Mohammed Mrabet

Fish soup

Even today, the Storyteller haunts the town, barely visible yet palpable, like an ocean vapor. Sightings are infrequent. At seventy-five, Mohammed Mrabet prefers to stay home, in his tidy, windowless studio, in his four-story house, in a Tangier neighborhood full of auto body shops, picturesque vacant lots, and graffiti-spackled alleys. Home with his grandchildren, his drawings and paintings, his tea and pipe and old cassette recorder. The house is on the city’s inland side, far from the Atlantic, the Strait, and the Mediterranean, far from the old casbah and the medina, farther still from the foreign cities where Mrabet’s name invokes a lost century.

His health is gone, Mrabet says, and one day soon he will die. When he does, in those cities, strangers will pick up and weigh again his dozen books — including Love with a Few Hairs, The Lemon, M’hashish — and countless stories, published in journals like Antaeus and The Transatlantic Review. And his art — the intricate, layered, kef-infused, often ugly drawings and paintings of humans, animals, snakes, fishes, and ingrown forms which “cannot be called primitive,” according to William S. Burroughs, “for the draftsmanship is quite sophisticated. On one hand, the paintings derive from the classical Arab tradition, as expressed in mosaics; there is also some resemblance to the spirit pictures drawn by Eskimo shamans.”

For now, though, hamdullah, he is alive, and from time to time Mrabet appears, cloaked in a djellaba, at Merkala Beach, where the wooden shanty-cafes are almost gone, forced into the sea by the new corniche. Or he alights briefly at a back table at the Café Tingis in the once-storied Petit Socco, former heart of the old Interzone, where nothing was true and everything was permitted, and where today all the old men look like ghosts of that former time, skeletons in suits shiny with age.

Fifty years ago, as a young man in the Petit Socco, Mrabet met the Europeans who would come to haunt him. Burroughs; the painter, writer, and sound artist Brion Gysin; Truman Capote; and Tennessee Williams, the only one for whom Mrabet retains affection. In the photos from that time Mrabet is quelque chose de magnifique — sleek dark hair, a boxer’s lean body, watchful eyes with the smile of a charmer. The world in these images is one of cultivated leisure, Tangier as an artsy, literary, and unabashedly gay counter-Riviera; the pictures suggest other, untold stories outside the frame.

The old pictures in which Mrabet looks most at ease are those he shares with his unquietest ghost, the one who will not leave him be. Bowles. Anything but a tourist, Paul Bowles, the ultimate expatriate, left New York on a literary safari and never went back. After four decades abroad, the name “Bowles” (Jane as well as Paul) had become synonymous, in those faraway cities, with Tangier and the whole northern spur of Africa, where Morocco — full of complicated visions, stories like riddles, and hypnotic rhythms — pushes insolently against anxious, Orientalist Europe.

Most days, Mrabet has little good to say about his translator, agent, employer, and (according to Bowles) close friend. The literati who made the pilgrimage to Bowles’s apartment for his afternoon open house described Mrabet as the gatekeeper, who would begin to sharpen a large knife when the visits dragged on, or hand an over-loquacious visitor a spliff so potent they would be struck dumb. Today, what remains of their forty-year relationship is a lingering sense of betrayal. Mrabet’s stories are full of Europeans (or Nazarenes, in Tanjawi parlance — followers of the man from Nazareth) scheming to exploit the locals for their sunripe essence — and getting a harsh comeuppance at the hands of the spiritually superior Muslims and the thousand-and-one saints who protect them. (The casbah cat who stole Capote’s voice comes to mind.)

It may be hokum to call Mrabet the Last of the Beats or the Bard of the Interzone or a late exemplar of the Mediterranean oral tradition, born from Homer’s primeval sea of stories. The man who answers the door on the quiet street is tiny compared to all that, in height and weight and presence, a plainspoken Tanjawi by his manners. But as he sits on the floor in his usual spot, legs stretched out before him, and begins to speak, reaching for tea, for his pipe, for photographs and drawings and objects to illustrate his point, the Storyteller again becomes visible, making windows in the simple room with his words.

