Peace Corps Writers
A Writer Writes
Remembering Paul Bowles
  by David Espey (Morocco 1962–64)

Go to for copies of
A Life Full of Holes

IN HIS TRAVEL BOOK ON THE MEDITERRANEAN, The Pillars of Hercules, Paul Theroux ends his long trip by paying a visit to Paul Bowles, the expatriate American novelist who lived in Tangier until his death in 1999. Theroux made his visit in the early 1990s, when Bowles was already aged and infirm, but still receiving visitors in his modest apartment. FromPrinter friendly version his bed (actually a mattress on the floor, surrounded by medicines and papers), Bowles conversed amiably for several hours, and Theroux found him to be fascinating company.
     Theroux’s account took me back to a time nearly 25 years ago when I was a Fulbright Lecturer in Morocco and dropped in often on Bowles, who was always gracious about receiving visitors. But my memories of Bowles go back even further, to the early 1960s, when I was a Peace Corps Volunteer in the first project to Morocco. At that time, I and my fellow Volunteers were reading with fascination a book about a poor, illiterate Moroccan named Driss ben Hamed Charhadi, an oral autobiography entitled A Life Full of Holes. Bowles, whom I had never heard of, was listed as the translator.
     The early ’60s were a time when Africa seemed full of promise — before the devastating civil wars and famines, before terrorism and hijackings, before leaders like Idi Amin, before AIDS, before Islamic fundamentalism. Even in North Africa, more a part of the Arab world than the African continent, newly-independent countries radiated a kind of hope and energy. The French had left Morocco only six years before, and Algeria was celebrating independence after its long colonial war. Nobody had heard of Vietnam. Even the Six-Day War had not yet happened, and pictures of Egypt’s President Nassar adorned the walls of Moroccan homes next to portraits of the new king, Hassan II. John F. Kennedy was still alive, the Peace Corps was in its infancy, and we Volunteers, products of the Eisenhower era and the Cold War, were just beginning to discover the emerging Third World. I remember hitchhiking across an Algeria festooned with banners proclaiming the optimistic slogans of socialism. It was a mark of the times that I, as an American, was welcomed warmly in Algeria. (Today I would risk getting my throat cut!)

A Life Full of Holes reveals poverty to Volunteers
Bowles’s book stirred such interest among Volunteers because it dramatized in a plain and moving manner the pain and humiliation of poverty. Poverty, I must admit, probably held a naïve attraction for us. Bowles, who spoke the local dialect of Arabic, had struck up a conversation with Charhadi, who had a gift for storytelling. He gradually coaxed out the sad story of the man’s life and tape-recorded it over a number of sessions. Then he translated it, edited the narrative, and published it in English. The book attracted attention, came out in a French version, and sold well. Happily — and this is what impressed the Volunteers — Bowles divided the proceeds from the book with Charhadi, who was able to buy a house, get married, and thus escape poverty.

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