An initial breeze-through shows this to be possibly the most self-referential New York Times Book Review ever, since Ayaan Hirsi Ali shows up to review The Suicide of Reason: Radical Islam's Threat to the Enlightenment by Lee Harris and is then discussed by Lorraine Adams in an essay called "Beyond the Burka", while Rashid Khalidi's review of Hassan Qazwini's American Crescent: A Muslim Cleric on the Power of His Faith, the Struggle Against Prejudice, and the Future of Islam and America compares the book to one by Tariq Ramadan, who also shows up with his own essay on "Reading the Koran". This self-referentiality is not a problem, though it reveals how small the circle of Muslim intellectuals familiar to the New York Times and the Times readership is.
I'm disappointed by Tariq Ramadan's article, which seems to promise an introduction to the Koran for non-Arabic-speaking observers but instead amounts to an abstract and cautionary treatise on how to think about the book. It's well-written but unhelpful; I own two English translations of the Muslim holy book (one Penguin Classic and one attractive clothbound copy given to me by a stranger at a street fair) but I've never been able to read it with any sense of comprehension, and Ramadan's lofty words leave me feeling still excluded. He hints at his own sublime understanding of the book, but doesn't help the reader experience this understanding for his or her self.
An array of topical articles is strong on victimization -- Jeffrey Goldberg's review of Matthias Kuntzel's Jihad and Jew-Hatred: Islamism, Nazism and the Roots of 9/11 is informative and heartfelt, as is Sarah Wildman's coverage of two memoirs by women who've been imprisoned in Iran, Prisoner of Tehran by Marina Nemat and My Life as a Traitor by Zarah Ghahramani with Robert Hillman. But several pieces are weak on originality and insight. "To his credit, Kelsay refuses to whitewash the role of religion in fostering the violence he discusses", writes Irshad Manji on John Kelsay's Arguing the Just War in Islam. I guess this must be the "no-spin" zone or something. In fact, there are numerous loud voices in USA who will declare that Islam is an essentially violent and imperialistic religion, and far fewer willing to reflect upon the fact that the patterns of Islamic intolerance are completely familiar in other religions and cultures, and that the real problem is a universal human one.
There are no terrible articles in today's Book Review, but few memorable ones either. William Dalyrimple's article on The Adventures of Amir Hamza, a 9th Century Persian epic, is strange; Dalyrimple appears to be an expert on Mughal culture, and refers repeatedly to Mughal or Indian interpretations of this epic. But this is not a Mughal story (though the Mughal emperor Akbar once commissioned a great book illustrating it); it is a Persian story, and the critic does not appear to have strayed far enough from his comfort zone to adequately represent the book on its own terms.
Several historical treatments (Jason Goodwin on Zachary Karabell's Peace Be Upon You: The Story of Muslim, Christian and Jewish Coexistence, Eric Ormsby on David Levering Lewis's God's Crucible: Islam and the Making of Europe) are captivating enough. Max Rodenbeck's review of Hugh Kennedy's The Great Arab Conquests: How the Spread of Islam Changed the World We Live In) features this pull-quote:
The Muslim conquest created, for the first and only time, an empire based entirely on one faith.
This is patently false, since the Shia/Sunni schism coincided with the period of the Muslim conquest. If Shiite and Sunni Islam count as one faith, than so must Catholic, Eastern Orthodox and Protestant Christianity, and there have been several Christian empires. I also don't know why Rodenbeck doesn't consider Europe's Holy Roman Empire, Turkey's Ottoman Empire, or Japan's "Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere" to have been religiously monolithic.
There are some worthwhile moments in Tom Reiss's review of Juan Cole's Napoleon's Egypt:
In a proclamation distributed in Arabic, Napoleon declared that he was a defender of Islam, come to liberate the Egyptians from tyranny. He took advantage of the fact that most revolutionary French soldiers were deists or atheists to suggest that this meant they were in fact "muslims" - "with a small 'm'", as Cole points out -- because their rejection of the Trinity meant they had "submitted to one God".
But this appears to be an isolated high point for this weekend's publication. After finishing every article in this Book Review, I considered whether any of the critics seemed to have been surprised in any way by the books they reviewed, whether any of them appeared to have changed their own minds about any significant issues relating to Islam based on reading the books they have written about. The answer, unfortunately, is no. They each seem to have closed their books thinking the same things they thought when they opened them. I can think of no better way to explain why the NYTBR's "Islam" issue turns out to be a disappointment. This is a theme issue about a religion, but it fails to deliver much by way of revelation.
