Living in a Painting

So, back in the early 1990’s, I hung out with the backroom guys in that law firm in Seattle, and I saw more of Mohammed’s paintings. Ambrosavage, the cartoonist, spoofed office life and dipped into political satire. “My sister’s in the FBI,” he said. “Don’t want to get carried away.” Ambrosavage drank constantly and encouraged everyone else to join him. We admired it, but couldn’t ever quite keep up.

On weekends, Mohammed painted more and more sprays of color, more figures of women reclining, more ladders connecting land and sky, more airplanes. I’d go visit his house where he and his wife Marcia, a solid socialist who was a kindred soul of my husband Gary’s, lived on Beacon Hill in Seattle. Mohammed worked in an unheated garage set against the hillside and we’d sit in there with a portable heater blowing. I’d sit on a stool and watch him paint. We’d drink beer and point to the images. “Like ’em?” Mohammed would say. Then he’d grin. Sometimes, at dinner, he’d goof around and pretend to poke a fork in his eye. The prongs would bounce off the lens of his glasses.

Mohammed told stories of going to school in Tangier, his hometown at the mouth of the Mediterranean. The city was an international zone from the 1920’s into the 50’s, when he was born. He remembers the Voice of America towers along the beach, and the wash of Spanish, Portugese, French, Arabic, Italian and English that filled the souks, the twisting marketplaces overlooking the sea. When I heard about these places, I wanted to visit them. Tangier was where Matisse and Delacroix painted, where Paul Bowles, Tennessee Williams and Jean Genet as well as Mohamed Choukri lived and wrote. Jack Kerouac visited, as did the Rolling Stones. And they stayed awhile. It was a cheap, vibrant, otherworldly place just across the Strait of Gibraltar from Spain.

Paul Bowles was Mohammed’s high school English teacher. Most people like him for his stories, but I’m into Bowles for his autobiography, Without Stopping, a reeling expanse of a life from middle class roots in New York to an almost penniless life as a composer, translator, oral historian, fiction writer and historian. He was notorious for his gay relations outside of his marriage to Jane Bowles, a writer whom Tennessee Williams called the greatest, most under-recognized writer of her generation. She’s the sleeper in the relationship: plagued with madness and low productivity but deeply talented. Paulo gets all the attention while she dies , confined in a clinic, across the water in Spain.

During Mohammed’s childhood, Tangier in the 1950’s and 60’s, was remarkable—kind of like living in San Francisco’s North Beach during the same era. You could bump into John Cage or Allen Ginsberg in either place. Mohammed’s dad did bump into a lot of these folks. He was the concierge at the famous Rembrandt Hotel. Because of his contact with people from around the world, Mohammed’s dad sent his children to a variety of schools—the Jewish school, the American School as well as Moroccan schools. It was at the American School that Mohammed met Bowles, and there that he learned to care about art.

Later, I would come to Tangier and see the place where so much had converged. Mohammed’s sister Batool and her husband Abtef showed us the dismal modernist building where the Bowles had lived. Gary and I sighed– out of admiration and a bit of melancholy for the austerity of it—and we turned on to the rest of the city, following in Mohammed Daoudi’s footsteps.


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