Sean Gullette: Salaam Alekum, Maalem.

Mohammed Mrabet: Bonjour, ça va, labess? Come sit.

SG: So tell me, what was Tangier like in the old days? What did it smell like?

MM: Tangier smelled like… a soup made of seawater. Fantastic. Something truly… something that doesn’t exist now. Now there are maybe thirty Tangiers, not one. Bigger, lots of work, lots of people, oh, la la. Then, there were not even 100,000 people.

But lots of Europeans. Thousands of Europeans, really, everything: Español, Français, American. Une salade niçoise. And all of those Europeans were here — you know why? To live, like, for free. A big house that costs nothing, 200, 400, pesetas a month. The woman who works in the house, the chauffeur, the gardeners, and there’s money left over. The European has found like a Chupa Chup. A lollipop. [Laughs]

SG: How did you meet all these Europeans?

MM: It was 1950, ’51. I was sitting in a cafe in the Rue d’Espagne, drawing. I would do these drawings and just leave them there. Those days only the Europeans would buy my paintings. American, French, a few Italians, Dutch, Germans. Not expensive — nothing, 100 dirhams, 50 dirhams.

One day this European came in. He came and took five drawings. And he gave me 100 dollars. I laughed! And one day, after that, I was drawing and this woman, a European, looked over my shoulder. And she said, “magnifique, fantastique…”

She said, “What’s your name?”

I said, “Mohammed Mrabet.”

She said, “I’m Jane Bowles. Please come sit with me.”

I said, “Jane, I’m going to finish what I have to do, and I’ll come sit with you.”

That’s how that happened. And I brought over a cup of cafe au lait in my hand, and I was with her. I started to smoke and drink. She said, “Are you married?” and I said, “Yes.”

I said, “Are you?” And she said, “Oh, my husband’s in the Sahara recording music.”

I said, “Oh, that’s good, he’s going to make a lot of money.”

Jane looked at me and laughed and made a face. At that moment I thought, This woman might be… sick. And I said to this woman, “Alright, I am going to tell a story.” And she said, “What? A story? Good.”

And I told a story. She started to laugh. She said, “Really, magnifique.” I told another story, and she said, “Ah, fantastique.”

Later, I said, “Alright, I’m going to leave you, I’m going home, to sleep. It’s two-thirty in the morning.”

The next Saturday, Jane was there. The same thing: I told two or three stories, she went crazy. Another Saturday she was there, and she said, “This is my husband.” I shook his hand and said, “Hello, hello, ça va?” I was laughing. He said, “Why are you laughing?” and I said, “I know you. I’ve seen you on the beach. I was fishing. And you were with many people.” Really, he was always with many people. William Burroughs, Brion Gysin, Ahmed Yacoubi, Temsamani, Corso, Capote.

He said, “Oh yes, I remember, you had a lot of fish. My wife has told me a lot about you, that you have a lot of stories. It’s fantastic. I can do translation, I can do a book in America, you can get a contract, get money.” [Laughs] I looked at him like this. [Totally blank features] I believed nothing he said to me.

But Jane hassled me. So I went to visit. “Ça va, hamdullah, come in, what do you want to drink?” I said, “Me, I don’t drink alcohol.” Really, I don’t drink alcohol. I went in the kitchen and made myself a coffee. We started talking. Jane said, “So you have a lot of stories?” I said, “Yes, lots of stories and lots of novels, too.” Rewayats. Before television, before radio, men in the cafe would smoke and drink tea and tell a novel, every day for two or three hours. The rewaya would finish in a week.

SG: How did you work, exactly?

MM: I went in with Paul, and Paul gave me a big machine, with big tapes and a microphone, and I told twenty-seven stories. And afterward, over at their place, I did the translation with him. He said, “Can you help me?” He said, “I don’t understand Darija [Moroccan Arabic].” He understood nothing, less than nothing. Jane, yes, she spoke very well. And I started translating the recordings into Spanish. He told people he did translations directly from Darija. Into English. Not true. Really, not true. I touch the machine like this and the machine says my story in Darija, and I tell him in Spanish.

