Monday, 15 April 2013

That’s the way some of us Westerners are: the politically incorrect Paul Bowles

In 1931 the American writer and composer Paul Bowles visited Tangier for the first time, beginning a love affair with Africa that expanded into a life-long predilection for world travelling. He permanently settled on this Moroccan city in 1947 and by the time he died in 1999, he had travelled extensively in Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, Ceylon, India, South America and more. His experiences in some of these regions of the globe are collected in the book Their Heads Are Green and Their Heads Are Blue.

Bowles believed that it was “natural for a traveller to seek diversity,” and his powers of observation allowed him to retain much of the picturesque, the anecdotic and the marvellous in his travels. The reader will find much to entertain and delight him: panegyrics to parrots, who, enhanced by Bowles’ descriptive grace, came across as the best pets in the world after cats; his travails in the worst hotel in the world (according to a staff member, not him); the life on the oases; the contemplative solitude of the Sahara; curious facts like the camel not being native of Africa but an importation from Asia around the time the Roman Empire was on its death throes. He was always on the move, registering and relishing the differences around him, and Bowles more than once makes it clear he’s especially fascinated by these parts of the world’s exuding the feeling of a bygone, primitive era. It is not surprising that Edmund White, in the book’s dull and dispensable introduction, had to give Bowles a dressing down for his old-fashioned racism, quarantining him in that group of other extraordinary writers – Conrad, Kipling, etc. – who can’t be enjoyed nowadays unless this caveat is overtly visible somewhere in the book. Concomitantly White had to play his role as an up-to-date literary critic by evoking the authority of Edward Said, author of Orientalism, that bizarre lynchpin of modern intellectual and cultural life that instead of opening up dialogue, as becomes books, successfully managed to stifle it by making it nearly impossible for any white Westerner to write about Africa and the Middle East, except in laudatory terms, without being immediately criticised for serving a sinister neo-colonialist socio-political agenda.

Bowles didn’t do anything more nefarious than recording the things that interested him but that he also found negative. In simple words, Bowles was interested by everything that was traditional and non-Western about North Africa and the Middle East; and everything that smacked of modernisation or artificiality he frowned upon in displeasure. Bowles vision of these regions was formed before “the twentieth century’s gangrene set in,” true. But this is far from White’s accusation that Bowles “insist[ed] on the static, non-historical nature of an “Oriental” country” or that he bemoaned its political and social development.

Bowles had many good things to say, and several bad ones, about the regions he visited. That shouldn’t shock anyone, a place with human beings having negative aspects. Human societies are only perfect in the bad anthropology books of Margaret Mead.

Bowles didn’t hide that he was drawn to these regions’ differences with the west. At the same time he realized that changes in these societies were inevitable and had been going on at the same time he was recording his observations. “The concept of the status quo is a purely theoretical one; modifications occur hourly. It would be an absurdity to expect any group of people to maintain its present characteristic or manner of living. But the visitor to a place whose charm is a result of its backwardness is inclined to hope it will remain that way, regardless of how its inhabitants may feel. The seeker of the picturesque sees the spread of technology as an unalloyed abomination. Still, there are much worse things.”

Bowles’ concern about this part of the world abandoning its former ways of living was that they were replacing them with counterfeit Western models. “My own belief is that the people of the alien cultures are being ravaged not so much by the by-products of our civilization, as by the irrational longing on the part of members of their own educated minorities to cease being themselves and become Westerners.” In the article “The Rif, to Music,” the chronicle of his effort to record traditional Moroccan music, Bowles details how the Moroccan government refused to help him, and in fact tried to sabotage him, since they considered their traditional folk music embarrassing and backward and not a cultural treasure worthy of preservation. “I suppose it is natural for them to want to see themselves presented to the outside world in the most ‘advanced’ light possible. They find it perverse of a Westerner to be interested only in the dissimilarities between their culture and his. However, that’s the way some of us Westerners are.” Bowles, carrying out this mission on behalf of the US Library of Congress, didn’t give up and travelled around Morocco, recording as many folk songs as he could. They currently sit in the archives of the US Library of Congress. A major victory for the evil forces of Orientalism.

