Exquisite Corpse - Issue 3
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The Day Paul Bowles Died
by Ira Cohen


Four Roses for Paul Bowles
by Richard Collins


Christmas Eve on the Mediterranean, crossing from Algeciras to Tangier.  Sunning on the deck, a calm sea.  A cloud over Gilbraltar like a halo, but otherwise blue water, blue skies.  And when we pulled into the dock at Tangier, white buildings.
      The old men in their djellabas seem scattered everywhere, watching, walking, existing, not to hustle the tourists at all, just to stand and oversee the proceedings.  Outside customs the zoo begins.  Everyone is your friend, they will sell you anything in any language: money, hash, opium, kif, girls, boys, themselves, belts, friends.
      Africa.  I could never live here.  Part of the attraction is just that.  Constant dislocation, the Dada camel and the Dada gas station.  Is it California à la Tangier, or Tangier à la California?  But the mint tea served scalding in a glass, drowning in mint with not too much sugar, is worth having to assume the stoic pose.  I watch the buses bound for Rabat, Casablanca and Marrakesh fill with people, and when they have filled, the people pile on top and cling to the luggage and luggage racks, calling down to their fellow travelers inside in the aggressive friendly barks of Arabic.
      Two nights ago, at the Atocha station in Madrid I met a fellow named Larry Samuelson, and we rode together on the all-night train to Algeciras.  We shared a compartment with Martin Foster, an Englishman in overalls, and a couple with their dog Foxy.  Mustapha was from Casablanca, and his wife Marguerite from Amsterdam.
      Arriving in Algeciras, we went directly to the harbor and bought our tickets for a Moroccan boat.  Mustapha frowned.  "We may not make it today," he said.  "But we have our tickets," I said.  "It doesn't matter," said Mustapha, "but maybe I am wrong."  As it turned out, he was right.  The Spanish officials took their time checking the passengers through customs, so that about a hundred of us were left standing on the dock, our passports stamped, watching the Moroccan boat depart without us.  It was an odd feeling.  We had officially exited Spain, but had no way of entering Morocco, unless we swam.  "Now," said Mustapha, "we will have to stay another night in Spain and take a Spanish boat in the morning.  It is economics."
      In protest, we decided to spend as little money in Spain as possible.  Mustapha found a cheap hotel with rooms for about four dollars each.  In the morning the five of us had cafe con crema together at an open cafe, and then spent the day picnicking on the Spanish bluffs watching the planes taking off and landing in isolated, fortified Gibraltar, and the ships ferrying between Algeciras and Tangier and Cueta, the Spanish enclave, on the Moroccan coast.  Passing around a bottle of the local wine, Mustapha and Marguerite told us how they made their living running hashish between their respective cities several times a year.  Martin, the Englishman in overalls, told us he was going to Morocco, "because I fancy a pet tarantula."
      I told them I was going to see my friends, who are teaching at the American School in Tangier.  Joanne Balingit and Francis Poole, also known as Total Eclipse and Dr. Panik, publish a pocket-sized xerox magazine called Skullpolish.  They wrote to me in London, asking me to bring them a couple of items from civilization.  I couldn't help them with what they missed most, a certain odor from the States, which, they said, could only be produced by eating a bunch of burritoes at Taco Bell and then farting into a Pringles can.  I was, however, able to pick up their other requests, a box of banana Nesquik and a bottle of Four Roses bourbon, in Madrid at the last minute.

25 Dec.
I found the American School by asking a cab driver to take me to La Scuela Americain.  Joanne and Francis were not there.  One of their colleagues was in the office.  She told me they had an apartment in the old section of town, the Medina, which would be impossible for me to find.  In any case, they were house-sitting a villa outside of town.  She would take me to her apartment in the school compound, she said, and go get them.  I waited on the balcony of the apartment, drinking a duty-free bottle of Johnny Walker and listening to the sounds of the evening prayers coming from the city below.
      When they arrived, I told them I was sorry about the Pringles can, but handed over the banana Nesquik to Joanne and the Four Roses to Francis, who hugged the bottle like an old friend.  We finished off the bottle of Johnny Walker, saving the Four Roses for a special occasion.  Then we set off for the country house in their Citroen 2CV.