So now that I am at least basically conversant and literate in four languages, I am taking a little time off from working toward being a diva superstar to do some truly important things, like laundry. Arabic has been, by far, the most difficult language I have studied, most likely because the other three are Latin-based and Arabic... isn't. (Even so, it does share similarities with other languages I know. Want a quick Arabic lesson? Okay. Do you want to learn how to say "t-shirt" in Arabic? Ready? T-shirt.) It took me a long time to figure out its internal logic and rhythm, and I'm still not entirely sure I did find it. It's a rich language, with so many words that sound so similar to each other that it must have endless opportunities for wordplay. At least for people who are fluent, which I most assuredly am not.
My major reason for taking the Arabic class was to gain a foundation in the language so that I could converse with the Arabic-speaking members of my family and (I hoped) build from there. I visited some relatives a little over a week ago and learned that this is going to be harder than I thought -- the language I learned in class is formal Arabic, which is typically used for things like writing and the news. The Arabic that people speak not only varies from country to country, but does a lot of things differently than what I learned in class (for example, formal Arabic and colloquial Arabic negate the past tense in different ways). In short, I listened to my relatives talk and realized that I was going to have to do a lot of work to get to a level where I was truly able to converse with them. I knew this going in, because it's not like getting a year's worth of instruction in any language prepares a person for fluent, natural conversation, and I also know that school language is different from street language, but I guess I didn't realize how different the two truly were. It's a good thing I like a challenge.
Anyway, there you have it. I hope to continue on with Arabic in the future because, no matter how brain-achingly difficult it is at times, it really is a fascinating language. And even though I never want to try to cram a year's worth of study into two and a half months ever again, the experience was a good one.
And just as a (probably lame) ending to this little series, here is a note in Arabic from me to you:
That says "My name is Jamelah and I like reading a lot." Genius, I know.
It's been awhile since I've written anything here; I've taken the time off to do some other things, which means that I've mostly been holed up in my room doing Arabic homework. Since I last wrote about my language learning experience, I have taken a midterm and a final exam (and I have my second semester midterm on Wednesday of this week), I have learned hundreds of words, and I can write paragraphs. They're not brilliant paragraphs, but they are paragraphs. In Arabic. Go me! Strange things have happened, too, like I now find writing and reading left to right to be somewhat awkward and bizarre. I'm sure I'll readjust soon enough, but last month when I was writing my rent check, I really tried to write it backwards. I try to write all kinds of things backwards, actually. It's becoming a habit.
Anyway, after about five weeks of muttering things about how illogical and weird Arabic seemed to my Western brain, something finally clicked and it started actually making sense. (Besides, all languages are quirky as hell, and I can write this with confidence since this is foreign language #3 for me.) It stopped being so difficult for me to wrap my brain around the way Arabic works and I was finally able to accept it the way it was, weird sentence structure and all. I started seeing that it really was logical in its own way, despite the fact that it's not, well, particularly logical. And once I started to understand it a little (I'll never understand it entirely -- I don't think anyone can ever understand a language entirely), once reading the words stopped being such an incredible chore, once I was able to think in sentences instead of individual words, I knew that I was in love.
Adrienne Rich, who is most definitely my favorite poet to quote, wrote "A conversation begins with a lie." It's a fascinating line, and one that I think of frequently, one that I thought of even before I was immersed in language study. And though I do agree with points Rich makes in her poetry, about the inadequacy of words to express what's there, I also know that it is all we have. Perhaps it's never so clear as when I'm in a language outside of my own, and in speaking I have to approximate what I mean with substitute words that are close enough, just because those are the words I know. But even inside of English, my native language, I do the same thing, not for lack of vocabulary, but because it seems that close enough is the best I can do.
Anyway, these days I am in class for 20 hours a week and so far, I have learned to read and write an entirely new alphabet, along with a few hundred words, and how to string those words together into rudimentary sentences. Reading is a laborious task, and I try to remember back to my early childhood, to see if I can recall if it was this difficult before. Probably yes, though now, glossed over by years, it seems like that couldn't be possible.
Despite (or perhaps because of) the challenge, this has been a fascinating experience. As I said in my previous post on the subject, I have a thing for language. And I am enjoying getting all these tiny pieces and figuring out how they all fit together. Finished with the alphabet, we've moved into the thrilling world of grammar (no, really), which is the best part, since it is through learning the grammar that I get to learn how the language thinks. This is the part that I love.
