Sunday, July 4, 2010

Moroccan Sojourn - A Visit with Paul Bowles

Annette Solyst's visit with Paul Bowles at his home
Immeuble Itesa, Tangier, Morocco
October 1995

If someone is really, seriously interested in Morocco, they will sooner or later find out about Paul Bowles. For the ones who have never heard of Paul Bowles, here is a little summary: Born in NYC in 1910, he starts writing poetry and stories as a young boy. He runs off to Paris in his first year of college. / Returns to Paris a short while later and meets Gertrude Stein/ Studies music under Aaron Copland/The two visit Morocco together, on the recommendation of Gertrude Stein./Adventures and misadventures in Tangier and Fez./ He starts composing music, in particular he composes scores for plays like Tennessee Williams' "Glass Menagerie"/ Marries Jane Auer/ Continues to compose music/ Travels a lot and likes it/ Feels too tied to NYC due to the music and changes genres/ Writes " The Sheltering Sky" which is published in 1949 to some acclaim/ Moves to Tangier/ Tangier becomes his home, and to my knowledge he is still there.

At least, on the 9th of October 1995, he certainly was there. This is one of those stories I like to hear, and in this case tell, because it so makes the point that if you really want something, if it is important to you, it is bound to happen.

This is my story, then. I had planned a trip to Morocco (my sixth). It had been a few years since my last visit, and I longed to see Tangier again (which, by the way, actually has a certain amount of charm, even if it is debauched charm, and never struck me as the "Armpit of Africa" some people claim it is). Then it occurred to me that Paul Bowles lives there. I had admired his books for years, and was as enchanted with his style, and in effect with the author behind the words, as ever.

So in a wishful kind of way, I went in search of a little present and found a book I've always enjoyed to give away (Alastair Reid's "Whereabouts - Notes on Being a Foreigner") and a CD by Brian Keane that uses Paul Bowles' "Sheltering Sky" as a theme. I carefully wrapped these two little offerings intended for Paul Bowles, all the while wondering how I could get up the nerve to visit him - or even find him in the city.

Having arrived, I wandered the medina, the souks, sat in outdoor cafes, hoping, wishing that somebody would reveal to me how I could find Mr. Bowles. It is a strange thing - most travelers to Morocco tell a tale of woe about being approached by would-be guides and toutes. Not this girl! I was hoping to be bothered by somebody, but maybe I fit into the place like a true local (at least that's what I flattered myself with) - at any rate, help was not forthcoming.. At the Hotel Rif where I was staying, the concierge looked me up and down and told me in no uncertain terms that "Paul Bowles is old and ill. And he only receives special visitors…." Obviously, I didn't match his idea of special, so I certainly couldn't depend on him for help, either.

But what could be more fun than a good challenge? I had explored my options, and the final approach - though far-fetched - was based on a compilation of interviews with Bowles I had read some time ago. In several of those, his apartment of twenty-odd years was described as being near the American Consulate in Tangier. So, on an impulse, I got into a taxi and asked to be taken to the American Consulate. The driver stared at me uncomprehendingly and assured me there was no American Consulate in Tangier. We went back and forth a bit, and I finally was able to convince him that indeed, some 12 years earlier, I had personally been to that Consulate. At that remark, something dawned on my driver, and with exclamations of "Oh yes, I do remember!" he drove me through the maze of Tangier. We came to a stop in front of a wall with a boarded up gate, behind which I recognized the former consulate. So, to my great disappointment, the driver was right: there was nobody there I could ask about Paul Bowles. That's when I told the driver that in fact I was looking for the "American writer", whom I believed to be living somewhere nearby. He had never heard of this writer, but he could see the disappointment in my face.

He told me to stay put while he got out of the taxi and approached a gardener in front of an adjacent building. They talked for a minute, when both of them turned toward a Moroccan woman walking toward them at this moment. The gardener must have known her; they exchanged greetings and talked. Then, my driver and the woman came back to the taxi. -. Something good was up, that much I was certain. But to what degree good fortune was smiling on me really struck me when I heard this:.The woman was the maid of Paul Bowles' next door neighbors. Moreover, she was just on her way to the building, and would be glad to deposit me in front of his apartment.

As you can imagine, I could hardly contain myself! We arrived at the apartment building , she indeed took me up a very rickety elevator that had no lights, and left me at his front door. A tall, dark wooden door, scratched, with a peephole and small name plate with the inscription "Bowles" . The name plate was in an odd place, high up near the left top corner of the door. Sensing a bit of nervous hesitation on my part, the woman smiled and knocked energetically for me. Then she left. A young Moroccan woman - obviously a housekeeper- opened the door. She asked me what I wanted and I told her of my desire to visit Mr. Bowles. "Write down your name", she asked of me. Goodness, this was almost as bad as the concierge of the Rif looking me up and down. I certainly had no important name to present - I simply had been a reader of Mr. Bowles' books for years, and in-between the lines had gotten a glimpse of an author, a man, who struck me as not only interesting but inspiring and highly individualistic in his approach to life.

So here I was, trying to gain entry for a short visit - but what could I really offer that might open the door for me? In a flash, I recalled Mr. Bowles' own irresistible desire to visit Gertrude Stein while he was in Paris as a young man. On a piece of notepaper I carried in my bag, I scribbled something incoherent about his visit to Ms. Stein, and that because of his own experience, he would understand how much I would appreciate a few minutes of his time to pay my respects to him.

