interpreting jane bowles’ “everything is nice”

jane bowles and the semi-oriental woman in “everything is nice”

 

"Everything Is Nice" has an unusual publication history. Jane Bowles first wrote it as a nonfiction essay, which appeared as "East Side: North Africa" in Mademoiselle in 1951. Later Paul Bowles transposed it to fiction by changing the first-person narrator to third-person and by removing certain comments about women and society (Dillon, Life 210). The edited short story is included in the Collected Works (1978), and recently the original piece was published in The Portable Paul and Jane Bowles, edited by Millicent Dillon. A comparison of the two endings of the story points out certain subtleties at work in the two versions.


Not much appears to happen. Jeanie, a Western woman—a "Nazarene," the catch-all Moroccan term for Western foreigners, as if they were all Christian—in an otherwise unidentified "blue Moslem town" meets a "Moslem woman." The woman identifies herself as Zodelia, and she takes the Westerner through a narrow alley and into a dark house, where a number of women and their babies are gathered. They talk. An old woman named Tetum puts questions to the Western woman in a brusque manner. Jeanie is offered tea and cakes (which she has purchased herself along the way), but refuses, giving the preposterous excuse that the other Nazarenes at her hotel will be angry if she is late for an appointment there. "They will hit me!" she cries, trying to look "wild and frightened" (Bowles, Collected Works [1978] 319).
2 The ploy does not work, and she is offered food again. She backs out of the room, but not before Zodelia has made her promise that she will return at four o’clock the next day. Jeanie returns to the spot where the story opened.

 

The original ended in this way:

 

When I reached the place where I had met Zodelia I went over to the wall and leaned on it. Although the sun had sunk behind the houses in back of me, the sky was still luminous and the color of the blue wall had deepened. I rubbed my fingers along it; the wash was fresh and a little of the powdery stuff came off; but no matter how often I walked through these streets reaching out to touch the chalky blue wash on the houses … on the walls, I could never satisfy my longing for the town.

 

I remember that once I reached out to touch the beautiful and powdery face of a clown because his face had awakened some longing; it happened at a little circus but not when I was a child. (Bowles, Portable 287)

 

Note the changes made for its publication as a short story:

 

When she reached the place where she had met Zodelia she went over to the wall and leaned on it. Although the sun had sunk behind the houses, the sky was still luminous and the blue of the wall had deepened. She rubbed her fingers along it: the wash was fresh and a little of the powdery stuff came off. And she remembered how once she had reached out to touch the face of a clown because it had awakened some longing. It had happened at a little circus, but not when she was a child. (320)

 

Besides the change from "I" to "she," the wording has been changed slightly, mainly for the sake of economy: the sun "behind the houses in back of me" is reduced to "behind the houses"; and "the color of the blue wall had deepened" is shortened to "the blue of the wall had deepened"; "the beautiful and powdery face of a clown" becomes simply "the face of a clown." The changes shift emphasis: from the way the woman is situated in reference to the sun; from the blue of the wall, perhaps; from the "powdery" face of the clown, which is both "beautiful" and somehow explicitly like the powder on the walls of the town.

 

More significant is the decision to drop the comment about the woman’s walking often through the streets and her inability to satisfy her "longing for the town." Instead of "longing" then echoing this "longing for the town," the "some longing" at the end stands alone in the revision. Everywhere the changes make for a neater, tighter presentation. The appearance of the strange clown and the little circus, "but not when she was a child" remains as striking as before. What is lost in the transformation is a certain rootedness to place, to the longing for "the town" and not just what would appear as a personal reminiscence. Dillon calls the original ending "one of Jane’s most moving disclosures of her own puzzlement at what the town— the medina of Tangier—and its women actually meant to her" (Life 210).

 

That the unnamed "blue Moslem town" is Tangier, as Dillon suspects, is shown by the details early in the story. The scene opens on the highest street of the town, with a thick wall at the edge of a steep cliff. The Western woman looks down over the wall at the skinny boys, a dog, a woman washing her legs all far below where the sea meets "flat dirty rocks" while the tide is out. The streets of the town lead down steeply to the place where Zodelia takes the woman. The houses of the medina—the Moroccan native quarter—in the crooked streets are "so close that she could smell the dampness of the walls and feel it on her cheeks like a thicker air" (320). The scene is quite like the area in which Jane Bowles chose to live in Tangier.

