Lost in Maghrebi: Meeting Mrabet in Morocco, by Kurt Hemmer

Mrabet landed two sharp elbows into the chest of a local teenage boy, a Tanjawi, nearly knocking the kid off his bike. A moment earlier a disheveled man, another Tanjawi, had dashed in front of us, distracting our attention. The teen had been peddling fast upon us, but was forced to stop in front of Mrabet. Was this a tandem of thieves conniving to swipe my bag or my wife’s purse, the boy hauling off with the goods as we watched the older man zoom in the other direction leaving us dumbfounded? Was it a coincidence? Or had Mrabet saved us from being robbed?

            I had heard that Mrabet was not averse to violence. Mohammed ben Chaib el Hajjem, a name Mrabet says “the government has given me,” was born in Tangier, or the Rif, depending on whom you ask, on March 8. Even at the age of eighty-three (if he was born in 1936, or seventy-nine years of age, if he was born in 1940, as some sources have it) violence seems to shadow him. Mrabet turned to my wife, Erin, and said something about how times had changed, that the young people no longer had any respect, and that he was too old for this nonsense. As a teen he roamed with an American couple he met at the Café Central in the Petit Socco, who at one point leased the Villa Muniria, now the Hotel El Muniria where Erin and I were staying. Josh Shoemake in Tangier: A Literary Guide for Travelers (2013)describes the Rue Magellan, where you will find the Muniria, as “a filthy alley . . . descending sharply toward the beach. It is sort of dank, littered passage that screams danger . . . .” Mrabet had been a bartender at the Muniria’s Tanger Inn, where we stopped for nightcaps almost every evening of our trip swilling Spéciale Flag. It’s the hippest bar in Tangier—covered in portraits of and quotations by Paul Bowles and the Beats that followed him to Tangier. Though I’m not sure if the cool Tanjawis swaying to the world beat dance music are interested in the literary figures adorning the walls.

Erin and I stayed in the room, the only one with a shower and easy access to the terrace, that Jack Kerouac had slept in when he visited William S. Burroughs in February 1957 to help his friend type the word hoard tossed around the Muniria that would eventually produce The Naked Lunch (1959). Bowles would say of Burroughs’s manuscript, “There were hundreds of pages of yellow foolscap all over the floor, month after month, with heel prints on them, rat droppings, bits of old sandwiches, sardines. It was filthy.” Burroughs had first stayed in a rooftop room with a balcony at the Villa Muniria in 1955 before moving into a ground floor room with access to the garden when he returned to the hotel in 1956, and Allen Ginsberg and Peter Orlovsky would move into Kerouac’s room when he left in April 1957. In the novel Desolation Angels (1965), Kerouac’s persona, Jack Duluoz, after a spell of typing, has “horrible nightmares in my roof room—like pulling out endless bolognas from my mouth, from my very entrails, feet of it, pulling and pulling out all the horror of what Bull [the character based on Burroughs] saw, and wrote.” The owner of the Muniria let us walk around the now-concealed garden (where the famous pictures of Bowles, Burroughs, Ginsberg, and Corso were taken in 1961).

Mrabet inside by Kurt Hemmer

In 1964 (some sources say 1962 or 1965) Mrabet, who remembered years earlier seeing Paul Bowles strolling around Tangier with Burroughs (known by the Tanjawis as el hombre invisible and by Mrabet as a “dirty murderer”) became Paul and Jane Bowles’s chauffeur, cook, caretaker, and bodyguard. Mrabet began recording stories (technically he is illiterate) for Paul to translate, the first published as Love with a Few Hairs (1967). Now Mrabet has over a dozen published books, translated into more than a dozen languages. “Mrabet’s Tangier is a secret city,” writes Iain Finlayson in Tangier: City of the Dream (1992), “to which non-Moroccans still have very limited access: the secret city is mental as much as material.” As we walked up the slope to his home, Mrabet strutted like a seasoned pugilist. I’d read that in his youth he was a pretty good boxer in Spain. Almost everyone we passed greeted him—Saalam uwaleekumWa’aleekum salaam. I noticed my wife looking behind us every few paces. The Tanjawi teen on the bike was slowly following us ten yards behind, creeping up closer. His eyes promised retribution.

            Erin and I had come for the July 2019 Tangier White Party & Arts conference, hosted by Amsél, a photographer and writer. It was a celebration of the author Paul Bowles, who had passed twenty years before, and the 70th anniversary of the publication of his most famous novel, The Sheltering Sky (1949). There would be cultural tours, readings, musical performances, and film screenings. My mother’s cousin, Bennett Lerner, had been the first to play and record some of Bowles’s piano pieces—two of Bennett’s albums are on display at the permanent Paul Bowles exhibit at the American Legation in Tangier. Mohammad Mrabet, considered the last living link to the glory days of Bowles and the Beat writers in Tangier, was to be the guest of honor at the celebration. But maybe we wouldn’t get a chance to meet him. We were leaving the day Mrabet was scheduled to give a performance for the attendees.

