Paul Bowles’ Tangier and Fez

The Agony of Transition from Colonial to Post-colonial Times

As an American literary expatriate who lived in Tangier since 1947 up till his death in 1999, Paul Bowles can well be regarded as a good witness of the drastic changes which this city in particular and Morocco in general underwent during this important span of history. What mostly entitles him to be such a witness is the fact that he was avowedly very much interested in this country and its Arabo-Islamic culture, which he took as the main subject of several of his travel or journalistic accounts and literary discursive representations. Indeed, Lawrence D. Stewart has even gone to the extent of describing this writer as “the chronicler of Moroccan life.”[1] Yet, the question which imposes itself in this respect is: to what extent can a literary artist be actually a ‘chronicler’ or objective witness, given that all his writings are no more than subjective linguistic products and discursive cultural constructs? In other words, can Bowles reflect an authentic picture about Moroccan history and reality through his textual representations without being generally ideological and without reproducing the hegemonic tropes and structures of Orientalist discourses?

This paper is a modest attempt to tackle such problematic questions through a brief study of the language and strategies which Bowles deployed in his portrayal and representation of his most admired and fascinating Moroccan cities: Tangier and Fez. Since he wrote on these two historic cities both before and after Morocco’s Independence, the focus here is laid on how he perceived and ‘chronicled’ the great transformations which they underwent as they passed from colonial to post-colonial times. In addition to shedding some light on the general pictures Bowles reflected about both cities during these antithetical periods, this discussion aims at unveiling this author’s ideological position by illustrating how he was looking at Morocco’s process of decolonization with an Orientalist spirit and agonized ‘Western eyes’.

If we start with Bowles’ image of Tangier, the first passage worth quoting here is the one which records his first impressions as he first set foot on this city during his first visit in 1931. In his autobiography he writes:

If I said that Tangier struck we as a dream city, I should mean it in the strict sense. Its topography was rich in prototypal dream scenes: covered streets like corridors with doors opening into rooms on each side, hidden terraces high above the sea, streets consisting only of steps, dark impasses, small squares built on sloping terrain so that they looked like ballet sets designed in false perspective, with alleys leading off in several directions; as well as the classical dream equipment of tunnels, ramparts, ruins, dungeons, and cliffs. The climate was both violent and languorous.[2]

Thus, from the beginning one can se clearly how Tangier is romanticized as it is not only generally associated with dreams but also labelled literally “a dream city”. Here, the exotic topographical scenery and architectural features of Tangier combine with its mysterious and ‘languorous’ climate to impress upon its American visitor a lasting sense of wonder and magic fascination. One can even positively assert that Bowles fell in love with Tangier ever since that first visit, and that is what motivated him to choose it as the place of his fifty-two years’ self-exile. He himself repeatedly declared this love, as when he once said: “I loved it more than any place I’d ever seen in my life. In fact, I’d never liked any place strongly, I realized, until I came here. I’d always felt negatively about places before.”[3]

But along with the distinctive topographical and climactic characteristics of Tangier, there are certainly other reasons behind Bowles’ infatuation with this city. When he first came there, he explained,

Tangier had not yet entered the dirty era of automotive traffic [...]. The city was self-sufficient and clean [...]. There was no crime; no one yet thought of not respecting the European, whose presence was considered an asset to the community.[4]

This was in 1931; but even when he later came to reside there in 1947, Tangier was still a very calm and pleasant place, where many Westerner visitors flooded in:

In the beginning everybody came here because you could live for nothing and get whatever you wanted. Right after the war Tangier was extremely cheap; you never asked the price of anything, you just took what you saw. It was amazing [...]. And also it was a very beautiful place to live.[5]

