I like the word decadent. All shimmering with purple and gold. It throws out the brilliance of flames and the gleam of precious stones. It is made up of carnal spirit and unhappy flesh and of all the violent splendors of the Lower Empire: it conjures up the paint of courtesans, the sports of the circus, the breath of the tamers of animals, the bounding of wild beasts, the collapse among the flames of races exhausted by the power of feeling, to the invading sound of enemy trumpets.
-- Paul Verlaine, circa 1886
In June, 1980, I graduated from college and, on a whim, flew to Morocco for a summer workshop with the expatriate American writer Paul Bowles. I had never really read much by Bowles, but I had heard him mentioned in connection with the Beat writers, and I was curious to go and do something out of the norm. So off I went, on a program organized by the School of Visual Arts in NYC. What follows is pretty much a verbatim redaction of my journal of that summer, for better or worse:
Went to the Times Square art show with Gina: huge portraits of genitals, coats spray-painted green, a corridor lined with broken glass, a motorized James Brown in front of gift wrap, rats nailed to walls. We talk about Tom Otterness, who’s made a film called Red Curtain in which he executes his dog. A sharp cookie serrates your stomach. A woman in L.A. had herself buried with a car, her car, to use in the afterlife.
Lunch with Candia O. uptown, near FAO Schwartz and the Plaza. She’s working as a receptionist at Harper’s. Nothing much to say. She’s lugging around Rousseau’s Confessions, says she’s reading it. The obscure object of my desire: light pours out of her. Standing on the street with cars all around, I have to blow my nose and have nothing to use so I use my hand and a ridiculous amount comes out, which I nervously try to conceal from Candia, who fortunately is looking away while I wipe my hand on my leg.
Trip out to Coney Island with Frank T. Rode the rickety Cyclone roller coaster twice. Toured the wax musee: reproductions of sex murders, rapes, stabbings. The woman outside called it “educational.” Painting on a pinball machine of a man playing pinball, viewed from behind the machine: the back of the machine is a woman’s face, and the man playing the machine is ramming himself into the front of it, head tilted (no pun intended) in ecstasy, ass-fucking female technology. Frank asked about my sister’s “debutante” party coming up and I just got flustered, unable to explain the thing and then pissed off at the whole gesture of it, and that mom and dad will have her do it regardless of what she wants.
Tomorrow is the flight to Morocco. Up till 4:30 am talking with Gina G., sharing perceptions of people: Lisa C. feels more than she speaks, Cindy S. is an odd mix of confidence and insecurity, self reliance and dependence. Mark R. and his dark virtues, his earnestness and his tall stories (“I’m worried about Gina…she doesn’t seem to be eating but she may have gained weight from drinking…”), his image of being “misunderstood” which he creates by coming on with such odd eye-contact and by lying and gossiping so much.
Casablanca, 8:55 am (3:55 am NYC time). What a crew. Martin Flusser, who put this trip together for the School of Visual Arts in NYC (and whose wife is lovely), is running around putting out fires, dealing with delays, luggage. A parched-looking middle aged creep corners him at his busiest, insists on showing Martin the book he wrote: “I’m not like these people, I’m a real artist!” Flusser says his time is precious, and the guy says “so is mine” and stalks off, fuming, muttering that Flusser’s “lost his chance.” A frail, morbid woman from New Zealand named Ann, who consults a big book of world diseases when she travels abroad, tells me that Malaria is endemic in Morocco this time of year, though she has come prepared with quinine tablets to take. They make your sweat distasteful to mosquitoes. “It is how the British Empire prevailed, my dear. Gin and tonics!”
Sat next to an affable man with a trim beard named Mark B. on the plane. Wrote a letter to Cindy, mocking the stewards who wouldn’t let me pee before takeoff (“you know this is not permitted”) and how, when I did, they were disgruntled. I imagined a night-time airplane crash as a jewel in a velvet case (I took a small life-insurance policy out in her name at the airport). I described how the moon looked on the wing of the plane, and the Atlantic at night, and the islands, mountains, fields, cities of clouds beneath us. I told her about the beautiful child behind me with her sensual smile, her tongue and dusky skin. I described a mother with two kids asleep on her lap. I did not tell her how I tried to hide the snot on my hand from Candia. I did not tell her that fake gold leaves a green stain on the skin. I did not mention Virginia Woolf's suicide. I did describe how there were no horizons visible from the plane window, only shifts of color tones, and the way the clouds looked so solid as we descended into them.
