In June of 1980 my manuscript submission had won me a place in the School of Visual Arts pilot program of study with writer/composer Paul Bowles in Tangier, Morocco.
At the time of my acceptance to the program I was working as a regional reporter at the Record, a newspaper in Northern Jersey. I hated it. I wanted to create stories not record them. Paul Bowles was a hero to me. His exotic and disturbing fiction seemed like an oasis; my writing was confined to mental health center openings and traffic accidents.
Right before I left for North Africa I saw an ad in the Village Voice for a play, In The Summer House, by a Jane Bowles. Knowing nothing about Mr. Bowles’ biography I called the theater and asked if Jane Bowles was the wife of the writer Paul. An angry feminist voice shouted at me that Jane Bowles couldn’t possibly be married to Paul Bowles. Jane Bowles was a lesbian.
The first time I laid eyes on Paul Bowles was in a classroom with about a dozen other writers, mostly aspiring writers. I realized manuscript strength wasn’t as important as financial solvency when candidates were selected. Six weeks cost fifteen hundred dollars and included three college credits. I was three credits short of a City College degree.
Mr. Bowles, a frail, elegantly dressed man of about seventy with a full head of white hair, strode into the classroom about twenty minutes late and told the truth. He said he hated writing workshops and didn’t believe they could help a writer at all. He was quite low on funds and agreed to lead the workshop because the money was pretty good.
I thought that was wonderful. The last thing I wanted to do was to spend six weeks in an academic environment. I just wanted to explore Morocco and earn three credits in the bargain.
Mr. Bowles proposed, or maybe it was another student’s idea, that instead of meeting X amount of times in a formal classroom setting, he meets individually with each writer for a few visits over the six week term. After a short discussion on where these visits should take place, Mr. Bowles suggested his apartment. That way he could keep his own hours and expend the least amount of energy in service to that SVA check.
All the writers jockeyed for immediate appointments. Not me. I wanted to explore North Africa. My man to man meeting with Paul Bowles wasn’t for a couple of weeks.
In the interim, I had a dangerous and surreal extended visit to the Rif Mountains that began three days after being introduced to Paul Bowles. I was gone for over a week and no one at the SVA compound knew where I was or what had happened to me. When I returned I was severely chastised; the police had been called in. But that’s another story.
I was quite nervous before my meeting with Mr. Bowles. I was comforted by an attractive actress, Antoinette Bowers. Ms. Bowers, who looked quite familiar to me, was a steadily employed film actress, disgusted that her age (I’d say mid to late forties) had begun to drastically limit her workload. Because of the declining acting offers she wanted Paul Bowles’ advice about a roman’ a clef she was working on about the film business. She said she and Paul had quite a few mutual friends.
Ms. Bowers was scheduled to meet with Mr. Bowles right after me. It was her second visit to his apartment. S h e volunteered to walk me over to where he lived. Antoinette laughed when I told her my Jane Bowles theater story. I was then informed that Jane was indeed Paul’s late wife as well as a lesbian. She insisted I tell Paul the story because it would amuse him. I told her no way was I going to bring that up. I’d be too embarrassed.
I quickly climbed the stairs inside Mr. Bowles’ modest Tangier apartment building. A maid opened the door and led me to a room without chairs; there were only throw pillows on the floor.
Paul Bowles entered from an adjoining room. His watery blue eyes seemed to regard me with a kind of bored amusement. We shook hands. I couldn’t take my eyes off the smoke wafting up from his elegant cigarette holder. The cigarette was quite thick and looked homemade.
His speech was measured and his diction level was incredible high. But what I noticed most was his whistling. Whenever an s-word slipped from his lips it turned into a whistle. Paul Bowles plopped himself down on some pillows and motioned me to do the same.
An awkward silence followed.
The maid re-entered the room and Mr. Bowles asked me if I’d like some mint tea. He signaled the maid to bring two bowls and then asked me a few questions about myself. I was hoping he’d mention the story I had submitted for his critique. I fantasized him pouring forth praise and excitement over the discovery of a major new talent. But the only thing poured was the mint tea and it was too hot to drink.
After some small talk about the current political situation in the U.S. — Ronald Reagan’s presidential campaign, our hostages in Iran — I made Paul Bowles laugh. Desperate for conversation, I told him the Jane Bowles theater story.
He howled and said Jane would have loved it. When I asked him a few questions about his wife he told me Jane was poisoned by an evil maid she was in love with.