Bowles didn’t just record the music, he wrote admiringly about its vital role in Moroccan culture and history. “The most important single element in Morocco’s folk culture is its music. In a land like this, where almost total illiteracy has been the rule, the production of written literature is of course negligible. On the other hand, like the Negroes of West Africa the Moroccans have a magnificent and highly evolved sense of rhythm which manifests itself in the twin arts of music and the dance. Islam, however, does not look with favour upon any sort of dancing, and thus the art of the dance, while being the natural mode of religious expression of the native population, has not been encouraged here since the arrival of the Moslem conquerors. At the same time, the very illiteracy which through the centuries has precluded the possibility of literature has abetted the development of music; the entire history and mythology of the people is clothed in song. Instrumentalists and singers have come into being in lieu of chroniclers and poets (…)” To anyone reading this passage in its proper context, there isn’t any doubt that Bowles is interested in Moroccan music because he likes it. It shouldn’t also surprise anyone that a man trained in musical composition would be interested in musical styles different than those found in his country. Man is a naturally curious creature and his attention is best captured by what is new and strange. But this is anathema to Edmund White, who writes that Bowles, “[f]or whatever political reasons, conservative or progressive, he is willing to study the music of his adopted country.” How fascinatingly worded. What does Bowles’ interest in Moroccan music have to do with his political beliefs? Why does politics have to be an issue at all? Why can’t a Westerner simply love a foreign culture? It’s appalling that White seems to have forgotten what it means to have a purely aesthetic, disinterested love for art, but that’s the only path Said left open: loving art has stopped being a pure endeavour; it’s now totally wrapped up in vested interests, political motives, and power dynamics between conquerors and conquered.

Bowles, of course, wasn’t ignorant of the changes and tensions in these countries’ societies. For him, who loved the way they were, change was inevitable and the Europeans’ attempts to retain their power over them doomed to failure. For him decolonization was a reality he could sense, and did see, around him, and he doesn’t spare the Europeans about how poorly they behaved themselves during it. “The Europeans always have been guilty of massive neglects with regard to schools for Moslems in their North African possessions. In time, their shortsighted policy is likely to prove the heaviest handicap of all in the desperate attempt of the present rulers to keep the region within the Western sphere of influence.” Elsewhere he writes: “If you live long enough in a place where the question of colonialism versus self-government is constantly being discussed, you are bound to find yourself having a very definite opinion on the subject. The difficulty is that some of your co-residents feel one way and some the other, but all feel strongly. Those in favour of colonialism argue that you can’t “give” (quotes mine) an almost totally illiterate people political power and expect them to create a democracy, and that is doubtless true; but the point is that since they are inevitably going to take the power sooner or later, it is only reasonable to help them take it while they still have at least some measure of good will toward their erstwhile masters.” Bowles didn’t doubt the triumph of decolonization. There is nowhere in the book where one can infer Bowles is upset the West’s grip on the region has relaxed. But for him the West isn’t its greatest enemy; instead he worries about the new class of autochthonous intellectuals coming into existence within its borders.  “The attainment of political independence is only one of the facets of their problem. The North African knows that when it comes to appreciating his culture, the average tourist cannot go much closer toward understanding it than a certain condescending curiosity. He realizes that, at best, to the European he is merely picturesque. Therefore, he reasons, to be taken seriously he must cease being picturesque. Traditional customs, clothing and behaviour must be replaced by something unequivocally European. In this he is fanatical. It does not occur to him that what he is rejecting is authentic and valid, and that what he is taking on is meaningless imitation. And if it did occur to him, it wouldn’t matter in the least. This total indifference to cultural heritage appears to be a necessary adjunct to the early stages of nationalism.” I must say I find the last sentence awkward: nationalism, we’re taught in school, dates back to the late 18th century, and if anything, one of its symptoms is exactly being overly defensive of one’s cultural heritage, real and imagined. It was with this defensive zeal that European scholars and philologists started collecting folk ballads, songs, poems, fairy tales and legends from the lower and rural classes of their countries, for they were considered more authentic and less corrupted and thus the true soul of their nations’ culture. Bowles witnesses the opposite of this operation: intellectuals actively suppressing their folk culture and trying to be as modern as possible. For Bowles, though, they make a mistake in abandoning their traditional life rhythms to catch up with the West. You can praise him for standing up for Morocco’s traditional culture, or you can accuse him of wanting it stay stuck in time. But if wanting to preserve the past is a sign of backwardness, there is so much about us (I speak mainly as a white citizen of the Western world) that is bizarre. The Irish government would have to stop funding programs to artificially keep the Irish language alive. Countless World Heritage Sites could be demolished to rise luxurious tenement buildings or drowned to build far more profitable dams. This is just the tip of the iceberg. We believe these things matter enough to be protected. With the exception of a few deranged individuals, no one wants to be ‘absolutely modern’ at the expense of the past. Sane, healthy people know the past matters, that it must be preserved. That people like things to stay the same is a universal characteristic of man, not just of Westerners visiting underdeveloped countries. Humans are wary of change, and even most good innovations are met with resistance before they’re fully accepted. Is it really strange that Bowles liked the way these countries were and felt sad the magic he saw in them disappear to be replaced by things he could find back in the USA?

