“The likeness of those who choose other patrons than Allah is as the likeness of the spider when she taketh unto herself a house, and lo! the frailest of all houses is the spider’s house, if they but knew.”
Paul Bowles’ novel, The Spider’s House, describes the political situation in Fes during 1954. Tensions had been mounting in Morocco during the 1950s and, as the French in Morocco attacked the Sultan, his popularity grew. The French, allied with traditionalist leaders hostile to the reformist and nationalistic elites of the Istiqlal party, tried to play off one side against the other. Riots in Casablanca at the end of 1952 ushered in the era of mass politics, and the Sultan was accused of being one of the main causes for the deteriorating situation. By Aug. 20, 1953, despite the opposition of Paris, the French in Morocco deposed the Sultan, who refused to abdicate his throne. He and his family were exiled to Madagascar, where they remained for 3 years.
In Morocco the failure of the royal deposition became quickly clear. The Moroccans considered the new puppet sultan, Moulay Arafa, a usurper. Acts of terrorism multiplied, and insecurity spread throughout the country. The French in Morocco retaliated with repression and violence, while liberal politicians in Paris actively worked for a solution. When the Glaoui rallied to the cause of Mohammed V, all opposition to the exile’s return melted away, and on Nov. 16, 1955, the Sultan regained Morocco and was greeted by delirious crowds. On March 2, 1956, Morocco received its independence. Mohammed V became the chief of state, and his son Moulay Hassan took command of the army.
The narrative of The Spider’s House is conveyed by an amalgam of protagonists each representing different threads of the political situation; Amar, an illiterate but gifted 14 year old boy represents orthodox Islam and is horrified at the way that the Nationalists Istikial party wish to develop Morocco and to compromise that traditional legacy; the boy’s father who wants the Sultan back on the throne and hints at promoting jihad against unbelievers; the Nationalist party Istiklal whose members plan to oust the French and all other foreigners by violence and advocate a modern Morocco; a group of young intellectuals who enter the country to promote Marxist/Leninist ideals; and the French themselves who enlist groups of Berbers to undermine the effects of the jihadists. The Mokhazni, a group of Arab locals who work with the French, spy on their own people, and uphold French values. An ex-communist American author who has lived for several years in North Africa and has come to find this life absurd and unreal.
In the Introduction, Bowles exclaims virtual surprise at the novel he finally created. He writes “whether I like it or not, when I had finished, I found that I have written a “political” book which deplores the attitudes of both the French and the Moroccans.” His comments also betray his wish for the return of a previous pre-Occupation culture. He writes “Ingenuously I had imagined that after Independence the old manner of life would be resumed and the country would return to being more or less what it had been before the French presence. The destruction on the part of the populace of all that was European seemed to guarantee such a result. What I failed to understand was that if Morocco was still a largely medieval land, it was because the French themselves, and not the Moroccans, wanted it that way”.
Descending the alleys from the Qarawiyne I cross the Oed Boukhrab by the new concrete bridge to the Andalous quarter and begin climbing the hill towards the Andalousian mosque. Originally settlements of considerable rivalry the transition between the two districts of Fes al Bali is today free from difficulty. Signs point to the mosque’s general direction through the souk and just to be sure a youth confirms the route. I climb until the alley leads to a wide series of steps at the top of which is the entrance to the mosque. One of the oldest mosques in the world, it was founded in 860 by the Andalusian refugees from Cordoba who settled in the eastern bank of the River of Fez, a settlement previously known as Al-‘Aliya. Over the following centuries a minaret was added, it has been restored several times and extended at other times. It is regarded as the second most important mosque in Fes, after the Qariwiyne.
A tout approaches me, offering to show me the sights of the neighbourhood, however persistently ignores my rejections. I walk up to the great archway and peer through the cedar entrance. Frustrated again at not being permitted access to another mosque, I resign to explore the alleys of the locality.
There is not much magic left in the world, I’m afraid wherever there is any, the organizers, that is society, will do its best to stamp it out. Well, they’re trying to stamp out that which is human, that’s all, in favor of the intellect which is not very human…In Other words, let’s go back to non-existence, that’s my idea, to the past
Paul Bowles, a self-exiled American composer and traveler, settled in the International zone of Tangier in 1947, and wrote about North Africa and Morocco in his fiction and essays. He also translated a group of young, poor and uneducated men from Tangier who could tell stories by drawing on their imagination and real life experiences in addition to their repertoire from the oral tradition of storytelling in Morocco. Paul Bowles transcribed, translated and published these stories in America and London as “Translations from the Moghrebi”. Although regarded positively as a writer, Bowles is also regarded by Moroccan academics and perhaps others as adopting a reductionist approach in his understanding and representation of Moroccan culture. Some argue that by concentrating on only popular culture and the illiterate class of society that Bowles conveyed to the West a reductionist, fragmented and incomplete image of the Orient, reiterating Orientalist assumptions of the East as “backward”, “inferior”, “illogical” and “unchanging”
Edward Said, the intellectual founder of the postcolonial theory, argues that:
the West’s construction of the Orient projects all the things that the West considers negative, all the things that have to be repressed – all the things on the right hand side of the slash in a binary opposition –onto our ( Westerner’s) construct of the other, the Orient. So, the Orient becomes the place where body (as opposed to mind), evil (as opposed to good), and the feminine (as opposed to the masculine) all reside. By placing all of these forms of “otherness” on the Orient, Said says, the Occident can construct itself as all positive”
Mary Klages 2012
Is Bowles an Orientalist? Can artists living in, or writing about, other cultures be anything other than an Orientalist?
