The Illiterate Poet of the Beatnik Mafia

The Moroccan novelist at the center of Pierre Boisson’s impressive profile here gives a final, irascible look at his country in the middle of the last century. For many of the American Beat writers who washed up in the Tangier of the 1950s, Morocco was little more than an exotic playground, with cheap sex and easy drugs, and Mohamed Mrabet’s disgust for them is visceral. A more sympathetic figure is Paul Bowles, who transcribed and translated the tales of Mrabet and other illiterate Moroccan storytellers, men schooled in neither the formal Arabic of the traditional elites nor the Lycee French of the comprador class. Elite writers who perhaps not coincidentally have poured out much bilious ink on Mrabet and Bowles and their peculiar partnership.

Fisherman, boxer, chauffeur, bodyguard, fugitive, cook, waiter: the resume of Mohamed Mrabet, son of Tangier, 76 years old and still unable to read or write a word. Survivor of a wild life, Mrabet has served whiskeys to William Burroughs, fished with Tennessee Williams, smoked hashish with the Rolling Stones and most important of all, laid down some of the greatest Moroccan novels. Here, the life of an illiterate man who was the last witness of a mythical period in which Tangier was the center of the world.

Tangier, 1957. The Tangier Inn House Snack Bar sits on Magellan Street, a few steps off the ‘Boulevard,’ the city’s central artery. The bar offers the best alcohol collection in town: rum, gin, eau de vie and other liquors that the owners, Ross and Anne, buy from the American military bases down in Casablanca. Europeans running up bar tabs at every place in town, young boys selling their bodies for a few dirhams, Tangerois and Americans; all cram into this den for a few minutes or fritter away the hours here. Paul Bowles, Tennessee Williams, Gregory Corso, and Truman Capote come here to drink and sing until 3 in the morning.

Just above the bar is the room in the Hotel Muniria where William Burroughs likes to practice shooting his rifle, perhaps trying to forget the wife he gunned down in Mexico while playing at William Tell. He reads the pages he filled with writing the night before and doubles over with laughter on the wooden floor: they are proof that drugs are no good, worthless for this at least. Jack Kerouac , recently disembarked from a Yugoslavian liner, retypes a manuscript for his friend and comes up with a title for it, “Naked Lunch.” Allen Ginsberg has just set foot on the African continent and is smoking his first pipes of hashish.

At this moment, these few square meters of Tangier are the center of the world. Guardian of the strait of Gibraltar, lusted after by all the great powers until Morocco’s independence in 1956, the city remained for thirty years an international zone, beloved of bankers, spies and smugglers. “Tanja the Whore,” as the rest of Morocco calls it, regards the world with the arrogance of a great lady about to attend the most important ball of her life: the Beat Generation has arrived. And behind the bar at the Tangier Inn, Mohamed Mrabet, illiterate young waiter, observes with curiosity the drunkards and the alcoholics, the men flirting with men, the women kissing other women. Inside his head, he is writing a novel.

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Fifty-five years later, they are all dead. A medication overdose for Truman Capote. Gastrointestinal bleeding for Jack Kerouac. Cancer of the liver for Allen Ginsberg. A heart attack for William Burroughs. Tennessee Williams has choked to death in a hotel room on the cap for a bottle of eye drops. Prostate cancer for Gregory Corso. All of them dead but Mohamed Mrabet. He is the one who opens the door of a building in Souani, a working class neighborhood of Tangier, on an October afternoon a few days before the Aid el Kebir holiday. He wears a turtleneck, his eyes have a hint of sadness, and he looks like any other grandfather.

On the first floor of the family house where the old man lives, eats and paints, there is an oversized plasma TV; on the screen, American professional wrestlers. With a grin, Mrabet turns off the TV, invites his visitor to take off his shoes and sit on the floor of his Moroccan style living room. “Nowadays it is the television that tells people stories,” he says in a French that he picked up on the streets. “I don’t exist anymore. Nobody here knows who I am.”