By the end of the summer, I will have completed the equivalent of a year of Arabic study. It's an exciting thing, and I'm glad I'm getting to do it. I don't have anything particularly literary to add at this point, but I thought I'd just follow up what I wrote before with a little something on how nice it's been to get out of the repetitive simplicity of my usual everyday life and do something difficult, just for the sake of pushing myself. A good way to spend my summer vacation indeed.
Provided I get into this program, I'll be spending my summer studying Arabic. This will be the third foreign language I've studied (the other two being Spanish and Italian), and I'm looking forward to it. I've probably been fascinated by words my entire life, but I became especially fascinated when I was in 10th grade English and the class did a unit on the history of the language. Learning that English is an Indo-European language and therefore has things in common with Hindi was a revelation to me. (Trivia: the English word "igneous" which describes rock formed from magma is similar to the name for the Hindu fire god, Agni.)
The thing about learning a new language is that it makes it impossible not to learn something about your own. In both of my previous language-study experiences, I learned so much -- not just how to order dinner or ask for directions or read a newspaper, but how a language is structured. Sure, just like most people, I learned the parts of speech and how to diagram sentences when I was a kid in school, but these things never became practical, living ideas for me until I had to apply them something completely foreign. (Italian prepositions? Confusing and seemingly illogical.) A language is more than a series of words to describe things; it's a culture, a way of understanding the world. And for me, at least, understanding that about other languages has helped me understand that about my own.
I have a thing for English. It was always my favorite subject in school, then I went on to major in it in college, and maybe someday I'll end up teaching it. I love literature, of course -- it's magic, creating things from words, isn't it? -- but I love the fundamentals, too. I love the way the language works. The weird way we conjugate verbs. The morphemes that are the building blocks of our words. The syntax. The semantics. I really really love language, and most people who know me have been treated to me geeking out about it at one time or another. Words! Words are the greatest things of all.
Of course this love translates into writing. I wouldn't write if I didn't love words like I do. But I also like talking and listening, the way things sound, the way it feels to say certain words (it's not a fancy one, but I have adored the word "zipper" all my life).
Perhaps this is a silly question to ask a bunch of people who read a literary website, but how much do you love words? What are some of your favorites? What do you love about language (and do you speak more than one)?
Like many people, I feel very personally and emotionally involved in the new war that's exploding in the Holy Lands (but we don't treat them like they're holy, do we?). I'm not even sure I can disengage my own emotions enough to objectively review these new books by Marmoud Darwish and Elias Khoury. Both books are completely infused with awareness of Palestinian identity, especially Khoury's, which relates history by telling the life story of a (choose one) terrorist/freedom fighter who lies dying on a hospital bed. I am not going to try to offer full reviews of either of these books, but I have enjoyed the opportunity to read and try to learn from them.
Elias Khoury is a strong and ambitious novelist. His Gate of the Sun is meant to be epic in scale, like Margaret Mitchell's Gone With The Wind or Herman Melville's Moby Dick. The narrative sweeps between 1948 and 1967 and 1982 and back again; we meet many people of many ethnic backgrounds, and the author's gentle understanding illuminates each anecdote. The moral messages are sometimes heavy-handed, but the prose always maintains a light touch, with pleasing pastoral notes that remind me of William Saroyan and sad ironic dashes that recall Milan Kundera. I'm only about a third of the way through this book, but it has already made me feel a closer personal affinity towards a people I don't know well enough.
Elias Khoury was born in Beirut, and has just published his thoughts on the current war in the London Review of Books.
Khoury is an impressive writer, but I found Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish's work more stunning and distinctive. The enigmatic and crystal-clear poems in his new collection Why Did You Leave The Horse Alone? combine ancient and contemporary voices:
A bit of speech of God for the trees
is enough for me to build with words
a safe shelter
for the cranes that the hunter missed
and speak of grand problems and epiphanies:
The curtain fell
They were victorious
They crossed our entire yesterday
the vicitim his sins when he apologized in advance
for whatever came to mind
They replaced time's bell
and they were victorious
After reading this book, I read the poet's biography. It is truly Kafkaesque that as as a child he and his family were legally classified as "present-absent aliens" in the land where they'd lived their whole lives.
It's fascinating to read these rich poems and become absorbed in the depths of a civilization currently glimpsed in America only through horrific newspaper headlines. I hope some Israelis are reading these books, and I hope some Palestinians are reading Israeli books as well.
Darwish has described his poetry as a "threat to the sword". Amen to that. I highly recommend both of these books to anybody looking for something new to read.
