‘A Distant Episode’ by Paul Bowles: Short Story Analysis
A Distant Episode’ is a modernist realistic short story based in the regions of Algeria, Western Sahara, or Morocco in the 1940s. The author of this piece is the American writer, music composer, and world traveler Paul Bowles. ‘A Distant Episode’ was penned by Bowles in the year 1947. He had explored North Africa by this time and had already settled himself in Tangier by the year 1945. ‘A Distant Episode’ is a story about a fictional town in Morocco where a linguist professor gets kidnapped and used as a slave by the Reguibat tribe. He is severely beaten, mauled by ferocious dogs, and his tongue is slit. For a year or so, he travels through Western Sahara in a Reguibat caravan until a fortunate incident frees him from the terrible ordeal he has faced as a human trafficked or kidnapped slave of the Reguibat. Paul Bowles uses a fictional town called ‘Ain Tadourit’ as the start of this story, but such a place does not exist and is alluding to Morocco or Western Sahara. We know this because of the words used in Arabic, French, and Maghrebi in the short story. The Professor has come to this fictional town in Morocco to meet an old friend Hassan Ramani. He gets in return everything he had not bargained for, making him realize that life in North Africa is not something to be taken lightly.
The Professor initially comes to the fictional town of Ain Tadourit to visit Hassan Ramani. This same Ramani he had met a decade ago in this same place with whom he had established a close friendship in a matter of three days. The Professor was now visiting his old friend who wrote to the Professor in the first year of their separation but then suddenly stopped. The Professor wants to know what had become of his old friend and comes to this region of Western Sahara of which apparently, he should have been warier. Instead, he persists in his friend’s quest as if he were living in Europe or America and could hop over to his place for a drink of tea. In the 1940s in Western Sahara, that was not a safe thing to do as it would seem back in America. In the bargain, the Professor is kidnapped by the Reguibat. Initially, the Reguibat was an important Arabic zawiya or religious tribe with a semi-sedentary lifestyle. The Reguibat gradually turned during the 18th century towards camel-rearing, raiding, and nomadism in response to attacks from neighboring tribes, which provoked them to take up arms and leave the subordinate position they had previously held. It started a rapid expansion process and set the Reguibat on the course towards total transformation into a traditional warrior tribe. It is the café manager addressed as qaouaji who meets with the Professor and tells him that:
- Hassan Ramani is dead.
- Hassan Ramani no longer owns the shop.
- The Reguibat sold boxes made of camel’s udders.
- He would charge fifteen francs for the camel’s udder boxes.
- The Professor would have to come with him wherever he went that evening to get the boxes.
Although the qaouaji finds it offensive that the Professor has asked for these camel udder boxes, he decides to take him to the Reguibat. Notice how Bowles plays with his Arabic words and the theme of this story. Now ‘qaouaji’ in Arabic could mean ‘quazi’, which is ‘having some, but not all of the features of something’; in other words, being incomplete or ‘the other’. The Professor becomes a kidnapped slave towards the latter part of the story, and immediately there is a change of focus. First, the Western Sahara people were ‘the others’ but now, with his kidnapping and brutal handling, the Professor has become ‘the other’ in this vibrant story full of wordplay.
The Professor is taken on a wild goose chase to the edge of the town in the dark. He pays the qaouaji fifty francs and gives him a cigarette or two from his pack to smoke. Now here the qaouaji says something in French which makes the Professor uneasy at last about this night journey into this desert terrain. He says in French, ‘all you have to do is discuss your rights’, which would not ring a bell in the head of someone who doesn’t know French. However, when we realize what it means, it makes sense that the mean cheat had led the Professor into the hands of the Reguibat, and only the Professor could convince them that they should not take him captive but let him go. The qaouaji was notorious for getting foreigners kidnapped and trafficked in this manner; probably, Hassan Ramani was killed or kidnapped, never to be heard of again in this same manner.