Wiped perhaps from the literary map, Mohamed Mrabet remains a monument. The first Moroccan to be published in France, he is the author of some twenty books, translated into 14 languages. He has toured the world, made thousands of paintings, reinvented the landscape of Moroccan literature. And all of this without knowing how to read or write.

“It is difficult to call Mrabet a writer, because his conception of art is a very uncommon one,” says Simon-Pierre Hamelin, who runs the Tangier bookstore Les Colonnes, and who has worked with Mrabet. “He sometimes calls himself the greatest Moroccan writer, but he also says that he is neither a writer nor a painter.”

The thing is, Mrabet is probably right about this. He has never actually written a word in the sketch-filled notebooks scattered around his living room. Telling stories is his thing, telling stories as they always have been told at the tables of cafes all over this country.

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“In the fifties, there was no television, no tapes, nothing,” says Mrabet. “We would listen to the radio. Nasser [in Egypt]was going to war with the French and the English. And when we turned off the radio, the old men would concoct short stories. Other ones could tell you entire novels, every morning, for six or ten days in a row.” A good listener at these tables, Mrabet himself gradually becomes a storyteller, regaling audiences at the Cafe de Paris, the Cafe Tingis or the Grand Socco Square, with what he calls today “stories” in French-accented English.

His life changes one evening in 1962. A wealthy American hires him to be a waiter at a party in his house in the Vieille Montagne, a neighborhood that faces toward Spain, in the fold of land between the Mediterranean sea and the Atlantic ocean.

After serving the tajines and the whiskeys, Mohamed ducks outside for a moment. There he meets Jane, wife of the writer Paul Bowles, who has lived in Tangier since the 1930s. “She is alone, sitting on the ground in the garden a cigarette in one hand, a glass in the other,” remembers Mrabet, a touch of nostalgia in his voice. “I ask this lady what she was doing there all alone. She says she has no interest in the guests; they only want to talk about attractive boys and pretty women. So I tell her a story. She says it is marvelous.”

Jane Bowles, already gravely alcoholic and ill, tells her husband about the odd man she met at the party in la Vieille Montagne. She urges the writer to listen to one of his stories. They meet a few days later on the Merkala beach; Bowles drags William Burroughs along with him. “I told Paul that I had many stories inside me,” Mrabet says. “He gave me a huge machine with a microphone attached to it. I went inside the room, and I talked for four hours. I was filled to the brim. When I came back out, I told Paul ‘There are thirty stories there, and now I am hungry and I want to eat.’ He said there was food in the fridge. All I found were two eggs and some ham. I said no, thanks.”

Nevertheless, this is the beginning of a new life for both men. Paul Bowles listens to the tapes, and hears an immense talent there. Mrabet will dictate, and Bowles will type, transcribe and adapt. The storyteller practically moves into the Bowles home. The two men have a close relationship that will last until the American’s death in 1999. “Mrabet was always there,” says Robert Briatte, Bowles’ biographer, who lived near both men between 1984 and 1986. Most of the time, Mrabet is also the handyman around the house. He cooks, brings in houseplants, unplugs the toilet. And of course tells stories. “He always had something to say; it never stopped,” Briatte says. “Paul immediately saw in him an endless reservoir of stories. For him, Mrabet was an authentic artist, a great writer.” Seated in front of his microphone, Mrabet keeps up his acts of creation, dictates entire novels. Love With a Few Hairs is published in London in 1967 by Peter Owen. Two years later comes The Lemon, and it is an international success. The stories invented in the cafes of Tangier are being read all over the globe.

mohamed-mrabet721Mohamed Mrabet and Paul Bowles.

Thousands of stories, a bout with cancer, and a long illness later, the wellspring has still not dried up. In truth, Mrabet’s own life is an immense story.

