While a college student on a semester abroad in Spain, Ken Krayeske made a quixotic trip to Morocco to find Paul Bowles. Actually, the trip started six months earlier when he stumbled on a copy of Bowles’ The Sheltering Sky and fell under its spell. He HAD to find Bowles. And, with the help of a film prof, he did. And he has continued to find Bowles in the ensuing three decades, the good, bad, and ugly. Here is Krayeske’s masterful reckoning with Paul Bowles and his younger, more poetic self, published near the 22nd anniversary of Bowles’ death (Nov. 18).
Time long ago stole my reason for driving northbound on Route 2 in Colchester, Connecticut one fateful summer day back in 1993, before my senior year at university, when serendipity existed without algorithms.
I have no recollection why I sped through remote eastern Connecticut, or from where I came or to where I went. I know I pulled off the highway, passed Lazy Days Paperbacks and turned around, giving myself a moment of leisure to peruse used books.
Some invisible hand tapped my shoulder that day, like scales falling from St. Paul’s eyes on the road to Damascus, and it set in motion a fun story in my life, a magical narrative of coincidence, confidence and cosmic mystery. Who cares whatever else was happening that day, it was just a set up for me to walk through this door opening in the universe, to catch this bolt of lightning.
As soon as I walked in the bookstore, this deep blue Vintage International paperback caught my eye, a tan triangular desert dune exhorting white serif text across an azure sky: The Sheltering Sky by Paul Bowles. I did judge a book by its cover, my only reference for such a piercing phrase being the Police song “Tea in the Sahara.”
During sixth grade at the suburban St. John the Evangelist parochial school, I studied the lyrics on 1983’s hit machine Synchronicity more than the Rosary:
My sisters and I / Have one wish before we die /And it may sound strange / As if our minds are deranged / Please don’t ask us why / Beneath the sheltering sky / We have this strange obsession / You have the means in your possession / Tea in the Sahara / Tea in the Sahara with you
The book practically leapt into my hand. My mind raced. Was this book inspired by Sting? Or wait, Sting taught secondary school English before becoming a cop. He cultivated a literary rock-n-roll – “just like the old man in that book by Nabokov” – could this book be another allusion?
The pages opened, and the title of Book One, “Tea in the Sahara,” greeted me. It had to be. I forked over the $5 for the connecting principle of used book stores.
If you act as you think, the missing link, synchronicity.
I devoured The Sheltering Sky’s clean, precise prose, underscored by an economy of language like Hemingway’s but better, offering bitter insight into the post-nuclear human condition. Bowles never flinched at the darkest parts of the heart, and he chopped like an ax into my frozen sea, as Kafka commanded a book to do.
A few weeks later, in June, one of my sisters and I road-tripped to Washington D.C.’s RFK Stadium to see Sting open for the Grateful Dead. He concluded his short set with a guest appearance from Jerry Garcia on, what else, “Tea in the Sahara.”
Jerry’s sunshine guitar licks tickled Sting’s thump thump thumping bass. A seam opened in my LSD universe (it was a Dead show – of course I was tripping face). I felt linked to the invisible, it was almost imperceptible, something inexpressible… Like this is my life and I know it’s happening and it feels so weird. I felt special to be in a thimbleful of people in that stadium who probably knew the thread leading to the source of that song.
What made The Sheltering Sky even more delicious that summer was my impending autumn semester abroad in Madrid. In August, before flying to Spain, I recovered from my wisdom teeth removal by renting on VHS Bernardo Bertolucci’s film adaptation of Bowles’ novel, starring Debra Winger and John Malkovich. Like almost all films drawn from great books, it sucked.
Bowles hated the movie, even though his voice ended the film with The Sheltering Sky’s famous soliloquy:
“Death is always on the way, but the fact that you don’t know when it will arrive seems to take away from the finiteness of life. It’s that terrible precision that we hate so much. But because we don’t know, we get to think of life as an inexhaustible well. Yet everything happens a certain number of times, and a very small number, really. How many more times will you remember a certain afternoon of your childhood, some afternoon that’s so deeply a part of your being that you can’t even conceive of your life without it? Perhaps four or five times more. Perhaps not even. How many more times will you watch the full moon rise? Perhaps twenty. And yet it all seems limitless.”
Bowles also did not much care for the silly pop song “Tea in the Sahara.” Yet it was the reason I discovered him. The Sheltering Sky’s origin lies in his 1947 short story “A Distant Episode,” about a professor who gets captured by tribesmen while lost in the Western Sahara. This laid the foundations for the fatalistic, naïve wanderings of Port, Kit and Tunner.