And he did the translation into English, and he typed them on the machine. All the books, like that. He sold the twenty-seven stories, all of them. In America.

Then I did my book Love with a Few Hairs.

I finished, and I told Paul, “I finished the film.” He said, “The film?” We Moroccans say rewaya, film, story. Europeans say “novel.”

Jane said, “We’re going to translate it,” and I said, “Alright.” We started doing the translation, and he finished this Love with a Few Hairs. He called Jane to come down, and he said, “This Mrabet, he’s something else, a magnificent thing.” And the people in New York said, “Yes, we want to publish this novel.”

So I brought him another one. “I’ve finished another rewaya,” I said. He just looked at me, shocked. I said, “The title is Citron. The Lemon.” And it went like that. [Laughs]

SG: Where did you find the ideas?

MM: I don’t know. I can’t say anything. Really. You are in front of me, I look at you, and I could do a story about you — really, a horrible story. Or a magnifique, fantastique story. I’m like that. I’m telling the truth — even me, myself, I don’t know where all that comes from. And when I start to do a drawing, I don’t know what I’m going to do — I start, and at the end there’s something there.

SG: Where did these stories come from?

MM: I have no idea. I could say the fish brings me the stories, the big fish whose life I saved. In the Cave of Hercules.

My wife was sick. Pregnant. One night she said to me, “I want fish. Go fishing.” I said to my wife, “It’s night, there’s rain, the sea is high — five-meter waves! How can I go fishing?”

So I went out at six in the morning, to Hercules Cave, and the water had gone down. I went down to the sea with my tackle, and I started climbing over the rocks by the sea. Down there, when the water goes down, there’s always some water that stays in the holes on top of the rock. So I’m looking for baitfish in the holes.

Then I hear, “Aaaaahhhh!… Ha-uaaaaahhhh!”

I got up on a rock and looked.

And I see this fish. Oh, la la! Like five, six, meters long.

Something magnifique. I went over to him, I looked at him, I laughed. I looked up at the sky and said, “Hamdullah,” thanks be to God — oh, la la. This fish — maybe 500,000, 600,000 dirhams.

And he answers me. He says, “If you sell me, if you eat me, you’re going to lose a lot. Your whole life.”

I said, “You talk?”

He said, “Yes. I’m a fish, but I’m very different. I came from far, far away, I don’t know how many thousands of kilometers, with my wife and kids. And I find it magnifique here. It’s peaceful. There’s a lot to eat — magnifique. And I stayed here with my wife and kids. And now you can help me. Save my life.”

And I said, “How can I, you’re so big?”

His head was here, his tail here. [Mrabet’s arms spread energetically] Enormous. He was lying on the rock with his head over the edge. On the tail, there was a big fin. And I pushed it this way, that way. And while I pushed, he moved his head like this. And we pushed. And after a long time, he got his head over the edge and psssssssshhhhhhh… He went out into the water.”

A few minutes later he came back. With his wife and kids, everyone. One of them said, “Merci beaucoup, Monsieur Mrabet. You saved our father.” And the fish said, “I’ll come to visit you. Au revoir, au revoir.” He left. I started fishing, and I caught a lot of fish that morning. I cleaned them there, prepared them, and I went home.

Truly, that’s how it happened. I’m not crazy. I swear by my God that’s how it happened.

One day, later, I’m here in my house, in my studio, like this, and someone pushed my shoulder. I look over, it’s the fish. And he said, “I am the fish, your friend, whose life you saved, and I bring something good for you.”

He told me four stories.

That’s how it happens. He comes, he tells stories. He told me lots of stories. His name is Mehend. Ah, Mehend, Mehend… There are three Mehends. There’s Mehend who drinks only milk. Mehend who takes the rock and makes rope from the rock. And Mehend who takes a mountain, like this, and then another mountain, and joins them.