Another risible accusation in White’s introduction is that Bowles failed to ‘foresee the rise of Moslem fundamentalism,’ as if Bowles, besides being a writer, had the duty of being a futurologist to boot. Bowles was observing everyday details, situations, scenes, habits, not writing prophecy. As such he writes what sees around him, but even this gets criticised by White because it’s not what he wants Bowles to observe. One of the articles that gets White especially upset, and which I thought was one of the book’s best and funniest, is “Mustapha and his friends,” a satirical portrait of small hypocrisies Muslims practice in their quotidian. He comes up with Mustapha, a generic name for a generic figure, the typical Muslim according to Bowles. Mustapha isn’t a bad person, he’s a true believer but doesn’t strictly adhere to the teachings of the Koran, he likes to lie and get things without paying for them, he’s sexist and likes to smoke kif, etc. I figured no one with a sense of humour would be offended by this harmless send-up, but White is appalled at the barrage of stereotypes, as he calls them, against Muslims. For me it was a delicious piece of satire in the grand tradition of Jonathan Swift, a name I presume even White must have heard of. I’m pretty sure that if Bowles had written of Giacomo, the typical Italian Christian believer who doesn’t attend Sunday mass and never read the Bible, steals stationary from work, likes to be drunk on beer, and tells sexist jokes about women in the company of friends, White wouldn’t have been so offended. This is one of the most pernicious effects of Said’s book, that now we have to believe huge segments of mankind are perfect lest we be accused of stereotyping.

More troubling is Bowles’ thoughts about Muslim countries embracing democracy. Bowles is pessimistic about it. In conclusion to a conversation he has about democracy with a Muslim friend, he writes the following: “To Abdeslam, who is a traditionally minded Moslem, the very idea of democracy is meaningless. It is impossible to explain it to him; he will not listen. If an idea is not explicitly formulated in the Koran, it is wrong; it came either directly from Satan or via the Jews, and there is no need to discuss it further.” In 2012 Morocco held protests and rallies in order to instate reforms and reduce the King’s powers, so he got that wrong. It would be interesting to know what Bowles would have thought of the Arab Spring. Bowles didn’t think changes were impossible, but he was cautious about them, and he insisted that any social changes had to happen from within without foreign interference, an opinion more people are coming after the Iraqi debacle. Writing about women’s socially inferior status, he sensibly predicted: “The campaign for feminine liberation will inevitably come, but it must come from within, from the women themselves, at the time and in the way they feel the need for it.”

There are, however, countless passages that attest to Bowles’ love for this people, its history and culture. Perhaps Bowles’ regretted the modernisation of Morocco not so much because he feared losing its picturesque beauty, but because he was a deeply spiritual man who was drawn to the harmony according to him people still maintained with the absolute. Bowles himself was deeply spiritual and retained the old bond between man and Nature. “In North Africa the earth becomes the less important part of the landscape because you find yourself constantly raising your eyes to look at the sky. In the arid landscape the sky is the final arbiter. When you have understood that, not intellectually but emotionally, you have also understood why it is that the great trinity of monotheistic religions – Judaism, Christianity and Islam – which removed the source of power from the earth itself to the space outside the earth – were evolved in desert regions. And of the three, Islam, perhaps because it is the most recently evolved, operates the most directly and with the greatest strength upon the daily actions of those who embrace it.”