In the last two quotations, it can be seen that among the things that enticed Bowles to make of Tangier his permanent “home”[6] are its cleanliness and cheap prices or expenses. But in addition to this, the presence of a lot of Westerners seems also to be an important factor in this regard, especially as many of them were artists and literary expatriates like Bowles himself. These visitors and expatriates found in Tangier a space of almost limitless freedom and self-indulgence—“a sanctuary of non-interference,” as William Burroughs termed it.[7] For this city was internationalized, and its international status “prostituted” it, as it were, and made of it a site of great decadence where drugs, homosexuality, and intrigue of all sorts were rampant.[8] Bowles himself used to indulge deeply in such a peculiar moral atmosphere, and he even devoted one of his novels to the commemoration of that “bygone era” of the International Zone. Indeed, Let It Come Down is a thrilling narrative that provides a vivid picture of the decadent life that characterized the Tangier of that period—a colonial period which Bowles would have liked never to come to an end. His nostalgic attitude towards that era can be glimpsed in the very ‘Introduction’ which he added retrospectively to this novel in 1980. “The novel”, he said,

was first published early in 1952, at the very moment of the riots which presaged the end of the International Zone of Morocco. Thus, even at the time of publication the book already treated of a bygone era, for Tangier was never the same after the 30th March 1952. The city celebrated in these pages has long ago ceased to exist, and the events recounted in them would now be inconceivable.[9]

The word ‘celebrate’ in this passage reveals clearly Bowles’ ideological standpoint and his nostalgic desire for that ‘bygone’ international/colonial order. His statement “that the events recounted in [his novel] would be now inconceivable” also points out to the huge socio-political metamorphosis which Tangier underwent as Morocco regained its independence in 1956.

When asked in 1979 about the difference between the post-colonial Tangier and that of the International Zone, Bowles replied:

They have very little in common really. The Tangier of those days was very small, a quarter of its size today. It was run by Europeans, the embassies, so it was spic [sic] and span, beautiful trees, flowers everywhere. Now it seems just a huge slum to me, the whole city. Makes me sad.[10]

In a 1981 interview, Bowles confirmed that Tangier is “a very dull city now.” He went on to explain that:

By the sixties, it had calmed down considerably, although it was still a good deal livelier than it is these days [...]. In general, Moroccans have a slightly higher standard of living than they did, by European criteria. That is, they have television, cars, and a certain amount of plumbing in their houses...[11]

As if the ‘dullness’ and the monotony of Tangier’s post-colonial times impinged negatively on the vision and the talent of Bowles, this writer was not inspired to write or speak enthusiastically about this city in the era of its independence. It is true that he used it as the setting of some of the last stories he collected in Midnight Mass, and he even wrote a diary entitled Days: Tangier Journal 1987-1989, but these texts provide no important information about the post-colonial realities of this city. This is what R. Kevin Lacey has also remarked as he commented on Bowles’ diary by confirming that “from the pages of Paul Bowles’s Tangier journal, there emerges only the briefest of descriptions vis-à-vis Tangier, Morocco, and Moroccans (Tangerines or otherwise).”[12]

Nevertheless, Bowles remained faithful to Tangier till the last, as though he was deriving his capacity for his faith from his excessive love of that ‘bygone’ colonial period of the International Zone. As a matter of fact, he even tended to overlook the frustrating changes which his beloved city witnessed, as it can be inferred from his assertion in 1975 that: “It’s changed less than the rest of the world, and continues to seem less a part of this particular era than most cities. It’s a pocket outside the mainstream.”[13] Furthermore, at the end of his autobiography he even attempts to express his gratitude for the splendour and the exotic uniqueness of this Moroccan city:

In defense of the city I can say that so far it has been touched by fewer of the negative aspects of contemporary civilization than most cities of its size. More important than that, I relish the idea than in the night, all around me in my sleep, sorcery is burrowing its invisible tunnels in every direction, from thousands of senders to thousands of unsuspecting recipients. Spells are being cast, poison is running its course; souls are being dispossessed of parasitic pseudo-consciousness that lurk in the unguarded recesses of the mind.