And the son of Mehend, he fell out of a tree, a big tree, the little Mehend, and he slid down all the way to the sea. The big fish came out of the sea. And he found his kid lying by the sea. And he began giving of himself, until the little one grew up.

SG: Do you ever think your life would be different if you hadn’t met Jane and Paul?

MM: Why? Why different? I was born writing, I was born painting. I did books before I knew Bowles. Truly. I have a new book coming out. I’m going to do another new one. Truly. Ah, oui. Want to see the contract? Look. It’s called Allah M’ahnik — “God be with you.” They want to change the title to Manaraf, which means “I don’t know.” Good. Let them change it. I think Allah M’ahnik is perfect.

I am a man who — always I’m seeking. Always I search. I work here, I do something here. I could never waste my time in the bars, in the discotheques, no, no, no. That means nothing to me. “Come on, let’s go eat in the restaurant.” That’s zero to me. I do my own cooking, with my hands.

When I cooked at Paul’s, Jane and Paul said, “You are going to work with us.” I did the cooking. Chauffeur. Bodyguard. Eighty-seven kilos. At that time, I was something magnifique. And I didn’t know fear. Fear for me meant nothing. And I cooked, everything, whatever he wanted, I did it. Everyone happy. The people who came, they eat what I cook, very happy. But Jane is not happy. Always fighting with Paul. She was right. Really, she was right.

SG: What about Burroughs?

MM: Monsieur Burroughs… [He goes out and returns with a painting by another artist, of Burroughs bleeding, gunshots behind him.] That’s how it went at the end. When he fell down, the blood came out of his mouth. You know something about Burroughs? William Burroughs killed his wife — why?

SG: Well — he said, evil spirits.

MM: Hmm? Accident? Ha. You know why? And why did he kill his son? Every day, he gave him a big thing of cocaine, horrible. He finished the son off. The son was very sick — the liver. The liver became completely white. That’s how he killed his son. After that, he stayed with a pretty kid that he brought from Africa somewhere. He found something good there and brought it back with him. And after what happened? The pretty kid, he stole everything there was. And Burroughs started trembling, his hands shaking like this… I’m not laughing at him. He smokes, he drinks, always he has a bottle right here. And the sniffing, and — ha ha ha — the white flour in the nose. The shots. And lots of aspirin, I saw lots of aspirin, red, green. I don’t know. Always nervous.

SG: Was he a good man?

MM: Not a good man. Not him, not Bowles, not Bryon Gysin. There was one magnifique, Tennessee Williams. I knew him here, I knew him in Hollywood. I knew lots of people over there. Even Elia Kazan.

SG: What were you doing in the States?

MM: Oh, they hassled me. So I went there. And looked at lots of things. Everyone happy with me, a Moroccan who writes. All the Americans wanted something from Mrabet.

SG: How can you say Bowles wasn’t a good man — after everything you did together?

MM: He did lots of harm. A big racist. I can say that. Even if I went to America, I’d say that. He did harm to me.

SG: How?

MM: I published I don’t know how many books there, and I never got the interest. The interest goes directly to Paul. He did a big scandal with the contract. It said Mohammed Mrabet, Paul Bowles. But in the book it says Bowles, then Mrabet.

Then he took my story and made a book. The story of Mrabet with the name of Bowles. Please. You know what he did? People would come to the house. And when they wanted to talk to me, he’d say, “Oh, be careful of Mrabet. Mrabet is very dangerous.” Please. When there were women, he’d say, “Be careful of Mrabet.” I’m not a dog. I have a lot up here. [He picks up a stone.] Me and this piece of rock, it’s the same. I have nothing, no school, never did anything. I don’t know how to read. But my head has always stayed magnifique. I didn’t lose my head in the schools.

At the end of the day, after I finished cooking and put everything away, cleaned everything, left the kitchen comme il faut, I would go into the living room and say, “See you tomorrow, good night.” And I went home. And when I get home, I take off my robe, I put on another robe. And I have a son and a daughter! Ah! And we play… sometimes we sleep like this all together, the boy on this side, the girl on this side. Until the morning, magnifique. Two little kids. The best thing in the life of a man. Nine kids that are mine; four of them lived. All of them are married now. This one is married now, with a Spanish woman. They have a kid who is just — magnifique.

