Sunday, October 11, 2009

Morocco Journal, Summer 1980, Part 5

Mark told me how weird it felt to stab somebody. I guess he did, once. I asked him, was it a feeling that one could grow to like? There’s an older black woman here named Virgil who is always talking about world politics; Mark asked her how old people felt about death. What a question.

Blue nets. Spirals. The whispering world. Burial gowns.

Today, I tried Jerry’s technique for self-hypnosis: you notice three visual images, three auditory images, and three sensual perceptions. Then three again, and again if necessary, then two, then one. I almost fell asleep, but it did open up a hypnagogic state. I closed my eyes, though. Next time I’ll leave them open.

The Countess (well, Blaine Blaine calls her “the Duchess”) is writing what she won’t call an autobiography so she calls it a “memoir,” concerning her life on the screen, and "how the camera really does rob something of your soul, my dear."

Someone asked the Russian woman Béla, “are you sure you’re not a Russian spy?” her answer: “Why should I be sure?”

Mark has been having a lot of pretty bad luck. He loses things, the banks are not open the same hours every day, his manuscript disappears. But it all comes out OK. The drama of a good story, or a story of any kind, really.
Jerry heard Bob B. talking about a house he lived in for a while, with six bathrooms, each a different color. He’d use a different bathroom every day. Bob lies out in the sun all the time and he has a butterfly tattoo on his upper thigh.

Another honking procession. It gets tiresome. Someone on the street today called Clara “you beautiful fish.”

Mark says he saw a bullfight once where midget toreadors fought little baby bulls. It’s hot. During the day, the secret is to stay inside and not move at all. Got a letter from Cindy. Par Avion.

Banter with Chris: “your skin is so soft.”
“It used to be like a reptile’s but I had it removed.”
“Didn’t you molt, like a snake?”
“Yes, actually. It’s at home on a coat hook.”
“A relic. I hope you don’t have to put it back on again when you go back.”

Clara said she wrote a story about a man who wakes up and it’s totally dark and how he rummages around. I imagined him discovering another animal present, a not entirely hospitable one. She felt bad about her stories. I told her, maybe her heart knew they were finished before her mind did; one must always dare to be un-good. She let me read her story about the man in the dark. It was logically thought-out, from despair, to dream, to building: houses, statues, cities, out of the clay that is the only tangible thing in his environment. Making boxes, numbering and labeling the darkness, etc. She also showed me a strange episodic vision she wrote about an aimless woman named Spandex. Spandex goes for a drive. Spandex has a moral dilemma. A relationship with a vapid lover known only as Him. Hilarious. I’m a little jealous. I am not writing much at all, except in this journal.

Sentences. Each word a word from different paragraphs, four paragraphs of alternating words systematically jumbled, like a code. Language is a code, art is a code. One of Paul’s assignments: write a story for someone else to finish. I want to write a story for Paul to finish, but no one else wants to.

Surrender. That’s what Islam means. I’m energetic, but I don’t want to move. We do nothing but write and eat. A town where everything has hash in it.

Today is King Hassan II’s birthday, many, many floats displaying wonderful modern technology, farming equipment. The people here farm mostly by hand, furrowing with an axe, cutting wheat with scythes, threshing by air, the burros carrying the heaviest loads. I have no interest in such a parade; the bread here is delicious enough already.

Marty had asked Chris: “will you be an artist on our float in the King’s Birthday Parade?”
Chris asked, “why don’t you do it, Marty?”
“Oh, I’m not an artist.”
“Well, I’m not a parader,” she answered.

She paints, I write, no one else is here. A moment of solitude in which to rediscover my soul. Soul in print. I have just returned from tea with Claude Thomas, a lovely French lady who is Bowles’s French translator. She lives in a fantastic place out of some Rilkean Duino fantasy, a big mansion on a hill above Tangiers (a white-tiled roof with chimneys that resemble tiny houses). The grounds of the estate are planted with eucalyptus and palm trees, with an extensive terraced garden with fountains – one of which was decorated with mosaics that were crumbling and buckling. I was awed by the luxury. She only lives there one month out of the year. Paul looked at home there, or perhaps wished it was. Me, too. We had tea in a gazebo perched on the edge of a high cliff overlooking the Atlantic Ocean, looking down to the sea splashing the rocks and fishermen casting their nets, so high up that birds were flying beneath us. The teahouse was at the end of an arbor/arcade that connected it to the main house. There were cushions and patterned tiles and an overall restfulness I have found no where else in this city.

