Why you should care
Because when lured by someone else’s glamorous, writerly life in Morocco, remember: Be yourself.
Carol Ardman has written for the New York Times and the New York Daily News and is the co-author with her husband, Dr. Loren Fishman, of Back Pain: How to Relieve Low Back Pain. This piece is based on her Shebook, Tangier Love Story.
A couple of days after I arrived in Tangier, Morocco, in the summer of 1970, I found the nerve to ask in the bookstore in the French Quarter if they knew how I could contact Jane Bowles. I was twenty-eight years old, newly divorced from the newly famous avant-garde composer Steve Reich, hoping this sunny three-week vacation would break a long cycle of aimless depression. I had immediately adored the teeming Tangier marketplaces, the azure harbor, the veiled women and barefoot children, the twisting alleys with their tiny aromatic shops, the snake charmer in the Kasbah. And I knew Jane Bowles, my literary idol, was here somewhere.
Jane Bowles’ novel Two Serious Ladies and short stories acclaimed by Tennessee Williams and Truman Capote made me cry and laugh as I read them while my marriage was breaking up. I had always dreamed of becoming a writer, and I had worked in a few dead-end publishing jobs, but this quirky and profound woman was the only writer I wanted to emulate. It was ridiculous, but I wanted to become Jane Bowles, a pretty young woman with dark curls like mine, whose photo I had studied on the dust jacket of her Collected Works.
The proprietor of the bookstore sadly told me that Jane Bowles, member of the famously decadent ex-pat Tangier community and wife of the well-known novelist and composer Paul Bowles, was hospitalized in Spain. She suggested that I send Paul Bowles a letter asking if I could visit her and gave me his address. Having never written a fan letter before, without expecting an answer, I sent a request.
He was tall and thin as a reed, with chiseled features, wearing a tweed sports jacket and smoking a cigarette in a Dunhill holder.
The next afternoon I washed the beach sand off in the cold shower in my cheap hotel and wrapped myself in a towel. My skin glowed with sun. I felt sleepy. I lay down for a nap. A knock on the door woke me.
“Dave?” I called, thinking it was the American hippie staying in the room next door. “Come back later?”
I opened the door. There in the shadowy hall stood a handsome man with a shock of white hair and bright blue eyes. He was tall and thin as a reed, with chiseled features, wearing a tweed sports jacket and a white turtleneck and smoking a cigarette in a Dunhill holder.
“Hello,” he said. “I’m Paul Bowles.”
I was practically naked. I clutched the towel. “No. You can’t be,” I replied. I gently shut the door in his face. But a moment later I opened the door again. He hadn’t moved. His blue eyes twinkled. We both laughed.
I had no idea yet that this courteous 60-year-old man, the famously bi-sexual author of “The Sheltering Sky,” was lonely and despondent.
“Your note arrived and I was in the neighborhood, so I thought I’d stop by. Would you like to have tea?”
I had no idea yet that this courteous 60-year-old man, the famously bi-sexual author of the classic novel The Sheltering Sky, was lonely and despondent. He knew his beloved Jane would always need round-the-clock nursing home care because of a crippling stroke, and my admiration of her had touched him.
After that first glass of tea — an entertaining and engrossing kif-infused hour — it didn’t occur to me that I would see Paul Bowles again. I hadn’t met Jane, but he had told me about her, and I was satisfied. But Paul stopped by my hotel the next afternoon, and the next. Soon he was showing me the sights — driving up the mimosa-scented mountain to buy farmers’ eggs one day, hiking along the Atlantic beach the next, spreading out a straw mat in a lovely field, where we talked, smoked and listened to Satie and Moroccan music on a small tape recorder. I began helping him prepare tea for guests, meeting his friends — tourists, famous writers, nefarious Tangier characters — falling in love with a charming, complicated, brilliant gentleman.
But my excursion ticket was running out and I didn’t want to leave him, or this. “Maybe I’ll stay for longer than the three weeks,” I ventured one afternoon. “That would be very nice,” he replied. “You could live in my building. I keep a garconnier downstairs. It’s not much, but it’s furnished.”
College paled beside what I learned about literature, about another culture and religion, about people.
I was astonished. Jane had her own apartment in his building before she became ill. It all seemed so perfect it was almost unbelievable. I didn’t know how this could be happening to me. I paid my hotel bill and moved into the studio apartment Paul gave me. There I wrote on Jane Bowles’ typewriter that Paul let me use, turning out short stories and part of a novel. Feeling like I was channeling Jane.
My planned three weeks turned into a year and a half. After that, for a decade I lived between Tangier and New York. During that time, under the kindly tutelage of Paul Bowles, I grew from a child to a woman, from a tourist to a traveler. College paled beside what I learned about literature, about another culture and religion, about people. And finally, bit by bit, I became strong enough to point myself away from a romance with a much older, ultimately unavailable man. I realized I needed a husband my own age, a man with whom I could have children as well as my own writing life.
Instead of becoming Jane Bowles, I became myself.