 

The story is about spatial boundaries. It is true that Bowles (or, properly, the Bowleses) preserved in the fictional account names of people Jane knew in Tangier. Jeanie is a thinly enough disguised "Janie" Bowles. Zodelia knows who the Naza rene is because Jeanie is "Betsoul’s friend" (314). (Betsoul herself does not figure in the story. ) The old woman in the house is named Tetum, and she is described in a peculiar way: "Only a few feet away, in the middle of the carpet, sat an old lady in a dress made of green and purple curtain fabric. Through the many rents in the material she could see the printed cotton dress and the tan sweater underneath" (317). The old woman, in the middle of the carpet (in the deep interior of the house), has "tiny blue crosses" tattooed on her "bony cheeks," and her knuckles are tattooed with the same design. Jane had written about one Tetum to Paul, the "yellow ugly one," also described as "the Mountain Dyke" (Dillon, Letters 85). In other words, the fictional version retains the real names of Moroccan women, but disguises, if only barely, the protagonist’s name.

 

Moroccan sociologist Fatima Mernissi devoted a chapter in the important Beyond the Veil: Male-Female Dynamics in Modern Muslim Society to "The Meaning of Spatial Boundaries." Traditionally, the seclusion of women basic to the social system of Morocco, as in other Arab-Muslim societies, meant that women using public spaces were highly restricted:

 

Traditionally, only necessity could justify a woman’s presence outside the home, and no respect was ever attached to poverty and necessity. Respectable women were not seen on the street…. Only prostitutes and insane women wandered freely in the streets. (143)

 

From Edward Hall, Mernissi noted two tendencies in her own culture. On the one hand, "it is not possible for an individual to claim a private zone in a public space." On the other hand, "space has a primarily social rather than physical quality" (143). Trespassing, for example, would mean something different in Morocco than it would in, say, the United States. "A friend, for example, never trespasses, while a foe always does," according to Mernissi. Mernissi has attempted to explain a phenomenon observed by many people inside and outside Arab-Muslim society, among the latter, Jane Bowles, that the spatial boundaries reflect a deep division between men and women in that society:

 

A society that opts for sexual segregation, and therefore for impoverishment of heterosexual relations, is a society that fosters "homosocial" relations on the one hand and seduction as a means of communication on the other. Seduction is a conflict strategy, a way of seeming to give of yourself and of procuring great pleasure without actually giving anything. It is the art of abstaining from everything while playing on the promise of giving. (140)

 

"Everything Is Nice"  is about the handling of space in a setting that pits two different kinds of societies against each other. The Moroccan women in the story constitute a homosocial group, and Jane Bowles is carefully attentive to the nuances of cross-cultural misunderstanding. Alice Toklas was no admirer of Jane, but she made the shrewd observation that "Jane is strange as an American but not as an Oriental…. If accepting this makes her more foreign it at least relieves the strain— that morbidity—she originally seemed at first to be consumed by" (Qtd. in Dillon, Life 211).

 

The great wall along the highest street of the "blue Moslem town," where Jeanie walks freely, alone, is a protective wall, but it cuts the wanderer off from the scene below even as it allows her to see it. The rocks, the dog slipping into the sea, the skinny boys, the woman washing her legs—the people in immediate, if dangerous, contact with the natural world—are observed with a clarity that dissipates once Jeanie crosses over into the life-world of Moroccan women. The crossing-over is most obvious when she is taken through a narrow alley and a door is opened to her and Zodelia, a door marked by a "heavy brass knocker in the form of a fist" (316). In the presence of the women sitting in a dark room Jeanie is an intruder, and the conflict in the story rests entirely on the cultural distance between her and the women. The visit to the women’s home is framed by Jeanie alone on the high street.

 

The conflict is already, though, a matter of struggling for space and power. Jeanie is drawn into the women’s world by Zodelia. The Moslem woman leads her, and Jeanie seems almost helpless to resist. Hall first noticed the conflict between Americans’ and Arabs’ sense of privacy when, in a hotel in Washington, a man violated "the small sphere of privacy" which balloons around an American in a public place:

 

As I waited in the deserted lobby, a stranger walked up to where I was sitting and stood close enough so that not only could I easily touch him but I could even hear him breathing. In addition, the dark mass of his body filled the peripheral field of vision on my left side. If the lobby had been crowded with people, I would have understood his behavior, but in an empty lobby his presence made me exceedingly uncomfortable. (Hidden Dimensions 155)

 

The fellow seemed to want to drive Hall out of his position. Later, an Arab colleague thought Hall’s response puzzling: "After all, it’s a public space, isn’t it?" Hall found that "in Arab thought I had no rights whatsoever by virtue of occupying a given spot; neither my place nor my body was inviolate. For the Arab, there is no such thing as an intrusion in public. Public means public" (156).