One such poet is Erin A. Thomas. New to the poetry scene (though not to poetry), Thomas has recently self-published two chapbooks of ghazals, titled 'Uncovering English Ghazal' and 'Discovering English Ghazal'. Upon purchasing these books, I was elated to find that not only were there other poets interested in ghazals, but interested in trying to maintain the form in its utmost purity. While a majority of collections, Agha Shahid Ali's 'Ravishing Disunities' being the prime example, have one or two examples by various poets, I know of no other complete collection of traditional ghazals by one individual. Ali's 'Call Me Ishmael Tonight' will be out in March of 2003, but until then, we have Thomas.
For while Thomas indeed has a grasp of the ghazal form, he seems to have little to no grasp of poetry. His rhymes are pure, his rhythm as tight as can be expected in English, but his poems simply seem to lack substance. This lack of depth or substance seems to stem from two sources: Thomas's misunderstanding of ghazalic disparateness and Thomas's misunderstanding or severe lack, of imagery, and indeed, modern poetry.
Upon opening 'Discovering English Ghazal', we find a brief definition of ghazals. I agree with Thomas's decision to place such a definition in his book, as the form still is misunderstood by so many poets. However, I disagree with the definition itself, specifically that a ghazal should be like 'a pearl necklace'. While the idea of a necklace is appropriate (various objects strung together by a common thread) the idea of pearls, as opposed to jewels or beads, is what snags me. Pearls are similar, if not nearly identical. Jewels and beads are radically different from each other. Every ghazal essay, especially those by Ali, stresses the disparateness between stanzas. Each stanza should stand alone, and be completely separate from the poem save the rhyme and refrain. So while each of Thomas's stanzas could, theoretically, stand alone as separate couplets, most of the time, they are simply too similar to each other to qualify as ghazals. While this technically is not a major flaw in the poetry, it does lead to some monotonous images, and therefor, monotonous poems. Indeed, one of the major tasks of ghazals is to keep the rhyme and refrain fresh, the variance between stanzas, and more importantly, their images, being the obvious way to keep the poem from dragging down.
In 'Uncovering English Ghazals', Thomas talks about an epiphany on disparateness between couplets. 'Each ghazal binds to a theme, and in fact, each couplet within Hafiz's ghazals seems to look at the same thing. It is just that rather than flowing couplet to couplet along the same lines of insight and reflection, each couplet offers a dramatically different perspective of what the ghazal as a whole is focused on. In a way, it is like looking through the eye of a dragonfly, each couplet is a facet in the eye, but the attention of each facet is focused on something in particular.' This, while a nice idea, leads to some extremely boring poetry if used improperly. I have heard of this theory as the 'room theory' as well, in which the ghazal focuses on a table in the center of the room, but each stanza is written from a different wall or window in the room. For example, in 'Defeated', Thomas writes about affliction, and indeed an injured soul or spirit, using a dead baby as a metaphor for the experience. However, he keeps returning to the baby, to the point that he kills the thing four times before the poem is ended. The metaphor, while a solid one, becomes mute and almost obnoxious by the end, to the point that the reader is more interested in HOW the baby dies, and not the fact that it is dead. And this in poem no longer than a sonnet. When the couplets are disparate, Thomas's ghazals do indeed excite and inspire. 'Thoroughfare', from 'Uncovering English Ghazal', is one such example.
Where fragrant lilies beautify the way,
Decaying corpses putrefy the way.
Brilliant sages point the way to heaven,
Yet we in bloodshed rubefy the way.
The way of peace was plain when life began,
Then darkness fell to mystify the way.
When through harsh places arid spans the way,
How hard it is to ratify the way!
Rivers flow the way of least resistance-
Plainness will always signify the way.
A vagrant walks the way with dignity,
Yet speaks no words to dignify the way.
Crying skies are not the way of sorrow,
They only serve to pacify the way.
If to the empty center leads the way,
There is no need to simplify the way.
The wind demonstrates the way of roaming,
But does not try to justify the way.
Who taught the fowl the way to warmer skies?
How is it that they verify the way?
Compassion is the way within us all,
But we must act to reify the way.
Death cannot endorse the way of living;
It also cannot mortify the way.
This dream is the way of dancing shadows;
Trusting this farce will falsify the way.
Who can hear the way the stars are calling?
They wait for us to stellify the way.
Each time Zahhar collapsed upon the way;
Has been a mean to clarify the way.