We had tea and ate cucumber sandwiches and apricot, strawberry and orange preserves – made from fruits grown on the estate by a woman named Fatima, who also served us. We were joined by a strange young man named David, an American who had been raised in Tangier. Apparently, he is heavily drugged, to prevent manic fits or something, but he was nonetheless capable of lucid conversation. In the teahouse with the breezes, David told us how some Moroccans had tried to convert him on the street (“evil voices”) and how they told him that after death Muslims went through the door to heaven, while evil people – including Christians – go through the door to hell. He told them that he would choose hell. I told Claude that her house would be a perfect place to see the world only through magazines. She told me about a children’s story called L’enfant ____, in which a young boy living only in the Metró imagines the upper world through the names of the subway stops. Paul described an Easter Mass in Chichicastenango where they have sacrifices burning under each step to the church, and a statue of Jesus that is submerged in water for three days. When it rises out of the water, they set off fireworks inside the church. David told about a woman who had been walking up the hillside to these lush Tangerine estates, who was assaulted by two men in a red car who tried to kidnap her. They were somewhat notorious, having done the same thing – successfully – the previous week.

The camera parts click together like carbines. Some of the guys with the program have cameras that are so sophisticated it makes me nervous. Tiny things, fit in the palm of your hand, like CIA-issue cameras. The register of paranoia. Mosques like gun towers. It’s OK to be scared. It’s OK not to not be scared. Or it’s OK to be scared of being scared. Spotlight on the Americans! Da-dadada! A flash from a hash-high this afternoon: What if the Moroccans do think we’re spies? Descending, fanning out to gather oblique information. Picking up their trash, putting it in our pockets.

A road so bad Paul described it as “driving on a river bed.”

Juan said the almond pastries the other night were like “eating perfume.”

Today we drove off to find a piece of the true cross, the Roman ruins at Lixus, the oldest in Morocco, founded 3000 years ago by the Phoenicians, very far out on the Atlantic for them. Phoenician rock-building involved careful placement of squared rock, but the Romans used mortar and moved much quicker, setting up little Romes all over the empire like Ramada Inns, making each strange place look the same. On the way there we saw red clay cliffs and goats reaching up to chew lichen and bark off helpless trees. The trees are stripped to their midsection and will probably die. Ann said that down south, she’d seen goats climb on each other’s backs to reach the bark. Lixus is on the top of a hill looking out over Larache and many salt-fields that were once a harbor for triremes and such. One of the photographers announced he was going to Azila, a quaint Moroccan seaside resort, because “these rocks are boring.” I agreed with him, adding “if you have no imagination.” Climbing up, we passed a mosaic of Neptune, with crustacean legs, claws and feelers instead of a beard around his well-modeled face. There was a tiny amphitheatre built for gladiator and lion fights, and I thought, how provincial – to lose one’s life for such a small, hick audience. Better to die in Rome, in the Coliseum. We found a room with a great arch that was cool inside, like the nave of a church. In the forum, sad pillars stuck out of the walls and were evocative and moved me to a transcendent plane of being – hahaha, Romans. I’m here, you’re not. We saw the stables where they kept the lions. Sara found something that she believes to be a human bone. A gladiator bone. A lion bone. I found a small bone that resembled a miniature woman’s torso, very mystical, to go with the collection of smooth stones and other stuff I’ve picked up. A subtle menthol purple. Walls of cactus that looked like clusters of prickly Mickey Mouse ears. On the way back, shops selling precious stones, roadside stands, deserted beaches. Blue and magenta flowers. The surprise of a twisted stump amid a forest of trees and leaves. Animal dots on the vast hillsides. A crazy place. Even the electricity is different.

Sunset tonight: running to see it, as excited as I was to feed the ducks 16 years ago when I was seven and knocked out my front tooth. Orange paint strokes, so rich in color, turning brown at the edges; behind me, pinks and blues and the chanting in the distance. Today there were clouds, the first day I’ve seen clouds at all, though earlier, at the ruins, the sky was a sort of flowering gaseous layer. Bowles says that when Ramadan falls in summer, without water during the day, people hallucinate, and towards the end of the month tempers flare.

Yesterday, in Paul Bowles’ dark apartment with Clara and Jerry, canaries twittering away, and Mohammad Mrabet arrived after a while. Leprechaunish, intimidating, he takes over a room. First, Mrabet said that he hated America, then he said he loved it (money was there). Paul, aside, advised me not to expect consistency. Henry Miller had just died, and Mrabet was sighing. He had never met the man, but they had corresponded. Mrabet said that sometimes, it was better not to meet one’s heroes, saying something like “you come to the land of mint and caught a cold” (mint is supposed to cure colds). Mrabet told me that if I want to learn how to tell stories, I should learn the language and live with an Arab family for several months – out in the country – and have them invite everyone they knew to come and visit and tell all their stories, to see how it’s done. He told me “I could go to America and make more money than you,” and he’s probably right. We talked about critics and reviews. Paul quoted a southern newspaper’s review of Gore Vidal’s The City and the Pillar when it came out, as follows: “this is the worst book ever written by anyone, anywhere, on any subject.” Chuckling, he added: “a portable review, eh?” Paul is such a wonderful, twinkling man. Mrabet says about Paul: “when the lions die, only the dogs remain.” He is the last of a certain breed of writer.