Born in Tangier in 1936, Mohamed Mrabet is a Riffian, a native of the mountainous region that, since the Lebanon war put an end to imports, has produced almost all of the country’s cannabis. Here, the hashish is coarse, grainy, and they smoke the powdered kief in long wooden pipes. An unconquered place; when King Hassan II visited in 1958, tomatoes were thrown in his face, and for the rest of his reign, the monarch excluded the region entirely from political life and economic development. Here, in 1921, an entire Spanish colonial army was killed by the troops of Abd el Krim. The blood that runs in his veins carries an aversion for all forms of authority.

Real life begins for our hero one fine school day, when his father decides to pull him out of the mosque school in favor of the wooden benches of a French classroom. Bad idea. “When the French class started, I understood nothing,” Mrabet says. “I closed my notebook and went to sleep. The teacher smacked me with a wooden stick. ‘Thwack!’ It made me angry. So I hit him back, ‘Bam!’ Then I grabbed a chair, and ‘Bam!’ There was a lot of blood. I ended up jumping out of a third-floor window.”

That day, Mrabet ratified his illiteracy and became a man. “When my father got home, he hit me too,” says Mrabet. “So I opened the door, said goodbye, and left. I was eleven years old.”

Mrabet is thus introduced to life something like the way he is to his first woman, Aisha, 27 years old, who deflowers him when he is 12. An excellent fishermen since childhood- he does it the traditional way, with dynamite-he mostly lives on fish. “As much as 10 or 12 pounds of it a day,” he says. He walks on his hands to earn a few pesetas. He smokes hashish until it turns his head upside down. He drinks whiskey and is always ready for a fight.

“When I was 12 or 13, I did a lot of bad things,” he says. “I was a real criminal. I stabbed people with knives, beat people with things,” he says, his voice suddenly rising, his hands miming a stabbing. “I had to protect myself. There were lots of men who wanted to have sex with me. But Mrabet is not a woman.” Not a shadow of doubt about that. A boy’s body, with abs to make a pedophile’s knees go weak, but it is a physique that Mrabet uses to feed himself more than to seduce men.

“I carried donkeys on my back to earn money,” he says. “250 pound donkeys. One time I fought a bull. I made 5,000 pesetas that day. I had been hanging out with a Spaniard, and I just gambled everything I had. And I took the bull by his horns and brought it down to the ground.”

Mrabet is one of those rare writers who lives a whole life before making his name. His fists carry him across the Strait of Gibraltar for a brief career as a boxer in Spain. He strides across the country, from town to town, from ring to ring. “I had 29 fights, two of them defeats,” he says. “I weighed 190 pounds back then. You can see how I looked when I was young, there,” he says, pointing to a wall covered with old pictures. “Look here at this one. I was magnificent.”

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A traveling carnival life, which will feed the literary fiction of Mrabet; works that swing between the realism of life on the streets of Tangier and a Moroccan fantasy world of genies and epic tales. “In my books, there is always an element of reality,” Mrabet says in his improbable American accent. “The rest is imagination.”

“When Mrabet tells of the Rif War, a subject that really merits more study, everything he says is absolutely factual,” says Simon-Pierre Hamelin. “Mrabet once told me about an event recounted to him by his own grandfather long ago, a phosphorous attack. I had a historian read it, and he said that all of the places and dates were accurate. This is the really amazing thing about oral material. It can be so much more powerful than the written word. Mrabet has this ability to tell things that come out of his imagination, or that come from reality, in precisely the same way. Even if in the end it all ultimately comes out of his own life story.”

Out of his own life story, but undoubtedly also out of all the hashish. Because although he swore upon the Quran to stop drinking, back in the Sixties, he kept smoking kief until just a couple of months ago.

Before swearing off of the cannabis, he lived his life with his head in a cloud of kief. “He smoked all the time,” says Bowles biographer Robert Briatte. And not just kief, but straight cannabis as well. He would just drift off into his own world. All you had to do was sit next to him for a while and you’d end up getting completely high yourself.”