As much as Bowles disliked derivations of his work, many people today consider Bowles’ work anathema to economic and social justice. Even though I kind of read Edward Said’s Orientalism as a freshman, I did not connect his condemnation of Bowles’ portrayals of Morocco that I embraced in The Sheltering Sky. I did not grasp the racist, colonialist hierarchies and values embedded in Bowles’ prose. [See https://www.nybooks.com/daily/2019/12/20/so-why-did-i-defend-paul-bowles/?lp_txn_id=1289597 ]
I admit ignorance of the inherent white supremacy in Bowles as a college student, and instead fixated on his impact on American culture. I mean here was a talent who inspired a literary movement to come to Tangier. William S. Burroughs in the Naked Lunch included Bowles and his wife Jane – a literary talent herself before electroshock therapy destroyed her mind – as the American couple trysting with Arab boys. I used to think this salaciousness was funny, but really it was some Woody Allen shit, or worse.
The criminal nature of Bowles’ proclivity stains his legacy. This same fault cracks Ginsberg – they paid Moroccan children for sex. Bowles even took teenagers across borders, from Morocco to Paris, to service their libidos. What I used to label grist for the literary mill feels repugnant now.
Paul Bowles was born Dec. 30, 1910, to a troubled dentist amidst the sheep farms of Jamaica, Queens. He knew in high school he flourished in urban environs. Even though he read Proust in high school, Bowles learned French to read Proust in his original tongue. Bowles was the first to translate into English Jean-Paul Sartre’s Huis Clois, coining the phrase “No Exit.” This kind of tidbit provided evidence to me of his ignored genius, that he deserved more recognition.
Bowles considered himself a composer first, a protégé of Aaron Copland. He submitted a morose musical score for Oklahoma! which the producers rejected in favor of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s. But scoring tunes did not pay, whereas his facility with the written word did. In 1943 he worked as a music critic for the Herald Tribune in New York City, but he sought adventure. He met Gertrude Stein in Paris while in college, and continued that friendship. Stein told him to go to Morocco. He went in 1947 and never returned.
I could see why. After my first two weeks touring southern Spain, the Moorish architecture and history enchanted me. In Madrid, I felt like a firework. One day, I wore a fez to the International School building on Calle Miguel Angel, Metro Ruben Dario. My first class every day was a film seminar taught by Emilio Sanz de Soto, a retired Spanish filmmaker who worked with the brilliant Luis Buñuel. For six weeks, de Soto dissected, frame by frame, the surreal imagery and symbolism of Buñuel’s Un Perro Andaluz. Hear the Pixies’ sonic blast “Debaser” for commentary on that one: Got me a movie, ohohohoh, slicing up eyeballs ohohohoh.”
When de Soto saw my fez, he called me Poeta. In front of class, he asked what I was reading. I proudly submitted my summer reading list, Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet and Bowles’ The Sheltering Sky. He stood up, started clapping and said “bravo. Bowles es muy buen amigissimo.”
Holy Toledo! We know you. They know me. Extrasensory. Not only did my professor know Bowles, I wagered they were probably lovers. de Soto took a liking to me, and we spoke of trends in arts, of the absurdity of surrealism and dadaism, of the deathly gallows of nihilism, of the hedonism of the Beats, and the silliness of pop and we wondered what comes next. de Soto thought truth. There is only the truth, no more art movements but the naked reality of existence.
At the end of the semester, de Soto gave me a book he published in Spanish called Paul Bowles: Visto Por Sus Amigos, which printed reflections from the likes of Francis Bacon and Gore Vidal. de Soto also drafted me a letter of introduction and told me where to find Bowles’ apartment building on top of the hill in Tangier. He drew me a map.
With the $1,000 I’d mooched from my uncle the bookie, I hopped an overnight train from Madrid to board the ferry in Algeciras, surrounded by Spanish Catholic Christmas festivities. As Gibraltar sank into the sea off the stern, the hills of northern Africa appeared out of the water off the bow. I remember thinking how huge Hercules must have been to spread the continents like that.
Once cleared into Tangiers, Christmas was no more. No lights or creches of roun’ yon virgin, mother and child. No Santas or trees or toy trains and dolls. No chestnut vendors or strings of snowflake lights across streets. Jesus was just a prophet in Morocco.