Paul has a small Walkman tape-player, with recordings of Stewart Dempster blowing a trombone in the Great Abbey of Clement VI, a room with a 14-second echo, and recordings of Conlon Nancarrow’s nutty compositions for player-piano (Mrabet cannot stand this music). Both he and Mrabet have these dazzling wristwatches, with a rotating pattern on one side and a clear glass so you can see the mechanism working on the other.

Telling stories is something both Paul and Mrabet do, mostly…intertwining truth and fiction so you can’t tell them apart, in a cord. Tiles of a mosaic – lies that add up to a truth. Paul says that the Koran prohibits art, pictures, as lies, and certainly “anything that casts a shadow” (a graven image, statuary) as an evil worse than lies.

Bowles described how the Kuwaitis frustrated the Moroccan real-estate salesmen, because they always paid the asking-price without haggling. So the next time, the Moroccans would ask for more, and the Kuwaitis would pay it. It drove the Moroccans crazy, because they had no idea what the limit was.

I described my story to Clara as “having an absent plot.”

In Jerry’s story, pink fades to violet, a relationship dies, an alchemical transition. Yesterday I was convinced he was listening outside the door, so today I told him exactly what I’d said to Mark about his stories, how they were beautifully written but ultimately dissatisfying, due to lack of events. But well done. I hope his feelings were not hurt.

Big grasshoppers here. Are there locusts? Bowles talked about how centipedes have a poison in their claws which they dig into your skin. The effect of the poison has been described as “like raining inside your body…” One can use a pumice-like “cobra stone” to remove the poison by rubbing the spot, but these are expensive objects and hard to come by. Bowles described apothecaries here that sell magical objects, feathers, bones, ostrich eggs, dead birds, powders and herbs, everything one needs to cast a spell or to buy a curse. There are little snail-like seeds one grinds up to mix with kif that will “drive you crazy.” Datura, another wholesome magical herb that grows in abundance here, features a white flower that droops down, and apparently grows inside the American School compound. One mustn’t sleep next to the flower; you will sleep forever. The land of the Lotus-Eaters. Moroccans like to give a potion of datura as a practical joke, as it basically paralyzes you with hallucinations and a gaping-mouth for 12 hours. Another Moroccan joke, one that Paul’s chauffeur likes to pull: you take a palmetto leaf and cover it in spittle, then stick the thing into a scorpion’s bean-shaped hole, until it grabs on and you slowly remove it. Then, you snip off its stinger, so it’s harmless (though you have to be quick). His chauffeur used to walk into cafés with one in his hand and freak out his friends when he shook hands with them. Scorpions here are light brown, cream and coffee colored.

Eric Satie had 50 umbrellas in his apartment when he died, and he slept in a hammock over a hot-water bottle. Paul has a pyramid stack of old leather valises piled by the door to his apartment, with exotic travel stickers on them: ready to go.

The man who made faces: me. Camas said I had a funny face. The kids in the village laughed at my face. Mrabet told me yesterday, “your face funny.” He said I looked like Jerry Lewis. Then he said he was tired of working. I said, “me too,” and he laughed, sighing and shaking his head, saying that one of his days beat my month, how my life so far had been “school and home and school and home, home school school home home school school school home home school,” and so on. “Like Gertrude Stein,” Paul said, tapping his cigarette down, bemused. Mrabet told me he had been thrown out on the street at age 10, “to raise a man, throw him into the thorn-bushes.” He had to live on the street, fight off would-be molesters with a knife, even killed men (with gun and knife), “and now [laughing] I take people apart – with hands.” He described motorcycle accidents as heroic and traction in the hospital as glorious, how once when someone called him maricon he rammed into the other bike and broke the driver’s leg. He has no stomach, as most of it was removed – a duodenal ulcer that Bowles described in glowing detail (the doctors showed it to him after the operation, in a jar): “a black volcano, exactly the shape of a volcano, growing out of his stomach.” Mrabet proudly displays his scars. He’s been cut up, but he’s still alive, in excellent shape; vitality, art, stories pour out of his being. Claude Thomas said he often trance-dances at her parties. His drawings are as hypnotic and rippling as Sue’s henna hands, marvelous snowflakes of line and orange skin. I have not lived like Mrabet. I’m like a hothouse flower.

