Monday, July 7, 2003

Making Memories in Morocco

One of my favourite books is Paul Bowles' short story collection, A Hundred Camels in the Courtyard. (His beautiful reading of it is also available on CD.)

This is the entire preface:

Moroccan kif-smokers like to speak of "two worlds", the one ruled by inexorable natural laws, and the other, the kif world, in which each person perceives "reality" according to the projections of his own essence, the state of consciousness in which the elements of the physical universe are automatically rearranged by cannabis to suit the requirements of the individual. These distorted variations in themselves generally are of scant interest to anyone but the subject at the time he is experiencing them. An intelligent smoker, nevertheless, can aid in directing the process of deformation in such a way that the results will have value to him in his daily life. If he has faith in the accuracy of his interpretations, he will accept them as decisive, and use them to determine a subsequent plan of action. Thus, for a dedicated smoker, the passage to the "other world" is often a pilgrimage undertaken for the express purpose of oracular consultation.

In 1960 I began to experiment with the idea of constructing stories whose subject matter would consist of disparate elements and unrelated characters taken directly from life and fitted together as in a mosaic. The problem was to create a story line which would make each arbitrarily chosen episode compatible with the others, to make each one lead to the next with a semblance of naturalness. I believed that through the intermediary of kif the barriers separating the unrelated elements might be destroyed, and the disconnected episodes forced into a symbiotic relationship. I listed a group of incidents and situations I had either witnessed or heard about that year.

A. had an old grudge against B. When B. was made a policeman, A. sent money to him, seeing to it that B.'s superior was made aware of the gift. B. was reprimanded and given a post in the Sahara.

C. acquired an old pair of shoes from D. When he had them resoled he discovered that he could no longer get them on. As a result he quarreled with D.

In another personal feud, E. consulted with a witch to help him deal with his enemy F. Finding his kitten dead with a needle in its stomach, G. decided that it had been killed because he had named it Mimi.

H. slipped a ring over the head of a stray bird, and the bird flew away with it.

I. although brought up as a Jilali, hated and feared the Jilali.

J. ate so many cactus fruit that the peelings covered his gun and he was unable to find it.

K. frightened a Jewish woman by leaving the ingredients of magic on her doorstep.

This constituted the bulk of the factual material I gave myself to work with. To get three stories out of it, I combined A., B., G. and K. (for A Friend of the World); and C., D., and H. (for The Story of Lahcen and Idir; and E., F., I. and J. (for The Wind at Beni Midar). No one of the actual situations had anything to do with kif, but by providing kif-directed motivations I was able to use cannabis both as solvent and solder in the construction.

He of the Assembly has no factual anchors apart from three hermetic statements made to me that year by a kif-smoker in Marrakech: "The eye wants to sleep, but the head is no mattress," "The earth trembles and the sky is afraid, and the two eyes are not brothers," and "A pipe of kif before breakfast gives a man the strength of a hundred camels in the courtyard." He uttered these apocalyptic sentences, but steadfastly refused to shed any light on their meanings or possible applications. This impelled me to invent a story about him in which he would furnish the meanings. Here the content of each paragraph is determined by its point of view. There are seven paragraphs, arranged in a simple pattern: imagine the cross-section of a pyramidal structure of four steps, where steps 1 and 7 are at the same level, likewise 2 and 6, and 3 and 5, with 4 at the top. In paragraphs 1 and 7 He of the Assembly and Ben Tajah are seen together. 2 and 6 are seen by Ben Tajah, and 3 and 5 by He of the Assembly, and 4 consists of He of the Assembly's interior monologue.

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