by Steven O’Sullivan
“A true document of human desperation.”
-Playwright Tennessee Williams on Mohamed Choukri’s autobiographical novel about life in Tangier, 1973.
The release of Choukri’s For Bread Alone came in the midst of Tangier’s development as a hideout for expatriate writers and artists. American writer Paul Bowles was one of the pioneering residents of Tangier and responsible for the English translation and release of For Bread Alone, a novel that would stand for years as a controversial testament to the darker realities of Tangier. These harsh realities coupled with the glistening promise of creation drew in expatriates seeking new approaches to life for many, many years.
Bowles had worked predominantly as a composer in New York, but when Doubleday approached him with a contract for a novel he felt it was time to make a change into full-time writing. Bowles noted, “I came here because I wanted to write a novel. I was sick of writing music for other people.” He had visited Tangier intermittently for 16 years prior and he moved there permanently in 1947. His wife, Jane, followed a year later. They would remain in Tangier together until his death in 1999.
Upon Bowles’ initial arrival, the city seemed detached from the rest of the world; isolated by endless sand dunes from the south and the waters of the Mediterranean at the north. Bowles felt a mythical, enchanting quality vibrating thru the city. From Bowles’ accounts the city feels similar to Henry Miller’s Paris of the 20s. Dirty bars, broken streets, and prostitutes in everyone’s bedroom were hallmarks of the dark side of Tangier. Despite the upscale, colonial European neighborhoods, violence stood strong in the shadows of the forgotten slums.
However, Bowles moved south into the sahara to write much of his novel. He shacked up in the decrepit desert hotels and wrote like a madman. These times are vividly reminiscent of Antonioni’s landmark film The Passenger. One can easily imagine Bowles as Jack Nicholson’s desperate journalist losing his mind in the midst of alcoholism and the stark white walls of the hotel. Regardless Bowles did manage to accomplish his goal. The novel was written.
Doubleday rejected the completed manuscript, much to their later regret. Within months, thru an independent publisher, The Sheltering Sky had gone thru three printings and sat at the top of the New York Times book list.
With the success of The Sheltering Sky, Bowles established himself as a serious writer. And throughout the 50s and 60s countless others would be driven to Tangier seeking that same maddening inspiration that had grabbed Bowles with such a vengeance.
French thief-turned-writer Jean Genet as well renowned playwright Tennessee Williams would both settle in Tangier, turning out many promising works.
Bowles’ fiction also inspired Beat madman William S. Burroughs to take up residence in the city in 1953. Burroughs’ infamous lifestyle and actions had led to an outlaw status in his favorite cities, thus he needed a new refuge in which to create. One Burroughs biography states that he rented a room above a homosexual brothel. In addition to this, drugs flowed easily and cheaply in the streets of Tangier. These surroundings left Burroughs quite at ease and he began the initial work on what would eventually become his magnum opus, Naked Lunch.
Burroughs’ first stay in Tangier was brief as he attempted a return to America after only a few months. However, his standing in the eyes of friends, family, and publishers remained tarnished. Even Allen Ginsberg, once his closest friend, refused him on all accounts. At this time Kerouac was neck deep in a Buddhist devotion, working on a biography of Siddhartha Gautama.
So, back to Tangiers it was.
Despite a modest allowance from his parents back home, royalties from Junkie were still not coming thru, so he began turning out travel articles on Tangiers to supplement his income.
With the comfort of a cornucopia of exotic drugs (not readily available back in the States) and sexual counterparts, Burroughs dug in deep and worked tirelessly on the Naked Lunch manuscript.
For the following four years Burroughs remained in Tangier continuing to write until his departure for Paris in the fall of ’59. And in the meantime his inspirations grew.
Eventually, his reputation at home began to heal, and his friends sought him out. Kerouac and Ginsberg arrived in Tangier in 1957. Up to that point, Burroughs was the only one with any kind of global travelogue and perhaps his confidants were looking to catch up with him and experience firsthand some of the visions that Burroughs had caught wind of and sent home in letters and stories. Additionally, they were able to offer a guiding editorial approach in refining the wild-eyed manuscript which at the time was merely a scattered stream-of-conscious narrative running amok in Burroughs’ mind.
One must remember that Burroughs’ first two publications, Junkie and Queer, while controversial in content were conventional in terms of style. Sure they were graphic tales of drug-induced homosexual depravity, but they were written with a literary suit and tie in hand. Naked Lunch was his first attempt at a non-linear narrative and such a radical approach to writing was certainly going to take some trial and error shots at refining. Just as Kerouac and Ginsberg had found their own unique voices with On the Road and Howl respectively, Burroughs was about to come into his own.
