Paul Bowles, Travel and the Non-Christian World


“With few exceptions, landscape alone is of insufficient interest to warrant the effort it takes to see it.  Even the works of man, unless they are being used in his daily living, have a way of losing their meaning, and take on the qualities of decoration.

What makes Istanbul worth while to the outsider is not the presence of the mosques and the covered souks, but the fact that they still function as such.  If the people of India did not have their remarkable awareness of the importance of spiritual discipline, it would be an overwhelmingly depressing country to visit, notwithstanding its architectural wonders.

And North Africa without its tribes, inhabited by, let us say, the Swiss, would be merely a rather more barren California.”

-From The Preface to Their Heads Are Green And Their Hands Are Blue: Scenes From The Non-Christian World by Paul Bowles.

I’m just beginning this book now, but only yesterday I finished a much-delayed reading of his masterful novel The Sheltering Sky which is set in North Africa and revolves around the emotional and existential crises of an American couple in the late 1940’s as they struggle to make sense of and make peace with the arid, bright and disorienting world around them.

I can safely say that I will re-read The Sheltering Sky many more times because I can’t imagine how he managed to craft so many perfect sentences conveying so much tension, beauty and insight over the course of over three hundred pages. (Piece of advice: skip the movie and just read the book.)

Based on what I’ve read of him, I can’t think of another American writer who has so embraced and explored, in word and deed, the living concept of “The Other.” Especially “the Other” that we today, as Americans and Westerners and secular neo-liberal Judeo-Christian materialists are supposed to be so afraid of: “the Muslim Other.”

For Bowles, it was never enough just to be somewhere else. He insisted on adopting the languages, customs and habits of whatever cultural context he found himself in. Often the context was Muslim, albeit of an often more secular version, as was enjoyed in Tangier, Morocco when he lived there.

In fact he lived most of his life in Morocco, and then later in Ceylon. He enjoyed an open relationship with his wife Jane, in which each of them pursued liaisons with the same sex. He acted as a lightning rod for other would-be ex-pats like Burroughs, Corso and  Ginsberg who would find much to enjoy in Tangier, Morocco.

He traveled and lived in many sectors of the Muslim world and was an ardent champion of its culture, music and literature. A large part of his writing explores the frequently disastrous effects of Western influence in non-Western cultures and how these opposing cultures tend to reflect and distort each one’s prejudices in strange and unusual ways.

I’d be fascinated to know what Bowles would think of  our current world’s increasingly more generalized struggle between, I’m told, the Secular West and the Islamic East.

I’m eager to explore more of his writings for insights into this and can perhaps begin with this other sentence in the prelude to his book of travel essays: “My own belief is that the people of the alien cultures are being ravaged not so much by the by-products of our civilization, as by the irrational longing on the part of members of their own educated minorities to cease being themselves and become Westerners.”

Michael Berger is a barely-published writer and book-seller living in San Francisco. He is one of the founding Corsairs of the Iron Garters Bike Club and is currently pursuing a degree in applied pataphysics. He sometimes eats oatmeal for dinner. More from this author →