Not a single one of the hundreds of Moroccan boys playing soccer games across a brown sand beach expanse entertained visions of dancing sugarplums. The geographical limits of Christendom opened a foreign reality, one that birthed this idea of East is east, this other I wanted to explore.
Morocco opened my heart in ways Europe could not. It felt like forbidden fruit to climb up the narrow cobblestone streets in the ancient walled city to the new city at the top of the hill. I tried to follow the map, and eventually found the building where the American writer lived. I knocked on Apartment 2 on the second floor and a man answered. de Soto told me Bowles still had a butler, and he took the letter and shut the door.
An eternity passed in the dimly-lit grey stone hallway, and the butler opened the door and showed me in. Bowles bade me to sit on the floor. He reclined in a settee, and we sat and talked and he offered me a smoke from a silver and black leather case filled with pre-rolled kif and tobacco cigarettes. How inexplicable was this life? I only learned of this author six months ago by pure coincidence, and now, I was getting stoned with him – Paul Fucking Bowles – on the floor of his apartment in Tangier.
I visited again the next morning, took notes of our visit. Then I headed to Marrakesh on a second-class train. Adventure! Bowles warned me I would not find the Sahara he knew, as he said it no longer existed. But I discovered relics like the covered market in Marrakesh, vendors selling human teeth, costumed Berber boys bumming cigarettes and a donkey-drawn cart full of donkey skins dripping with blood on their way to the tannery.
My head was spinning with the magic when I returned to Tangiers a few days later. I visited Bowles again; this time some American woman who was learning Arabic was also visiting. Bowles sat in bed with his red velvet robe on, and for two hours we talked and smoked again. He asked us to leave when he was tired.
She and I hitched a ride in the back of a pick-up truck to my hostel in the old city. How on earth did I pick up a famous book in June and by December meet its legendary author an ocean away? To this day, no answer satisfies. The best I can muster is Spiritus Mundi. Synchronicity.
The experience gave me the kind of confidence to spin seemingly random threads into gold. A similar kind of strangeness landed me a gig as a freelance writer for High Times in 1997. This line at a party guaranteed free weed, with the response: “You write for High Times? No way! Try this!”
After a few years of selling Trans-High Corporation book and music reviews, Freedom Fighters of the Month, weed-related news blurbs and concert photos of hempen heroes like Bob Weir and Phish, I convinced my editor Steve Bloom (his real name) I knew where to find Paul Bowles in Tangiers.
Bloom promised if I landed the interview he would pay me and print it. Another sister was studying in Madrid, so at the end of her spring semester in May 1999, I flew to Madrid. It never crossed my mind that Bowles would not be there. He was an old guy, but I had not read his obituary. Where else would he be? He had been in the same apartment since 1963.
I revered Bowles as a titan the more I learned of him, and during the 1990s, I fed his legend in my mind. To this 25-year-old aspiring magazine writer, if I thought Hunter S. Thompson was some kind of a Zeus, Bowles was his father Saturn. Bowles, to me, stood on a pedestal in 20th-century literary history, this trailblazer who created the Interzone in the American psyche. To me, his native land, which he eschewed, had wronged him by failing to recognize the longitudinal impacts of his imagination.
His unseen fingerprints touched everywhere – one just needed to dust. Would Steely Dan be Steely Dan without Bowles? Donald Fagen and Walter Becker borrowed the name Steely Dan from the steam powered dildo in Naked Lunch, which existed because Bowles attracted Burroughs to Morocco.
My attraction to North Africa originated in no small part with this Bowlesian mythos. My sister and I arrived in Tangier in the pouring rain. Like in a movie, we hustled up the hill through the old city in a torrential downpour to find Bowles’ cinder apartment building with the Moroccan bodega on the first floor. We sat for two interview sessions with the legend in his tiny apartment.
Yet this time, in May 1999, he had stopped smoking kif, and his age showed in his frailty. Time slowed him. He hardly seemed a giant in his bathrobe. When my kid sister and I left the second time, we bumped into a May Day march of laborers, and I stepped right into the parade to photograph it. Within a few shutter clicks, six Moroccan cops surrounded me. They let me go when 20 Moroccan workers surrounded them. They opened a path, I grabbed my sister’s arm and we bailed, with hearts beating from an arrest avoided.
Back in the hotel, I realized my tape recorder failed in Bowles’ apartment, and I lost 45 minutes of the interview. My heart sank. I pieced together the fragments of the conversation I could, consulted my notes from 1993 about the absurdity of Alice in Wonderland and gave up on the rest. I submitted 5,000 words to High Times.