Eric Valentin, an actor who has transcribed Mrabet’s work, says “Even when he was painting, Mrabet was high. Like one of these kids sniffing glue, he would be locked in on himself for hours in his painting. And then he would go out, completely stoned, for a walk, and not even remember what it was he had been painting. And when he got home he’d be like a child in front of it, thinking it’s so beautiful.”

mrabet-painting421Untitled painting by Mohamed Mrabet. Detail.

How then can we separate truth from invention in Mrabet’s stories? “We will never know,” says Valentin. “It is all locked away in Mrabet’s memory, even perhaps forgotten.”

“Paul Bowles knew Mrabet for decades and decades,” says Briatte. “But even he, when you asked him the question, ‘who is Mrabet?’ Bowles would tell you ‘nobody has ever really understood or known Mohamed Mrabet.'”

He remains Mrabet the inscrutable, according to Briattte. But one thing everyone can agree on: he is also something of a pain in the ass.

“If you didn’t kind of think of him as your grandpa, you’d be inclined to slap the guy in the face,” says Simon-Pierre Hamelin with a wry grin. “Writing with Mrabet was an experience that turned out well in the end, but it is something I would never do again.”

There is a rage in Mrabet, a paranoid disposition; at 76 years of age, you can see his fists close reflexively, his jaw clench when he doesn’t like a question. “Mrabet’s problem is that he is very prickly,” says Hamelin. “Even back when he was in his prime, he was extremely volatile.”

Grown older and tired now, Mrabet still loudly denounces the whole world, for robbing him, looting him, scamming him. “It is not so much the process of working with him that wears you out,” says Valentin, “but of dealing with his expectations, what he thinks will come out of it once the work is finished. It’s too bad, because the phase of exploration with him is very interesting; but the outcomes are unpredictable.”

“Once a story has been told, it is finished for him,” Valentin adds. “A week after we finished working on his novel Manaraf, he was asking me where the hell was the book?”

At root, Mrabet’s discontent arises from a sense that he is not fully appreciated. An alien imperfectly landed in the world of literature, he does not perhaps have an intellectual regard on his own writing. But this does not mean he lacks an artist’s ego; he has a profound attachment to these stories that he writes without ever being able to go back and read.

mrabet-painting21Untitled Painting by Mohamed Mrabet.

“To make a story, you first need to have something beautiful,” says Mrabet, his throat catching a bit. “Me, I like to tell stories that… when you start reading them, you just get taken away… a story has to light a little fire inside your heart. Sometimes I cry when I am dictating a story. You know, I have never told anyone that, but here I am saying it to you. Several times, I have cried.”

And when Mrabet clears his throat before beginning a story, something shifts; goosebumps, ears quiver. “You can feel that he is his own most important audience,” says Valentin. “It is as if there are really two people in front of you. Often, especially when he was really high, there would be these absences. He would be telling the story and suddenly you can see that he is gone. He is still watching it happen, but he is not telling you anymore. It was frankly something beautiful. He is laughing and living it. Then he comes back to reality, he has forgotten what he was talking about, and you find yourself thinking you must have missed a pretty good episode of a story, something that was so powerful that he couldn’t even put it into words.”

Mrabet’s tragedy is that he has never been entirely thought of as a writer. The Americans tend to attribute the value of his books to Paul Bowles. Morocco prefers Mohamed Choukri or, even worse, Tahar Ben Jelloun. “The sad thing is, he is waiting for a recognition that is never going to come,” says Hamelin. “The path he took is far too unique to allow that.”

By definition, Mrabet cannot really fit into any category. A writer who cannot read, a storyteller in a time when no one tells stories anymore, his stories are a literary genre of their own, somewhere between an American short story and the traditional Mediterranean tale.

mrabet-painting221Untitled painting by Mohamed Mrabet. Detail.