 

While the anthropologist attempts to explain the proxemic phenomenon, the writer of fiction displays it. Choosing as a setting the special place that was Tangier, an "international city"—really a border town, a refuge for tax-dodgers during the years Paul and Jane Bowles were living there (see Landau 174-83), made it a particularly good showplace for the stresses Mernissi found in modernizing Arab-Muslim society, since it preserved a large Moroccan population in a very heterogeneous European community. The women in Jane Bowles’s story have only been superficially changed by Westerners in their midst, while many other Moroccans were struggling to become Westernized.

 

Into the scene with Jeanie on the highest street of the town comes one of the Moslem women who have maintained their traditional ways. The woman stands next to Jeanie, "grazing her hip with the basket she was carrying." Jeanie pretends "not to notice her" and gazes intently, instead, on the scene far below them. "Then the woman jabbed the basket firmly into her ribs," and Jeanie is forced to notice her (313).

 

It is Zodelia, then, who pushes herself onto Jeanie; Zodelia who introduces herself (and explains who Jeanie is: "Your name is Jeanie and you live in a hotel with other Nazarenes"); Zodelia who asks immediately what Jeanie pays for her hotel room, breaking an American taboo; Zodelia who, unasked, puts on a skit mimicking the people at the hotel; Zodelia who invites Jeanie to attend a wedding, but takes her instead to a shop, where Jeanie buys sweets, and to the house, where Jeanie has the encounter with old Tetum. Indeed, so much is Jeanie drawn along by Zodelia, who pries into matters that Americans are trained to think strictly private, that the American woman has only one free act of will. When the women offer her tea and the cakes she had just bought, Jeanie refuses:

 

"Eat!" the women called out from their mattress. "Eat the cakes."

 

The child pushed the glass dish forward.

 

"The dinner at the hotel is ready," she said, standing up.

"Drink tea," said the old woman scornfully. "Later you will sit with the other Nazarenes and eat their food."

 

"The Nazarenes will be angry if I’m late." She realized that she was lying stupidly, but she could not stop. "They will hit me!" She tried to look wild and frightened.

 

"Drink tea. They will not hit you," the old woman told her. (319)

 

In this test of wills, Jeanie holds out—although she ends up backing away out of the room.


The story is filled with puzzling and odd details that are never clarified. Zodelia carries a basketwith a "large dead porcupine" in it, "a pair of new yellow socks folded on top of it" (313). Talk of this porcupine leads the two around. At one point the porcupine seems to be on its way to Zodelia’s aunt. But when Jeanie asks about it later, Zodelia tells her, "The porcupine sits here … in my own house" (319).


More obviously of cultural importance is the talk about family. Old Tetum wants to know where Jeanie’s husband is. Zodelia adds to Jeanie’s answer—that her husband is "traveling in the desert"—an explanation that, though false, seemed rea sonable enough to the group. Jeanie’s husband is "selling things." More puzzling to the group is the absence of Jeanie’s mother.

 

"Where is your mother?" the old lady asked.

"My mother is in our country in her own house."

"Why don’t you go and sit with your mother in her own house?" she scolded.

"The hotel costs a lot of money." (318)

 

Whatever this may have meant for Jane Bowles and the relationship she had with her own mother, the dialogue points out one of the major differences between traditional Arab-Muslim society and modern American society. That a woman would be on her own—would want to be on her own—when she has a mother in whose home she could be "sitting" is incomprehensible, as a number of Western writers have observed. 3

 

There is no ban on Muslims associating with or eating with "Nazarenes," but it is considered a privilege for an outsider to be treated the way Jeanie is treated by the women. The very familiarity the women seem to demand of her and the very direct way they talk to her indicate the way she has been accepted. Hospitality, that ancient and fundamental principle of Arab-Muslim society, is offered her (even though she is offered the cakes she herself had bought). When Jeanie refuses to eat with them, she violates, it appears unwittingly, their hospitality.

 

Still, the women urge her to return to the room, and Zodelia extracts a promise from Jeanie to return the next day. Jeanie may be led around easily, but she learns quickly. As the door of the house "opened … just enough to let her through" (320), Jeanie tries waffling about her return to the place. The two women change roles momentarily. Jeanie speaks in the language of the Arab-Muslim world: "I shall see you tomorrow, if Allah wills it" (a translation of ghedda, enshallah, where "tomorrow" has much the same force as Spanish mañana, and the pious submission to Allah’s will is another way to get out of a promise without appearing to offend). Zodelia is not fooled. She demands an answer in "American time" (or what Hall elsewhere calls M-time or monochronic time), a precise four o’clock, rather than in P-time or polychronic time. 4

 

As Jeanie is leaving Zodelia’s house, Zodelia presses two of the cakes into Jeanie’s hand and tells her, "graciously," to eat them "at the hotel with the other Nazarenes" (320). Jeanie returns through the narrow alley to the place where she had met Zodelia. The walls, at first a barrier between Jeanie and the people below, now are seen—or rather felt (with more immediacy, though with less clarity than sight)—from within, and the blue wash of the wall becomes the major symbol of Jeanie’s encounter with the cultural other.

