Going to Sea in a Sieve

Trade routes of the literary vernacular


The 1990s were not kind to Paul Bowles, the late American existentialist pre-Beat bohemian guru. His creative output had slowed to a trickle, The Sheltering Sky was made into a film he hated, and the Moroccan writers whose work he had translated publicly accused him of exploitation. This last hurt the most. The figure Bowles had fashioned for himself in his adopted homeland of Tangier had always been an uneasy blend of assimilated outsider, amateur ethnographer and Orientalist connoisseur, and he was highly sensitive to the charge of neocolonialism. He had first drifted into Tangier during its heyday of expatriate hedonism, following an offhand suggestion by Gertrude Stein (who felt that neither Paris nor poetry had any use for him). He stayed on and became a permanent resident of Tangier for more than half a century, becoming fluent in Moghrebi; meanwhile North Africa—at first a mere setting for a sort of fever-dream of Western exoticism—gradually came into cultural and historical focus in his work. Bowles traveled and recorded a large archive of traditional Moroccan music for the Library of Congress in the 1950s, and in the 60s began taping and translating the work of illiterate storytellers such as Ahmed Yacoubi, Larbi Layachi and Mohamed Mrabet. He was bewildered by critics who believed that “a foreigner can present a Moroccan only as a performing seal,” (as noted in an interview with Jeffrey Bailey in the fall 1981 issue of The Paris Review), but the bemusement turned to bitterness when Layachi and Mrabet accused him of stealing their stories, and an article by Mohamed Choukri titled “Paul Bowles is an Exploiter” appeared in a German newspaper. Bowles lashed out in 1997, two years before his death: “there will be no repetition of such nonsense because I shall not collaborate again with a Moroccan,” he wrote. “Now I am a true racist.”

It was an ugly end to a personal and political conflict, one that turned not merely on rights and royalties but authorship in the larger sense. Bowles’s final words on the matter—furious as they were—belie a deep ambivalence in his relationship to Moroccan literature and culture. “In some sense the translator is a traitor,” he told an interviewer in 1986. If the play on words has its roots in etymology (Latin traducere); it has its branches in postcolonialism.

The work that Bowles translated was published first in English and would sometimes then appear in French, Italian or Portuguese editions, often remaining unread and unpublished in Morocco. There were in any case no “original” Arabic versions; Bowles’s translations can be seen as a kind of extractive cultural wealth. “Moghrebi literature” was almost an oxymoron in the indigenous intellectual atmosphere of the period; Marxists and Arab nationalists were likely to “scent neocolonialism in a book translated directly from darija” (as Bowles put it), while Francophone Moroccan writers tended to see it as something bastardized. But oral vernacular storytelling had a more coherent appeal for Western audiences, who have long been romantic about untutored bards and Wordsworth’s “real language of men,” nostalgic for the warmth and intimacy that threads together a community of listeners within the radius of a speaking voice.

Bowles’s 1973 translation of Mohamed Choukri’s For Bread Alone was in this sense anomalous. Though the English edition appeared fully ten years before the Arabic, the book had in fact been written originally in classical Arabic, a language Bowles didn’t know. (The translation was collaboratively achieved by way of Moghrebi, French and Spanish—languages the two writers had in common.) Choukri was no unlettered raconteur; on the other hand, he didn’t learn classical Arabic until he was in his twenties, a fact Bowles makes much of:

It has been my experience that the illiterate, not having learned to classify what goes into his memory, remembers everything… It seems almost a stroke of good luck that Choukri’s encounter with the written word should have come so late, for by then his habits of thought were already fully formed; the educative process did not modify them. As a writer, then, he is in an enviable position, even though he paid a high price for it in suffering.

Bowles writes these words from within a rich western tradition, stretching from Rousseau to Marshall McLuhan, that idealizes preliterate cognition as less rational and classificatory and less bound by individual ego. It is more shaped by sound than sight and therefore more attuned to reality as a dynamically unfolding present tense.

This of course was the paradox of his project. Bowles prized works of oral tradition for their spontaneity, their protean immateriality, their communal and participatory setting; then he taped them, fixed, and reified them into books to be read by solitary readers. Something of the same paradox was at work in his creation of an archive of Moroccan music for the Library of Congress a decade earlier. He emphasized three things about the music he was collecting: its extraordinary range of regional diversity; the social function it served “in effacing the boundaries of individual and group consciousness”; and the vulnerability of these things to the twin encroachments of nationalism and technology. He was acutely aware that the very technologies enabling him to record this music were securing its demise as a live tradition. Bowles’s ambivalence is made imaginatively vivid in a description of one of his assistants in the archival project, a young Moroccan “militantly of his epic,” whose addiction to his short-wave radio represented for Bowles the cultural disinheritance of a life made “almost wholly abstract.”

At one point, when a particularly confused noise had for some time been issuing from the loudspeaker, I rashly suggested that he adjust the dial. “No, No!” he cried. “This is what I want. I’ve got five stations here now. Sometimes others come in. It’s a place where they all like to get together and talk at once. Like in a cafe.” For a young and deracinated Moroccan like Moulay Brahim, radio is primarily neither a form of entertainment nor a medium of information. It is a sort of metaphysical umbilical cord—a whole manner of existence, an essential adjunct to feeling that he is in contact with life.

Such “deracinated” Moroccans are a leitmotif in Bowles’s writings from that period, as are accounts of interference from government officials anxious to project an image of Morocco’s modernity abroad. The Library of Congress project had a close parallel in the ethnomusicology of Alan Lomax, although the latter dovetailed more smoothly with the needs of cultural nationalism. While the US was looking to exhume the local and indigenous, Morocco was looking to exorcise it.

“I want to carry it over the border intact, but of course that’s impossible,” Bowles said, once again speaking of translation. It is a curious image, merging reverence with presumption. There was much that Bowles wanted to carry over the border—stories, music, kif, ways of inhabiting language, states of mind both real and imagined. His reverence for Morocco was deep, but at some level he knew that nothing could be more western than the yearning that produced it.

Bowles’s one book of travel writings bears an odd title—Their Heads Are Green and Their Hands are Blue—that may be familiar to many readers. “And they went to sea in a sieve,” they might add, before wondering what a line from Edward Lear is doing on the cover of such a book. More lines may come back:

They sailed to the Western Sea, they did, To a land all covered with trees, And they bought an Owl, and a useful Cart, And a pound of Rice, and a Cranberry Tart, And a hive of silvery Bees. And they bought a Pig, and some green Jack-daws, And a lovely Monkey with lollipop paws, And forty bottles of Ring-Bo-Ree, And no end of Stilton Cheese. Far and few, far and few, Are the lands where the Jumblies live; Their heads are green, and their hands are blue, And they went to sea in a Sieve.

Travel itself is a kind of ongoing déjà vu, with the familiar continually reconstellated in a romance of the strange. The traveler “finds” whatever he unwittingly brings with him: Stilton cheese, a pound of rice, a heart of darkness. Lear in his own way knew these things as well as Conrad, and Bowles looked to both as predecessors, blending the willed naivete of the one with the morbid colonial introspection of the other.