the typist said yes, so he got $10,000. She paid $50,000.
So now she’s a princess.
Yes. Princess Champassak. And the prince has a very nice house of his own that she gave him out by the country club, with enormous stables, and a tunnel built from the house to the stables, heated by a furnace, so you can walk four or five hundred feet underground to get to the stables. The sort of thing nobody needs in Morocco. Still it was a good way to get rid of some money, and it gave people some jobs.
With such a small European population, there’s a high proportion of extremely wealthy people here.
Yes, there are a lot of them. Thank heavens there aren’t any more. Prices would go up.
Paul Bowles’s wife, Jane, was an accomplished novelist and playwright (The Collected Works of Jane Bowles, Farrar, Straus & Giroux 1966) who suffered a serious stroke in March of 1957. Following six years of hospitalization in Spain, Jane Bowles died in May of 1973.
I’ve heard that Mrs. Bowles’s stroke was caused by some sort of Moroccan medicine. . . .
Oh, well, because of the stroke, no one will ever really know. The doctor here couldn’t tell what it was. Other doctors were inclined to think it hadn’t been a stroke because the lesion was microscopic. She had taken something the day she had the stroke, but no one knows for certain what caused it. She was doing Ramadan, for one thing, which is very strenuous.
A month of fasting. She was fasting, but she wasn’t doing the real Ramadan, because she was drinking. You’re not supposed to drink when you fast. She was drinking brandy and doing Ramadan. . . . I should think that in itself would do it. And then this rather evil maid we had here gave her something, and afterward, when she came out of her initial coma, the first thing she wanted to know was what she’d taken. What this woman had given her. When she was back in her right mind, she denied that she’d taken anything, to protect the woman. But she admitted to me she had taken some majoun. Whether it was majoun or something else, there’s no way of telling.
The maid may have poisoned her?
This maid was a horror. We used to find packets of magic around the house. In fact, in my big plant, in the roots, she hid a magic packet. She wanted to control the household through the plant. The plant was her proxy, or stooge, and she could give it orders before she left and see that they were carried out during the night. She really believed these things.
What was this packet of magic?
Well, it was a mess. It was a cloth bound up very tight and inside there were all kinds of things . . . pubic hairs, dried blood, fingernails, antimony and I don’t know what all. I didn’t analyze it, no Moroccan would touch it, and I had to pick it up. Everyone around saying, don’t touch it, don’t touch it. I threw it down the toilet.
Why did you keep this maid around?
Mrs. Bowles wouldn’t let me fire her. She said, I hired her and when I see fit, I’ll fire her, but you can’t. And unfortunately the maid knew that. She was very hostile. She always carried a switchblade and when she saw me alone she’d bring it out—swish—a real quick draw. [Bowles gestures as with knife toward throat.] That’s what you’ll get, she’d say to me. She tried to put my eyes out one night. A monster, a real monster. I could show you pictures of her that would freeze you.
How long did you have her around?
About 15 years, I guess. We finally gave her a little house in the medina.
You ever see her these days?
No, I don