Paul Bowles on Morocco and Moroccans
From Paul Bowles novel The Spider's House--the title taken from the Koran: "The likeness of those who choose other patrons than Allah is as the likeness of the spider when she taketh unto herself a house, and lo! the frailest of all houses is the spider's house, if they but knew." The novel was written in the early 1950s, published in 1955, takes place in Fez at the time of Morocco trying to gain its independence from the French--remember the French Foreign Legion? In this one finely written chapter, Chapter 23 (and all of Paul Bowles's things are finely written), I just finished reading, an American couple are trapped in an Arab cafe when comes a Moroccan independence-seeking force of marchers forging into the plaza on which sits this Arab cafe, these marchers shouting in unison insults at the French people in general and asking Allah to send all Frenchmen straight to Hell and in return the Imperialist French troops begin to fire on the protesters, at first with pistol shots, but then those firecracker-like pops turn into the horrible steady burping of the sound of machine-gun fire.
So this white American couple find themselves trapped in this Arab cafe with a bunch of mostly Arab men who for the most part are looking at them with great hostility--the man starts talking loudly and in as American an accent as he can exaggerate. The woman becomes embarrassed. Why are you making as ass out of yourself, she asks him, and he tells her he doesn't want them to be taken for the hated French; he wants these men to know he's a crazy American. Then they have more conflict when she wants to stay in the front room of the cafe with the 30 or 40 hostile Arab men but he forces her on back into the farthest back room of the place, which is empty except for a young boy drinking tea at a distant table. After the American guy gets the babe settled and they're drinking tea, Bowles writes:
He watched her. For her the Moroccans were backward onlookers standing on the sidelines of the parade of progress; they must be exhorted to join, if necessary pulled by force into the march. Hers was the attitude of the missionary, but whereas the missionary offered a complete if unusable code of thought and behavior, the modernizer offered nothing at all, save a place in the ranks. And the Moslems, who with their blind intuitive wisdom had triumphantly withstood the missionaries' cajoleries, now were going to be duped into joining the senseless march of universal brotherhood; for the privilege each man would have to give up only a small part of himself--just enough to make him incomplete, so that instead of looking into his own heart, to Allah, for reassurance, he would have to look to the others. The new world would be a triumph of frustration, where all humanity would be lifting itself by its own bootstraps--the equality of the damned. No wonder the religious leaders of Islam identified Western culture with the works of Satan: they had seen the truth and were expressing it in the simplest terms.
[from: The Portable Paul and Jane Bowles, excerpt from The Spider's House, p. 322 of the Pequin Viking Library edition of 1994, with an interesting introduction, too, by Millicent Dillon, author of A Little Original Sin, a biography of Jane Bowles published in 1981.]
I can't read stuff like this without wondering why Paul Bowles has such a solid understanding of the Moslem culture and way of life and was able to exist within it for 35 years in relative respectful ease--yes, he faced many hardships there, learning the language, learning how to come face to face with a strange human being and not run him down but rather confront him with a curious yet respectful spirit and either suddenly be an observer in his culture or be turned away to wander down another aspect of living in Morocco, as was Paul's case, and enjoying it in spite of the hardships; enjoying it for the adventure; at the same time, Northern Africa and his love and knowledge of its many cultures and peoples led to his writing his best novels, The Sheltering Sky (a wildly exciting and intriguing book), Let It Come Down (a novel that one critic called "terrifying"), and The Spider's House, from which the above quote comes. Bowles was especially a heavy student of North African musics and on a grant from the Smithsonian did an extensive study of these various musics by going about North Africa with a tape recorder recording, notating, and then cataloging dozens of different groups and their songs, their sounds and their rhythms, especially the Tauregs and the Saharan Moroccans. Bowles loved going out into the Sahara and writing. How damn thrilling is that, though I'm sure I'd hate the Sahara--but then, I'm not as adventurous as Bowles--except I was when I lived in Mexico and traveled around Central America and the top of South America and the Caribbean--I recently imagined a story taking place by the banks of the Amazon River--but then I worried that maybe it had already been written by William Burroughs--high as hell on primitive joy juice, head reveling in the throws of some of those lids of stuff the announcer for Ralph's Spoilsport Motors on the old Firesign Theater skits used to find when he's going through this hot super new car he's trying to sell you and describing all the accessories--"And, yes, even the ashtray comes stocked with--" you hear him lighting up a joint--"--ahhhh, yes, lovely, lovely, lovely, as we waft out on an Acapulco gold beach, and ahhh those waving breezes and yes the froggy native boys dancing naked as the beach melts into a Panama red sun set whose azure glow is like a strange firelight against the coming darkness...then the water lilies and the maidens..." I'm of course mimicking the Ralph's Spoilsport Motors announcer, not quoting him directly; the Firesign version is 100 times funnier, but I'm going far astray. Which brings to mind the old Yale Eli song, "we are poor little lambs who have lost our way," and that's my point in quoting Paul Bowles in talking about the difference between the Moslems and the Western world--and yes how we really do think we are "missionaries" and yes Georgie Porgie Bush declared our missionary mission in Iraq accomplished but now all these years later and all the dead Americans and Iraqis and foreign and American private contractors we know the Message didn't take with the Iraqis and it won't take with the Iranians--and god-damn, how stupid are our rulers. I can't imagine a ruler who'd read Paul Bowles's books could not learn from them how to deal with Arab Moslems, over some tea and kif, lying back and contemplating the abstract designs of life with them....