26 Dec.
I woke up to the smell of chlorine bleach.  A servant girl, Najat, had taken out all the carpets and was mopping the stone floors, as she did every morning.  "I've tried to tell them that they don't have to do this every day," said Francis, "but they insist."
      I wandered through the cool house, admiring the wet and shiny mosaic floors, and the arched doorways.  We were somewhere outside of Tangier.  The sounds of chickens and horses and sheep came from outside, where I met the caretaker, Kadir, Najat's father, who lived with his family in a small house away from the villa.  There was a dog in the yard, a gangly Irish Setter whose trick was to jump into the lemon tree and pluck the fruit, gobbling the lemons whole.  "I'm told," said Francis, "that the dog has leukemia or something.  The lemons somehow make him feel better."

Saturday, 27 Dec.
Today we drove out to Asilah, about 35 km from Tangier, a beach town like beach towns everywhere, with a small clean uncluttered medina overlooking the Atlantic.  Camels en route.  It was once a Portuguese port and still has portions of its alcazar.  We ate in a seafood restaurant at outdoor tables in an unpaved garden where peacocks and a pelican roamed unmolested.  A teenager tried to sell us hashish, and then asked if we had heard about Bob Marley.  "A tragedy," he said, smiling and pulling faces.  "He has died.  A tumor of the brain, I think."
      Francis remarked how the Moroccans' expressions never seem familiar.  As in translating certain phrases, there is no physical equivalent in English.
      We went to Paul Bowles' apartment last night.  He lives in a cement high-rise in the European section, with Bulgarian guards, right across from the American consulate.  I was pleasantly surprised to find that he has no Moroccan affectations.  Except perhaps one.  As we entered the door the smell of kif hit us.  It's a pleasant, herbal aroma which persists.  He chain smokes it from a black cigarette holder (pipa), emptying out filtered CasaSports (about twenty cents a pack) one by one and filling the paper to the filter with kif from a small round red leather box.  His conversation is filled with pronouncements, often old-fashioned, but often true, about the value of musical or literary pieces.
      I asked him whether he had ever met Edward Dahlberg, which he had -- only once -- and thought him a pleasant person.  He criticized The Sorrows of Priapus for its use of arcane and obsolete words, which, having read a few of Bowles' stories the night before, I knew he would.
      He's a small man, about 70, and was wearing brown slacks and hush puppies, a turtleneck cable knit sweater and an old tweed sport coat.  He would have fit in quite well in a New England seaport or ski lodge.
      Handing us a kif-filled CasaSport for the three of us to share, he stood at the fireplace with one hand on the mantle and told us about former residents of Tangier.  Like the man who would kidnap girls from the mountains and take them to his house, doing whatever it was he did with them until he gave them a fine qaftan and let them go.  A young girl cannot get married until she has saved enough money to make or buy a good qaftan to get married in.  Bowles once went to a party given by this man, complete with entertainment by a bevy of his dancing girls in transparent gowns, each of whom were beautiful, each with fine features, beautiful.  (Bowles dwelt on this detail with fondness.)  Then a very short man, almost a midget (Jones, I think his name was) appeared, striding out in high boots, wielding a whip, cracking it while the girls cowered.  When the show was over, the host walked the beautiful girls to the gate of his estate and said, "Good-night.  Fuck you."  A few years later, when Morocco became independent, the man left the country, afraid of repercussions from the Moroccan government.
      Another man Bowles knew, a Brahmin, walked from Tangier to London in mid-winter, wearing only sandals and a saffron robe.  He made it, but died three days after arriving in Piccadilly Circus.
      Then there was the man whom a British lady friend of Bowles' met in church.  I think she was the consul's wife.  The man invited her over for tea.  In the living room was an ice-box where he kept his refreshments handy.  He opened the box and asked if she would like some blood.  "No, I don't think I should like some just now," she answered.  "But if you don't mind," she inquired, "where on earth do you get it?"  "Oh," he said, "from the boys in the neighborhood."  Each of the jars of thick red liquid had a label: MUSTAPHA, AHMED, MOHAMMED, MOKDIR, etc.  Evidently he paid the boys well for their samples, in one coin or another.
      And then there were the Moroccan legends, like the one about the women from one of the mountain tribes, who would roam in herds hunting lone men on the mountains.  Finding one, they would ravish him and move on to the next.
      Once or twice, Bowles would become a little too poetic in his descriptions, or a little too speculatively philosophical in his observations, but he would catch himself, pause, and say, "That was the kif talking," punctuating the air with his pipa.  Then, taking up his discourse at the point where the kif had begun and his own voice had left off, he continued in a style more like that of his best lean prose.