Last night, a student named Ralph P., a vaguely suspicious character with access to a lot of stuff, pounded on Bowles’s door at 1 am, swearing and yelling “Paul!” He was drunk and it raised quite a scandal in the apartment building, but Paul slept through the whole thing. Ralph even tore off the doorknob. “Quite a scandal…” Paul said. “Never, in thirty years here…”

Diary. Journal. What a bizarre crime it is for me to give myself over to this object, to store my memories in this thing…well, I’ll still have the memories. But what if I lose them by writing them down? A theatre of objects, objects speaking, objects deserting themselves. In any theatre, one deserts one’s self. Objects becoming vessels, human beings as vessels, objects as language, like words, connecting us like umbilical to what Octavio Paz calls the “abdominal ruminant belly.” All objects you lose in life end up on the dark side of the moon. In life, everything leaves scars. Sacred trees are scarred by winters, by goats chewing their bark, by lover’s knives, are severed, dismembered, and turned into desks, pencils, paper. Everything continues, funnels backwards. Wood decays in phosphorescence, or is burned into charcoal. In Azila, the city of white, we saw a man covered in soot selling buckets of charcoal. In Azila, by the sea, city of sunlight and merriment, we saw children and adults swimming near boulders over which ran streams of blood from a slaughterhouse, and streams of sewage from the happy village. Everything has its cost. This is a country of birth defects, blindness, bum legs, old women with 90º bent backs – hunched backs filled with mystery, holy cities shrouded in every flea-ridden camel’s hump.

Chris K.’s friend back home, who fantasizes about suffocating little babies: “don’t leave me alone with them.” Someone called Megan R. a “mutton face.” Women in veils, kohl-eyed. “They’re really laughing at you,” Chris said.

Everything is a sexual overture in this country. You cannot get past it. Driss. Even Said, the sad young boy who spoke such perfect English – and who, with three other boys, tried to abduct three girls here, you know, get them on a back road, fuck the American women. Sexual frustration here is awesome, tangible, you can feel it in the streets, in the hostile glances from people, and you think, yeah, America’s like this, sort of, but people here do smile back at you now and then. This place drives me crazy. I can’t figure it out. Do I romanticize the beauty and the ugliness? Are the elements of beauty here merely vestiges of a past which is being trampled by Coca-Cola? Yesterday, in the dust-rain of Azila, Keith was asked: “aren’t you representatives of Coca-Cola?” And later, I was accosted by an Arab, who asked “who do you think you are, Coca-Cola? To come to a country and not speak the language?” Coke is poison in lovely green bottles.

A big jet flies overhead. On the back of the 100 dirham note there’s a picture of an oil refinery. The back of the 50 (or is it the 5?) is a modern dam. The king’s birthday parade had floats with farm equipment, airplanes, giant telephone handles, boats, technology, plaster-board mock-ups on chintzy truck beds. I passed the floats on my way home from Paul’s. I was not interested.

The next morning I woke up at dawn, mosquitoes were killing me. In a haze I walked to the Medina. All along the streets were bits of confetti and 3” purple hearts made of crepe paper which men were sweeping up. I sent an envelope full of them to Cindy and I wrote to her about Morocco and how odd I felt (Juan described it as not knowing whether to laugh or to cry, to be exhilarated or defeated), how Morocco is a dance between fascination and revulsion, between beauty and fear, between the visionary and the filthy: “a land of magic where the people eat only dirt and live to be hundreds of years old. To speak the language of soil, the grammar of debris, to cut open a man and find only wheat in his veins and a raw cucumber for a heart…” What nonsense I’ve been spewing. Does being in a place at once exotic and disgusting prompt romantic spoutings? Morocco’s not at all what I expected it to be. At any rate, I’m drunk on words, playing with toy-soldier parades of them, considering their meanings as secondary and the pleasure as primary, infantile, and fun.

Hanging tassels. Shops filled with cheaply-made crap. A butcher shop with dozens and dozens of chickens, plucked, hung upside down or draped over the counter, covered in flies, waiting to be eaten by men, a numbing repetition of eyes and beaks. The alleys beckoned, I found even the water seductive. Out of a dream I saw a woman in a purple skirt, a girl in bright orange slippers skipping in the circle before the Kasbah gate. A motorcycle snuck up behind me, soundless, terrifying. Down the labyrinths I met only cats, an occasional passer-by, a woman throwing garbage from her doorway. Mosques in the early light, a blue door at the alley’s end. On the steps of the fort by the harbor, an old woman muttered and fingered some beads. In broad hats, purple, red and aqua shirts and red & white striped skirts, women with heavy loads of mint argued in the marketplace. All daily life is ritual. I suppose that is true everywhere, but it weighs more here. Mark wonders why so many people have eye problems here. Chris is obsessed with leg defects. I turned a corner and there was a burro, braying pathetically, its front feet tied tightly together but otherwise untethered. Paul says the only thing Moroccans treat worse than their women are their donkeys.

Ann and I work up a ridiculous routine about an imaginary euphemism for going to the bathroom: going to the pastry shop. “Oh, do I need a pastry now!” she says, laughing herself silly.

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