While drinking mint tea in front of the Cinéma Rif, I asked Amsél if there was any way to meet Mrabet beforehand. She immediately got on the phone and set up a time for the next morning. We met the next day at the Wall of Lazies at the Place de France with its three canons holding off Spain. Amsél hailed us a cab and called Mrabet on her cell phone, but before she could give the phone to the cabbie—so Mrabet could tell him where to take us—a local jumped into the front seat and the cab started on its way. (This type of cab sharing appears to be a Tanjawi thing—it would happen again, and they never seemed to pay.) Surely the Nazarenes in the back knew where they were going. But we didn’t. Luckily Amsél got a good grasp on the door, and though she was dragged down the street, she managed to get the cabbie to stop, grab the phone, and get the directions. Ten minutes later we were told to get out in a rundown souq—far from the tourists—in the Souani area of Tangier. The cab sped off, but I didn’t see Mrabet—we’d never met—so I wondered what would happen to us next. Yet only a few, desperate minutes later I spotted Mrabet, agile and defiant, and he greeted us with cool charm. We followed him.

            After the scene with the teen on the bike we were happy to be in the elegant North African ease of Mrabet’s home. He is uncomfortable speaking in English, though he accommodated us as much as he could. Later in the afternoon, after hearing Mrabet slip into Maghrebi, which is peppered with Spanish, my wife would speak with him in Spanish, and he was much happier. He preferred to talk about his family rather than the writers and artists he had known. Erin showed him pictures of our three children. He smiled and said what a great thing being a grandfather was. There was a picture of an angelic grandchild on the wall beneath a painting that had caught Erin’s eye. “On one hand the paintings derive from the classical Arab tradition,” says Burroughs, “as expressed in mosaics; there is also some resemblance to the spirit pictures drawn by Eskimo shamans.” Mrabet doesn’t name his paintings.

            He also doesn’t talk about his artistic rivals. Mohamed Hamri (1932-2000), the “Picasso of Morocco,” who has been called “the only Moroccan intellectual to participate in the activities of the Tangier Beat Generation and to deal with them on their own level,” had helped the artist Brion Gysin open the 1001 Nights restaurant in 1954, and introduced Gysin to the musicians who would become the house band, the Master Musicians of Jajouka. (Hamri would also introduce Brian Jones of the Rolling Stones to these Sufi trance musicians.) Hamri’s paintings, which sell for far more dirham than Mrabet’s, have affinities with the Post-Impressionism of Cezanne and the Expression of the German painter Eduard Bargheer. Mrabet’s work has been compared to the Cubism of the Belgian Paul Masson and the Surrealism of Joan Miró. Gysin had encouraged Hamri to become a painter after showing him the work of Ahmed Yacoubi (1928-1985), another Tanjawi Bowles translated. Hamri had said he could paint as well as Yacoubi “with one hand behind me.” Yacoubi painted with the Tangerine (which means an expat living in Tangier) Francis Bacon. Burroughs writes of Yacoubi’s Abstract Surrealism paintings, which outsell Hamri’s, “Yacoubi is mapping timeless areas of magic and therefore his work has a special relevance in the space age since these areas are now open to exploration and we may well look to artists for orientation. The painting of Yacoubi is a window opening into space.” Yet Mrabet has no time to talk about Yacoubi or Hamri, whom he views as a “prostitutes.” It’s best not to talk to Mrabet about other Tanjawis, especially those whom he suspects as having had sexual relations with Nazarenes.

Mrabet painting by John Suiter
Mrabet signature on painting by John Suiter

            Mrabet did not like that people who came to visit him thought he was homosexual. Didn’t people know he had children and grandchildren? He didn’t like it when Truman Capote or Tennessee Williams or Allen Ginsberg tried to kiss him. Once he gave a sharp elbow to Tennessee (or did he say Truman?) when the writer snuck up behind him for a hug. Williams had tried to get Mrabet in a movie being made by Elia Kazan, who wanted Mrabet filmed naked in bed doing something unseemly to a woman. Mrabet would have made a lot of money, but what he would have had to do with the woman would have brought shame to his family, so he declined.