28 Dec.
Today Joanne and Francis and I went shopping in the medina.  I bought some phials of oil, essence of henna, ambre, Chariman (fleur d'olive), and Mavaloca (geranium), and two packets of kohl with a carved kohl applicator.  The men here also wear scents and kohl.  There were all sorts of oils, distillations of flowers: narcissus, chipre, tuberoses, rose, and musk from the glands of the gazelle.  We also bought two rugs, one from Ourzazate, a banded hanging, toute de laine, with silk.  The wool man said it was fifty or sixty years old and that it was probably made by deux personnes over a one or two-month period.  The other rug is from the Moyen Atlas, a rich blood-red carpet, de fabrication récente.  In the Grand Socco we drank nana con shiba, mint tea with shiba, the mint from which absinthe is made.
      Yesterday, when we returned from Asilah, Francis wanted some bourbon, but when he went to the cabinet it was bare.  The Four Roses was gone.  This morning there appeared yellow roses in the living room, one on the kitchen drain, and another at the gate to the garden.  Joanne asked Kadir to see what he could find out.  When we got back from the medina this afternoon, Kadir said, "Najat dit que le chat fait la bouteille casser."  Francis insisted on seeing the broken bottle.  Kadir brought Najat, and she tried to tell them that she threw the shards of glass into the ravine behind the house.  When they could find nothing there, she tried to tell them that it had broken into little pieces "comme sable."  Joanne asked Kadir if he really believed that.  Kadir told Najat: "ce n'est pas possible."
      The mystery of the Four Roses remains unsolved.  But we can no longer lay it on the djinn.  Najat obviously knows something and won't tell.  A boyfriend?  Her little brother?  Perhaps she wanted the bottle for its pretty label, for the roses, and replaced it with the yellow roses from the garden?  I assumed she was incorruptible, although I wouldn't have minded corrupting her myself.  She's very pretty, soon to be sold to a rich husband in Tetouan.

30 Dec.
We ate qafta at a little cafe in the medina.  Qafta is made of ground meat seasoned with saffron, garlic, cumin, paprika (hot), parsley, and celery leaves, and shaped into silver-dollar sized patties that are fried in oil, served with lemon and two fried eggs over onions in tomato sauce.
      Later we had martinis at Madame Porte's, a "salon de thé" which is really a bar.  It is a little bit of Europe, circa 1930s or '40s, where all the transient literati of Tangier are said to have hung out.  Alec Waugh would have his daily martini there, alone, at exactly the same time every day.  His evening promenade to Madame Porte's, in his white suit and Panama hat, through the color and bustle of the streets of Tangier, was one of the picturesque sights of the city, and as predictable as Greenwich time.
      Tonight we ate mejoune, kif prepared with figs, dates, sugar and butter.  It has an odd smell but tastes delicious washed down with warm milk.  It speeds silent sirens to all the districts of the body.  It was not long before I was feeling as though my extremities were being extended like warm taffy.  The feeling lasted for quite some time.  Even now I am feeling its effects -- a happy feeling -- as the pen scrapes the paper.
      Tomorrow I leave for Spain.

31 Dec.  Ibn-Batouta, and Tangier to Algeciras
Early this morning Kadir was kicked between the eyes by one of the horses, La Chica.  A huge gash and swelling.  We took him to the doctor, which involved going first to the American School, then to the Consulate, then to the doctor's house-office, then to the Italian hospital for x-rays.  Francis and I finally had to leave Joanne there with Kadir so that I could get my ticket and catch the boat.  We had time, though, to get some mint tea and gateaux.  Whiffs of hashish and kif kept breezing by us, the men in djellabas puffing away.
      I feel that I am having to tear myself away from Tangier.  The climate, the visual excitement of the people in the streets, the melange of languages, the odors of animals and hashish, the partly deformed population, the constant Dada dislocation, the sun, the colors, the air, the wools, the sounds ... all conspire to keep one here, as though in a trance.  I admire the disdain of the Moslems, especially these proud Moroccans, a desert and mountain people, a race of hustlers and holy men.
      I can see why Paul Bowles has not been able to bring himself to leave.



Books by Richard Collins available at Amazon.com (click on title for reviews and ordering information):

John Fante: A Literary Portrait


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