The idle ramblings of a Jack of some trades, Master of none

Mar 24, 2008

Bowling Along

During our recent stay at the Riad Dar-Hanane in Marrakech, I came across a little book by Paul Bowles titled Days: A Tangier Journal 1987-1989. Bowles, of course, is a celebrated writer and musician, but other than The Sheltering Sky, made into an atmospheric film with some brilliant cinematography by Bernardo Bertolucci, I had not heard much of the man. It turns out now that he was quite the trendsetter, settling in Tangier way before the likes of Tennesse Williams, Truman Capote and Gore Vidal and the Beatniks who followed him thither. In the pre-and-post-WW II period, Tangier was a veritable hotspot of intellectualism, an artistic galaxy, a most ecumenical place. Paul Bowles soaked in the Moroccan atmosphere, and absorbed the glittering musical and literary scene that was his adopted hometown. In his late seventies, he was asked by his editor to keep a diary, something he had not done before, and Days was the result of three years of observation.

I extracted what I thought was a particularly representative example of his laconic and understated style.
September 14, 1987

I looked through Libération's questionnaire of two years ago - Pourquoi écrivez-vous? - this time to see what was the most usual answer. Very few writers claimed financial necessity as a reason for exercising their profession. Many admitted they had no idea why they wrote. But the majority responded by implying that they were impelled to write by some inner force which could not be denied...The more scrupulous [felt writing] conferred a certain minimal immortality...
He observes that this might have made sense in the previous century when it was widely assumed that the human race would live forever, but clearly now that that is by no means certain, yearning for immortality seems absurd. He goes on to say
Even if the human species manages to survive another hundred years, it's unlikely that a book written in 1990 will mean much to anyone happening to open it in 2090, if indeed he is capable of reading at all.
I especially like that last clause. Not a very optimistic man, Bowles, eh?

Having lived in Morocco for several decades, Bowles was intimately acquainted with the local traditions and festivals. Of course, none of them was as over the top as Malcolm Forbes's seventieth birthday celebrations. Having bought the Palais du Mendoub in 1970 and lavishing attention on Tangier as a potential launchpad for an Arabic version of the Forbes Magazine, he pulled out all stops for his bash in 1989. He spent more than two million dollars on carting 800 of the world's rich and famous to his villa. They came by chartered Concorde and Jumbo-Jet and mixed with other rarefied souls, such as Elizabeth Taylor, whom he had asked specially to be co-host. (Not that this dispelled stories of his actual sexual preference, of course). A lavish table was arranged. When Bowles found himself an empty space to sit at, he was hustled out of there by a liveried flunky and escorted to another empty space. He didn't stick around much longer after that and so missed the grand events that followed. Hundreds of local musicians, acrobats and dancers pounded away till late, and a fantasia including a charge by Berber cavalry firing off rounds into the air rounded off the festivities.

According to Bowles, a darkness surrounds Ramadan. The enforced deprivation of water and food and (horrors!) cigarettes drives the usually temperate Moroccans to frenzies of violence. The hour just after sunset when the fast is broken finds Tangier completely denuded of its citizens, except for bands of roving thugs who like nothing better than to waylay foreigners and thrash the bejesus out of them. During the month of fasting, Bowles found it necessary to hustle his guests out of his residence at least an hour before sunset because he feared for their safety. A particularly heinous episode occurred just outside his house when an elderly American woman was set upon and beaten savagely by local youth; with the police off the streets eagerly anticipating their iftar feasts, there was nobody around to stop the violence.

Another story Bowles recounts is that of a murder of a itinerant seller of knicks and knacks who sat down by another vendor to take a brief rest. The latter asked him to move along, whereupon he replied that he would in a minute after he had drunk a bit of water. The vendor then pulled out a knife and slashed the poor man's throat. He staggered to his feet, walked a couple of yards and collapsed in front of his little child, and bled to death.

Bowles pithily observes that if a Moroccan feels guilty, he attacks. Bowles illustrates this by the example of a story-teller and friend of his, who took eighty thousand dirhams from another friend (whom he called Jerez de la Frontera) to build a house for her. The man spent the amount on extending his own place (or was it to attach a garage to his own?) and then took about four times the amount from Bowles to do Jerez's place. Once it was completed, he refused to hand it over to her citing various excuses, and suffering large pangs of guilt, attacked her with a wooden implement in Bowles's apartment.

The apartment was never - as far as I could tell from the diary - handed over to Jerez. Peculiarly, his relationship with Bowles didn't seem to suffer. Bowles noted his extremely mercurial temperament, used it as a sort of template for the Moroccan attitude, and waxed on and on phlegmatically about his adopted country.


Post a Comment