"The next thing I knew was that I woke up in a bed wearing a djellaba with nothing underneath . . . Who had undressed me and put me in a djellaba, and why? Had I been abused? I think I would have known if I had . . . I’ve since read everything I could by him in the vain hope that I would appear somewhere in his writings where the mystery would be solved."
The sinister Mr. Bowles: “Care for a smoke, dear?”
"Me, Paul Bowles and that forgotten night in Tangier"
By Ronald Bergan
A documentary on the American author triggered a memory of a disturbing night at the writer’s apartment that had been suppressed for 40 years
In 1998, at the Edinburgh Film Festival, I was happily watching the documentary Let It Come Down: The Life of Paul Bowles, when the weirdest thing happened to me. While the 87-year-old author was being interviewed in his apartment in Tangier, I had a strange feeling of deja vu. An African mask on the wall triggered the sense that I had been in that apartment before. Was that possible? Maybe I had seen a photo of it somewhere. I had come to the film without any pre-conceived notions, nor did I know much about Bowles, merely that he had written The Sheltering Sky, a book I had not read. I had seen Bernardo Bertolucci’s film adaptation of it, which I had not much liked. That was the sum of my knowledge of Bowles.
The more the documentary continued, the more I became convinced that I had been in Bowles’s apartment in Tangier and not just seen photos of it. It was too potent a sensation. While I watched the film, I struggled to understand why I had this certitude. Gradually, some images started to emerge from my unconscious mind, and then the whole story came flooding back. I had what I can only call a flashback to an incident that had taken place more than four decades earlier.
When I was 17 years old, a friend of mine, known as Frog, and I had decided to take a year off between school and university to travel around Europe very cheaply, hitch-hiking, staying in youth hostels and getting odd jobs where we could. We had managed to hitch rides down through Spain and had crossed on the ferry from Gibraltar to Tangier.
On our first night, after getting a room in a run-down hotel, we sat at an outdoor cafe nursing glasses of beer. After a while, two middle-aged men sat down at the table next to us. I immediately recognised one of them as Richard Wattis, a supporting actor in dozens of British films and TV shows, mostly playing officious civil servants. I caught myself staring at him. He smiled at me, and introduced himself as Dickie and his friend as Monty. They offered to buy us more beer and asked if we would like something to eat. As we had been living mostly on bread for the week, we accepted gladly.
After our meal, and a couple more beers, Dickie and Monty asked if we would like to visit the famous author Paul Bowles, of whom neither of us had heard. We could hardly refuse. Now rather tipsy, we followed our newfound friends through endless back streets, then climbed some winding stairs. Dickie rang the bell of an apartment. A young Moroccan dressed in a djellaba opened the door. There were a few other young men lounging on sofas and a strange smell in the air.
My friend and I were introduced to a tall, thin man in his late 40s. He was sitting in a cane chair and smoking a pipe. An African mask was on the wall above him. Ignoring Frog, whose looks had engendered his nickname, he asked me some questions and seemed to take an unusual amount of interest in my naive answers. Then he offered us some peculiar-looking cigarettes. Though neither of us smoked, it would have been impolite to refuse. I took a few puffs, not knowing then that the cigarettes must have been kif, as hashish is known in Morocco.
The next thing I knew was that I woke up in a bed wearing a djellaba with nothing underneath. I looked around and saw Frog, fully dressed, dozing in a chair. My clothes were at the foot of the bed. It was early morning. I remember feeling more confused than shocked. I just knew I had to get dressed and out of there as fast as possible. I woke Frog and we made our way quietly out of the bedroom. There didn’t seem to be anyone around. Luckily, the front door was open. We ran out into the street and tried to find our way back to our hotel.
I had no recollection of what had happened between my taking the kif and waking up. I asked Frog if he knew, but he didn’t, having fallen asleep after smoking the kif. I still wonder what took place during those few hours after I blacked out. Who had undressed me and put me in a djellaba, and why? Had I been abused? I think I would have known if I had. All I felt on waking up was a rather nasty headache.
It was curious, however, that I had eliminated the episode from my conscious mind until it had been aroused by the documentary more than 40 years later. I had heard about repressed and recovered memory, but had always been rather skeptical about it. There was another peculiar side-effect. Ever since the memory came back, I struggle to remember Bowles’s name.
Incidentally, I’ve since read everything I could by him in the vain hope that I would appear somewhere in his writings where the mystery would be solved. Bowles’s best writing drew me into an exotic, perverse, nihilistic world in which one of the dominant themes was the destruction of innocence. What impressed me and disturbed me most was his second novel, Let It Come Down (1952), set almost entirely in Tangier among the louche ex-pat community. It ends with the main character, Nelson Dyar, a soulless American high on hashish, hammering a nail into the ear of his sleeping Arab friend.
—from The Guardian, Tuesday, December 29, 2009