I journey through the alleyways of the Andalous district, enjoying both the lack of crowds and the rapidly reducing numbers of souks, entering residential districts where windowless houses butt up against the alleys. People pass by in ones or twos, travelling under arches, buttresses and along ancient winding lanes where crumbling coloured fountains are semi-protected by black metal bars, allowing access to the running water. Entrances to mosques come and go, some closed and the insides of others hidden by the muslim equivalent of wooden rood screens, their crenellated tops protruding like a collection of aspiring souls rising from wood. The colours of the walls change from blue to green to yellow. There is no consistency.
I eventually stumble upon a ruined mosque where the door is locked only by a large metal bolt. I push the bolt and it slides back and the door is ajar and I pull it slightly open and peer through the little gap. The inside is dusty and papers and debris scatter the floor. The prayer hall is small and directly opposite is the qibla wall, a white expanse with the mihrab and the niches either side picked out in yellow. I hesitate – is it still consecrated? Am I allowed in?
I notice several youths just up the alley and I approach them, asking if it was fine for me to go in. They both said yes and one of them offered to accompany me around inside. Thinking that would provide some authority for me to enter I accept and we enter into the mosque. There is an old musky smell, some rubble lies to one side, the separated ablutions area a mass of piping and plaster, the ceiling cracked and rent with marks and lines. I begin to take some photographs, of the mihrab and discarded prayer mats in a niche, and begin to feel comfortable when the youth suggests we ascend a little stone staircase I had not seen up to the terraced roof around the minaret. It is a narrow passageway and we twist our way up eventually emerging into the bright afternoon sun. All around are the the flat roofs of the houses of the Andalous Quarter, the view extends over the rows of houses I had recently walked through and back down to the small river and then ascends again to the buildings leading up to the Qarawiyne district. Far beyond are the hills surrounding Fes el Bali, where the Marinid tombs lie. Beside me the minaret rises, its tannoys redundant.
Then there is a noise breaking the silence and 3 other youths emerge from the staircase, the leading youth holding a mobile phone in his hands and close to his mouth. He is a little threatening and tells me that it is a crime for a non-muslim to trespass in a mosque and that he will telephone the police. He is not smiling and appears to mean what he says. I instantly recognise that I am trapped and no-one speaks for few seconds.
I break that silence and ask ‘How much do you want? How many dirhams?’. He says questioningly 200 dirhams. He is not sure, he is an opportunist. I lie and tell him that I have only 100 dirhams and he must accept that. We have an unspoken metaphysical discussion for several seconds where the price is further considered and our resolution weighed up and, after I give him the money, he lets me through, down the stairs through the prayer hall and quickly back into the road and safety. Realising his weakness he again presses me for money but it is too late and again I repeat I only had the 100 dirham note. I make my way along the alley, down through the houses, then through the souks and lastly over the new concrete bridge across the little river.
The notion of Orientalism is too pressing to ignore; Bowles lived in Tangier for some fifty years and documented something of that culture, choosing to ignore the middle classes, academics and organised religion in favour of the poor, dispossessed and the original Berber culture. I recognise I share similar affiliations, both in Morocco and previously in India, where I spent 6 months. One of the difficulties whilst travelling is that I only meet the poorer people; the middle classes frequently insulate themselves from street life. In India many of the new middle classes live in huge blocks of flats with inbuilt security systems to maintain that distance and separation. It is the poor I seem to routinely transact with, with all the attendant conflicting emotions and potential for cultural exploitation that engenders.
Art historian Linda Nochlin argued in her widely read essay, “The Imaginary Orient,” from 1983, the task of critical art history is to assess the power structures behind any work of art or artist.
A link to the academic paper from which I have obtained much of the comment regarding the Orientalism of Bowles is at the bottom of this page. However the conclusion reached by the academics and taken from the same paper is directly below.
In his attempt to preserve what he valued the most in human / Moroccan culture, its originality and authenticity,and reinforce “an alternative” that he has discovered in the culture of the “Other”, Paul Bowles’s Bowles ended up constructing a very confining image about “the other”, which happens to reiterate and enhance the same Orientalist thoughts and assumptions that the West holds about the East/Maghreb. The American’s objection to recognize other – the modernizing – aspects in postcolonial Morocco and his failure to give room to different “realities” other than the “primitive”, the “backward”, the “violent”, the “illiterate” and the “popular” can be read as an example of Orientalist reductionism. And by “fixing” the culture (Morocco/Moroccans) in the past as “backward” and “unchanging” , Bowles created what A. Elghandor (1993) maintains in his charge against him to be “a biased, incomplete, sometimes even a lopsided and erroneous view of Arabo-lslamic culture.