THE LAND WHERE YOU WANTED TO BE
Paul Bowles, Mohammed Mrabet, and 17-year-old Me
I was happy to have your letter, and much pleased by its contents. If all you say is exact, that Tangier proves to be a gateway through which you went into the land where you wanted to be, then one can only say that it is one of those inexplicable happy accidents that do now and then occur. I smiled at your tenuous self-introduction; obviously I remembered you, and should have even without the epistolary services I rendered after you left.
2117 Tanger Socco,
“Don’t forget. You are the best first chapter Mrabet has.”
Casa Zugari, Calle Ajdir,
These quotes are taken from letters written to a teenager who had met and bonded briefly with these storied figures; an encounter of life-changing dimensions for her, but not a rare or even uncommon experience for them. Paul Bowles met and corresponded with countless people over the course of the 20th century, becoming in the end a kind of tourist destination for the literati. In other words, there is a minor memoir-phenomenon out there of “Bowles and I” so this story is hardly exceptional, except for the fact that the young girl had no idea who Paul Bowles nor Mohammed Mrabet was, and certainly knew nothing of Jane Bowles who died two years before she arrived, nor anything about what the Beats, William Burroughs, and Naked Lunch even meant to Tangier.
At its simplest then, it is the story of a remarkable inter-generational and cross-cultural romance between some bigger-than-life figures and a sheltered 17-year-old self; friendships enabled, as suggested above, by the very ignorance and unknowingness of that 17-year-old. At its most complex it is a story of a girl who would most likely never have become who she is had she not known, been affected by, and spent many years writing back and forth first with one, then the other. Maybe this is the story of the power of the letter, its sensibility and care. Would a print-out of email exchanges have any of the same effect? Because so much of this story is about what happens in the time in between the writing and the sending and the receiving of a letter, an ontological experience that is nearly impossible to recreate today.
I never returned to Tangier after that winter of 1975, and fell out of touch with both men by 1985. Others might have stayed or returned the next year after graduating from high school, heading full-on into an affair with Mrabet that could have only ended disastrously. Thankfully I was aware of the folly of taking myself too seriously, confirmed as I met and read of the countless people who met and corresponded with Bowles. Anyway, it was an experience so personal that to open it to the world or try to revisit it would only have ruined it.
I knew then not to trust or take seriously Mrabet’s affections. He undoubtedly met and got involved with numerous women, and men. His infatuation was with an archetype of some kind. And yet, reading the letters over, and based on experiences I heard through friends (years later, Mrabet called a young woman with whom he was involved “Tir’za” by mistake), it is hard not to wonder what kind of authenticity might have been there. What was this blond American girl to the 35-year-old Moroccan and he to her (along with Paul Bowles)? Is there a larger story in here?
I put off going for weeks until literally pushed out of the school by my teacher Booker Nevious. Paul Bowles had no phone at that point but his apartment was within walking distance of The American School of Tangier, a walk of 20 minutes, along dirt roads high above the outer reaches of Tangier, which glimmered and sang in the voice of the muezzin below.
The apartment building, Immeuble Itesa, was of that remarkably unappealing, bland, modernist architecture of mid-century European modernism, a colorless watered-down style that depresses me now but was then merely a fact.
The door opened and a slender, smiley-eyed white-haired man in his 60s, his face covered with shaving cream, peered at me through a half-open door. I was taken aback by his warmth and complete lack of self-consciousness. He just smiled, opened the door and said, “Come in. You’ll have to excuse me I am about to go out for dinner but please, you are welcome, come in.” After leading me through a doorway of beads, he gestured to a row of Moroccan cushions lined along the wall and around a low-set glass table, the same formation I had seen in many a middle-class Moroccan’s home. I sat down on the cushions, and crossed my sneakered feet and blue-jeaned legs under me.
“I’ll only be a moment and then I’ll get you some tea.”
Full of unease I twisted the taped and worn rubber of my beat up Nikes and looked around the room. There was a fireplace, lit, a few paintings or were they drawings on the walls. It was all very sparse, but Moroccan, not self-consciously so, just basic in decor and function.