Woefully, most of Thomas's ghazals are not of this caliber. Not only do they focus on one theme or one image to a point of excess, but they also seem to lack a potency that can only come from imagery. Thomas is wary in his use of imagery, to the point that he sacrifices his poems by its exclusion. He admits that to him, modern poetry is 'a tossed salad of verbal images'. However, he does claim a belief in 'visuals', which 'solidify the abstract and focus channels of interpretation where [he] would like them to go'. He against imagery for imagery sake, but is in favor of imagery if it aids the poem. Thus, a majority of his poems are completely void of images, but instead contain 'visuals', or 'real life visual experiences that are used within the context of a memory or feeling in relation.' However, a majority of his 'visuals' are so cliched or drab that they simply add nothing to the poem. And, when Thomas can't find a 'visual' or 'image' to suit his purposes, he goes without, much to the detriment of the poem, and the reader. The old adage 'Show, Don't Tell' applies to a majority of Thomas's work, to the point that the bulk of his poems come across as not poems, but sermons and dissertations, where ideas are spouted but immediately leave with no tangible weight to bear them into the mind. Thomas needs imagery, and while he seems fully against modern poetry, he needs to understand that he participates in that tradition, whether he wants to or not. Until the time machine is invented, his poems will always be read by a modern audience in a modern context, and therefor, anything devoid of images or imagery will be seen as trite. Shakespeare was successfully able to wield imagery, and very few editors would consider him or his poetry 'modern.' Thus, even without the aid of modern poets, Thomas should be able to understand and use imagery. Until he is, we will be forced to rely on 'visuals', which seem to be in short supply.
At the beginning of 'Discovering English Ghazal', Thomas relates an incident in which an English professor insults his free verse, and instruct s him to write villanelles. He insists that villanelles would be no problem, and upon researching them, as well as terzanelles, discovers ghazals, on which little to nothing had been published. This is in 2001. 'Ravishing Disunities' does take some liberties in what it accepts as ghazals, but a majority of the book contains complete, well-written, well-structured traditional English ghazals, abiding by all the rules of the form. 'Ravishing Disunities' was published in 2000. I suggest, if he has not already, that Thomas read this work, as well as the upcoming 'Call Me Ishmael Tonight', and learn what imagery and disparity add to the ghazal. I have a feeling that, in response to his teacher, Thomas may have followed all the rules of the form for a villanelle, but that's all he did. Very few people can name more than half a dozen successful villanelles written in English, and even then rules are dropped all over the place (Elizabeth Bishop's 'One Art' as an example). Most villanelles, including a majority of the ones published, merely participate in the form. They are simply formal exercises with a few bright spots along the way, but are not truly successful poetry. In much the same way, Thomas merely participates in ghazals most of the time. There are a handful of good, possibly even great, poems in these two collections, enough to create a prize-winning collection, maybe. But definitely not enough for a chapbook manuscript, let alone two. So, to see what can be done with the ghazal form, to see a series of ghazal exercises, I encourage you to read Thomas's 'Discovering English Ghazal' and 'Uncovering English Ghazal'. He does indeed have a mastery of the form. If you want to read something that transcends mere form, wait for Agha Shahid Ali's collection to come out and hope for the best.
9 April 1997
by Lee Ranaldo
In April 1997 I had the chance to connect via telephone with William Burroughs to ask him some questions about Morocco and the years he spent in Tanger. Having traveled there a few times myself recently, I was curious about the Maroc of the forties and fifties, when Tanger was classified an "International Zone" and the laws were famously lax. We spoke for about half an hour that afternoon;I got the impression William wasn't really up for much more than that; he was alert but sounding a bit weary.
It wasn't until some months later in a Kaatskill Mountain cabin that I dug out the cassette tape to transcribe. I spent the better part of that afternoon trying to decipher his gravelly drawl, and pondering his life's journey. On two occasions Sonic Youth had the opportunity to visit him at his home in Lawrence, Kansas, where he took great pleasure in showing us jewel-encrusted knives, gun catalogues, his beloved cats, and the Orgone box out back which he'd built himself, between the pond and garden. Two days later on August 2 I heard of his death. I felt I had just been conversing with him. Barely three months separated his death from that of his lifelong friend Allen Ginsberg.
This man, who spoke of language as a virus, had become subliminal, a skewed organism, rooting under the cultural skin of our time. Imagine a world un-cut-up, without his bone-dry timing, without The Soft Machine or Dr. Benway. Imagine how much vital, challenging work from the last few decades, in so many fields, might not exist without him.
Later in the month, when the New Yorker published his final journal entries, it was clear that he could see the end coming. And what was he left with? Here is his final entry, day before he died: "Love? What is it? Most natural painkiller. What there is. LOVE." Those are the thoughts he leapt off with. Even before the words make sense, that voice is digging in. Listen to him speak yr mind, find rock power writ in his pages, let yr fingernails be left uncleaned.