There is drumming out there most nights. It never awakens me; I hear the drums and incorporate them into my dream, like the nightly cries of the muezzins. Even if in the dream I am in New York; the first Allah akbar! Effaces the backdrop and carries whatever comes next to North Africa, and the dream goes on.[14]

This passage is quite reminiscent of the one with which we have opened this discussion. Here again, Bowles speaks of dreams and depicts Tangier as a magic city that is exerting an overpowering fascinating effect upon him. As Edward Said would say, this portrayal amounts to ‘orientalizing’ this Oriental city, and the germs or echoes of this Orientalist discursive practice are inherent in the very way Bowles permeates this city with a sense of mystery and Otherness. Not only is Tangier located outside the precincts of civilization, it is also described as a place that throbs with magic and strangeness. Bowles speaks of ‘sorcery’, ‘spells’; ‘poison’ and ‘drumming’, and each of these elements is an emblematic feature that sets this city apart and enhances its exotic specificity and cultural difference. Significantly enough, Bowles’ description here loudly echoes the statement of his compatriot Mark Twain, who declared on first visiting Morocco (more than sixty years before Bowles’ first visit): “Tangier is the spot we have been longing for all the time... we wanted something thoroughly and uncompromisingly foreign... and lo! In Tangier we have found it.”[15] Given that this view reflects not so much Twain’s personal cross-cultural experience as a collective one that must have been undergone by several Western artists—as the pronoun ‘we’ suggests—one can see clearly how Bowles is affiliated to the Orientalist tradition and how his discourses generally reproduce the hegemonic ideology of Orientalism.

Yet it would be simplistic to stigmatize Bowles as an Orientalist unproblematically and without due reservation. For, as the above extract from his autobiography well illustrates, his identity is highly problematized and hybridized by his prolonged residence in Tangier. In that passage, Bowles’ strong desire for Otherness as well as the seductive assimilation of his ‘civilized’ self in the alien and quasi-‘primeval’ environment of Morocco are quite evident. The magnetic charm which Tangier is secretly emitting from some hidden sources is so enchanting and overpowering that it denies him even the chance of indulging in a transient ‘dream’ visit to his hometown, New York. In this context, the untranslated Arabic religious call ‘Allah akbar’, which decisively transfers his dreams from New York back to Tangier, is itself a potent hybridizing emblem that symbolizes the hovering of his identity amid the interstices of two distinct cultures. This implies, in the last analysis, that Tangier embodies here what Homi Bhabha calls a ‘third space’, where Bowles is transformed into a cultural hybrid: a person who is neither American nor Moroccan—or rather simultaneously American and Moroccan, both an outsider and an insider.

If we now proceed to the study of Bowles’ representation of Fez, we will not fail to find nearly the same ideological stand on the part of this author and the same discursive structures and implications as the previously-mentioned ones. Indeed, even if his relation to Fez is apparently much less profound and his references to it are less frequent than in the case of Tangier, such differences remain negligible when it comes to the final assessment of his overall discursive practice.

Underscoring the difference of his personal attitude to each of these two historic Moroccan cities, Bowles once stated: “Well, Tangier was an amusing place to live in, and Fez was fascinating, not to live in, but to explore, I spent much time wandering in the Medina.”[16] Though Bowles is referring here specifically to colonial times, as his use of the past tense suggests, his outlook to both cities did not alter up till his death. For he continued to reside in Tangier during the long period of his exile, and Fez was, for him, a mere object of admiration and exploration. This is what he himself confirmed in one of his last interviews as he stated: “I wouldn’t want to live in Fez. [...] I think it is an unhealthy city, unfortunately. I love to look at it. I love to wander. I love to spend months there, but I always get out in the end and come back here.”[17] In his autobiography, he also stressed that his “taste for Fez was a touristic one.”[18]

If Bowles fell in love with Tangier while he first came there in 1931, as already pointed out, his discovery of Fez and his immediate fascination with it also took place during that first visit to Morocco. His first impressions about this ‘medieval city’ are recorded in his autobiography as follows:

We arrived in Fez at sunset and took a carriage through the Mellah to Fez-Djedid. Tangier had by no means prepared me for the experience of Fez, where everything was ten times stranger and bigger and brighter. I felt that at last I had left the world behind, and the resulting excitement was well-nigh unbearable.[19]

