|Street scene in Fez|
We often travel to seek the strange and the mysterious, which sometimes means simply seeing how other people in other cultures live their lives. American writer (and musician) Paul Bowles spent his life traveling and observing other peoples. His fiction evokes the strange, the mysterious, and even the frightening and bizarre.
His best known novel, The Sheltering Sky, follows an American couple into the Sahara, where they find more than they sought, in writing that casts an almost hypnotic spell on the reader. Bowles's best known short story, perhaps, The Delicate Prey, also set deep in the Sahara, is a horrifying tale of crime and punishment among residents of the desert, desert dwellers whose ideas of justice are untempered by mercy.
I was introduced to Bowles through his fiction, his stories of the Sahara and its effects on those who lived in, or visited the life of, the desert. I had also heard stories of Bowles's private life -- stories of a man who spent most of his life as an expatriate in Tangier, who lived for years in an interesting marriage to a lesbian writer, and who was a friend and confidante of many American writers including members of the Beat generation.
I was unprepared for the writing to which he evidently devoted much of his time -- travel writing for mainstream publications. His book, Travels, contains some 39 essays, most of them published in the late, lamented Holiday magazine during the 1950s and 60s -- a magazine that was to travel writing what the New Yorker is to general literature. His writing presents scenes and vignettes almost as strange as those in his fiction, but in a first-person narrative form that is far more accessible to the uninitiated first-time Bowles reader.
Tangier was his preferred residence, and Morocco his preferred country, and some of the best essays describe experiences in Moroccan cities, in the mountain areas (the Rif, the Atlas), and in the bleak (but always surprising) expanses of the Sahara. Bowles first moved to Tangier in the early 1930s as a youth. Tangier -- for many years an "international city" under French and Spanish administration -- has no major "tourist sites," he acknowledges, but, in a 1958 article, he found much to love.
In Europe, it seems to me, the past is largely fictitious; to be aware of it one must have previous knowledge of it. In Tangier, the past is a physical reality as perceptible as sunlight.
He saw both the city and the country evolve from a primitive residence of Berbers and Arabs, governed by French and Spanish colonial powers, to a far more modern and independent nation.
Bowles (who died in 1999) was no sympathizer with colonial rule. He was even less, perhaps, a sympathizer with the "modernizing" (read "Europeanizing and Americanizing") ferver of Moroccan nationalist leaders. Where Morocco's rulers saw progress, Bowles saw foundering attempts at globalization -- the gradual replacement of local crafts and foods with mass produced imported goods and services.
The last essays in this book were written in the early 1990s. I'm not sure to what extent Bowles's fears for the future have come true, although "McDonaldization" continues unabated in many parts of the world. In an article written in 1984, he wrote about the medieval medina in Fez:
Yet with the increasing poverty in the region, the city clearly cannot continue much longer in its present form. ... A house which formerly sheltered one family now contains ten or twelve families, living, it goes without saying, in unimaginable squalor. The ancient dwellings are falling rapidly into disrepair. And so at last, it is the people from outside the walls who have taken over the city, and their conquest, a natural and inevitable process, spells its doom. That Fez should still be there today, unchanged in its outward form, is the surprising phenomenon.
I visited Fez, for my first and, so far, only visit, in 2012. I have nothing earlier in my own experience with which to compare it. All I can say is that the city, when I visited it, was magical -- magical and apparently non-ersatz, thriving, and packed with local manufacturing (e.g., leather tanning) and shops, and local residents. (It also had its share of tourists, of course.) I would love to find a place to stay overnight within the medina on a future visit.
So the death and decay of Morocco is all relative, I suppose. The past was always better. I'm not being entirely ironical, because by Bowles's standards the past no doubt was better, more true to local culture -- even though the Moroccan residents probably had less money, less food, and worse housing.
Bowles's travel articles aren't limited in topic to Morocco. He writes about locales as disparate as Paris, Seville, Istanbul, Algeria, Central America, Ceylon (Sri Lanka), Kenya, Madeira, and Thailand. He writes a series of articles about a project he undertook under a grant, recording tribal music throughout the mountainous areas of Morocco -- at a time when the Moroccan government was hoping to stamp out "folk music" as an indication of non-modern backwardness. Always, Bowles has an eye for the strange, an ear for the good story, an empathy for the people with whom he speaks, a sensitivity to their music and to their lives.
Reading the essays and articles in Travels is as close as most of us will get to obtaining a feel for many various cultures in the world, and especially for those cultures as they existed before and a decade or two after World War II. And learning about the world's hidden places and cultures from a gifted writer with a clear sense of perception renders them no less intriguing or mysterious. Intriguing and mysterious to us, as they were even to Bowles himself.