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A MEMOIR OF TANGIER AND PAUL BOWLES

by Ruth Fainlight

 

 

The fact that Paul Bowles lived in Tangier was one reason to accept an invitation from friends who had moved there. They did not know him, but arranged some sort of social event so that a meeting could take place. Paul and Alan, Jane and Ithe four of us felt at ease together and admired each other's work. Learning that we had decided  to stay for a while, the Bowleses suggested we might rent an apartment in their building.

 

        The fact that we were neighbors gave a domestic tinge to the friendship. There were two sizes of apartments in the Immeuble Itesa: three-roomed ones like those which we and Jane (and her entourage) occupied, and smaller garçonnières, one of which was Paul's. His birds, though, lived on the terrace of the larger apartment, where much daily activity centered upon buying ingredients for and cooking the evening meal, every detail of which was related to his preferences. I never ceased to be intrigued and touched by this aspect of Jane and Paul's marriage, in which she was as dutiful and devoted as the most exemplary wife in an eighteenth-century manual, and he as correct and considerate as the model husband in a nineteenth-century one. 

 

        That first stay lasted about four months. By the time we returned, Tangier had been incorporated into the Kingdom of Morocco and I had given birth to our son David, who was then about eight weeks old. We'd kept in contact, and so the Bowleses knew that we wanted somewhere than the old apartment. 

 

        Paul wrote that he would book a room for us at the Hotel Atlas, where his friends usually stayed. It had not occurred to him that there were none of the facilities a mother and baby might need. When Jane arrived to inspect David and vet Paul's arrangements, I could tell she understood this, not only from sidelong glances of amusement but because she insisted we come to the apartment to eat with them every evening until we found a house. 

 

        Other dinner guests were Tennessee Williams and his friend Frank, who were in Tangier then. The men would lounge on low-cushioned seats along the wall, Moroccan style, smoking and talking, while Jane called out orders to Cherifa and the maid, who answered just as loudly as they moved in and out of the kitchen, and I concentrated on the baby and watched them all. Paul was recording Berber and tribal music for the Library of Congress, travelling far south beyond the Anti-Atlas Mountains, and sometimes showed us photographs of the tall mud casbahs of the region and played us extracts from his tapes. I remember an evening when Tennessee held David on his lap for ten or fifteen minutes. Each of them, adult and baby, stared deeply into the other's eyes, equally fascinated. 

 

        Paul's introduction to Marguerite McBey, a longtime American resident with a small house to rent in the grounds of her own on the Old Mountain, solved our accommodation problem. The house was furnished with fine Moroccan pieces and carpets, and stood in a large garden overlooking the Strait of Gibraltar. If visibility was good, it was possible to make out the town of Tarifa on the Spanish coast, thirteen miles away. 

 

        Once we had moved I saw less of Paul, unless he happened to be in Jane's apartment during one of my visits. These were very much female affairs apart from David, who lay in the center of Jane's bed kicking his legs, the focus of much attention. Paul mentioned, one such afternoon, that in a few days there would be a festival at the shrine of a Berber saint, further down the coast, and asked if we would like to go with him and a few other friends. 

 

        Of the four men in the large car that came to collect us after dinner, Paul was the only one in Moroccan dress: a beautiful camel-hair djellaba. With his shorn blond head, pale eyes and lean, New England features, he looked the classical northern explorer. 

 

        The road was becoming a track and in the beam of the headlights I could see clouds of dust raised by our wheels. We had arrived—exactly where, I couldn't tell in the dark; only that we had stepped out of the car into a crowd of hundreds, even perhaps thousands, of men in white robes. Further off were small fires surrounded by groups of people, along with cafés and tea-houses, divided by barriers of thorn twigs or hurdles with carpets thrown over them. We sat down and Paul leaned across the little round wooden table that had been brought with the glasses of tea and told me to watch the dancer who approached, attracted by the presence of foreigners. At such close quarters, the broad young face, dripping with sweat, was more boyish than feminine. Under the shiny, gold-braided robe and heavy rows of charms and beads that hung from throat to waist, a supple body swayed and undulated. Those watchful eyes ringed with kohl soon decided there were better prospects elsewhere, because a few vigorous twirls of skirt and stamps of ankleted feet carried the dancer to another table, where the men were more openly appreciative. They began to compete with each other in pressing large dirham notes on to his wet forehead, which he peeled off and slid into the neck of the robe while smiling enticingly at the next potential donor. But it was all quite decorous, and as we walked through what I now saw was a temporary encampment of several thousand people (among whom we seemed to be the only 'Nasrani'), occupying a wide level area behind the Atlantic dunes south of Larache, I noticed how many armed soldiers mingled with the crowd. 