We sat on his couch and I asked him if he had known Paul Lund (who wasn’t gay), the Birmingham gangster who had run the Bar Navarra, who had befriended Burroughs, later falsely fingering Burroughs as an opium smuggler to confuse the cops, which caused Burroughs to be arrested in Paris in 1958. We had found Lund’s grave at St. Andrews Church Cemetery the day before. Mrabet believed he had met Lund once or twice. I slipped a copy of M’hashish, the City Lights second printing from May 1970, across the table to Mrabet. He remembered his picture on the cover, but he claimed he didn’t know this edition. For him there is only the first edition. He has a copy, but he doesn’t know where. He never gets royalties anyway, so he’s not interested in his own books. He slapped his hands and revealed the emptiness between them, a favorite gesture of his that he used several times during our conversation. For a moment, I considered giving him the book. But then he asked if I wanted him to sign it. Sure, I said, I’d like him to sign it. Would he like me to send him a copy when I returned to the States? Yes, he said, but what would he do with it? I would later get a copy of the journal Stroker, number 13 with an ink drawing on the cover by Mrabet and signed by him, from Pociao, Paul Bowles’s German translator, when I gave her my Brian Jones t-shirt, which she admired, after quickly changing into a Mick Jagger t-shirt back at the Muniria. Mrabet was not impressed by the Rolling Stones. According to Simon-Pierre Hamlin, who ran Librairie des Colonnes, “[Mrabet] watched the Rolling Stones crawl around on Paul Bowles’ floor, drugged out of their minds.”

Mrabet signature Stroker by John Suiter

M’hashish is Maghrebi for “high on hash.” That the book was translated from Maghrebi by Paul Bowles was a lie, Mrabet told us. Bowles translated his stories from Spanish; Paul could barely understand Maghrebi, anyway. Jane Bowles, yes, she could speak Maghrebi, and she was a great woman. He told us about when he first met Jane and how he thought it was a disgrace that her husband would leave her alone for long periods of time. He loved Jane Bowles. Cherifa, Jane’s Tanjawi “demon lover” often blamed for her decline, she was not a witch, said Mrabet. Though it had been Mrabet who had located the packet of fingernails, dried blood, and pubic hair—a tseuheur—in the roots of a philodendron plant in Jane’s apartment that Paul believed Cherifa had used to maintain control over Jane. Mrabet explained that Jane smoked three packs of cigarettes and drank two bottles of wine every day. There was nothing he could do. She did not like kif. Mrabet told us he didn’t smoke kif anymore. When Jane got very sick he had told Paul to take her to the hospital. That is when Mrabet knew that Paul was not his friend. Paul had told Mrabet that he merely worked for them and should stay out of it. Mrabet was going to leave, but Jane insisted that he stay. Things were never the same. Mrabet told us he would pick up Paul’s shit with his own hands, carry Paul around the house, but Paul wasn’t his friend.

Mrabet M’hashish by Kurt Hemmer

            Mrabet is not a respected storyteller in Tangier. Shoemake explains, “Moroccan Arabic, or darija, is not a written language. Classical Arabic . . . is the language of official discourse . . . . This puts Moroccan writers in an absurd position unknown in almost any other part of the world: to write about their country, they must choose a ‘foreign’ language . . . .” Mrabet’s stories often expose the underbelly of Moroccan life, an aspect of Tangier reality not sanctioned by the Muslim establishment, so his books have been banned. He has problems with recognition in other countries too, where often Bowles is given more credit than Mrabet for the stories Mrabet created. At a reading in Amsterdam, Gregory Corso put the writer Yevgeny Yevtushenko in his place when the Russian had snickered at the idea of Mrabet being included alongside him—a great Soviet poet. “Why not?” Corso asked Yevtushenko. “Mrabet is one of the good writers. And he is a poet, too . . . .”

            Mrabet brought out his photographs. Some shots of him as a young man—muscular and proud—and others of the famous authors with whom he had mingled. Mrabet showed us his stomach scars. He told us that Joe McPhillips, the headmaster of the American School of Tangier and executor of the Bowles estate, had tried to kill him by putting tiny bits of broken glass in his hamburger. The doctor told Mrabet that there were tiny holes in his stomach. Before this, Mrabet said, he had been in Paul’s will, but McPhillips had deviously cheated him out of his inheritance. Where had his endowment gone? Mrabet slapped his hands and revealed the emptiness between them.

            It is believed that Mrabet started drawing in 1958. The journalist Pierre Boisson explains, “Mrabet has to sweat to keep his whole family fed. And because paintings sell better than books, he paints.” Though Henry Miller, Tennessee Williams, and Mick Jagger have all bought Mrabet’s paintings, Mrabet has been reluctant to play the game of being a collector’s artist. You can see how it doesn’t fit him when you meet him. According to the writer Jeff Koehler, “Mrabet still sells largely to people who come to his home in Souani to buy.” We bought a painting that Erin liked. Then Mrabet’s wife, Ayesha, came home and he introduced us to her. When she left we talked about the pleasures of family life. Mrabet told us he has four children, more than twice that many grandchildren, and great grandchildren. I have sacrificed my family life, Mrabet lamented, for an unbeliever.

            As we exited Mrabet’s apartment out into the street I anxiously looked around. Mrabet walked us down to the thoroughfare and hailed us a cab. We said our goodbyes and were off. The kid on the bike was nowhere to be seen.