Henry Miller wrote of him that “Mrabet sees what it means to work simply and tellingly. His writing is quite unique and an inspiration not only to young writer but to veterans too. He has found the secret of communicating at all levels.” Beyond that, this man who brought Bowles to every corner of Morocco by way of his tales, is perhaps the perfect incarnation of the Moroccan soul. “For those who do not know Morocco, there is perhaps no better literary introduction than reading Mrabet,” says Hamelin.

But if Mrabet is such a great, why has his name remained almost a literary secret? Because of things like this: in 2009, his death already announced prematurely several times, Mrabet gets invited to the Alhambra palace in Grenada. Like a shy-eyed child he stands in front of the audience to offer up one of his famous stories. He takes a deep breath and begins. “He told them his What Happened in Grenada, in Spanish,” says Hamelin, who accompanied Mrabet on the trip. “It was spectacular; the whole audience was captivated. And then at the end, the audience started asking him questions. ‘What do you think of Spain?’ And Mrabet responds: ‘Spain is crap. It was waaaay better back in the [fascist]Franco years.'”

It is because of stupidities like this that Mrabet lacks not only renown but money. “Next time you’ll bring the cash, right Bernard?” is how Mrabet addresses his art dealer, Bernard Liagre, when he comes to do some filming for a Mrabet retrospective that has been showing since November in Tangier.

With four children and eight grandchildren, all of whom would rather live off grandpa the artist than work, Mrabet has to sweat to keep the whole family fed. And because paintings sell better than books, he paints. Relentlessly. “I pay a guide who brings European tourists over here, and they buy my paintings,” he says, in the presence of Bernard Liagre who until this moment thought he had a signed exclusivity agreement with Mrabet.

Well, Mrabet belongs to no man. “When he needs cash, he hits the street with his paintings. And some art dealers think they can establish a rate limit with him? Good luck with that!” says Hamelin.

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Despite years of work, Mrabet has never been able to put any money aside. Nearing 80, his poverty attracts a certain amount of greedy collectors who speculate on his impending death, and buy up his paintings for trifles. There were some rather appalling guys who had an art gallery, and who started putting together a book on Mrabet, to push up the prices on the assumption that he was going to die soon,” says Valentin. “But I have known him for a decade now and I always have the impression that he’s going to die tomorrow. Well, it’s not happening; this guy’s made of gristle. Eventually, one of the guys with the gallery ended up dying before Mrabet. Served him right, too.”

Mrabet’s biggest literary successes are almost nowhere to be found in French. “Gallimard and Christian Bourgeois hold the copyrights and they do not want to republish his books”, explains Hamelin, “But bizarrely, they also refuse to sell the rights. Antoine Gallimard came here to Tangier. He didn’t even know who Mrabet was.”

Meantime, before the end comes, Mrabet continues to inhabit his own world. He may have followed the advice of doctors, stopped smoking kief once and for all, but still he lives in the haze. “One day a fish came from far away, from the sky. It told me: if you eat me, you will gain nothing, if you sell me you will gain nothing. but if you help me go back to the water, you will gain something. I did the impossible to help him out and then he started visiting me. He told me many amazing stories. When I tell people about this, they think I am crazy. Even my wife thinks I am crazy. No problem. I agree, I am crazy”.

“Thank God They Are All Dead Now”

These days, the storyteller-writer has little mercy when he talks about the years of the Beats in Tangier, a period of which he is the last surviving witness. “It was basically a mafia,” he says, with William Burroughs as the chief mobster. “He was a big gangster, really. First he killed his wife. Second he killed his son; he’s the one who got him into drugs. He was in love with this young boy from Malaysia, whom he brought over here. When the boy left him, Burroughs came to Paul’s house, trembling, with a bottle of whiskey, drugs, hashish. A dirty life.”

