Who doesn’t love the idea of American cast-offs roaming Paris in the 1930s? Of Hemingway writing A Movable Feast, of the young George Plimpton starting The Paris Review and drinking daintily along the west bank? What could be more romantic than the idea of painters and writers finding shelter in other places, older places and other languages?
Tangier was the cheap version of Paris. Only more interesting. Rawer. Less poised and fabricated. In the 1950s and 60s, the port town that lay at the northwestern corner of Africa was an international zone. As a haven for spies and a staging area for World War II, the city hosted enemies and friends, all pushed into clandestine bars along the derbs of the medina. Paul Bowles (The Sheltering Sky, The Spider’s House and many short stories, essays, musical scores and a memoir) lived in Tangier for 52 years. He cheated constantly on his wife Jane, often sleeping with young men who idolized him. Jane slept with women while her husband slept with men. Allen Ginsberg and William Burroughs visited. So did the Rolling Stones.
I loved hearing these stories. And the more I read, the more I learned about the Moroccans who surrounded the scene—Mohammed Choukri (For Bread Alone) and Mohammed M’rabet who collaborated with Bowles. (Actually, Bowles “translated” his work by prying interviews from M’Rabet, and then rewriting them as oral histories and then transforming them to novels. On one hand, Bowles was a master appropriator, and on the other hand, M’rabat owes his career to the Ex Pat writer.
Keep in mind that these are male-dominated fantasies. The women were either cleaning up after the men, sleeping with the men, or else they were unstable drunks too. Only with less artistic output. Or else, as in the example of Bowles, we only hear about the men. Later, it turns out, the women were making some notable art of their own.
And so, when Mohammed Daoudi, my friend the painter, told me that his headmaster from high school at the American School of Tangier, Joe McPhillips, was a crony of Paul Bowles’ (both were gay), I could see a link between the old days in Morocco and our era. “I want to go there,” I said to Mohammed when we were working in the Darth Vadar building.
I wrote to Joe McPhillips and asked him for a job. This was 1992.