(loud dial tone and faint "hello, hello?"
touch tone phone tones
ringing 5 or 6 times)
WSB: eh, Hello?
LR: Is this William?
LR: Hi William, this is Lee Ranaldo in New York City.
LR: How are ya?
WSB: Oh, okay.
LR: Well you sound pretty good.
LR: Okay, I wanted to talk to you, for just a few minutes this afternoon, about Morocco, if you would.
WSB: Just a moment, I gotta get my drink.
(25 sec silence)
LR: Okay, first off, William, I'd like to say that I was very sad to hear about Allen, I know you guys have been friends for the longest time.
WSB: Yes. Yes, well he knew, he knew it. He faced it.
LR: It seems like he faced it in a very dignified way, actually.
WSB: Yep, he told me, "I thought I'd be terrified but I'm not at all"
LR: He did?
WSB: Yes, "I'm exhilarated!" he said.
LR: Well, I suppose if anyone had the right, uh, frame about them to go out that way, it was probably him. I was hoping to get one more visit in with him before he passed on, but that was not meant to be. I'm sure a lot of people felt the same. When was the last time you saw him?
WSB: Los Angeles. At my show there.
LR: I wanted to talk to you about Morocco a little bit. I've recently been to the country, a few times, and done some exploring, and I know you spent quite a bit of time in Tanger. I just wanted to pick yr brain about that a little bit. You went to Tanger for the first time in 1953, 1954?
WSB: Nineteen-fifty-four, I believe.
LR: How did you end up in Morocco? What was it about the place that drew you there? I mean, today there are a lot of different romantic associations with the coast of North Africa.
WSB: There were a lot more then than there are now, I can tell you that. You'll notice more subdivisions now, as it's modernized and is no longer cheap. For one thing, it was very cheap then. Yeah, man, I lived like a king for $200 a month.
LR: Did it have the same sort of appeal, then, that Berlin had in the sixties and seventies, an international zone of sorts?
WSB: Pretty much so. It was an anything goes place, and that's another plus.
LR: And that was pretty available knowledge, when you went there?
WSB: Oh sure.
LR: Had you known Paul Bowles, or known about him, before you went there?
WSB: I'd read his books. I didn't know him.
LR: Did you meet him fairly quickly after you were there?
WSB: Mmm, I'd been there for some time, I'd met him very slightly. Later we became quite good friends, but that was some years afterwards.
LR: Do you enjoy his writing?
WSB: Very much, very much. Very particular style, particularly in the end of Let It Come Down, that's terrific, terrific, and The Sheltering Sky is almost a perfect novel. The end of that, oh man, that quote: "At the end of the Arab quarter the car stopped; it was the end of the line." great!
LR: Did you know Jane (Bowles)?
WSB: Oh yes, quite well.
LR: What'd you think of her?
WSB: Oh she was incredible
LR: I've heard incredible things about her, she lived quite an interesting life herself, although I guess in general women in Morocco were very much invisible, in a certain way. Native women, at least.
WSB: It's a very complicated situation, very complex, and I don't pretend to know much about it. Jane Bowles was sort of known for her strange behavior. In New York they invited her to some party where all these powerful ladies were, and they asked her, "Mrs. Bowles, what do you think of all this?", and she said "Oh" and fell to the floor in quite a genuine faint. That was her answer!
LR: Did you pretty much exist within an expatriate community there, or did you have a lot of contact with the local people? Was is easy to have contact?
WSB: The local people, umm, I don't speak a fuckin' word of Arabic, but I speak a little Spanish, y'know, they all spoke Spanish in the Northern Zone. My relations were mostly with the Spanish. Spanish boys. And, of course, otherwise in the expatriate side.
LR: Right, but you didn't frequent the Barbara Hutton crowd?
LR: There was a description, in Barry Miles book (El Hombre Invisible), where he said that you felt very lonely and cut off, being isolated in this corner of North Africa.
WSB: It wasn't being in a corner of North Africa that made it so, it was the fact that I hadn't made many friends there.
LR: Was that a strange time for you? Living there without really knowing anyone?
WSB: Not particularly, I've visited many places alone, many times.
LR: Do you think that the general tenor of life in Morocco influenced the way you were writing at that point? The daily life coming out in some of the routines?