The style Burroughs developed at this time, and later at the Beat Hotel in Paris, can be seen as a natural evolution resulting from an adaptation to his surroundings. Just as George Orwell did with Down and Out in Paris and London, Burroughs took in the desperation of his circumstances, financial strain and social disdain, and fueled a machine with them. A machine powerful enough to turn out a work that would radically redefine literary concepts across the globe. This style would become his weapon, and with everyone subsequent work following Naked Lunch he would wield that weapon with a devastating efficiency.
One can imagine Kerouac and Corso dashing from one bodega to the next, desperately eluding dawn. Drink, drink, drink it down, down, down… chasing blindly after women, men, cats, dogs, and mice… thoroughbred Americans ravaging Tangierian nighttime with shouts and screams, kicking the air, and pumping fists at darkness… then, finally, facing the inevitable sun-up of the shattered glass of last night’s Grecian vase… stumbling back to the brothel and Burroughs delivering a scolding at arrival… having been up all night typing away at the masterpiece fueled by a Eukodol kick (crazy German-made opioid).
Of course, true to his restless nature, Burroughs left Tangier with Kerouac and Ginsberg in 1959 and the trio met up with Gregory Corso, and later Peter Orlovsky, taking up residence at the Beat Hotel in the Latin Quarter of Paris.
Yet Bowles, the grandfather of Tangier madness, remained. Who knows if Burroughs and Bowles ever even crossed paths. Regardless, Bowles’ influence on Burroughs is indisputable. Hell, beyond mere literary influence, Bowles inadvertently led Burroughs to Tangier in the first place which in hand provided the backdrop and experience that pushed Burroughs into new territories as an artist.
And that’s where we’re going to leave Burroughs. On his way to Paris. Since this is a travel issue, I want to focus on one man and the mythology he created at one destination. So we return to Bowles.
When Bowles initially arrived in Tangier he regarded it as an attractively unassuming city. Yet no more than ten years later in 1958 Bowles had witnessed a complete transformation. No more was the peaceful white city Matisse had taken inspiration from the in the early 1900s. The city had experienced a deranged westernization. The traditional cloaked garb of the Moslems had been replaced with jeans and t-shirts. Yet this change Bowles witnessed was not, in his eyes, for the worse, “The foreigner who lives here on a long-term basis will still find most of the elements that endeared the place to him in the old days.”
The above quote came from a travel article on Tangier Bowles penned in 1958. A bit later on in the article Bowles gives an account of the prevailing cultural mash-up found in Tangier. His words are devastating:
You will run into a Polish refugee who arrived ten years ago without a penny… and today runs a prosperous delicatessen and liquor store; an American construction worker who came to Morocco to help build the United States air bases, and has since become a freelance journalist; a Moslem who spent years in a Spanish jail for voicing his opinion on Generalissimo Franco, and now is a clerk in the municipal administration offices; an English masseuse who was passing thru Tangier twenty years ago on a holiday trip and somehow has never left; a Belgian architect who also runs the principal bookshop; a Swiss businessman who likes the climate and has started a restaurant and bar for his own amusement; an Indian prince who does accounting for an American firm; the Portuguese seamstress who makes your shirts. . .”
It is this diversity that gives Tangier its beauty and appeal. It’s as if time slows down in the secluded city and each resident finds an expression and appreciation for life they’d not yet possessed or had perhaps lost along the way. Maybe it comes in quietly from the coast with the tides or maybe it blows in stiffly with the winds from the southern desert.
Of course, even in Bowles’ time the bastardization of Tangier had begun. The city was beginning to modernize with the destruction of the classic and old to be replaced with brand-new European eyesores. Yet Bowles maintained that even in lieu of such drastic changes that Tangier never lost its aesthetic appeal.
To hear Bowles tell it there was a deep, dark charm to the city in the years prior to his writing the article. In the 40s and early 50s (around Burroughs’ time of arrival), the Zopo Chico served as the hotspot of most social life. The Zopo Chico was essentially the town square, housing many of its nightclubs and sidewalk cafes. Bowles recalls a time when the cafes were open all night and all day and he would go in at 5 a.m. to watch the nightclub cats stumble dutifully home with the night’s luster still in their eyes.
Thru Bowles’ eyes the beauty and charm of Tangier would be forever preserved by its topography. The buildings and the streets might change, but there was nothing anyone could do to change the rolling hills surrounding the city, the high plain on which it stands, or the mountains off in the distance that frame the whole picture. Bowles brilliantly noted that the beauty of the sky and landscape could never be destroyed in that,
“You don’t look at the city, you look out of it.”
Keep it burning.