 

        A throbbing rhythm compelled me towards it. Ranks of white-robed men parted with almost magical ease to let me into the front row. I was surrounded by a delicious smell of wood-smoke, clean cotton cloth and the freshly washed bodies of people nourished on highly spiced food—every one of whom was enthralled by the drumming and high-pitched, repetitive chanting of the players. I felt completely safe and forgot about the others. But they had kept an eye on me, and eventually Alan came to lead me away to a café for another glass of tea. 

 

        Paul was amused by my 'boldness', and commented that before the government had begun official supervision by the military and the police, the behavior of the Aïssaoui, and members of other ecstatic sects, had been very different. A few years later, I found the following description in Murray's Handbook to the Mediterranean of 1890: 

 

'The fanatic religious dances of the Aïssaoui occasionally take place in the native quarters of the town. These performances commence with the beating of drums and tambours, after an interval of which, one of the Aïssaoui, being inspired, rushes with a yell into the ring formed by the spectators, and begins a frantic dance, the body being swayed backwards and forwards, and contorted with fearful violence. He is soon joined by others, who continue their maniacal gestures and cries until they fall exhausted, or are stopped by the Mokkadam (head of the order). The next proceeding consists of forcing out the eyes with iron spikes, searing themselves with red-hot iron, eating live scorpions and serpents, chewing broken glass and the leaves of the prickly pear, etc., all of which acts seem to be performed under the influence of fanatical mania, the performers being apparently insensible to pain. The sight is well worth seeing once for those who have tolerably strong nerves, but few persons would care about witnessing an Aïssaoui fête a second time.'

 

        The sky was absolutely clear, full of stars, and the moon was full. It was midsummer eve, and Sidi Kacem's holy well and sacred tree, whose branches were always swathed with rags and strips of cloth tied on by women anxious to become pregnant and men who wanted riches or revenge, must have been a site of worship long before the arrival of Islam. We were walking through an area of tents, softly lit by oil lamps or candles. A murmur of voices came through the thin cloth walls, and shadows played across them as those inside moved around. At last I found where the women and children were. With the approach of dawn, the sky overhead seemed even darker, as if the night were concentrating into a smaller area, but at the horizon a pure turquoise light began to surge upwards. 

 

        We had all met again without making any attempt to do so, and seemed to be part of an increasing movement eastwards, towards the crest of the furthest dunes. By the time we reached it, the sky reflected every pale nacrous color of the beach that stretched below us towards the line of surf several hundred meters away, and south and north as far as the eye could see or the imagination encompass. The scale was immense: we looked from Africa to America. Men in white and pale-toned robes streamed by, hurrying down the slope to the shore, diminishing in size with astonishing rapidity. Everything was tawny, like the pelt of an enormous lion. Some of the younger men were stripping off their robes as they reached the edge of the sea and strode into the shallow waves. Horsemen plunged past us, sending up a spatter of grainy sand as they dislodged clumps of tough sea-grass. A pale grey and then a white horse galloped close together at the water's edge, splashing their naked riders with foam. I felt as if I were viewing an immense painting, or even had become part of one. I looked at Paul. For a moment I was convinced that I saw it through his eyes: the realized ideal of Morocco. 

        

 

Copyright © 1992, Ruth Fainlight. All Rights Reserved.

 

 

 See this page for short biographies and photographs of Ruth Fainlight and Alan Sillitoe.

 

The official Allan Sillitoe website.

 

 

RUTH FAINLIGHT has published thirteen collections of poems, two volumes of short stories, and translations from French, Portuguese and Spanish. Ruth Fainlight married the writer Alan Sillitoe in 1959. She and her husband lived in Tangier at various times from 1960 to 1963 and were close friends and neighbors of Jane and Paul Bowles.

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