WSB: Probably. The more I was in that surrounding the more I liked it. More and more. Yeah, it was cheap, and then, I met this guy Dave Ulmer (?), who was Barnaby Bliss (his nom de plume). He was at work writing society columns for the Tanger paper, an English (language) paper, the Morocco Courier, run by an old expatriate named Byrd, William Byrd, an old Paris expat. [Ulmer/Bliss, a character of some unsavory repute, supposedly introduced WSB to Tanger's young boy homo-sex scene, and also, more importantly, to Paul Bowles]
LR: Did you do much traveling around Morocco while you were there, or did you pretty much just stick in Tanger?
WSB: I'm ashamed to say, not much. I went to Fes, I went to Marrakech, and passed through Casablanca, some other places there, I forget the names of the coastal towns, and I've been to Jajouka!
LR: Yeah, I wanted to talk to you about that, I'm friendly with Bachir Attar, and the last time we were there I went to Jajouka as well. I saw your inscriptions in his big scrapbook, and heard some stories.
LR: How did you end up there?
WSB: Through Brion Gysin, more or less.
LR: What did you make of the music?
WSB: Great, great. I loved it. Magic, it really has a magical quality that you can't find anymore, anywhere. It's dying out everywhere, that quality.
LR: It still seems to be in evidence when they play today, I don't know if you've heard them recently.
WSB: Not recently, but I've heard the recordings, some of the recordings. Ornette Coleman made some, you know. I was there when he made those.
LR: Excuse me?
WSB: I was there.
LR: You were there when he made those (Dancing in Your Head) recordings?
WSB: That's right.
LR: Oh, gee, wasn't that in the 70's? I didn't know you were there when those recordings were happening.
WSB: Yeah, it was, '72, I think.
LR: Are you still in touch with Bachir?
WSB: No, not really.
LR: You were in touch with his father, I suppose.
WSB: Yes, I knew the old man, sure, I remember him. He was the leader of the group back then.
LR: How many musicians would you say were in the group back then?
WSB: Oh, I don't know, it would vary, I'd say about 12, 15.
LR: That's about how many there are today as well. What about at the 1001 Nights (Gysin's restaurant in Tanger), were the Jajouka musicians playing in there?
WSB: Well, various musicians. They had dancing boys in there, too. But I didn't know Brion too well, I was only there a couple of times. I didn't know him then. I became friendly with him in Paris, later.
LR: Were you involved much with the music there, in Morocco, in Tanger? Did it make any strong impression on you?
WSB: Well, I like the Moroccan music very much, the music is omnipresent. I'd be sitting at my desk and hear it outside. It was all around you.
LR: I'd like to hear your impressions of the kif smoking there, and the majoun.
WSB: Sure. Well, the kif smoking was, y'know, anywhere and everywhere. There were no laws.
LR: They sort of smoke it the way people have a drink here, as a social relaxant?
WSB: Well, not exactly the same way. In the first place, it's pretty much confined to men, though I suppose the women get to smoke on their own. But anyway, of course majoun is just a candy made from kif,the kif, you see, is mixed with tobacco.
WSB: I can't smoke it.
WSB: So I'd always get those boys with the tobacco, I'd tell 'em: 'I don't want the tobacco in it.' So I rolled my own, and made my own majoun. It's just a candy, it's pretty much like a Christmas pudding, any sort of candy works good, fudge or whatever.
LR: And how did you find it? Was the high pretty pleasing?
WSB: Very very very much. It was stronger than pot.
LR: Were you smoking a lot of that, or taking a lot of that, when you were writing some of the routines?
WSB: Yeah, sure. It helped me a lot.
LR: The place where you spent a lot of your time there (in Tanger), the Muniria (the famed "Villa Delirium")?
WSB: The Hotel Muniria, yes.
LR: Was it a hotel or a boarding house?
WSB: It was a hotel.
LR: That's where you wrote a lot of the routines that became Naked Lunch?
WSB: Quite a few of them, yes.
LR: And is that where Kerouac, Ginsberg and Orlovsky, those guys, came to visit you?
WSB: I was living there at that time, yes. They didn't, there wasn't a place in the Muniria, but they found various cheap places around very near there.
LR: I heard Kerouac had nightmares from typing up your stuff at that time.
WSB: (pauses) Well, he said.
LR: Was he the first one to actually sit down and type a bunch of that stuff up?
WSB: No, he was by no means the first. Alan Ansen did a lot of typing, and of course Allen Ginsberg. I don't know who was first but it wasn't Jack.
LR: Those guys came and went pretty quickly, compared with the amount of time you spent in Morocco, I guess they weren't as enamored of the place.
