“There are no languages here. Only dialects.”
Paul Bowles, “A Distant Episode”
In the summer of 2001 I found my way to Marrakech, Morocco. Marrakech is one of the most magical cities I have ever visited. It’s located south of Casablanca and the Atlas Mountains, and sits on the outer edge of the Sahara Desert. There are no sand dunes in Marrakech, but the desert landscape is rocky, taking on a distinctly lunar quality. The walls of the city are a reddish-pink, which glow in the sunset. Once one enters the gates the first thing one notices is the insanity of traffic. There seem to be no traffic patterns in Marrakech, and the walker, especially the foreign walker, takes his life in his own hands. The sheer assault of car horns, the shouting, the chaos of spoken Arabic and French, not to mention the smells and the dust, are really nothing like I’ve experienced before and can be quite bewildering to the traveler. This was North Africa, so different from the Africa of the east and its safaris and lions.
In an early entry for this blog I wrote how my “real” life experiences are becoming increasingly confused with the experiences of reading. That is, I am now not quite sure which is a memory from my life or a memory from a book I’ve read. Morocco, at least for me, is a Bowlesian construction. Postcolonial theorists will see this as yet another instance of colonialism by the white, privileged point of view over the black, subservient native. Be that as it may. Everything, or nearly everything I knew about Morocco came from my reading of Paul Bowles. And although I was in Marrakech to give a paper at a conference on Italo Calvino, I felt as if I brought Bowles with me.
In one of Bowles’s earliest, and best short stories, “A Distant Episode,” he tells the story of a western professor of linguistics who travels to Morocco to study the dialects of a certain region in the south. The professor returns to a café he visited before where he befriended the owner, only to discover that the owner is no longer there. From this point on the story takes a series of sinister twists and turns only to end up in madness. The professor places himself in a vulnerable position and is kidnapped by a group of nomadic rebels. The professor has his tongue cut from his mouth and is turned into a sort of slave/clown. The story is one of Bowles’s best, and is one of his best known. It’s a story I have read countless times, and I have even written a significant essay on the theme of hospitality, or the lack of it, in the story.
It was with this story in mind that I came to feel threatened one hot afternoon as I left my hotel in the new part of town with the intention of walking to the old part, a few miles away. I decided to skip a guided tour that day because I was feeling sick. Morocco will sooner or later catch up with all westerners, and it caught up with me with a vengeance for several days. Still, I was not about to sit in my hotel. So, I loaded up my backpack and took off alone to explore. I stopped at one café with an outdoor terrace and ordered a mint tea. No alcohol was available, so I took the next best thing.
After, I was about a mile or so from my hotel when a man on a moped pulled up next to me and started speaking to me in English. He said that he recognized me from the hotel and asked if I wanted a guided tour of the souks. His English was pretty good and I had no trouble understanding him, but I failed to recognize him. I politely thanked him and informed him that I preferred traveling alone. However, Moroccans love to bargain and a “no” is never a definitive no. Moroccans are pushy people when it comes to foreigners, and a lot of them make their living by offering up their services as guides. The services are cheap, and sometimes the traveler can learn quite a lot. Part of me wanted to get on the back of his moped and see the sights, but the truth is I got scared. The Bowles story came back to me and I began to fantasize that I would end up kidnapped, or worse, horribly mutilated or dead. We stood there on that busy street for a long time going back and forth. Finally, he spit onto the ground and sped away. I was thankful and sweaty as I watched him zoom down the busy boulevard.
I cannot say if he really was from my hotel, but I did look for him when I returned, and for the rest of the trip I did not see him either in the lobby or around the grounds of the hotel. Still, part of me wanted to believe that he was just a guide trying to make a living from one of the millions of tourists who came to Marrakech. Yet, that story from Bowles overpowered my judgment, perhaps rightly, perhaps wrongly. This was in July of 2001, just two months before September 11th.
Reading fiction and taking it so seriously can have strange affects on us. The world of Paul Bowles is as real as anything I have experienced in my daily life, yet I know that most of it is just fiction. Writers of fiction are essentially liars; it really cannot be otherwise. Yet, I also believe that they draw from real life experiences. Not long after my trip to Marrakech American journalist Daniel Pearl was kidnapped from a hotel in Pakistan and eventually beheaded. I do not wish to make light of Pearl’s kidnapping and assassination, but the sequence of events do read like a story from Paul Bowles. In a way we are all living in a Bowlesian world where security has been proven to be a false concept, something Bowles himself prophesized decades ago.