The maid took my note, and a few minutes later came back saying that Mr. Bowles would see me shortly. So I sat on the stairs by his front door, patiently waiting for the moment I would actually see this man whose books I so enjoyed, and who had chosen to live in a country that had held such an exotic fascination for me. Barely ten minutes passed, when the maid returned to ask me into the apartment. The foyer was small, cramped; a shipping trunk by the wall with stacks of newspapers. Several rooms opened up in front of me. I could see round leather hassocks on floors covered thickly with Berber style rugs and kelims. Paul Bowles was in a small room in the back of the apartment, obviously a combination of bedroom and work room. Then I saw him: this elderly, almost frail looking man, reclining on a narrow bed, covered by a blanket. He was wearing a brown housecoat and I could see pajamas underneath it. I saw heavily veined hands with two gold bands on his right pinky finger. For some strange reason, he looked exactly as I had imagined he would - the white hair; there were the bright blue eyes, the penetrating, observant gaze from a face that reminded me of a classical Roman statue. As a matter of fact, I could easily picture him strolling down the Via Apia, wearing a white toga. During our conversation, his facial features would change in a manner most difficult to explain. Change not due to different emotions running over it, but actually taking on completely different aspects: what appeared to be a dominant Roman look to his features changed momentarily into something Japanese, then Indian, then old woman -without being in the least effeminate-, all the while retaining a patrician, completely gentlemanly demeanor. Interesting, I thought to myself, how he is so charming to a complete stranger imposing upon him - I had read of him being described as "prickly".

He greeted me, and I sat on the floor in front of the bed, while he explained to me that he had not been too well - a sweeping gesture pointed to an adjacent round brass table that was covered with medicine bottles. He told me that he often has visitors in summer, but rarely does anyone visit Tangier in the fall or winter. Besides, I was lucky to find him home at all: he had just returned from New York City, where in late September (1995) music he had composed decades earlier was performed at Lincoln Center. He was the guest of honor. It was his first visit to New York City in many years, and he used it also to see a doctor. He already had two bypass surgeries in his right leg, and things were not getting much better. His health got more precarious after the filming of "The Sheltering Sky". We talked about the movie, about Bertolucci, about the way his book was interpreted in the movie. A German movie maker (Frieder Schleich) made a movie of three of his short stories. We talked about a shooting that had just happened at the Hotel Tafik, in which several tourists were killed and I had encountered eye witnesses that were moved to my hotel afterwards. He had his own views of the event -certainly not the conventional interpretation-, and he shared much about the 'old' Morocco he knew, and the many changes that he has seen over the decades. "But", he said, the Café Hafa is as it always has been". I, too, had been to this café, overlooking the cliffs, sitting on straw floor mats outside, or by tables in the shade inside, watching the dozens of cats the owner feeds every day. He certainly was right about the beautiful setting high above the Atlantic and the feeling of calm, and I took his word that it has been the same for forty years.

When I handed him my little presents, he seemed to find a small delight in unwrapping the gift wrap. "Oh", he said" Alastair Reid! I used to hear him on special Voice of America broadcasts on the radio". He had never heard of Brian Keane, or that a quote from one of his books was used on the CD cover. "Nobody sends me anything", he mumbled. At times , he seemed fatigued, for which he apologized. "Normally, I take my siesta after dinner. I am sorry I am not all there." To me, however, he seemed like a keen observer and careful listener. He described how he was living off his memories, that at his age, he didn't have that much to look forward to anymore. But his memories of his entire life meant much to him. He made it so easy for me - there was a smooth flow to our conversation, and any slight awkwardness on my part was bridged by his engaging manner. He appeared content with the full, rich life he has lived, always on his own terms.

"There are people who break out of the routines of life", he told me, " and who knows, they may be admired for it."

(December 1995)


Paul Bowles died on November 18, 1999 in Tangier at the age of 88.
On the 29th and 30th of October, 2000, a two-day tribute was paid to Paul Bowles at the 92nd Street YMHA in New York City. Friends and colleagues remembered Paul Bowles by reading favorite passages from his books; among them Virginia Spencer Carr, Daniel Halpern, Joyce Carol Oates, Ned Rorem and Debra Winger. The EOS Ensemble (conducted by Jonathan Sheffer) performed Bowles compositions, including the premiere of the 1939 "Romantic Suite".

November 1, 2000, Paul Bowles' ashes were buried alongside his parents and grandparents at the Lakemont Cemetery in Lakemont, New York, just a few miles from Seneca Lake in the Fingerlakes area of New York State. A small group of people made the journey to honor their old friend; among them, Phillip Ramey, Kenneth Lisenbee, Joseph A. McPhillips III, Cherie Nutting, Virginia Spencer Carr, Claude Nathalie Thomas, Irene Herrmann and Philip Krone.
The Authorized Paul Bowles Web Site is one of the most comprehensive resources on Paul Bowles on the web. Please bookmark the following URL:

Musical scores of many vocal and chamber works by Paul Bowles, unavailable for many years, are now being distributed by the composer's musical heir Irene Herrmann.
Irene can be reached at:

To contact me, please write to:

The paintings of Paul Bowles posted above are by Annette Solyst.  Prints or the originals are available for sale. Please email if you are interested

To purchase my book "TIMELESS PLACES: MOROCCO",
please go to your favorite bookstore or find it online at
(click on box)

This story was originally published on my website
Reproduction is permitted with proper credits.