If Bowles felt that Fez “was ten times stranger” than Tangier and that he “had left the world behind,” this implies that he reached a site that can be regarded as the locus of absolute mystery and radical Otherness. And since his “curiosity about alien cultures was avid and obsessive,” as he himself confessed,[20] it follows that his interest in Fez cannot but be immense and very exceptional. Yet such interest is by no means innocent or ideologically neutral; it is rather a clear manifestation of what is known as colonial/Orientalist desire.[21]

That Bowles’ romantic attitude towards Fez and his desire for it are actually expressive of his Orientalist/hegemonic tendencies is a matter that can well be proved from his novelistic discourse in The Spider’s House. For this very long narrative, which is set entirely in Fez, treats of a very decisive moment in the history of this city and reflects thus a lot of the author’s ideological viewpoints and ethnocentric stereotypes. The germs of this Orientalist ideology can be discerned from the very beginning as one starts to read Bowles’ ‘Preface’ (which he also added retrospectively in 1981):

I wanted to write a novel using as backdrop the traditional daily life of Fez, because it was a medieval city functioning in the twentieth century. If I had started it only a year sooner, it would have been an entirely different book’. I intended to describe Fez, as it existed at the moment of writing about it, but even as I started to write, events that could not be ignored had begun to occur there. I soon say that I was going to have to write, not about the traditional pattern of life in Fez, but about its dissolution.[22]

Bowles is referring here to the year 1955 when he wrote The Spider’s House, just one year before Morocco’s independence. By that time, the Moroccan Nationalist movement was already under way, and Bowles’ greatest fear was that the Nationalists might be the cause of the transformation of this city, as well as the whole country, from its ‘medieval’ aspect to a modern and ‘civilized’ phase. He came to realize, with a great disappointment, that

if Morocco was still a largely medieval land, it was because the French themselves, and not the Moroccans wanted it that way.

The Nationalists were not interested in ridding Morocco of all traces of European civilization and restoring it to its pre-colonial state, on the contrary, their aim was to make it even more “European” than the French had made it.[23]

Bowles’ use of the word ‘medieval’ in both quotations above is highly indicative of how he symbolically associates Fez, as well as Morocco in general with the Middle Ages—and possibly with primitiveness itself. But apart from the ideological and ethnocentric implications of such association, this author is confessedly aggrieved and disappointed at the impending loss of this dark era and the advent of the tide of modernity and decolonisation. What is more, Bowles is openly against the Nationalists’ efforts to bring about any change, whereas he tends to be grateful to the French colonizers for managing to preserve the medieval ‘virginity’ of his enchanting city. This attitude is expressed more explicitly in the narrative proper through the chief protagonist, John Stenham, who can be largely considered as Bowles’ mouthpiece and representative.[24] For instance, we are told that this protagonist believes that the young generation in Fez

were ashamed of its alleys and tunnels and mud and straw, they complained of the damp, the dirt and the disease [...]. Fortunately the French, having declared the entire city a monument historique, had made their aims temporarily unattainable...

“One thing you must give the French credit for,” he was fond of saying, “is that they’ve at least managed to preserve Fez intact.[25]

Such thoughts certainly amount to a frank glorification of the colonizers’ policy and a tacit condemnation of the native’s aspiration for progress and renovation. They are clearly symptomatic of Stenham’s/Bowles’ desire or wish that these colonizers would never be defeated so that he could continue forever to gratify his romantic self and to enthuse permanently over his idea/ideal of an ‘intact’ medieval Fez. But is it not a reactionary and wishful thinking to believe thus is the possibility of freezing time and stopping the inexorable progress of history?

If Stenham—or Bowles, for that matter—has apparently never cared to think of such a question, now he could perceive how the post-colonial changes are really imminent and quite inevitable:

The great medieval city [...] would cease for all time being what it was. A few bombs would transform its delicate hand-molded walls into piles of white dust; it would no longer be the enchanted labyrinth sheltered from time, where as he wandered mindlessly, what his eyes saw told him that he had at last found the way back. When this city fell, the past would be finished. The thousand-year gap would be bridged in a split second, as the first bomb thundered; from that instant until the later date when the transformed metropolis lay shining with its boulevards and garages, everything would have happened mechanically.[26]

Here the vision or prospect of a post-colonial Fez is extremely agonizing for Stenham because, in his view, the collapse of this ancient city is tantamount to the death of the glorious past and the end of real, natural and non-mechanical existence. In the absence of those “hand-molded walls”, labyrinthine alleys and simple, medieval-like residents, he could no longer find his “way back” to that ideal(ized) past, for his Western “eyes” would be too dazzled by the “shining” artificial metropolitan innovations to discern any inscription of ‘medieval’ life or detect any sign of Otherness and primitiveness!

In this connection, it is worth stressing that even if Bowles has concentrated throughout his novel on the representation of the (pre-) colonial Fez, the post-colonial era of this city is also substantially present through his prescient awareness of what the nascent Nationalist uprising could lead to. Indeed, much of the post-colonial policy and its revolutionary impact is prefigured and inscribed in that portrayal of the impending doom that is about to wreak havoc with the “sheltered” ancient city. As the previous quotation—and most notably its last sentence—hints at, the fall of this city will apocalyptically engender a dramatic extinction of all that is natural and a subsequent growth of a ‘bastard’ civilization where everything will be just ‘mechanical’ and artificial. Indeed, according to Bowles, all that the Nationalists are keen to achieve is ‘Europeanizing’ Morocco; and by doing so, they are just corrupting it and transforming it into “a kind of bastard culture.”[27] Hence, his vehement disgust and dissatisfaction with all the changes that have been introduced to Morocco ever since its independence.

In a significant allusion to his ideological standpoint, Bowles writes in the Introduction of his travel book, Their Heads Are Green:

he visitor to a place whose charm is a result of its backwardness is inclined to hope it will remain that way, regardless of how those who live in it may feel. The seeker of the picturesque sees the spread of improved techniques as an unalloyed abomination.[28]

Though Bowles is generalizing here on the attitude of any passionate tourist or traveler, this view is primarily applicable to his own case. For he always conceived of himself as an outsider whose interest in “far away places and backward people”[29] engendered his life-long fascination with the alien Moroccan culture and prompted him to explore it with excessive passion and enthusiasm. Yet, the gradual disintegration of the traditional way of life, which started at the eve of this country’s independence alarmed him immensely and filled him with bitter distaste for all the post-colonial innovations and modernizing policies. His only wish was that Morocco could never evolve or even win its independence so that his ideal image of it as a ‘backward’ and ‘medieval’ country would never be spoilt.

In a very nostalgic remembrance of his ‘glorious’ days in colonial Tangier, Bowles once stated:

When Morocco was still colonial it was a place where any European could have anything. You could do anything, because you ran it. Americans used to go up to the police and take hold of them and slap them in the face. The police couldn’t do anything about it.[30]

In a similar blunt confession, he stated in one of his last interviews that he “regretted to see that Morocco could no longer be medieval, that it would share certain things with Europe.”[31] Thus one cannot but conclude that Bowles was greatly agonized by witnessing the transition of his beloved cities, Tangier and Fez, from colonial to post-colonial eras. The very fact that he sacrificed two of the four novels he ever wrote to the commemoration of the (pre) colonial past of these two cities—namely, Tangier in Let It Come Down and Fez in The Spider’s House—is itself a testimony to his nostalgic glorification of this past and his Orientalist/reactionary objection to any decolonizing measure that could affect or jeopardize its ‘medieval sanctity’.

Mohamed Elkouche
Faculty of Oujda


“Paul Bowles' Tangier and Fez: The Agony of Transition from Colonial to Post-colonial Times,” in Urban Generations: Post-Colonial Cities, Mohamed V University, Rabat, 2005.


[1] Lawrence D. Stewart, Paul Bowles: The Illumination of North Africa [Carbondale and Edwardsville: Southern Illinois University Press, 1974] 2.
[2] Paul Bowles, Without Stopping: An Autobiography [New York: The Ecco Press, 1985] 128.
[3] Bowles, Interview with Oliver Evans, ‘An Interview with Paul Bowles’, Conversations with Paul Bowles, ed. Gena Dagel Caponi [Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1993] 41.
[4] Bowles, Without Stopping: An Autobiography, 129.
[5] Bowles, Interview with Stephen Davis, ‘Interview: Paul Bowles’, Conversations With Paul Bowles, 108.
[6] Bowles once declared that Tangier is “my home”. See his interview with Jeffrey Bailey, ‘The Art of Fiction LXVII: Paul Bowles’, Conversations with Paul Bowles. In another interview, he confessed that: “When I travel I get homesick for Tangier […]. Can’t think of anywhere else I’d rather live.” See his interview with Stephen Davis, 107.
[7] See Francis Poole’s epigraph in his article ‘Tangier and the Beats: “Sanctuary of Noninterference”’, Tanger: Espace Imaginaire [Casablanca: Imprimerie Annajah, 1992], 25.
[8] In her book, The Dream At the End of the World: Paul Bowles and the Literary Renegades in Tangier [New York: Harper Collins, 1991], Michelle Green notes: “To expatriates who landed there after World War II, the International Zone of Tangier was an enigmatic, exotic and deliciously depraved version of Eden […] it offered a free money market and a moral climate in which only murder and rape were forbidden. Fleeing an angst-ridden Western culture, European émigrés found a haven where homosexuality was accepted, drugs were readily available and eccentricity was a social asset”, XI.
[9] Bowles, Introduction, Let It Come Down, [Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1952-2000], VII.
[10] Bowles, Interview with Stephen Davis, 108.
[11] Bowles, Interview with Jeffrey Bailey, 128-29.
[12] R. Kevin Lacey, ‘Days, Tangier Journal:, 1987-1989; the text, the context, and the closing circle in Paul Bowles’s impressions of Tangier’, Langues et Littératures, Publications de la Faculté des Lettres et des Sciences Humaines –Rabat. Volume X, 1992, 110.
[13] Bowles, Interview with Daniel Halpern, ‘Interview with Paul Bowles’ Conversations with Paul Bowles, 86. [14] Bowles, Without Stopping, 366.
[15] Mark Twain, quoted by Priscilla H. Roberts, ‘Nineteenth Century Tangier: Its American Visitors: Who They Were, Why They Came, What They Wrote’, Tanger 1800-1956: Contribution à l’histoire récente du Maroc [Rabat: Les Editions Arabo-Africaines, 1991] 138.
[16] Bowles, Interview with Karim Bejjit, ‘An American in Morocco’ [Rabat: Les Editions Arabo-Africaines, 1991] 138.Tangier: Interview with Paul Bowles’, MCSJ, Moroccan Cultural Studies Journal, V.1, N° 1. Spring 1999, 116
[17] Bowles, Interview with Abdelhak Elghandour, ‘Atavism and Civilization: An Interview with Paul Bowles’, A.R.I.E.L. A Review of International English Literature, V. 25, N° 2, April 1994.
[18] Bowles, Without Stopping, 284.
[19] Bowles, Without Stopping, 130.
[20] Bowles, Without Stopping, 297.
[21] See Robert Young’s Colonial Desire: Hybridity in Theory, Culture and Race [London: Routledge, 1995] and Ali Behdad’s Belated Travelers: Orientalism in the Age of Colonial Dissolution [Durham and London: Duke University Press, 1994]
[22] Bowles, ‘Preface’ to The Spider’s House, [Santa Rosa: Black Sparrow Press, 1996]} (page not mentioned). [23] Bowles, ‘Preface’ to The Spider’s House.
[24] Like Bowles, Stenham is an American writer who has spent many years in Morocco and is greatly fascinated by the city of Fez.
[25] Bowles, The Spider’s House [London: Abacus, Sphere Books, 1991], 168.
[26] Bowles, The Spider’s House, 167.
[27] Bowles, Interview with K. Bejjit, 117.
[28] Bowles, Their Heads Are Green, [London: Sphere Books Ltd, 1990], 7.
[29] Bowles, Interview with Oliver Evans, 45.
[30] Bowles, Interview with Michael Rogers, ‘Conversation in Morocco: The Rolling Stone Interview’, Conversation with Paul Bowles, 80.
[31]Bowles, Interview with K. Bejjit, 117.