 

The readeris led back to images that connect with the powdery blue on the wall and Jeanie’s attempt to touch the powdery face of the clown: to images of masks and costumes. Before her name is revealed to Jeanie, Zodelia is a woman "dressed in a haik" (an all-enveloping length of material worn in public), her "white cloth covering the lower half of her face" loose (313-14); her ‘henna-stained finger" indicates she has decorated her hands. The woman on the rocks far below them has taken off her haik in order to wash in the sea water.

 

Tetum reveals layers of garments and is decorated with tiny blue crosses. Zodelia reappears inside the house without her haik—in a "black crepe European dress" that hung down to her ankles. Access to the house, down the steep street, in a narrow alley—far from public gaze—is guarded. A child opens the door and "quickly hid behind it, covering her face" (316). When she leaves, Zodelia opens the door "just enough to let her through" (320).

In contrast to the sunlight on the high street, there is little light inside the house: "Because her eyes had not grown used to the dimness, she had the impression of a figure disappearing down a long corridor. Then she began to see the brass bars of a bed, glowing weakly in the darkness" (316). It is difficult to know these women— difficult to see them—sitting in the darkness, decorated, wearing one garment in public, another in the privacy of the home. The expression Bowles uses to capture the Moghrebi Arabic, the local dialect, used by the women reinforces this contrast between inside and outside. "Why don’t you go and sit with your mother in her own house?" Jeanie is asked. In a society where interaction with strangers is restricted and where, on the other hand, "sitting" is not devalued, as it is in the American work ethic, sitting with the mother in her house is the mark of ordered social life.

 

The American, alone, on the public street, or with the "other Nazarenes" (neither kin nor designated as friends) in the hotel becomes, as the story progresses, as odd a figure as the Moroccan women in their private dwelling. Jeanie has more than a little difficulty penetrating their masks. The ending of the story indicates, though, that something deeply moving has occurred in the encounter with the women. The wall between the two cultures is never removed, but Jeanie feels an intimacy, a longing, in touching the wall with its powdery blue decoration.

 

The language Bowles gives to the Moroccan women reinforces the bind, and Zodelia’s "skit"—playful, a play, a representation—gives the best account of it. The skit is successful, "since all the people of the town spoke and gesticulated as though they had studied at the Comédie Française" (314). As she plays the people in the hotel, though, Zodelia betrays a cultural style very different from Jeanie’s. Known as the "wa-wa" style (after the Arabic wa or "and" coordinator used to string phrases and clauses together like beads on a necklace), the style is a marked characteristic of traditional Arabic writing and, as Zodelia’s speech shows, ordinary speech. 5 It contrasts sharply with the tendency in Western writings—fiction as well as non-fiction prose—to use subordination and, through it, a hierarchical organization of thought. Zodelia mimics the people at the hotel:

 

"Good-bye, Jeanie, good-bye. Where are you going?"

 

"I am going to a Moslem home to visit my Moslem friends, Betsoul and her family. I will sit in a Moslem room and eat Moslem food and sleep on a Moslem bed."

 

"Jeanie, Jeanie, when will you come back to us in the hotel and sleep in your own room?"

 

"I will come back to you in three days. I will come back and sit in a Nazarene room and eat Nazarene food and sleep on a Nazarene bed. I will spend half the week with Moslem friends and half with Nazarenes." (314)

 

Conversation between Jeanie and the Moroccan women quickly becomes futile. Misunderstandings abound, partly because of a language barrier, and partly because certain features of one culture are not understood in the other. Why the porcupine? Is it large or small? Why does Jeanie, when asked about her mother, avoid the question and talk instead about the many automobiles and trucks in the city where she was born? Tetum, in particular, cannot understand why Jeanie would want to spend half her time with Moslem friends and the other half with Nazarenes. In many cases the exchanges end with an exhaustion of language—with the women using that most empty of American words, "nice." While the "nice" of the title is, in one sense, a translation of the ubiquitous mlih of Moroccan Arabic, Bowles’s use of the term betrays the characters’ inability to make the kind of subtle distinctions that come from genuine familiarity. Zodelia asks Jeanie if the Spanish cakes are "Nice?" or "Not nice?" (316). Jeanie thinks them disgusting, but buys a dozen of them. "They are very nice," Jeanie replies. Later Zodelia asks twice if the "dimly lit room" Jeanie is taken to is "nice?" Jeanie does not respond to either question (317). When the women hear that Jeanie spends half her time with Muslims, half with Nazarenes, the women—except for Tetum—say, "That’s nice." Trucks are nice, even "very nice" (318).