Truman Capote too is dragged over the coals, becomes the subject of more than a few pitiless stories. Out of this whole generation of Beatniks who came to Tangier to heal their melancholy, there are very few who find favor in the eyes of Mrabet. “I always feared these people,” says Mrabet. “Thank god they are all dead now.” Though he then remembers to spare Tennessee Williams, a man whom he used to fish with, and who invited him to the United States in 1986. “A wonderful man, with a big heart. I went and bored myself at his house in Hollywood for six months. Somebody [Elia Kazan] tried to get me to be in a movie, but I said no. They wanted Mrabet naked with a woman. Impossible.”

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In part, Mrabet’s is simply the sharp tongue of the old; but at the same time, he is perhaps the only person alive who can have a little bit of critical distance on all of the legendary figures who walked through his life. “He is a direct witness to this epoch, but he never fantasized about being an artist,” says Hamelin. “This is a guy who watched the Rolling Stones crawl around on Paul Bowles’ floor, drugged out of their minds. And for him, that is who the Rolling Stones are, nothing more than what he has seen. He probably does not even know that they make music.”

In truth, the Beatniks didn’t see much in Tangier but clouds of cannabis smoke and pairs of buttocks. “This was a generation who lived in an America at the end of the age of myth, flooded by a frantic wave of postwar consumerism,” says Bernard Comment, a writer and specialist on Jack Kerouac. “The Beats went in search of other values. Their America was the America of the great open spaces, the America of the Indians, the America of Walt Whitman. And so they escaped what it was becoming by two main routes. One led to Mexico, and a life anchored on something other than consumerism. And the other led to Tangier, and a culture of permissiveness. Homosexuality and drugs were easier there.”

In reality, the wildly romanticized period of the Beats in Tangier can basically be summed up in parties at Paul Bowles’ apartment where everybody gets high and overdoses on kief and young boys, all under the disapproving gaze of Mrabet. “When you read their literary material on Tangier it is quite bad,” says Hamelin, “it is usually just a fantasy image of the city and never really gets beyond that.”

In Bernard Comment’s words, “this was a moment that was transformed into a myth. Other than Paul Bowles, who really fed himself on the local landscape, the others remained American writers living in a foreign land, basically living among themselves, in a hotel room and who were most of the time in an altered state of mind. We can’t say that they perceived much of the country. However, in Tangier, the group is all together. It is where Burroughs writes his greatest novel. After that they won’t do anything else. Kerouac ends up giving up and returning to his mother’s bosom. What Tangier is really, nothing but a beautiful swan song”.

Ironically, it is also a swan song for Tangier, the end of Tangier as an international zone; the city returns to Moroccan sovereignty in 1960, and is consigned to a 30 year oblivion by Hassan II. Today, it is rising from its ashes, reinventing the myth of its past.

On Calle del Diablo, at the Ambassador, at the Romero Bar or the Dar Blue, women and cheap beer overflow. On the seaside that borders the Atlantic, night clubs line up one after another. At Club 555, you can drink bad Ballantine’s whisky cut with water while expensive escorts apply their makeup in the bathrooms and a Lilliputian with a robotic voice perches on the shoulders of a bouncer or a big-titted blonde.

So has Tangier really changed at all? For once, Mrabet does not want to talk anymore. “I do not love Tangier anymore now,” he says, with a dark look. “For me, Tangier has ceased to exist. And I don’t like this word ‘changed.’ I can’t do it; if I start talking…” he shrugs.

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Night is falling, and Omar, the translator, offers his own answer to the question. “You want me to show you the real Tangier, the eternal Tangier?” he asks, while jogging down the badly lit streets of the downtown. He stops in front of a bar and opens the door. “Here, this is what Tangier is.” Under pallid neon lights, foregrounding mirrors from another age, around twenty guys of all ages are getting stoned out of their minds, kief pipes or fat joints in their mouths, tobacco snuff in their hands, eyes fixated on some Asian horror movie. And, in the middle of it all, a toothless fellow in a red sweater and sunglasses is dancing and laughing frenetically. A Rolling Stone?

Pierre Boisson Translated from French by International Boulevard