After this, the shift is on the downfall and pain of the Professor, who is turned into a dancing and jangling puppet who had to do as bidden by his masters. He was treated like a pet parrot, fed, and allowed to defecate but carried all day in a caravan tied up in a sack. He was the mere possession of the Reguibat who trained him to dance, do a hand-spring, make lewd gestures, utter funny sounds, etc. to entertain people. They managed to do this as one would train a circus animal of old; they dressed him in his filthy tattered clothing, and over him, they decked him with girdles of tin can bottoms. This gear covered the Professor totally for a year, making him jangle when he moved. However, he could only move very little because his chest, hands, and ankles were always bound tight. Another tribe that the Reguibats work with is the Ouled Nail. The Ouled Naïl are seminomadic or nomadic people living in the highlands of the Saharan Atlas range to which they gave their name. The town of Djelfa has traditionally been an important market and trade center for the Ouled Naïl, especially for their cattle. For the Professor, when he was free, these tribes would have been ‘the other’. However, now as a slave, he is ‘the other’ and lived a life of obedience, eating, defecating, and entertaining. He could not speak because his tongue had been cut.
The story covers the lives of the Arab tribal men, women, and children of this region and how they lived in the 1940s as they lived in the 18th century and even earlier. If you’ve noticed, the story is well researched to the extent that a region could be researched in the 1940s. Also, the story reads like a thriller but with a literary fiction bent to it. Stories like these are the highlight of American writer Bowles literature. However, the color of the North African atmosphere in this story echoes like the mysterious flute player who does not show himself in this story titled ‘A Distant Episode’.
If you are looking for a short read on a fictional Asian country called Raktsthaan, you will like my short story ‘Coronavirus: Little Boys, Big Toys’. You can purchase your copy of this short story on the products page of my blog. If you are interested in another story of Raktsthaan before COVID-19 hit the place, you can check out another short story titled ‘My Sweet Lord’.
The Professor is a linguist who had come to this fictional town to meet a friend and study Morocco’s many languages. A bus driver tells him that he will only find dialects in Morocco and not many languages. Note that Bowles uses that as a hint to the reader and the Professor that the whole of that region was full of North Africans, but not all of them were safe to be around – they spoke the same language but had different intentions—in other words, different dialects. Note also about the language the Professor wants to study, which is Maghrebi. Maghrebi Arabic is an Arabic vernacular dialect continuum spoken in the Maghreb region in Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, Libya, Western Sahara, and Mauritania. It includes Moroccan, Algerian, Tunisian, Libyan, and Hassaniya Arabic. This Arabic dialect makes him come around after a year of torture and slavery once he was sold at Fogara to a Touareg. He recognizes the Arabic dialect of the elderly man who has come to see his new master. It awakens his dead spirit, and he becomes stubborn. He refuses to perform, making his master so angry that he almost kills the Reguibat, who sold the Professor to him. After a year and a half of physical and emotional torture, the Professor was set free by the French soldiers who had now taken over that territory.
But what is the use of his freedom? In the process of finding a box collection made of camel’s udders, he has lost his power of speech, his will to live, and probably his sanity. One of the French soldiers doesn’t understand his situation and thinks the Professor was ‘a holy maniac’ and takes a pot shot at him, shooting him for good luck. The bullet misses the Professor, and he realizes he has lost himself and become a complete outsider from who he was a year and a half earlier. He thus exits the gate of the area, a very defeated and dazed man. It is ironic that he, a man who studied languages, would never speak again.
Coming to the title of the short story, the distant episode could have many connotations:
- The meeting of Hassan Ramani with the Professor.
- The night he was tricked by the qaouaji.
- The night he was made into a mere toy by the Reguibat.
- The year and a half he spent as a toy.
- The time he was set free but was not totally free from his demons.
All these points indicate this one singular distant episode of the Professor in a distant land that he was curious about, probably too curious for his own good. He would never be able to forget it, but when time passed, it seemed like a mirage in the Sahara Desert.
I enjoyed reading and analyzing this short story by American writer Paul Bowles. I will be reading, reviewing, and analyzing American writers’ works for the next couple of days. This is being done to showcase the richness of American books, stories, novels, non-fiction, and essays keeping in mind that a crucial election is going on in America. I have an extensive collection of American short stories, which I will read and analyze. If you are interested in some topical LGBTQIA short story fiction, you can purchase my book The Love That Dare Not Speak Its Name on my blog or Amazon. It was a winner in the short-story section in the 2018 DBW Awards. If you are looking for content on American writers and their stories and books, keep coming back to this blog through the election weeks.
If you are interested in book reviews, book analysis, short story analysis, poems, essays, essay analysis, and other bookish content, you can check out my blog insaneowl.com. If you are interested in purchasing my books, you can check out the products page on my blog or my author’s page on Amazon. There is a lot of good stuff to buy! Happy reading to you always!
Copyright © 2020 Fiza Pathan