WSB: Well they were settled somewhere else. Now for example, Jack didn't like any place outside of America, he hated Tanger.
LR: I wonder why?
WSB: He hated Paris because they couldn't understand his French.
LR: His French was a Canadian dialect.
WSB: Those French Canadians got themselves into a language ghetto. Even the French people don't speak their language! Anyway, he'd been to Mexico quite a lot, more than many other places. He liked it there fairly well.
LR: But he didn't like it very much in Tanger?
WSB: No no, not at all.
LR: Was Tanger a violent place then?
WSB: It was never a violent place that I know of, never! Good God, I walked around in Tanger at all hours of the day and night, never any trouble. There's this idea that you go into the native quarter you immediately get stabbed (laughs) it's nonsense!
LR: Well, people do bring back those stories now and again.
WSB: Well, occasionally it happens, but it is much less dangerous that certain areas of New York, my God!
LR: If you can navigate the streets of New York you're in pretty good stead just about anywhere, I guess.
WSB: Yeah, that's right, you're much safer in Tanger than in New York.
LR: Were there many travelers or tourists in Morocco at that time?
WSB: Not many at all. It was nice. In the summer of course you had sometimes quite a few Scandinavians, Germans(laughs). Brian Howard said about the Swedes, I think it was: 'You're all ugly, you're all queer, and none of you have any money!'
LR: There was another quote in Miles' book, you saying that you'd "never seen so many people in one place without any money or the prospect of any money."
WSB: You certainly could live cheaply there, yes.
LR: Did Americans have to register with the police to live there?
WSB: Of course not, nothing, they had to do nothing. Well, they put in various regulations in town, you had to get a card. By the time we got our goddamn cards and stood in line and had to take all that crap, I had to get one of those in France, too, well, anyway, by that time they had another idea (laughs), so your card that you had acquired was worthless.
LR: When was the last time you were back in Morocco?
WSB: When in the hell was it? I went there with, the last time I went with Jeremy Thomas and David Cronenberg, apropos of possibly getting some shots, y'know.
LR: Oh, for the movie (Naked Lunch)?
WSB: Yeah, for the sets. Well, we just were there a couple of days. It had changed, not incredibly but considerably. There's been a lot of building up, a lot of sort of sub-divisions, it's gotten more westernized. There used to be a lot of good restaurants there, now there's only one, and that's in the Hotel Minza. These people I was with were saying 'Oh show me to a little place in the native quarter where the food is good.' and I said: 'There aren't no such places! Right here in your best food in Morocco, or in Tanger anyway, right in the Hotel Minza!' Well, they went out and they ate in an awful, greasy Spanish restaurant. After that they believed me!
LR: (laughs) They had to find out the hard way.
LR: Okay William, I think that that's gonna be good, that about covers the subjects I'd wanted to get at you with, on there.
WSB: Well fine.
LR: I appreciate your talking to me, it's a great pleasure to talk to you.
WSB: Well, it's my pleasure too.
LR: Okay, I hope to get another chance to come out and say hello to you out there in Lawrence.
WSB: That'd be fine.
LR: Y'know, I have one last question for you, is that, uh, typewriter still growing out in your garden?
WSB: (puzzled) What typewriter?
LR: Last time we were out there to visit, you had a typewriter growing in your garden amongst all the plants and things.
WSB: Oh, just one I threw away I guess.
LR: Yeah, it was a very beautiful image there, with the weeds coming up through the keys.
WSB: (laughs) I guess so, I don't remember the typewriter, I've gone through so many typewriters, wear 'em out and throw 'em away.
LR: Do you generally write with a computer these days?
WSB: I have no idea how to do it. No, I don't.
LR: Typewriter or longhand?
WSB: Typewriter or longhand, yes. These modern inventions! James [Grauerholz] has one, but I just don't.
LR: Okay, well listen William, I thank you very much. Please tell both Jim and James thanks for their help as well.
WSB: I certainly will.
LR: Okay, you take care.
WSB: You too.
LR: Bye bye.
WSB: Bye bye.
Paul Bowles was born in New York City on December 30, 1910. He was an only child and exhibited early the existentialist's sense of alienation.
Who was his father? The patriarchal figures in his stories are often brutal. The true stories of Bowles paint the picture of a cold, New York-Edwardian man as his father-- but not exactly cruel or abusive.
Paul Bowles studied with composer Aaron Copland. Bowles went on to produce a number of still-produced mostly-orchestral pieces. Later he wrote music for the work of Tennessee Williams, a friend and supporter of the talents of both Paul and his wife Jane.