The following candid reminiscences of Paul Bowles’ domestic circumstances in Tangier, Morocco during his last years show him in his workshop occupied with his final literary project. Some of his remarks quoted here may provide a salutary shock to those who associate Paul Bowles with the sort of warm and fuzzy multiculturalism espoused by the politically correct. Far from wishing to “go native,” however, Bowles considered the gap between colonizing and colonized cultures unbridgeable. He found the ceaseless sparring between the two diverting, especially when the nominal prey managed to emerge as the predator: and if such a turnabout caused him personal inconvenience and even pain, it clearly gratified his unflinching sense of irony.
AT HOME WITH PAUL BOWLES: A CONVERSATION
Cherie Nutting and Phillip Ramey
PHILLIP RAMEY: Paul Bowles’ last two decades have been, at best, badly documented. I suppose that you and I, having spent much time with him in Tangier over many years, know as well as anyone what his life there was like.
CHERIE NUTTING: That’s true enough.
P.R.: We were both at times appalled by how he was treated by some of the people around him, particularly Moroccans, and amazed by the way he tolerated and even seemed to enjoy it.
C.N.: That sort of thing added excitement to his life. A little theater, a little drama.
P.R.: I had the feeling, especially after Paul became bedridden in the middle 1990s, that he was often bored, especially as his mind was as sharp as ever.
C.N.: He sat in bed and in the last years his sight failed so he couldn’t see much. He found it almost impossible to write, so he enjoyed having visitors instead. Some bored him, others didn’t.
P.R.: I remember a Moroccan who came to talk with him and made off with his new electric razor. That didn’t bore him. It made him angry.
C.N.: It wasn’t only Moroccans. European film crews would come and things would sometimes disappear.
P.R.: Hippie types seemed partial to book theft and had to be watched, though it always surprised me that they could read. And of course there was Paul’s longtime friend Mohammed Mrabet, who had a key to the apartment and was much given to pillaging. When Paul returned from his first trip to Atlanta after leg surgery, one of his treasures, a book signed by James Joyce, had gone missing. Before Paul left he had shown it to Mrabet and emphasized the book’s value. That’s called asking for it.
C.N.: That book had disappeared, as well as a little silver dish with the initials of Paul’s Aunt Adelaide engraved on it. (There is a photograph of it in my book, Yesterday’s Perfume, and Paul wrote on it: “Stolen while I was in Atlanta.”) As for the Joyce book, it later showed up in Holland.
P.R.: Two Moroccans, no doubt Mrabet’s agents, tried unsuccessfully to sell it to a book dealer there, and word got back to Paul. After that incident, he had a new lock installed and refused to give Mrabet a key. Enough is enough, Paul said. Of course, Mrabet was outraged. Paul and I used to call him “The Evil One,” I disapprovingly, Paul admiringly.
C.N.: At least Mrabet was entertaining.
P.R.: And together he and Paul produced those unique, if rather repetitive, books.
C.N.: Mrabet has talent. He is a great storyteller, completely entertaining, very funny. In his own way, when he was being good, he could be wonderful with Paul. But when he was bad he was very very bad.
P.R.: In the 1980s, when I first knew Paul, I saw some of Mrabet’s charm. But as he got older he became increasingly surly and even more dishonest, if that was possible. A composer friend once came to Tangier, listened to Mrabet’s harangues and pronounced him “a bad joke.” That displeased Paul, but I think it is an accurate assessment.
C.N.: Mrabet was quite upset when Paul wrote in his book Days how he had stolen the money I gave him to build a house for me. After that he started to withdraw. He was working in Paul’s apartment at the time and would not show up for days, so Paul would have no food. Little by little, you and I began to take care of Paul, until finally he hired A., his driver, to manage the house.
P.R.: Naturally, Mrabet and A. disliked each other.
C.N.: Paul once told me that each called the other mercenary.
P.R.: A. used to denounce Mrabet as a bad man with a black heart.
C.N.: Mrabet himself said, proudly, that he had a black heart.
P.R.: The driver-cum-manservant took good care of Paul at first, but his behavior deteriorated during Paul’s last years.
C.N.: Yes, but A. could also be very kind to Paul, and if Paul hadn’t had him he would have ended up in a nursing home. A. did things just the way Paul wanted them done.
