Paul Bowles and the Trials of Morocco

His stories remind us of what’s at stake as a nation reels from a catastrophic earthquake

In the wake of the September 8 earthquake in Morocco, which has left thousands dead and hundreds of thousands without shelter, some observers have expressed not only shock and horror at the calamity, but an inability to grasp why the nation has been selective when it comes to accepting foreign help.

While allowing aid and workers from a handful of countries, namely Spain, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates, and the United Kingdom, Morocco has turned a deaf ear to offers of help from the U.S. State Department and even from a power nearby and ready to jump in—France. The snubbing of France has stoked an international furor. Many people cannot fathom why Morocco would decline aid with so many homeless and so many bodies under tons of rubble.

They might find answers in the work of Paul Bowles (1910-1999), a New Yorker by birth who traveled widely in Morocco and moved to Tangier in 1947. In many of his novels and stories, Bowles’s subject was the daily life of Morocco. Again and again, he revisited that flashpoint where ancient ways and customs underwent radical alteration, not to say deformation, as a result of outsiders’ callousness and blindness.

The Guardian has suggested that Morocco rejected France’s offer because, after chafing under French colonial rule from 1912 to 1956, fierce cultural and psychological currents make King Mohammed VI and others loathe the idea of appearing even briefly dependent on France.

That may be correct as far as it goes. But the United States, and most other countries, are not former rulers of Morocco, and the king’s rejection of foreign aid goes much further than telling the French to cool their heels.

Bowles saw what happened when rich foreigners got high on the exoticism of a country they did not understand. Settlers clumsily mislayered their institutions on native soil. Iterations of this theme are common in Bowles’s stories, which unite an eye for social and topographical detail with a nimbler prose style than that of more fashionable authors.

The protagonist of the story “Midnight Mass,” who has bought a big house in Tangier, goes by the pronoun “he.” We never learn his given name, the point being that he is someone we all have met somewhere along the line, his identity is interchangeable with that of any number of rich people who buy a summer house in a country they associate with adventure but have never taken the trouble to get to know. Feeling lonely around a holiday with cultural importance for him if not for the locals, he decides to plan a Christmas Eve party. Among the guests are a young man who lives in Tangier and works as a painter.

When the party rolls around, socioeconomic differences are stark. Though the owner of the house frets over its disrepair and electrical problems, the painter cannot help remarking on its size and the number of unused rooms, in any of which he would find it a privilege to set up a canvas. The owner finds the painter’s insistence annoying, not to say unfounded. When he finally gives in and agrees to let the painter work in one of the bare rooms, he feels the predictable satisfaction because his small act of noblesse oblige has made a struggling native’s life better. Just how modest and temporary an act it is becomes evident as the story unfolds. He is a blinkered foreigner whose concern over the house’s imperfections illustrate just how spoiled he is and how incapable of envisioning what suffering and deprivation mean for the millions he will never meet.

In Bowles’s vision, Moroccans rarely if ever derive any benefit from living and working within a social and cultural structure laid down from outside. In “Madame and Ahmed,” the former character is the wealthy Mrs. Pritchard and the latter is a local man who works for her as a gardener. He seems at least to have job security until his employer comes home in a state of excitement with the news that she has bought plants from a merchant in Tangier.

When the well-dressed seller turns up at the home with the plants, Ahmed quickly sees that they come from Tangier’s municipal gardens. The seller is a thief! Not only that, but the creep insinuates to Mrs. Pritchard that she should fire Ahmed and let him take over the gardening. Ahmed broods and wonders what to do and comes up with a plan that involves no small deviousness on his own part. He will pull up the roots of the new plants and burn them, and then when the plants die, his employer will realize the seller is a scumbag, which is true, if not for the reasons she thinks.

Here is a familiar Bowles theme: Moroccans jockeying for the favor of foreign overlords in a manner that brings out the best in no one. Organic social relations, unpolluted by jealousy of the rich caste’s favor, is impossible as long as laborers languish in a state of dependence. The theme emerges vividly in “The Dismissal,” where a local man named Abdelkrim works for Patricia, a rich lady from California who has bought a house in Tangier. Patricia is a demanding employer, if not unusually so in this social context. “Nazarenes always criticize the work Moslems do for them, and he was used to that,” Bowles writes. When Abdelkrim finds the courage to ask to take a national holiday off, Patricia relents with no grace.

But what should be an enjoyable day off goes south when Abdelkrim, wandering in the bush, sees five local men trying to hide a safe they have stolen. Worse still, one of them recognizes him. Now fearing for his life, he seeks to take more time off from work to go incognito and avoid the criminals, but his employer is so stingy that he cannot do so without losing his job and falling permanently out of favor. The overlords don’t think any more highly of him than they would of the thiefs he would like to help the police catch. No one is at his best under this dispensation.

Some of the rich transplants have tunnel vision, others are cruel, and a few are monstrous. Those who have seen the harrowing film The Killing of a Sacred Deer will see adumbrations of its plot in Bowles’s story “The Eye,” where a Canadian named Duncan Marsh grows enraged at the presence of the small daughter of a woman, Meriam, who works on his property. Marsh does something that terrifies the girl literally to death. This sets in motion a plan involving the poisoning of Marsh, who grows as sick as the family in Yorgos Lanthimos’s haunting film. A man who held the ways and customs of locals in contempt becomes the victim of a spell whose lethal effects he would never have credited. “There was no criminal intent—only a mother  moving in the darkness of ancient ignorance,” Bowles writes.

Today some Moroccans may be rightly jealous of their freedom and independence and unwilling to submit to the paternalistic benevolence of any and all who would re-shoulder the White Man’s Burden. For all the devastation that the quake has wrought, it is no excuse to acquiesce in even the temporary re-colonization of a country. Bowles would have understood the stance of some in Rabat. But Bowles’s fiction is so much more than a morality play about imperial conqueror and native victim. He saw deep fissures within the country he loved, and tensions between traditional and secular ways.

In another horticultural tale, “The Garden,” an unnamed man in a town in the south of the country cultivates plants so beautiful that Bowles describes them as “shining like jewels,” and the character takes up the ritualistic watching of his garden at sunset. A crisis arises when an imam demands that the man give thanks to Allah for the splendor he enjoys, and the man refuses. He worked hard and the garden is his achievement, not Allah’s. “I never heard of him,” says the man. Furious at this blasphemy, the imam dispatches a group of boys to ambush the gardener and hurl stones. The man’s attempt to defend himself leads to a scuffle with one of the boys that gives the townspeople a pretext to carry out rough justice indeed. They treat him, not the boy or the imam who instigated the attack, as the aggressor.

Refusing all aid from powers willing and able to provide it, even as thousands face homelessness and starvation and the loss of their buried relatives forever, may prove to be an act of vanity on which generations to come will not look kindly. Yet it is not without motives. As Paul Bowles knew well, there no pat answers, no victors, in the shadow of a tortured history.


 You May Also Like

Michael Washburn

Michael Washburn is a Brooklyn-based writer and journalist and the author, most recently, of The Uprooted and Other Stories (2018), When We're Grownups (2019), and Stranger, Stranger (2020). He's also host of the weekly Sea of Reeds Media podcast, Reading the Globe.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *