Paul Bowles’ Tangier

Earthly Paradise or Symbolic Panopticon?

In one of his interviews, Bowles defined broadly the nature of his exceptional relationship with Tangier by stating: “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.” [1] Even though Bowles was referring here to his first impressions during his first visit to this Moroccan city in 1931, his judgement about it remained generally the same up till his death in 1999. Indeed, as his fifty-two years’ expatriation in Tangier well indicates, his love and admiration for it never abated, despite what he considered regrettably as the negative change it underwent after its independence and the end of its glamorous international era.

Nevertheless, Bowles’ special attachment to Tangier should not be seen as a fact to be taken for granted; it must be rather probed and put in its right cultural and ideological perspective as a matter that may have something to do with the Western desire for the Orient or what is commonly known as the phenomenon of Orientalism. In other words, this American’s relation with this city and his discourses on it need to be deconstructed and problematized in such a way as to seek for possible answers to a number of complicated pertinent questions such as the following: What are the real motives behind Bowles’ prolonged and self-imposed exile in Tangier? Why did he abandon his family, society and culture just to opt for a totally alien civilization? Why did he not choose Europe after the fashion of the vast majority of the other American expatriates? Is there any possible relation between Bowles’ expatriation and his vocation as a creative writer? To what extent did this expatriation impinge upon his art as well as his ideological outlook? Was Tangier for him an earthly paradise or rather a symbolic hegemonic Panopticon from which he was surveying and representing his cultural Others in a classic Orientalist manner?

To answer these and other related questions, it might be very needful and helpful to have recourse to some (auto)biographical data and to some revelatory statements expressed by Bowles himself. So through a brief interpretative examination of a number of relevant passages from his autobiography, Without Stopping, along with some pronouncements from his different interviews, an attempt is made here to dispel the enigma which has often surrounded the notable and unique experience of this American writer in Tangier. In addition to revealing how this experience of self-exile was mainly necessitated by Bowles’—perhaps unconscious—desire to establish himself as a writer of some renown and distinction, this paper equally aims at shedding some light on the cross-cultural and ideological implications of his expatriation.

One of the most significant statements that is worth citing first, in this context, is the following autobiographic one which alludes to the moment of Bowles’ ‘discovery’ of Tangier. “Like any Romantic,” he writes, “I had always been vaguely certain that sometimes during my life I should come into a magic place which in disclosing its secrets would give me wisdom and ecstasy—perhaps even death.” [2] This quotation is illuminating in more than one important respect. In the first place, it serves to prove how Bowles’ approach to North Africa, in general, and to Tangier, in particular, was basically romantic. In fact, even if this author is just likening himself here to “any Romantic”, he personally is quite worthy of being regarded as a powerful adherent to the trend of romanticism. His very belief in the existence of “a magic place,” like the one mentioned here, as well as his feeling that he finally found it are symptomatic of his romantic faith and sensibility. Secondly, ‘the magic place’ referred to here is obviously Tangier, which Bowles actually regarded as “the magic city.” [3] His use of the word ‘magic’ shows, on the one hand, how Tangier was a source of great fascination and inspiration for him. On the other hand, this word hints at how this city was perceived from the outset as a site of radical Otherness and Oriental mystery. Last but not least, his assertion that “in disclosing its secrets” to him, this place “would give [him] wisdom and ecstasy —perhaps even death” does not only highlight his romantic spirit and his faith in the inspiring influence of outward surroundings; it also prophetically anticipates his actual death in Tangier. This prophesy is further suggestive of how his lasting attachment to this city and his prolonged residence in it seem to be not so much a result of a conscious choice as that of a romantically sub-conscious desire (or even predetermination).

But before coming to Tangier, Bowles had to seek for a congenial place of exile in Europe; and, of course, Paris was his favourite destination, given that several American expatriates and visitors were already streaming there at that time. “Everyone wanted to come to Europe in those days”, Bowles notes in his autobiography, “It was the intellectual and artistic center. Paris specifically seemed to be the center, not just Europe. After all, it was the end of the twenties and just about everyone was in Paris.” [4] Thus, whether consciously or not, Bowles was following in the footsteps of such reputable American literary artists as T. S. Eliot, Ernest Hemingway, Scott Fitzgerald and Gertrude Stein, who all seemed to find in post-war Paris a kind of sweet alternative home. It was perhaps his unconscious desire for identification with these expatriates that made him even visualize Paris as holy site of pilgrimage that ought to be visited at all costs:

Paris was the centre of all existence; I could feel its glow when I faced eastward as a Moslem feels the light from Mecca, and I knew that some day, with luck, I should go there and stand on the sacred spots. [5]

But if Paris was for Bowles no more than a sacred place, like Mecca for the Moslems, he was yet to find in Tangier a real ‘earthly paradise’. For when Gertrude Stein recommended him to visit this Moroccan city, he fell in love with it at first sight. Moreover, he decided immediately that it should be his permanent expatriation home, and he even grew later so infatuated with it that he suffered from homesickness as soon as he went somewhere else. “When I travel”, he once confessed, “I get homesick for Tangier. Why, I really don’t know [...]. Can’t think of anywhere else I’d rather live, so why not stay where you are if you have a pleasant life?” [6] So it can be understood from this statement that Bowles was quite satisfied with his “pleasant life” in Tangier and that his affection for this city is beyond any doubt or question. All the same, one is tempted to wonder: what really enticed him to this city so that he came to regard it as his earthly paradise and his only favourite place all over the world?

Though the motivations for Bowles’ strong infatuation with Tangier might be diverse and multiple, the above question can be convincingly answered through a brief discussion under these three main headlines: 1) Tangier as a (formerly) ‘free’ colonial space, 2) Tangier as Bowles’ greatest source of inspiration, and 3) Tangier as a site of exoticism and Otherness.

1- Tangier as a ‘Free’ Colonial Space:

When Bowles first came to this Moroccan city in 1931, it was still functioning as an ‘International Zone’, and it continued to do so virtually up till Morocco’s independence in 1956. This means that this American writer arrived there at a time of notable peculiarity on both political and socio-cultural planes, because Tangier was transformed into a queer open space where the Western visitors or settlers could enjoy complete freedom and practise all forms of aberrant and eccentric behaviour. Apart from the widespread use of different drugs (including kif and maajoun, of course), Tangier was reputed for sexual promiscuity and intrigues of all sorts. Bowles himself indulged whole-heartedly in such a decadent moral atmosphere, and he even devoted one of his novels—Let It Come Down, namely—to the celebration and commemoration of this “bygone era” of the International Zone. [7] 11In her book, Paul Bowles and The Literary Renegades in Tangier, Michelle Green writes:

To expatriates who landed there after World War II, the International Zone of Tangier was an enigmatic, exotic and deliciously depraved version of Eden. A sun-beached, sybaritic outpost set against the verdant hills of North Africa, 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. [8]

In this exotic ‘haven’ of pleasures and depravities, Bowles was probably the most conspicuous figure among all those ‘literary renegades’, who came there in quest for more freedom and self-indulgence. Stephen Davis has described him as the patron saint of the Beats —Kerouac, Ginsberg, Burrough—who flocked to Tangier” in the 1950s. [9] He used to enjoy not only the wonders of Moroccan hashish and maajoun but also the perverse passions of homosexual intimacies with some natives. [10] On the other hand, he appreciated very much the cheap prices of the International Zone and its general ambience of limitless freedom. “Right after the war”, he once said, “Tangier was extremely cheap; you never asked the price of anything, you just took what you saw. It was amazing.” [11] And in a very nostalgic remembrance of that peculiar era, he states elsewhere:

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... [12]

The note of nostalgic yearning for that ‘free’ and ‘agreeable’ colonial past is almost unmistakable in the last two statements. Such nostalgia on the part of Bowles is highly expressive of how immensely he admired the strange and delinquent life of the International Zone. As a matter of fact, even after the collapse of that ‘international’ status quo in the aftermath of Morocco’s independence, that admiration did not only survive but it also seemed to nourish Bowles with the desire to go on living in Tangier, despite his avowed dislike of all the post-colonial changes that this city underwent.

2- Tangier as Bowles’ Greatest Source of Inspiration:

As pointed out earlier, when Bowles spoke of “a magic place” that could disclose “its secrets” to him and provide him with both “wisdom and ecstasy,” he was implicitly referring to the congenial space and socio-cultural milieu that could best inspire him to invest his literary talents and to establish himself as a notable artist. This place was, of course, none other than Tangier —the city with which his name has become associated and where most of his literary (as well as musical) works were produced. But what could have happened to those artistic talents if he never had the chance to visit and reside in Tangier?

While it is not judiciously possible to answer such a hypothetical question convincingly, one can still assume that without Tangier Bowles might not become a writer at all, or at best he might be a very different and less famous literary artist. After all, this is what he himself confirmed while confessing to one of his interviewers: “Probably if I hadn’t had some contact with what you call ‘exotic’ places, it couldn’t have occurred to me to write at all.” [13] This statement reveals clearly how the exotic element was quite prerequisite for Bowles’ literary inspiration; and since Tangier proved to be the most ideal of all the exotic places he might have known or visited, this magic city thus became virtually the sole fountain-head whence his imagination could derive its creative power. This is probably the reason why Bowles had decided from the outset that “Tangier must be the place I wanted to be more than anywhere else.” [14]

In this connection, it is worth noting that even if Bowles idealized Paris to such an extent that the described it as a ‘holy’ place where he yearned to make his pilgrimage, this French city was soon relegated after his discovery of Tangier. As a matter of fact, Paris could not provide him with an inspiring atmosphere for his creative activities as Tangier did. This is because Paris was not exotic or ‘other’ enough for him, since it was part of the same Western civilization to which he belonged, just like any other European or American city. For, as Bowles himself once wondered, “what’s the difference between American culture and French or German culture? Isn’t it all the same thing? [...] I mean that Western Europe and America are really the same.” [15] 20If Western Europe and America, which are presumed to be the ‘centre’ and the locus of civilization, are thus identical, in Bowles vision, it follows that he had to seek for exoticism and for inspiration somewhere else, in a place where the light of ‘civilization’ had not yet started to shine. The golden opportunity soon presented itself incidentally: from Paris, Gertrude Stein recommended that he should visit Tangier; and from his first visit there, Bowles knew that he finally found the “magic” place which would give him not only “wisdom and ecstasy” but literary inspiration as well.

3- Tangier as a site of exoticism and Otherness:

Bowles’ references to Tangier as a ‘magic place’ and a ‘magic city’ are highly suggestive of how he regarded this threshold of the Orient as mysterious, fantastic and ‘other’. These labels—which are classic in the West’s repertoire of representing the Orient, as Edward Said would confirm—are underscored by Bowles himself in the following passage from his autobiography. Expressing his feelings about his exile experience in Tangier, he says in a significantly romantic fashion:

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 that 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. [16]

Even though Bowles is speaking here ‘in defense’ of Tangier, his description is not devoid of Orientalist clichés and stereotypes. For example, Tangier is located quite outside the precincts of contemporary civilization and is represented as a sort of unique enclave that is still in a state of raw naturalness or ‘noble savagery’. Bowles also speaks of ‘sorcery’, ‘spells’, ‘poison’ and ‘drumming’, and each of these elements is an emblematic feature that serves to permeate this city with a sense of mystery and magic and to enhance thus its cultural Otherness.
The last sentences in the above quotation illustrate vividly how Bowles readily adapted himself to that magic atmosphere of Tangier. As a matter of fact, he even “relishes” the charm of getting immersed in such a fantastic universe, which seems to deny him even a dream visit to his native town, New York. This suggests that his identity as an American is fading away in this ‘third space’ where he is transformed into a cultural hybrid who is neither American nor Moroccan—or, perhaps, both American and Moroccan at the same time.

Yet, in spite of Bowles’ romantic attraction and attachment to the space and the social life of Tangier, he was always considering himself an outsider and “an American” [17], since he found it too retrograde to get consciously integrated into a barbarous culture and a helplessly primitive community. “[T]here is no such thing as going backwards, really,” Bowles once said,

You can’t identify with a culture that is several centuries behind what you know. If you were able to become part of a truly archaic culture, it would imply something wrong with the psychic organism, I’m afraid. If a Westerner encounters an archaic culture with the idea of learning from it, I think he can succeed. He wants to absorb the alien for his own benefit. But to lose oneself in it is not a normal desire. A romantic desire, yes, but actually to try and do it is disastrous. [18]

This assertion attests clearly to how Bowles’ approach to Moroccan culture was purely pragmatic and opportunistic. In his ethnocentric opinion, such an ‘archaic culture’ is important just insofar as it gives him or any other interested Westerner the opportunity to ‘learn’ something or to gratify his romantic self. But apart from this, it is so retrograde and potentially pernicious that no reasonable Westerner can attempt to get integrated into it.

“Romantic Orientalism,” Eric Meyer has noted, “is predicated on the assertion of hegemony of West over East through the implicit privilege it assumes in placing the imperial observer in a position of metacritical superiority toward the colonial terrain that he surveys.” [19] This is exactly the position that Bowles adopted vis-à-vis Morocco and its culture and society: the position of a ‘romantic Orientalist’. This fact is spelled out by Bowles himself in the following statement which further proves how Tangier was for him a mere symbolic Panopticon from which he was representing Morocco, North Africa and the whole Moslem world in a classic Orientalist manner:

right away when I got here [in Morocco] I said to myself ‘Ah, this is the way people used to be, the way my own ancestors were thousands of years ago. The Natural Man. Basic Humanity. Let’s see how they are.’ It all seemed quite natural to me. They haven’t evolved the same way, so far, as we have and I wasn’t surprised to find that there were whole sections missing in their ‘psyche’... [20] (italics added)

Needless to say, Bowles’ reference to Moroccans as “Natural” and “Basic” humans, who have not yet evolved in the same way as Westerners, is quite racist and full of the ideological reverberations of the Darwinian evolutionary theory. But what is more significant and pertinent to our topic is his statement, “right away” after arriving in Tangier, “Let’s see how they are.” For this statement reveals quite unambiguously how Bowles put himself from the outset in the position of what Mary Louise Pratt calls “the ‘seeing man’ [...] whose imperial eyes passively look out and possess.” [21] Such “positional superiority,” [22] as Edward Said aptly labels it, implies that Bowles was functioning throughout his literary career as the observer or ‘representer’, whereas his cultural Others were mere passive objects of his observation and discursive representation.

Thus, given the strategic geographical location of Tangier, as the door or gateway of the West to North Africa and the Moslem world, it can be concluded that this city served Bowles rather as a symbolic Panopticon or look-out from which he was representing Morocco, North Africa and the Orient in general in a typically Orientalist fashion. Most of his short stories, novels and travel accounts testify to this important fact, but time will not allow us to give some illuminating illustrations.

Mohamed Elkouche
Faculty of Oujda


“Paul Bowle's Tangier: Earthly Paradise or Symbolic Panopticon?” in Writing Tangier, Abdelmalek Essaadi University, Tetouan, 2004.


[1] Paul Bowles, interview with Oliver Evans, ‘An Interview with Paul Bowles’, Conversations with Paul Bowles, ed. Gena Dagel Caponi [Jackson: University Press of Mississipi, 1993], 41.
[2] Bowles, Without Stopping: An Autobiography [New York: The Ecco Press, 1985] 125.
[3] Bowles writes in his autobiography: “... I realized with a jolt that the magic city really existed. It was Tangier”, 274.
[4] Bowles, Without Stopping, 70.
[5] Bowles, Without Stopping, 70.
[6] Bowles, interview with Stephen Davis, ‘Interview: Paul Bowles’, Conversations with Paul Bowles, 107.
[7] In the ‘Introduction he added retrospectively to Let It Come Down (in 1980), Bowles notes that this novel “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 a bygone era, for Tangier was never the same after the 30th of March 1952. The city celebrated in these pages has long ago ceased to exist, and the events recounted in them would now be inconceivable,” ‘Introduction’ of Let It Come Down [Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1952-2000] VII.
[8] Michelle Green, The Dream At the End of the World: Paul Bowles and the Literary Renegades in Tangier [New York: Harper Collins, 1991], XI.
[9] S. Davis, ‘Interview: Paul Bowles’.
[10] For instance, Michelle Green refers to Bowles homosexual relationship with his friend Ahmed Yacoubi by confirming that “Paul became enmeshed in such amours –the most painful of which was with a young painter who conceived was passions for wealthy European women,” The Dream At the End of the World: Paul Bowles and the Literary Renegades in Tangier,” XIV.
[11] Bowles, interview with Stephen Davis, ‘Interview: Paul Bowles’, Conversations with Paul Bowles, 108.
[12] Bowles, interview with Michael Rogers, Conversations in Morocco: The Rolling Stone Interview', Conversations with Paul Bowles, 80.
[13] Bowles, interview with Jeffrey Bailey, ‘The Art of Fiction LXVII: Paul Bowles’, Conversations with Paul Bowles, 123.
[14] Bowles, Without Stopping, 274.
[15] Bowles, Interview with Karen La Londe Alenier et al., ‘An Interview with Paul Bowles’, Conversations with Paul Bowles, 169.
[16] Bowles, Without Stopping, 366.
[17] Bowles was asked by Soledad Alameda in 1990 (after more than 40 years of his exile in Morocco) if he still felt to be an American, he answered with no hesitation: “ I am an American,” ‘ Paul Bowles: Touched by Magic,’ Conversations with Paul Bowles, 218.
[18] Bowles, interview with Michael Rogers, Conversations with Paul Bowles, 77.
[19] Eric Meyer, ‘ “I Know Thee Not, I Loathe Thy Race”: Romantic Orientalism in the Eye of the Other’, ELH The Johns Hopkins University Press, V.58 (1991) 557-699.
[20] Bowles, interview with Jeffrey Bailey, 130.
[21] Mary Louise Pratt, Imperial Eyes : Travel Writing and Transculturation [ London : Routledge, 1992] 7.
[22] Edward Said, Orientalism, [Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1978] 7.