Next to Nothing
I travelled to Tangier to meet Paul Bowles. I was fascinated by his books, but more than that, by his life.
Composer and writer, a traveller in his own time, someone who is searching.
In his house I found above all serenity. Lazy afternoons by the fireplace, interrupted only by a few daily visitors, and quiet strolls through the market. Nevertheless, those weren’t peaceful times. The North-American deadline to Iraq was getting closer, and Bowles would soon be the last US citizen in town. Every afternoon I would cross Place Koweit to go to his house, and every day I would find him more anxious, awaiting the news we’d bring him from the street. He doesn’t own a television and I never saw him turn on the radio. And, of course, he doesn’t have a telephone.
These are the photos I took during that peculiar period.
They are part of a work in progress.
Foreword to the book My Tangier, Difusão Cultural, 1991
Next to Nothing II
It was thanks to Photography that I met him. I knocked on his door, at the Itesa apartments, with the excuse of some portraits for a Portuguese newspaper, but there was no hurry, as I was staying in town for some time. I believe that is what pleased him. Time. All the other journalists who came by never had any. He was constantly asked for an interview for tomorrow or even today, at least that is what he told me (and wrote in one of the texts he was so kind to offer later for my photography book). But I went on staying. I visited him every afternoon, accompanied him in his daily trips to the marketplace and to the post office, and photographed quietly, without anxiety, because more important than the pictures were the words, the conversation.
I felt I was in the presence of a wise man, one who had lived his life, decided his own fate, found his soul. Bowles and his apartment radiated peacefulness, even though his biography and the pile of suitcases in the entrance hall recalled other lives. He spoke in a quiet voice, with formidable diction, which I recall now, listening to a record of stories, poems and compositions produced for the label Psalmodia Sub Rosa in the same year as my first visit.
Music was his passion, and it was as a composer that he became known to the public, after having piano classes and studying music theory with Aaron Copland. When he spoke of his music, it seemed to me that he was a little sad for his fame as a writer and not as a composer. In 1992 I received a letter where he wrote how he was dedicating his full time to the composition of a music score for a piece to be presented for the first time in Tangier.
For several years, he recorded traditional music in hidden places in Morocco; sounds that among others, thrilled people such as Mick Jagger and Brian Jones, his neighbours from downstairs at the Itesa apartments. And it was in his apartment I listened to a John Lurie tape, of which he spoke with great interest.
With no telephone or television, his house was like a fortress. There were barriers to be broken down, his friend Mohammed Mrabet, the writer Rodrigo Rey Rosa and even Bowles’s natural distrust. But, once allowed into this circle, one would feel at home. Tea, cookies and a fireplace that was always burning stimulated conversation, which, at the time of my first visit, naturally turned around the impending Gulf War.
In our minds, the war would be long, taking months or even years. Nobody imagined everything would come to pass so quickly. From Bowles’s window, we observed the American flag being removed from the Voice of America building, just in front. For him, this was the last time he would see the flag. All other North-American citizens living in Tangier and Morocco had already been cleared out, but Bowles had refused to leave.
As he said, he would rather go to hell than to Washington, so he would rather take his chances here.
It is this subtle irony I wish to remember today. Others will speak better than me of his books, of his life, of his quarrels, of his friendships, of Sally Bowles from Cabaret that owes him her name, and perhaps even of his music, which would certainly please him. As for me, I thank him and hope he finds all the others, Jane, Gertrude, Peggy, Allen, Jack, Ian, Brion, Tennessee, even William, in that sheltering sky.
Written when Paul Bowles died and published in Público, 19th November, 1999
Next to Nothing, Third Movement, two times eight years later
When I think of those afternoons, so long ago, first I remember the flavour of the tea, and then the warmth of the fireplace, and finally the quiet, melodious voice of Paul Bowles. He spoke in a calm way, like someone who thought closely what he would say, but also like someone with the knowledge that he will be heard. And the sound was like the tea and the fireplace, warm and engaging, and the night would fall and nobody wanted to leave.
My room, in the modest Hotel Paris, on a corner of Boulevard Pasteur, was cold and without any heating. Winter in Tangier has its sunny mornings, when you are sitting outside in a café, but apart from that it is pretty harsh, and the stone floor and the always cold shower made me dream of the fireplace at the house of Paul Bowles. It wasn’t a routine that lasted very long, but it was long enough to become engraved upon my memory as a routine: in the morning, I would stroll through the city, exploring and photographing, drinking mint tea with milk at the Café de Paris, where I already had some acquaintances. In the early afternoon I would walk to the Itesa quarter, taking me around twenty five minutes straight to the door of the small apartment, where I knew that if I arrived early enough I would find Bowles still alone, without the regular or unexpected daily visitors. This is how I was able to talk with him about Malcolm Lowry, whom he had not yet read, and John Lurie, whose tape he had received recently. I can’t remember why, but there were also some mornings when I went with him to the market and to the post office, and on those times we took the car. I remember being disappointed when he told me his famous Mustang was waiting for some parts at the garage and we would have to take a Renault 4. Nevertheless, when he saw the photo I took of him through the windshield, he said that with the sunglasses he looked like Marlon Brando.
And in the midst of all of this there were the photographs, which were after all only an excuse. Today I regret not having photographed in colour as well. The morning light coming in through the shades of my room, Bowles’s typewriter or the clear sky of the north of Africa. But, at the time, I still saw the world in black and grey, full of grain, which in a way was adequate to the dampness floating in the air and which visibly seems to have stuck to my negatives.
Later, we heard of the Kuwait invasion and the American threats to Iraq. Suddenly there was a new voice in the afternoons by the fireplace, the Voice of America, broadcasted right there, from the building in front of Bowles’s backyard. From his balcony, one could see the American flag that was removed some time later, together with all the American citizens taken out of the Arab countries. Bowles refused to leave, he was home and he was right. A few days later there was a demonstration in the Boulevard supporting Hussein and, something unprecedented in Morocco, against the king, who was supporting the North Americans. The worried waiters from the Café de Paris dragged the foreigners inside and the crowd moved on without trace. In the evening everything seemed to be peaceful again.
Now that we are living in times of distrust towards the Arab world, I often think of Paul Bowles and his books. His writing also described this mistrust towards the alien, a feeling that is mutual and that represents nothing but our own uncertainty. Next to nothing.
Next to nothing can be everything.
Written for the exhibition Next to Nothing, Lisbon, 2007