‘East Side: North Africa’ by Jane Bowles

East Side: North Africa by Jane Bowles, 1951

The magic trick:

Disguising – or mixing – the biases in the story so that there is a sense, in the confusion, of an impartiality

There’s no such thing as an impartial documentary. Right? Even as you attempt to show the complete picture you’re inherently demonstrating bias as you decide which views to highlight, which parts of the argument to showcase. The process of editing is the process of establishing a point of view. It’s inevitable.

So what is this story’s point of view? OK, clearly it’s of an American in Tangier, Morocco. But what is the bias?

I can’t really tell. Our narrator is an odd one. Is she oblivious? No, I don’t think so. Is she defiant? Yes, for sure. Judgmental? Eh, that’s the big question. I don’t know. I don’t know where her judgments fall. She seems to think she knows a lot about the Moroccan culture around her. Perhaps she does. Perhaps the locals know a lot more that she realizes. Maybe she does realize and simply doesn’t care. Maybe that’s where the feeling of defiance comes in. Maybe this is a story about the judgments of Morocco; and not of the narrator. Maybe it’s a story about the clash of those values and judgments.

And that’s quite a trick on Bowles’s part. 

The selection:

There was considerable speculation about us in the market place and many of the women claimed that when the rest of the family was asleep the three of us sat smoking in the dark. Smoking is strictly forbidden to Moslem women though some of it goes on behind closed doors, even among decent married women and virgins. Cherifa and Betzoule had learned to smoke from a corrupt cousin who was little better than a whore. I did supply them with cigarettes occasionally, but the room which they shared alone (the other sisters who were married slept with their husbands and children) was, more often than not, filled with visiting female relatives and any such scandalous behavior was impossible. These visits often lasted for months.

“You sit in their house and you sleep in their house and you eat in their house,” the woman went on, and I nodded in agreement. “Your name is Jeanie and you live in a hotel with other Nazarenes. How much does the hotel cost you?”

Fortunately a round loaf of bread flopped on the ground from inside the folds of her haik and I did not have to answer her question. She picked the bread up and stuffed it between the quills of the porcupine and the basket handle with some difficulty; then she set the basket down on top of the blue wall and turned to me with bright eyes.

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