What a stupid dreamer I am. I dream; therefore I don't exist. Oh shit. Sorry, I'm getting Freudian again. "Damn, Freud, out!"
And in closing, here's another little story from the Paul Bowles The Spider's House:
The American man has watched the young boy get up from his table where he was drinking tea and go out into a small courtyard where there was a pool of water. The American man ignores the woman and follows the boy as he goes out and sits by the edge of the pool.
...The boy had taken off his shoes and was wading in the pool, a sight which, because of his state of mind, did not at once strike him as peculiar. When he saw him bend over and fish a large, bedraggled insect out of the water, he became interested. Now the boy held his hand very close to his face, studying his prey, smiling at it' he even moved his lips a few times, as though he were talking to it.
"What is it? What are you staring at?" she asked.
"Trying to make out what that kid's doing out there, standing in the middle of the water."
Suddenly the insect had flown away. The boy stood looking after it, his face expressing satisfaction rather than the disappointment Stenham [the American dude's name] had expected to see. He climbed out of the pool and sat down at its edge where he had been before.
Stenham shook his head. "Now, that was a strange bit of behavior. The boy made a special trip into the water just to pull out some kind of insect."
"Well, he's kind-hearted."
"I know, but they're not. That's the whole point. In all my time here I've never seen anyone do a thing like that."
He looked at the boy's round face, heavy, regular features, and curly black hair.
"He could be a Sicilian, or a Greek," he said as if to himself. "If he's not a Moroccan, there's nothing surprising about his deed. But if he is, then I give up. Moroccans just don't do things like that."
..."You want another tea?"
"No," she said. "One's plenty. It's so sweet. But anyway, I don't believe you can make such hard and fast general rules about people."
"You can in this case. I've watched them for years. I know what they're like."
"That doesn't mean you know what each one is like individually, after all."
"But the whole point is, they're not individuals in the sense you mean," he said.
"You're on dangerous ground," she warned.
For fear that she might take exception to his words, he was quiet, did not attempt to explain to her how living among a less evolved people enabled him to see his own culture from the outside, and thus to understand it better. It was her express desire that all races and all individuals be "equal," and she would accept no demonstration which did not make use of that axiom. In truth, he decided, it was impossible to discuss anything at all with her, because instead of seeing each part of total reality as a complement to the other parts, with dogged insistence she forged ahead seeing only those things which she could twist into the semblance of an illustration for her beliefs.
...The boy came through the door, glanced shyly at them, and turned to sit down at his table. Stenham called out to him: "Qu'est-ce qui se passe dehors?" The boy stared at him, uncomprehending. So he was a Moroccan, after all. "Smalhi," Stenham said. "Chnou hadek el haraj?"
The other looked at him with wide eyes, clearly wondering how anyone could be so stupid. "That's people yelling," he said.
[pages 321-323, excerpt from The Spider's House by Paul Bowles, in The Portable Paul and Jane Bowles, Penquin Viking Library, 1994.
Ah stories, ain't they grand?
Paul Bowles in his beloved Sahara.
for The Daily Growler
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