A question from a dream: are we sad victims or jubilant squid?
Mark is full of stories, some of which may even be true. In Vietnam (he served there in the early ‘70’s) cobras travel in pairs, so if you see two it’s cool, but one alone is bad – if you shook your boot and one came out, another was close at hand and time to worry.
A poem on the airplane menu – a grace for supper. I write my own on it:
My hands feel the soft warmth of yours
Your lips kiss mine and soothe my sorrows.
Miracle of imagination,
Which engenders the whole world.
All the universe, mere illusion.
Blessed, this imagination
Which makes us find women beautiful,
And awakens our hearts to the singing of birds,
And the rustling of the trees.
Going through customs: nothing to declare. A tight tailored young man looking cool in a blue velvet suit.
Everybody tries to sell you something here, usually it’s not theirs.
The American School in Tangier: a fenced-in compound on the outskirts of Tangiers with a soccer field, classrooms, basketball courts, dorm rooms. When we arrived we were greeted by Arab guys playing drums and banging pieces of metal together and dancing, wearing “folkloric” green and red costumes, with headdresses of black velvet studded with seashells and bits of broken glass. There were high as kites. There is no age limit for this – some of the folks in the program are elderly women, most are here to paint.
Out our window, there is a field behind the school and beyond that a street that leads to a hill that’s covered with tossed boxes: all buildings, with small windows and bright colored shutters. Myriads of boxes, all layered and sharp-cornered, some white and some dun-colored, some with balconies. The angles and recessed sections of some of these houses, the way they are set irregularly or back from the street, capture the angles of shadow, wells of dark geometry. It all looks lovely against the blue sky.
First off, I walk around Tangier, but do not get to the beach, nor do I get to the bustling center of town. I get lost on side-streets full of chickens, kids pissing, women at cisterns with plastic jugs of water. Perhaps they are discussing Little House on the Prairie, which is aired here – so many TV antennas! I get some tomato rinds sprayed on me, an accident I hope but perhaps not. These beautiful children who will grow up to be the fine-featured old men and women I see in their robes, reflecting and staring as they sit and talk in the shade, or perhaps beggars who plead in Arabic for pennies. I look into quiet shops as I walk by, down alleys and up winding stairs, peeping into buildings whose doors were wide open and from which emanated strange language and the smells of cooking food. I walked through an overgrown graveyard (Shams al-din said that's the first place to visit in a strange town) but realized I might offend. Thought of going into a mosque, found out later that it’s illegal and I could have been beaten up if I had. Or so I was told.
A mosque tale – the great mosque of Tangier: In 1515 the Portuguese (who took over the city in 1471) heard a voice and discovered a shaft that led down to an ancient Roman chapel that contained in it a statue of Hercules (whose mythic labors took him to Morocco). The statue later vanished, but the Portuguese built a Christian church there, which was taken over in the 1600’s by “Moors,” who built a mosque there. The tower that the Portuguese had built remained, but the clock they installed had broken, and local craftsmen were unable to repair it – it was believed to have become possessed by a Jinn, and exorcisms were performed to no avail. A Christian clockmaker from Genoa was asked to repair it, but it is not permitted for infidels to enter a mosque. Wise men deliberated: should planks be laid? Should the pavement stones be removed after he defiled them? For his part the craftsman refused to remove his shoes, saying that he was never required to do that even when he visited the Chapel of the Most Holy Virgin. Finally, it was decided that since it was permitted for an ass to wander of its own accord into a mosque, and because it was a dumb animal it did not offend Allah, then it would be OK if the “Nazarene” craftsman entered the mosque as a donkey would – so he came and left on his hands and knees, so that, in effect, only an animal had entered the sacred space. And the clock was fixed. Layer after layer of history in this place. Oh, the lingerings of religious spaces. Mark said Christians used “Druid oaks” to make floors for their churches. Plundering the night. What persists and what disappears?
When economic trends go down, people wear bright colors, as now – people are wearing bright colors in NYC. But a newspaper article says “Fall fashion forecast: The season’s ‘in’ color will be grey.” Grey is the color for fall! How awful! I am in a strange and scary place and all alone. Streets of corrugated steel neighborhoods and the eyes of passers by who mark me immediately as foreign.
Everything is exchanged here: time is 5 hours ahead (I’m 8 hours ahead of Cindy in Seattle). Money has to be exchanged, and you cannot leave the country with dirhams in your pocket (and even if you do they’re useless).