P.R.: Paul insisted on having the servant do everything for him, even when A. began getting rude and bossy. I learned not to offer assistance, to keep out of it. Even though Paul would complain to me about A.’s bad behavior, I realized he didn’t really want to be helped. One time, when I was preparing to return to New York for the winter, I suggested restructuring Paul’s bank accounts there, for he had a good deal of money in a checking account that was gaining no interest. He liked the idea but didn’t want me to do it for him. Instead, he hired a Moroccan, an intelligent and sophisticated man who, naturally, cheated him. Paul complained that he had stayed with relatives in the U.S. and charged him for expensive hotels. How satisfying. (laughs)
C.N.: He just wouldn’t let us help him.
P.R.: After that debacle, I asked Paul why he hadn’t let me handle it, for he wouldn’t even have had to pay my airfare much less a fee. He said that one simply must not ask friends for such favors. I retorted that obviously he preferred to be robbed by a Moroccan. Paul grinned. A strange mind.
C.N.: That’s for sure! (laughs)
P.R.: Then, there was the carburetor affair. I had brought new parts from the States for his ratty old Mustang, which he adored, and he owed me a hundred dollars. In payment, he handed me a large stack of Moroccan money. A journalist had just arrived to interview him, so I went downstairs to my apartment without counting the cash. When I did, I realized Paul had given me a thousand rather than a hundred dollars worth of dirhams. Later, I returned the extra money. Paul told me that A. would be very surprised. I asked why. Because, he said, when A. was informed that I had been dramatically overpaid, he had smiled and announced: “You will never see that money again!” Subsequently, I was told that A. was disappointed with me, because I had returned the loot. I joked to Paul that he himself was also probably disappointed. The reply: “No, I didn’t expect you to steal, because you’re not a Moroccan.”
C.N.: Paul wanted to be badly used only by Moroccans. If a Westerner had done such a thing he wouldn’t be forgiven.
P.R.: I remember a few years ago when Paul got a new car. At first, he wanted a convertible, but then, logically, he decided there was no point in having one since he could hardly see. So he got a little sedan, and it was a big improvement over the Mustang.
C.N.: I loved that Mustang. It was a golden-colored, 1966 model.
P.R.: Be that as it may, you weren’t with us in the mountains near Tétouan when the gears failed and we slid toward the cliffs. I told Paul then that it was time for another car if he wanted to continue making trips into the countryside, but he kept trying to have that damned thing repaired—futilely, as it turned out. After the new car arrived, the domineering driver seldom permitted Paul to ride in it, for he was planning to sell it the moment Paul died and didn’t want any wear and tear on the vehicle. The avaricious creature even brought in a notary to witness a document giving him the car upon Paul’s death.
A. also had the charming habit of double-charging Paul. For instance, the fax machine Paul got to facilitate communication with the organizers of the 1995 festival of his music in New York. Soon after it was installed, I happened to visit the so-called Thieves Market in Tétouan, where it was bought. The price for the same model was exactly half of what Paul had to fork out. When I told him, he raised his hands and asked rhetorically, “But what can I do?” Call the police, I said. Paul just sighed.
C.N.: I think some Moroccans have the idea that they aren’t going to get any money later, so they have to grab it now. If they are working for a European, they take their own tips. It’s expected. (laughs).
P.R.: Remember the time when A. and that bank-affair crook tried to get power-of-attorney over Paul?
C.N.: That was really outrageous.
P.R.: It went too far, even for Paul. He asked me to call his executor, an American living in Tangier, to put a stop to it. “If they get power-of-attorney,” Paul said, “there will be no money left in the bank and I’ll be out on the street.” I actually came upon the two villains conspiring. And they had gone around town trying to find a lawyer unscrupulous enough to cooperate. People were talking about it.
C.N.: Good old Tangier! (laughs)
P.R.: Let’s talk about Yesterday’s Perfume. How was that book put together?
C.N.: The basis of it, of course, are my photographs of Paul and his environment. As for the texts, my part of them is the diaries I wrote from the day I met Paul, and previous to that as well. When I first went to see Paul I did have the idea to do something on his daily life, a volume of photos and words. That was in February 1986, and he and I had been corresponding since the previous year. But it wasn’t until ten years later that I really started putting the book together.