When he handed her the tea with lemon, I spooned four teaspoons of sugar into the cup.
“Your name again?”
He took it in, eyes twinkling, cigarette holder in mouth, and looked off into some distant memory, “Ah, there is a name Gertrude Stein would have adored.”
The phrase a rose is a rose is a rose was vaguely familiar but that was the extent of my recognition, until I returned to the States and, split open with curiosity by my Tangier experience, began a new identity as a compulsive reader. In The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas I discovered that Bowles was the last name mentioned in the book (as “Freddy”) and that it was Gertrude Stein who suggested to the 19-year-old American he to go to Morocco.
I explained why I was there and he said, “Although I have to go out, Mohammed Mrabet will be coming by soon and he is one of the foremost Moroccan authors. He is certainly who you should speak with.”
When Mrabet entered he was wearing a wool poncho and carrying a sebsi. His hands were tan and muscled from years of fishing. There was an elegance and brutal beauty to him. Paul left us alone sitting side by side on the cushions.
Mrabet filled his sebsi with kif from a small bag, inhaled, and then, as the smoke left his mouth, turned to me and asked in French where I was from. I told him I was from the Northfield Mount Hermon School on a term abroad at the American School. I asked him about a woman student from N.M.H. who had been to Tangier the year before and had told me about Mrabet. Something was very wrong with my French for god knows what I said, but he looked very insulted. “No, we will not speak French.”
The evening continued as a comedy of errors. We pantomimed our way through his photograph album, which he had brought out with great fanfare, sifting through the many snapshots of him standing on the beach, his stunning physique and pearly white smile paraded before the camera, doing handstands, or dancing dressed in a djellaba in a room full of drums, his expression that of a man in a trance (which he was). But the photo he was most proud of, and wanted to make sure I saw was the one of him shaking the hand of Muhammed Ali.
“He, a great friend of mine, Muhammed Ali.”
After we finished looking at all the pictures he got up and returned with a pile of intricate pen and ink drawings on parchment—spindly, wiry lines of geometric patterns and psychedelic dimensions. Some were creatures with eyes and claws colored with what looked like magic marker. There was one that was not quite finished of two entwined snake-like creatures set inside a background of serial orange and pink magic marker patterns. When I left a few months later, he presented it to me as a gift, finished, along with a ring he had when he was 17, and a necklace of tiny seashells strung on nylon fishing wire he had picked up from the beach we used to walk along, near a tiny out of the way café at the northernmost tip of Tangier. As he gave me the drawing he announced, “This is Mrabet and this, Tir’za” and laughed.
There was a red plastic bead, somewhat heart-shaped but abstract, in the center of the line of seashells. It was white and red, colors he had brought up again and again as a riddle to test me, and later, when I read his stories, I found were used symbolically throughout his books, particularly The Big Mirror.
I have no memory of how the evening ended except that he insisted he drive me back to the school. When I got out of his powder blue Carmengia, he held the hand I’d extended in thanks and looked at me with great seriousness. “Thank you, Tir’za” he said, confessing all at once how he will now learn English in order to speak with me. (Of course he had known it all along, not well, but he was perfectly capable of conversing. The pretense of not knowing, I realized later, was his way of saying fuck you to the “Nazarene”—American and British—exploitation that made Mrabet both more and less of who he was because of it.)
“You have given me a gift tonight,” he said with a reverence that made no sense. I smiled and stood awkwardly while he stared at me with that smoky-eyed stare. “I would like to come by and pick you up tomorrow.”
Such is the scenario that led to her going to Bowles’s apartment with Mrabet almost every night until I left. Not a terribly long time, but its effect was satorial1 as Bowles called it, as in the Zen Buddhist tradition of kenshō, “seeing into one’s true nature,”—the land where you wanted to be.