Mr. Bowles asked me if I indulged in the smoking of cannabis. When I answered in the affirmative he produced a bag of what he called kif — a mixture of hashish and tobacco. I nervously rolled a cigarette but was afraid to smoke it.
You see, Paul Bowles had the sharpest mind I’d ever encountered. His manner was so eloquent, his eyes so piercing; I knew I needed all my resources, unimpaired, just to keep up with him. I was quite intimidated by the man. He was the first author I ever met and his fantastic surroundings and unique style made him bigger than life.
After a few puffs I relaxed. He pulled out my story and gave me a detailed critique of it — a grammatical critique. Without mentioning one word about the story’s merit or content, Paul Bowles simply produced a sheet of paper that catalogued all my wordsmith’s faults. When I finally asked him what he thought of the story he shrugged off a reply.
Okay, Paul Bowles did not think much of me as a writer. Humiliated, I told him I was really interested in writing for the theater. He said then that’s what I should be doing.
Telling Paul Bowles about my passion for theater really animated him. He told me he had written the music for Orson Welles’ first New York production and had written a few incidental scores for Tennessee Williams’ plays, including The Glass Menagerie. Mr. Bowles informed me I had missed Tennessee Williams by a couple days.
Paul Bowles then launched into a description of his musical career. I had no idea he was such a respected composer before turning to fiction full time. He told me amusing antidotes about his failed collaboration with the zany Armenian writer William Saroyan on an opera, as well as funny stories about Gertrude Stein, whom he met when he was a teenaged poet in Paris.
I told him about my frightening yet exhilarating experiences in the Rif Mountains. He laughed and said an American visiting the Rif would be the equivalent of someone visiting the United States and staying in the Appalachian Mountains.
Mr. Bowles didn’t think much of me as an artist, but he did delight in my sense of adventure.
Puzzled over the treatment of females I saw, I asked Paul about a woman’s role in Islamic culture. He answered me with a wonderful story:
One morning he was writing in bed as he always does, and heard a loud commotion outside his window. He called in his maid and asked her to find out what all the noise was about. She left, stood out on the balcony, and returned saying it was simply two people arguing in front of the building. Paul continued to work until the angry shouts became so disruptive he couldn’t concentrate.
Wondering how two people could possibly make all that noise, he got out of bed and threw open his window. What he saw was more than a dozen people screaming at each other, but only two of them were men.
The escalating effects of the kif reduced to me to a grinning idiot. Bowles saw this and decided to choreograph a musical exit for me. He told me about this fantastic music he had recorded live. It was performed by Aborigines blowing shell instruments inside a cave. Paul said it sounded remarkably like electronic music.
He handed me a pair of headphones, slapped a cassette into a tape player, pushed the play button, and disappeared into another room. But it wasn’t primal musical sounds that invaded my ears, but a slurred woman’s voice alternately laughing and cursing.
I was embarrassed. Obviously Bowles had given me a tape of his late wife by mistake. When the author/composer reentered the room in what seemed an eternity later, I didn’t know whether I should tell him about his error. When he asked me how I enjoyed the music I simply grinned my appreciation. As I was preparing to leave I encountered Mohammed Marabet, a short man of Herculean proportions. He entered the apartment with an affectionate greeting for Paul and a sneer for me. I did not know who he was, but I did know that he intensely disapproved of me being there.
Marabet stared challengingly into my face and said that he had killed men, several men. Paul smiled and watched me. I summoned up all the stoned courage I could muster and answered him:
“Yeah, I’ve killed men, too.” A lie. “I was in the Vietnam War.” The truth. Mohammed walked over to me as if to strike me. Although I was terrified I stood my ground. He stood inches away from me, grinding his teeth, looking me up and down. Blood rushed to my head; I instantly became sober.
Paul ended the stand-off by uttering a few words in Maghrebi. Marabet’s animosity instantly dissolved. They both laughed. I was then treated to a broken English diatribe by Mohammed about how great a writer he was, even greater than Tennessee Williams or any other of Bowles’ friends. And he, Marabet, didn’t even know how to read!
I later learned that Mohammed was one of Paul’s illiterate protégés. Bowles translated many tales Marabet had dictated. The muscular Moroccan had quite a cult following.
But in the summer of 1980, I just wanted to escape from these two North African literary giants. I jolted down the stairs of Bowles’ fourth-floor apartment and ran out into the blinding Moroccan sun, sweaty but safe.
Despite the curriculum that stated I must meet with Paul Bowles at least two more times before the term ended, I never saw the man again. But he did give me wonderful advice on places to visit in southern Morocco. And a passing grade.