The magazine printed 3,000 of those words in its September 1999 issue. Bowles died in November 1999, only six months after we’d met with him. Bowles’ biographer Virginia Spencer Carr, a University of Georgia English professor, later told me that earlier that year, in February, she’d met with Bowles in New York City, where he needed medical treatment and attended concerts of his symphonies with inaugural orchestral arrangement.
It’s just as crazy to me that I took this kind of risk not knowing that Bowles was sick, not knowing that Bowles had been in the United States three months earlier, and he just happened to be there. But that was this magic thread. A star fall, A phone call, It joins all. Synchronicity.
The fruits of boldness have sent me back and back again to the Islamic world. I never would have had the courage to go to the Syrian-Iraqi border on a journalist visa to write about the American soldiers snooping and pooping across into Dier Ez-Zour in 2005 without having gone to Morocco in 1993 and 1999. I somehow find belonging in the fear of being followed by Assad’s Mukhabaret.
In 2007, I served as a crew on a private yacht going down the Suez Canal. The Egyptian government extracts as much economic development as it can from the canal, thus it forces every passing boat to carry a local pilot, electrician and linesman. The pilot stays in the cockpit, and the linesman and electrician tend to sell tourist tchotke to the sailors on giant container ships. They get their own bunks on those massive vessels for the 18-24 hour trip through the canal.
On our little 55-meter mega-yacht, the wealthy jerkface owner refused to let our visitors even sleep inside. “They’re Egyptians,” he sneered. “They’re used to sleeping on the concrete.” His racism was nothing a spanner upside the forehead wouldn’t cure.
Yet as the deckhand, I had to interact with Mohammed, our linesman, and Mohammed, our electrician. Mohammed the linesman implored me to treat him as human. “You me, same same,” Mohammed said, over and over again. I took the brunt of the owner’s grotesque ire when our Egyptian crew needed food, had to hit the head or wanted cushions or chairs to sit on the deck.
Edward Said’s main complaint was that the West fantasizes and fetishizes the East to control it. In doing so, the West denies the Arab world, its inhabitants and its culture the dignity of their own humanity.
Bowles, under this scrutiny, fails the test. Time has a way of tearing down your heroes.
Even so, every now and again, the Bowles’ string stitches through the fabric of my life. In a record store in Decatur in 2014, while my wife attended a business conference, I stumbled across a boxed set of Moroccan folk music that Bowles recorded 50 years earlier. He’d told me how he landed a Rockefeller grant to do the work in the 1960s and the recordings ended up in the Library of Congress. And now here, they were published – America was starting to recognize him. The Islamic geometric design on a blue field recalled the marvel of my adventure, I swooned again.
The corporate consolidation of media long ago killed my dream of writing like Thompson, Gay Talese or Paul Bowles, and my career as a professional writer was sent to law school, and now I litigate like a Ralph Nader wanna-be.
But this year, I’ve forced myself to reckon with my Bowlesian narrative in this essay. I’ve spent the last few months revising this piece between writing memorandums of law in support of defendants’ objections to motions for summary judgment for prisoners who died in custody from cruel and unusual medical care and motions for Rule 2004 examinations of mobsters and their co-conspirators in bankruptcy, trying to make some sense of it all.
The escape provided by pondering my before before before before chaos as a young poet eases the brutal architecture of my current persona as a civil rights lawyer, with its intense secondary trauma from the torture my clients suffered with untreated stage IV cancers in prison. Systematic state-enforced human rights violations encapsulate more evil and raise more questions than Bowles’ random violence of tribesmen cutting off some linguistics’ professor’s tongue.
One of my clients died because the Connecticut Department of Correction ignored his progressively worsening symptoms – nine months of nosebleeds, headaches and swelling facial features until a tumor the size of a baseball in his sinus cavity ate through his brain plate, and he pissed his pants in his cell, unoriented to time. Another client, a teenaged girl, gave birth with the help of her cellie. Another teenage boy literally shit the bed in his cell and month later died of untreated lupus.
I cannot run from the relentless terror of the phone calls from people in state custody complaining of no medical care. From the comfort of Lawrence, Kansas, Burroughs envisioned the dystopic sadism of Cities of the Red Night, but he, perhaps naively, never grasped Bowles’ desire to dwell in Morocco. Hasham Aidi found Bowles’ explanation from 1933, when Bowles penned a letter saying “Each day lived through on this side of the Atlantic, was one more day spent outside of prison.”
