Visiting Paul Bowles
in His Tangier, Morocco Apartment
On Nov. 18, 2019, it will be 20 years since the American author and composer died at age 88 in the North African city, where he had lived as an expatriate for 52 years
By GREG BEAUBIEN June 4, 2019
WE STILL MISS HIM. With his charm and wit, his dashing image and glamorous international lifestyle, the author Paul Bowles was as intriguing as his work. He is perhaps best known for his 1949 novel The Sheltering Sky, about a pampered but alienated American couple traveling through Algeria after World War II in search of the bond for each other they’ve lost, and ultimately falling further into existential dread amid the desolation of the Sahara desert. But Bowles also wrote three other novels—Let It Come Down (1952), The Spider’s House (1955), and Up Above the World (1966)—in addition to volumes of short stories and travel writing. Before turning to prose he was a composer of avant-garde music.
In spring of 1997, about two and a half years before he died in 1999, I spent an hour talking with Bowles in his Tangier, Morocco apartment. The building where he lived in the ville nouvelle (the comparatively new section of town, outside the walls of the medina, or ville ancienne) was gray and nondescript. A little elevator with Arabic graffiti carved into its red paint rose to the third floor and then opened to an outdoor hallway. A small steel plate on the apartment door was engraved with the name “Bowles.”
A misunderstanding occurred almost immediately. Was Paul playing his games?
A manservant answered my knock. I gave him my business card. I knew Bowles no longer granted interviews, so I told the servant I just wanted to say hello. The man closed the door, came back a few minutes later, and then said I could have five minutes with Bowles.
Just inside the entrance, the valises of his storied world travels were stacked in the hallway. From the dimly lit corridor I saw dishes soaking in the kitchen sink. I waited in the living room while the servant went into Paul’s bedroom. The living room was small, dark and dusty, its furniture and walls in Moroccan earth tones. Along one wall stood a bookcase filled with his titles in several languages. The manservant returned and said I could go in.
Inside the tiny cluttered bedroom, Bowles sat in bed wearing a robe, propped up by pillows. The room was a mess—nearly every inch of floor covered with books, photographs, letters, postcards, boxes of crackers, and videotapes such as Taxi Driver and Blade Runner: The Director’s Cut.
Bowles was eighty-six years old and looked thin and frail. But he still had the same head of wavy gray hair. I said hello and walked over to shake his hand, pleased to note the firmness of his grasp.
Tangier, Morocco (photo by Greg Beaubien)
Almost immediately a small misunderstanding occurred: When I said I was in Tangier for the Los Angeles Times, reporting articles on the El Minzah hotel and the Moroccan food served in its restaurant, Bowles looked confused and said he knew nothing about those things. Apparently he thought I wanted to ask him questions for my articles—or at least he acted that way. It might have been one of his games. But I was eager to clear up the misunderstanding: “No, no,” I said, “I’m in Tangier to report those articles, but I came to see you just to say hello. If I was going to interview you about anything, it would be about you.” The truth was that I had finagled the assignments in Tangier so I could meet him.
Paul Bowles ‘deplored’ director Bernardo Bertolucci’s 1990 film version of his novel
The Sheltering Sky.
I sat cross-legged on the floor next to his low bed, so our eyes were at the same level. “I want you to know that I admire your work very much,” I said. Instantly his demeanor toward me changed. His face softened with a pleased smile. His eyes brightened. “Well, thank you very much,” he said.
I told him that I had read his novel The Sheltering Sky; his book of travel essays, Their Heads Are Green and Their Hands Are Blue; his autobiography, Without Stopping; and several of his short stories, including “The Delicate Prey,” “A Distant Episode,” “The Circular Valley,” “Call at Corazon,” and “Pages from Cold Point.” I was in the middle of his novel Let It Come Down, and wanted to read it during my visit to Tangier. “Well sure,” he said, “because it’s set here.” I told him that I had read The Sheltering Sky while traveling in the Sahara.
We talked about the time that he and the playwright Tennessee Williams had crossed the Atlantic together on a ship, traveling from New York to Tangier in the late 1940s. It was during that voyage that Bowles wrote “The Delicate Prey.” “I think it’s wonderful,” Williams said after reading the story, “but for God’s sake, don’t try to publish it. People will think you’re a monster!” In the story, an Arab thief ties a teenage boy to stakes in the ground, cuts off his penis, and then slashes open the boy’s stomach and stuffs the severed organ into the wound.
A young couple from Guatemala—the writer Rodrigo Rey Rosa and his girlfriend—entered Paul’s bedroom. He spoke to them in Spanish. Bowles never had children of his own, and he clearly relished the attention these young people were giving him.
I asked what he thought of director Bernardo Bertolucci’s 1990 movie version of The Sheltering Sky. “I deplored it,” Bowles answered dryly. He said he didn’t like appearing in the movie himself, and that the end of the film “just fell apart. But that was what Bertolucci wanted, and usually the director gets what he wants.” I said that I couldn’t remember how the end of the film differed from the end of the novel. Bowles launched into a ten-minute recounting of his famous book’s conclusion.
He had recently undergone surgery in a Paris hospital to remove a cancerous growth from his nose. “But I don’t know if they got it all,” he said. “It tends to spread through the body, rather like the tentacles of an octopus.” He’d flown to Atlanta twice in recent years to be treated at Emory Hospital. I asked if he still had an aversion to flying. “Of course,” he said.
I brought up the writing class that Bowles taught for one semester at UCLA in the 1960s. “But you didn’t like teaching, right?”
“That’s right,” he said.
Bowles made some disparaging remark about teachers, and I challenged him by saying that he was more of a teacher than he would admit. “Admit!” he repeated with soft indignation. I told him that he had taught me a lot over the years.
I said was impressed with his linguistic talents. “But I have none!” he cried, with characteristic self-effacement.
“Oh, come on! You speak English, French, Spanish, Moghrebi!”
He said his English wasn’t very good. We laughed.
Why had the New York City native lived in Tangier for 50 years? “I can’t get out,” he said, probably less than ingenuously. My theory was that he still preferred the exotic, if somewhat primitive, setting of Morocco to America (not to mention that his money went much further in Morocco). Of course, even there he wasn’t exactly living in style. But he had lived on his own terms for most of his life.
When I brought up the subject of kif, he smiled mischievously and repeated the Moroccan word for marijuana in a fond voice.
I had recently read Conversations with Paul Bowles, a book of interviews with him. He claimed that he’d never heard of it. I offered to send him a copy, but in his unfailing New England politesse Bowles said, “That’s kind of you, but no.” When I told him that I was reading In Touch, his book of letters, he seemed amazed that I was so interested in him.
When I mentioned his late wife Jane, Paul looked sad. “That was a long time ago,” he said, looking down.
As if on cue, the manservant appeared in the doorway, a sign that it was time for me to leave.
“Thanks for letting me bother you for a while,” I told Bowles.
“It was no bother,” he said.
I shook his hand again. “Thanks for everything you’ve written. Goodbye.”