Mrabet, who was Paul’s long-time companion and was married to a Moroccan woman with many children, claimed to have fallen in love with me. I am pretty certain it was my robust and clueless virginity that fueled much of his fantasy. He spent the next few months whispering “Je t’aime, Tir’za” in my ear while I would neither kiss him fervently or at any great length and certainly would not have sex. In hindsight I look at the photographs of his astonishing beauty (no wonder Tennessee Williams and Henry Miller were taken with him), and am amazed, really dumbfounded by how little effect his sexuality and beauty had on me.
Mrabet spent several years after I left sending beautiful if surprisingly attached letters to me although he could not write. Since he was 25, consumed by huge amounts of kif, he had been telling stories of immense violence and magic to Bowles either in Moroccan Arabic or Spanish that Bowles transcribed, edited, and published, which was how Mrabet communicated with me. Paul translated and typed each letter, leaving room at the end of the page for Mrabet’s Arabic signature (his real name: Mohammed ben Chaib el Hajjem).
While Mrabet’s mark on me was the impact of an older man finding more in my head then I ever thought possible, the effect of Bowles the writer came slowly. In fact it was not until two years after I left that I decided to reintroduce myself to him in a letter. Not yet aware of the deep narcissistic wound of romantic triangulation that had already set into my psyche, my relationship with Paul and Mrabet was of course amusingly that (and the subject of Paul’s late wife Jane Bowles’s fiction). Only after the fact did I realize they were then, or at some point in the past, lovers and this process of communication itself was symptomatic of that strange configuration of the romantic triangle: the pact of invisibility, if not utter erasure, that one point of the triangle must always agree to. Paul had been the invisible spectator of this funny Mrabetian obsession with the American girl, transcribing and sending letters as though “written” by Mrabet. Participating effortlessly in the charade as only one shaped by triangulation can, I never addressed Paul’s presence until two years into the correspondence with Mrabet when I wrote to Paul directly, reintroducing myself as if Paul hadn’t been there in Mrabet’s letters all along.
Paul’s influence emerged via these letters, as I came to understand who he was, and felt the impact of knowing someone personally who had spent his life in fiction. It was not that I had not written fiction before meting Mrabet and Bowles, and fiction was even the voice I used to write my final research project, but knowing Bowles and Mrabet, the proximity and writing of letters, gave me the context to be a writer—in other words, live through words as a way of being. Previously, writing was just a part of my existence, a part of me like art, more craft, hobby, or way of passing the time, but afterwards it became a mission, a possibility, a way of coping, exploring, and learning. In other words, the world had shifted from a place to pass through into one to make from.
Unfortunately or not (it is a waste and illusion to regret where one did not go), the last letter I received from Bowles was in 1985, when I had already completed a master’s in Cinema Studies at New York University and entered a new Ph.D. program in California. This academic universe was of course part of my destiny, although hardly its fulfillment, (the fatalism of Moroccan “Incha’Allah” having taken root in my psyche), for it was where I grew a critical mind, which shaped me into a different kind of writer. Innocence gone, I knew too much at that point to write to Paul or Mrabet with any of the ease and care of my 17-year-old self. My experience with them would now be framed through the discourses of feminism, postcolonial studies, and queer theory, not to mention cultish literary history. I had lost what had made it all possible, and yet I became only what I am because of what continued to linger and hover. After finishing my dissertation I exited the inelegant confines of academic writing and culture, and stumbled upon my own land where I wanted to be, a land of art and writing (Mrabet: “I’d like to see you do two things. Paint and write, both.” 11/ii/77), where all the voices and agencies and fantasies of making are possible, whether word or doodle; fiction or nonfiction; critical or creative.
You make no mention of what you’re doing these days, but in my ignorance, I imagine you writing.
2117 Tanger Socco,
- From the Japanese Buddhist idea of satori
- And whom he held dear like that phantom he wrote to: “Dear Thyrza, I haven’t forgotten anything. Sometimes at midnight or at one in the morning when I’ve smoked a lot, I stare at some photographs—of Henry Miller and one of Tennessee Williams and one of Paul and one of a blond girl between Henry Miller and Tennessee.”
ContributorThyrza Nichols Goodeve
THYRZA NICHOLS GOODEVE is the Senior Art Editor for the Brooklyn Rail.