 

By the time the conversation has degenerated to an exchange about trucks, Jeanie seems "lost in meditation" for a moment but then announces, "with a look of triumph"—"Everything Is Nice." The women around her agree: "Everything Is Nice" (318).

 

What follows is the offer of food and drink—and Jeanie’s awkward refusal of the women’s hospitality. She did not want to eat the cakes. It is at this moment that Jeanie wanted "to go home" (319). The expression marks the rift between the women and the two cultures. Significantly, the term "home" is avoided by the Moroccans when they talk of what Americans mean by "home." Bowles has them using "house" instead. 6 Both Jeanie and Tetum speak of Jeanie’s mother "in her own house" (318). Zodelia says her aunt is "in her own house" (319), and, more revealing, tells Jeanie, "The porcupine sits here … in my own house" (319).

 

Jeanie, like the expatriate Jane Bowles, who lived much of her life in hotels, 7 wants to go home, but the rhetoric of the story denies her any such place. The displacement of Jeanie is most evident in the split between the public space of the high street, where she is free to look at the scene around her and lives in the private bubble Americans create around themselves, and the hotel, where she lives with the other Nazarenes. Neither place is a home in the sense Americans use the term. Ironically, the Moroccan women live privately in the home the story calls a "house." The self is almost entirely hidden from public view behind haiks, veils, hennaed hands, walls, doors, and is disclosed, if only dimly at first, in a windowless room with women "sitting" together on mattresses, children and babies around them. The final passage of the story, with Jeanie rubbing her fingers along the blue of the wall and awakening some kind of fantasy about the face of a clown in a "little circus," marks the intimacy of barriers.

 

The reader of "Everything Is Nice" is as disoriented as the main character. The locale is most likely unfamiliar; customs and cultural expectations of the Oriental women in the story are puzzling. Conflict and resolution (if the ending can in any way be seen as a resolution) are decentered. As usual, Jane Bowles does not provide explicit authorial comment to dispel questions the reader might have. Still, "Everything Is Nice" is a brilliant depiction of an exotic cityscape and a thoroughly honest presentation of a woman among women in a homosocial community. Led ever more deeply into the Orient, Jeanie remains disoriented. Conversations do not work. But far from adopting a superior attitude, the main character and the work as a whole establish a rapport with the cultural Other that is indeed rare in Western literature. A second story, "The Iron Table," isolates a woman with her husband, and the rapport so evident in "Everything Is Nice" quickly falls away.

 

1.

Palmer, "Hermeneutics and the Postmodern" 7: "Modern man begins to dream of reducing everything to measurable terms, of making everything visualizable, i.e., spatial. And the mind, with its armory of mathematical symbols—better and more reliable than any ordinary languages, nominates man as the absolute monarch of the world."

   

2.

All page references are to the 1978 Collected Works except where comparisons are made to other versions of the texts under discussion.

   

3.

Elizabeth Warnock Fernea ran into this question both in Iraq and in Morocco. The reaction was always the same, "Poor girl." Fernea remarks, "To be alone without any of one’s womenfolk was clearly the greatest disaster which could befall any girl" (Guests of the Sheik 36).

   

4.

The concepts of cultural differences in the handling of time are developed by Hall in The Silent Language, where he distinguishes American time and Arabic time (19-21, 134-39), and in Beyond Culture where he calls them M-time and P-time (17).

   

5.

On the "wa-wa" style, see Kaplan 6-10, and Yorkey 68-69, 80-82.

   

6.

Moroccan Arabic, like English, distinguishes among several words for home and house (‘a’ila, dar, mahell), such that different terms can be used for "My home is in Casablanca," "I have to go home," and "There’s no place like home." See Harrell and Sobleman, Dictionary, 100.

 

 

—from John Maier, ”Jane Bowles and the Semi-Oriental Woman,” in Jennie Skerl, editor, Tawdry Place of Salvation: The Art of Jane Bowles. Southern Illinois University Press, 1997, pp 85-94.

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