P.R.: By that time, you were an intimate of Paul’s.
C.N.: I asked him if it was all right if I did such a book, and would he contribute. He liked what he had read and said he was glad to cooperate. At my request, he began writing down thoughts about his earlier years. Eventually, I had to tape him, because he couldn’t see to write any more. You helped me with that, if you recall.
P.R.: I do indeed. You were in New York and would telephone me with questions for Paul. I would tape and then transcribe his answers and give him a typescript to edit with his magnifying glass. It was a somewhat tedious process, but it worked. Paul always had the last say and was happy with the result. So, whether he wrote essays himself or taped commentary and then revised it, everything in your book that is attributed to him is authentic. Pure Paul Bowles.
C.N.: Absolutely. He had written my publishers saying he would fully cooperate with the book, and when it was finished he wrote them again, giving me all rights. That was terribly generous of him.
P.R.: He was certainly fond of you. Paul’s old friend Joe McPhillips said that you were the closest female to Paul since the death of his wife.
C.N.: I'd like to think that was true.
P.R.: One of the most important aspects of Yesterday’s Perfume is that it contains Paul’s last writings. I wish Random House had emphasized that fact, although all of Paul’s pieces are signed by him. I must say that the publisher spent a lot of money producing a beautiful book.
C.N.: A copy was sent to Gore Vidal and he wrote me a nice note. It said, “My thanks for your evocative book. You’ve captured what was catchable of Paul. Congratulations.” And Ned Rorem said he loved Yesterday’s Perfume. The people who really knew Paul seemed to like the book, which pleased me.
P.R.: There is no question but that Yesterday’s Perfume accurately evokes Paul’s personal life during his last dozen years—from the inside, so to speak. Nobody else has managed that.
C.N.: That’s exactly what I wanted to do.
P.R.: Others who have written about Paul lacked the advantage of being part of his small inner circle.
C.N.: That circle consisted of you, me, Rodrigo Rey Rosa, Claude Nathalie Thomas, Gavin Lambert, Kenneth Lisenbee and two young Moroccans: Karim Jihad Achouatte and Karim Debbagh. Paul's several biographers were not a part of that.
P.R.: How do you feel about having Paul’s Tangier apartment?
C.N.: I’m incredibly happy about that. It is where I eventually hope to live for the rest of my life. I’d never had a comfortable place in Morocco and now I do. It’s all thanks to the kindness of Paul’s Chicago friend Philip Krone, who arranged the lease. I’m certain Paul would be pleased that his home went to a friend rather than a stranger. I have a few of his objects there to remember him by, because I would like to have the apartment reflect at least a little of Paul’s sensibility. But it won’t be a museum.
P.R.: Paul specified in his Will that he wished to be cremated and have his ashes buried in the Bowles family plot in upstate New York. I asked him, why there. After all, he had rejected his homeland for most of his life and seldom had a good word to say about it. He replied that it seemed the logical place. Some, myself included, thought of that as Paul’s last perverse act.
C.N.: Paul deeply disliked his father and wanted to be buried near his mother. However, nobody at that beautiful cemetery overlooking Seneca Lake knew which side of the family grave was his mother’s. So Paul may have ended up next to the bones of his hated father. A final irony in the Bowles saga.
Recorded on November 13, 2002, in New York City
CHERIE NUTTING is a photographer who collaborated with Paul Bowles on the book Yesterday’s Perfume: An Intimate Memoir of Paul Bowles (Clarkson Potter/Random House, 2000). Nutting lives in New York City and in Tangier, Morocco.
PHILLIP RAMEY is a composer and the former program editor of the New York Philharmonic. He was instrumental in arranging the 1995 festival of Paul Bowles’ music, presented in New York City by the Eos Orchestra, conducted by Jonathan Sheffer. Ramey lives in New York City and Tangier, Morocco, where he was a neighbor and long-time friend of Paul Bowles, whom he first met in 1969 through their mutual friend, the American composer Aaron Copland.
Read a review of Yesterday's Perfume: An Intimate Memoir of Paul Bowles by Jon Carlson.
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