A month or so back, I found myself in the basement of Mather Hall at Trinity College in Hartford, and next to the elevator sits a bookshelf of free books, usually from professors cleaning their offices, I spotted a copy of 1989’s Spectator: A Biography of Paul Bowles by Christopher Sawyer-Laucanno.
Based on what I’ve found in this book, I’m not certain Bowles was honest with me when I tried to talk cannabis with him One of the sections Bloom cut from the High Times piece was this question:
“Did kif smoking influence your creative activities, like writing music or books?”
“I don’t suppose it did have any direct influence. I enjoyed it, and then later on I smoked again.”
Yet Sawyer-Laucanno noted for Bowles, kif functioned as “a passageway to enlightenment” and that “Bowles had internalized the Moroccan concept of ‘two worlds, one which was ruled by inexorable laws of nature, and the other, the kif world, in which each person perceives ‘reality’ according to the projections of his own essence the state of consciousness in which the elements of the physical universe are automatically rearranged by cannabis to suit the requirements of the individual.”
I wish I even knew of that book before talking weed with Bowles. And much like my impression of Bowles these days, High Times is a shell of its former self, and I have left the struggle to legalize weed to a new generation of fighters, since coincidence has me dealing with the consequences of the drug war policy of mass incarceration.
Just for posterity, here are the 2,000 words or High Times cut from the interview.
On taking LSD with Ned Rorem:
And they would take you on a long tour of inspection around the estate. But he kept saying “Believe what you see.” And he would give me a flower and I would see the flower breathing, you know. And he would say “Do you see it?” And I would say “Yes.” He said, “Do you believe it?” And I’d say, “Of course I don’t believe it.” And he’s say “You have to believe it or you’re not getting the effect of the mescaline.” So I couldn’t really agree with that. At one point he brought out a whole thing of jewels he had bought out in Asia. He had me examine them. That was more pleasurable.
I think I blocked a lot of it out that night. There was a man named Ned Rorem and he went upstairs and from the bathroom he began shouting “There’s a monster in here.” (laughs). And John Goodwin told me I better go up and see what it was. So I did. It was a fly. Somehow he saw it as a monster, a huge thing. It was just an ordinary housefly. It landed on the mirror. And he said “Kill it. Kill it.” And I said “No, I can’t. I’ll take a swat at it, but that won’t kill it.” Finally I managed to hit it and then he relaxed. Ran downstairs shouting about a monster. It had very strange effects on different people.
Q: Organized religions usually treat women pretty poorly, as well.
A: I knew of female inequality in Morocco after once, I was in bed and I heard a nasty racket in the street. I told my servant to go see what it was. He came back and said “It was only four people.” I said “I heard two dozen voices screaming at least.” He said, “Oh yeah, there were 20 or so women there, too.”
Q: That’s part of traditional Moroccan culture, yet you’ve lamented the death of such traditions.
A: I suppose so.
Q: What other historical documentation [of traditional Moroccan culture] have you done?
A: There are pictures I took one winter, published them in a book. Ordinarily I didn’t have a camera with me. I was fortunate I was in a place where everything was very traditional. The costumes are absoltuly of the period and of the place. No one was wearing Levis and sweaters.
Q: Many of the people in Tangier seem to be wearing American clothing. I saw a Nike swoosh painted on a bus. The conglomerates seem to be taking over.
A: Yes. Toothpaste companies. They don’t even give you a half an hour for lunch. You need more than that.
Q: Like siesta in Spain. They have the right idea. Take a few hours, relax and enjoy the afternoon. (A bird in the living room garden chirps loudly for the umpteenth time.) Is that bird your pet?
A: No no. Someone gave it to me, to be polite, to be generous, to be pleasent, to be friendly, etc. But the bird is not very friendly with anyone. It eats its way through whatever you put over the cage.
Q: Does it have a name?
A: I won’t give it a name. The maid feeds it. She talks to it. She takes it seriously.
I take it seriously. It’s a living creature. It was given to me as a parrot. It’s not a parrot, of course. It’s a cotorro. I’ve had it about a year. It was given to me last summer.
Q: You’ve had other pets?
A: I had two good birds. Parrots. One was an African grey that could imitate very well, which is what a parrot should do.
Q: How did writing for a newspaper affect your prose?
A: It didn’t. It just made me able to write more quickly than I would otherwise.