That is life. You’re born, you grow up, you make your kid, you’re dead. Adieu. Ça y est. Finished. That’s it. That’s life.

Like the birds, now, this time of year. This month, the birds come here to Tangier, they cross the sea, there are two, three thousand birds, over the sea. You’ve never seen that? I have. The bird, he travels. From the Sahara he comes here. From Spain he comes here. And when summer is over, he goes back. Always he’s looking for a place where there’s sun. Like us. The bird comes here and lays his eggs, they hatch, and adieu.

Me, now it’s over. Finished.

SG: How do you spend your days?

MM: I sit here. I take the machine, I push the button, and start talking. [Laughs] And I talk, I talk. Then I stop. I sit a little. Then bam: I talk. Then I stop, and I start painting. Then I put down the painting and take this recorder. That’s my life.

And after, I go out. I buy some potatoes, this and that. The fish, I go down to the town, I have fisherman friends who bring me live fish. And I prepare it, tajine or in the oven. I do a lot in the kitchen. A lot of the time, I make fish soup.

SG: We all eat soup in Tangier. What’s your recipe?

MM: Well, I go to the sea. And I catch little fish, lots of them. And I bring them and I have a bag, I put all the fish in the bag and close it. There’s a big pot full of water and maybe some vegetables. And boil-boil-boil-boil!

And after, I press the bag, and all the liquid falls back in the pot. And what’s left in the bag — garbage. After that, if you want vegetables, do that, or you can do pasta. Oh, la la, that’s good.

Fish is the best thing. Sometimes if I take a big fish like that, like a loup de mer or a pargo, something big, I clean it real good, I put two kilos of salt on him and — in the oven.

SG: Those fish don’t tell stories?

MM: No, no, no. I eat the fish who doesn’t speak. I don’t eat the talking fish. The talking fish is very dangerous.

Every week, three, four, days he comes. A great friend. I listen to everything he says. And everything he says. Super. You know, saving someone’s life, you know what that means? A lot. I’ve saved a lot of lives, in the sea. Truly.

At that time, I made a living from the sea. Fishing. And every day I caught two big buckets full of fish and sold them. And always there was lots of fish at my house, fresh, living. Now I don’t eat much meat, sometimes I eat some chicken, but not electrique chicken. The real chicken, I kill with my hands, I prepare with my hands, I clean it very well. I cook him in water, take off the water, he dries off, then in the oven. And in the water that came off the chicken, I cut up the vegetables, and there’s a soup.

SG: What will Tangier be like in the future?

MM: I will be dead. I don’t know. I can’t say anything. I can’t invent something I know nothing about. Maybe magnifique. Maybe horrible. Maybe bessara, split pea soup. I can’t say anything. Tangier has changed. Not 100 percent — 10,000 percent. When I leave my house, I think I am a tourist. My friends, none of them exist now. No cafe, no restaurant. I go out if I have to buy something or I have a meeting with someone. I’m here, working. And when I get tired I go out, and I walk a few kilometers and come home. That’s it.

SG: Are you happy with your life?

MM: I’m very happy, hamdullah and shukalillah. A man’s life, he could live until sixty, sixty-one, years old. That’s the end. God gave me ten years more. A great gift, hamdullah.

SG: Thank you.

MM: Thank you — just “thank you,” and that’s all?

I expected this and end up paying Mrabet rather too much for a photograph in a broken gold frame. It’s him, around twenty-five, sitting in the driver’s seat of somebody’s car, with a dark European-style winter overcoat on. Very cleanly shaven with sideburns, looking a bit like a young Johnny Cash, eyes down, not at the camera, at something in his hands, tired and a little worried. Gray light outside, rain on his lapel and in his hair. A winter day in Tangier in the late 50s.