Bowles was also immersed in the culture deep enough to identify its many nuances. He was fully aware that the region of North Africa was linguistically, culturally, socially, religiously diverse and he revelled in those internal differences. Writing about the Barbers, a people he esteemed, he writes: “It is scarcely fair to refer to these proud people as Touareg. The word is a term of opprobrium meaning “lost souls,” given them by their traditional enemies the Arabs, but one which, in the outside world, has stuck. They call themselves imochagh, the free ones.” More than once Bowles remembers the reader than that the Arabs, rather than being natural from that region of the world, entered it as conquerors. But he also doesn’t ignore their role in developing the region. “In the Sahara the oasis – which is to say, the forest of date palms – is primarily a man-made affair and can continue its existence only if the work of irrigating its terrain is kept up unrelentingly. When the Arabs arrived in Africa twelve centuries ago, they began a project of land reclamation which, if the Europeans continue it with the aid of modern machinery, will transform much of the Sahara into a great, fertile garden. Wherever there was a sign of vegetation, the water was there not far below; it merely needed to be brought to the surface. The Arabs set to work digging wells, constructing reservoirs, building networks of canals along the surface of the ground and systems of subterranean water-galleries deep in the earth.” These don’t look like the words of a man who ignored the history of the region, as White would have the reader believe.

Their Heads Are Green and Their Heads Are Blue is a remarkable, entertaining book that will please the fan of travel books with its many rich insights into foreign cultures. And the lover of elegant prose will also relish at Bowles carefully-worded sentences. Although Bowles was no stranger to me, The Spider-House had struck me as slow and dull novel, and The Stories, although exhibiting many moments of greatness, was as uneven as you expect a collection of short-stories to be. But this was a book that I loved from start to finish and that immediately became one of my favourite reads of 2013. For me the book is only harmed by the apologetic introduction. Paul Bowles was an adult and an intelligent man, I’m certain he was conscious of what he was writing. I’m sure if he wanted apologies to his work, he would have written them himself within his books’ pages. I’m also not so sycophantic to think all his views are correct, I more than expect writers to have their share of contradictions, but I don’t hide the fact I prefer the opinions of someone who chose to live in that region of the world and learns its music, culture and language, to the pronouncements of someone with truly vested interests like Edward Said, or of intellectual sheep like Edmund White who, without first-hand experience of the world Bowles lived in for half a century, swallow the newest academic fads lock, stock, and barrel in order to remain relevant within the decreasingly irrelevant circles of academe.

Corrigenda: the always watchful Tom from Wuthering Heights has just corrected me that the introduction could not have been written by Edmund Wilson, who died before Orientalism was published. I just checked, and indeed I confused Edmund Wilson with Edmund White. Although I've amended the text, I'm leaving this note here as a reminder to myself of my crass error, and a warning to readers not to trust too much anything I write.


  1. I am very much of the same mind as Bowles is as to the degeneration of cultures throughout the world in the face of not just Western culture, but the worst aspects of Western Culture.

    As you allude to, one cannot agree with a writer on everything, of course if one did there would be no point in reading.

    1. I am very much of the same mind as Bowles is as to the degeneration of cultures throughout the world in the face of not just Western culture, but the worst aspects of Western Culture.

      Brian, and not just the other world, but even countries within the so-called Western world are vulnerable to influences from other Western countries. Countries like the USA, England, France and Germany have the power to shape much of their neighbours' societies, socially, politically and economically, for better and for worse.

  2. I suppose one can be grateful (for Bowles's sake, I mean) that Bowles didn't live in and write about China, where the erasures of the past have reached unimaginable proportions.

    White's introduction does sound quite shoddy. That line about music is simply unbelievable (White was aware of Bowles' remarkable compositions, wasn't he?). And I don't suppose White mentions Bowles' key role in encouraging, promoting and bringing into print a number of Arabic writers (not to mention other "Western" writers, such as his formidably talented wife Jane Bowles). I sometimes wonder, though, how many of these introductions are just tossed off, pot-boiler style. It's not the first time I've encountered something like this.

    1. Funny you mention China, that was exactly the country I was thinking of when I wrote about sinking world heritage sites to build dams...

      ... but it's such a generalized process, our modern destruction of the past, I don't understand why White would criticise rather than praise someone for preserving a tiny little bit of it.