American Ex Pats in Morocco

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.

Hello Imane

I must interrupt my story here, since we have a visitor. Imane, a beloved guest, has arrived from Jackson, Mississippi. She is a Fulbright student scholar at Jackson State University, a historically black college in a ghetto of a run-down city-town. She’s one of the only Arabs there.

Last year, she was my student at Cadi Ayyad University in Marrakesh. Imane was assigned to me as a thesis student. She, like her four colleagues, had to write a paper to graduate from the University. The five of us formed a little research group and we worked together, meeting each week at a hanout (little shop) with plastic tables and chairs outside. Together, we went over the topics of the papers (the “Moroccan Sahara vs. the Western Sahara,” “Jews in Marrakesh,” and “Amazijh Women as Creators of Culture.”)

Imane’s paper was on “Racial Profiling in America.”

That turned out to be relevant. Now she’s here, living out her findings.

Mohammed has a ladder installed along his spine, to keep his vertebrae straight. “It sets off the airport security every time,” he said to me awhile ago. “And there’s nothing like being a brown guy to set them off anyway. I always have to get to the airport hours early.”

A few days after Imane arrived at our house, she received a package addressed to her (Arabic name) from her friend (Arabic name). It was already opened. “Hmm,” I remarked to the mailman. “Funny how they slit it right open.”

The mailman shrugged. “Already like that,” he said.

Imane is here in Seattle for the month. Here’s a picture of her up on Hurricane Ridge, taken yesterday. She’s never been in the snow before.

And, there she is– on the shortest day of the year, the winter solstice. From Marrakesh to Seattle. From a little hanout next to the salmon-red wall of the university to the green and white of the Olympic Mountains.