Hundred Camels in the Courtyard, A

by Paul Bowles
   The four so-called kif stories (kif is a mixture of cannabis leaves and tobacco), “A Friend of the World,” “The Story of Lachen and Idir,” “He of the Assembly,” and “The Wind at Beni Midar,” that constitute the collection A Hundred Camels in the Courtyard represent an attempt to describe aspects of “contemporary life in a land where cannabis, rather than alcohol, customarily provides a way out of the phenomenological world.” The stories demonstrate the traditional belief among Moroccans that the kif smoker will always outsmart the drinker of alcohol, an intoxicant that is thought to “dull the senses.” Kif, on the other hand, is “the means to attaining a state of communication not only with others, but above all with the smokers themselves.” The title of the short story collection, incidentally, is taken from an Arab proverb claiming that “a pipe of kif before breakfast gives a man the strength of a hundred camels in the courtyard.”
   In his autobiography Paul Bowles has described how much pleasure the writing of these four stories gave him. He would start out by inventing problems of literary narrative and then find ways of resolving them: Let us say that I started out with four disparate fragments—anecdotes, quotations, or simple clauses deprived of context—gleaned from separate sources and involving, if anything, entirely different sets of characters. The task was to invent a connecting narrative tissue which would make all four of the original elements equally supportive of the resulting construction. It seemed to me that the subject of kif smoking, wholly apart from the desirable limiting of possibilities it implied, would provide as effective cement with which to put together the various fragments. By using kif-inspired motivations, the arbitrary could be made to seem natural, the diverse elements could be fused, and several people would automatically become one. I did four of these tales, and then there seemed to be no more material. While kif smoking plays a part in all four of the stories, it is only in “He of the Assembly” that Bowles attempts to approximate in prose the state of M’Hashish, that is, of being intoxicated by kif, a condition with which he was himself well acquainted. Bowles does so by means of a nonlinear and hallucinatory narrative technique. The reader enters into the world of kif, as it were, a world where such distinctions as internal/external, dream/reality, subjective/objective, and past/present/ future dissolve. Simultaneously, the overall structure and composition of the story is carefully orchestrated into seven paragraphs that, as Bowles has explained, are “built into four levels—level 1 is the same as level 7; 2 is the same as 6; 3 the same as 5, and 4 is a kind of interior monologue, told in the first person, which is the crucial part, which is the center—or top, if you like—of the pyramid.” It appears that Bowles’s background as a composer of music becomes especially pronounced in this carefully executed story.
   In “He of the Assembly” (a literal translation of the Arab name Bouyemi) the dominant motif is that of the eye. At the beginning of the story He of the Assembly, in a state of M’Hashish, is trying to place somewhere in his past the phrase “the eye wants to sleep but the head is no mattress.” Throughout the story the other protagonist, Ben Tajeh, is haunted by having, or perhaps not having, received a letter containing the phrase “the sky trembles and the earth is afraid, and the two eyes are not brothers.” Eyes are mentioned throughout the text, suggesting the theme of vision, and at the end of the narrative He of the Assembly looks “across his sleep to the morning,” emphasizing the final intersection of the levels of vision: physical and psychic.
   Bowles’s main aim in this story is to communicate to the reader the experience of being M’Hashish. Among the main characteristics of that experience are an altered sense of the physical body, a severance of the bonds between mind and matter, and a feeling of well-being, gaiety and calm. To Charles Baudelaire the hashish experience was a disturbing one, a “confusing fury” as opposed to opium, the “gentle seducer.” Baudelaire also found hashish to have the effect of enfeebling the will power, of riveting the attention on trivial and minute detail, and of magnifying the sensation of time and space. The reader of “He of the Assembly” will find all of these states of consciousness embedded in the story.
   In the other three kif stories the recurrent motif is that of the clever kif smoker who gets the better of a friend or an enemy who is invariably a drinker of alcohol. Sometimes this is done by using poison or magic, as in “A Friend of the World” and in “The Wind at Beni Midar”; or it is done by sheer cunning, as between the two friends in “The Story of Lachen and Idir.” A subordinate theme of these stories is the changing social and political conditions of Morocco, which contribute to a sense of confusion of identity in the minds of the protagonists, a confusion aggravated by living concurrently in the old and the new Morocco.
   In all four of the stories a recent change in attitude toward kif smoking on the part of the Moroccan authorities is stressed. The Koran does warn against “befuddlement of the mind,” but “it does not mention herbs.” The stories repeatedly accentuate the fact that the opposition to kif comes not from religious injunctions but from a government focused on modernization. Bowles looked with regret at the passing of a more tolerant attitude toward kif. However, with his usual caution, he also warned against overindulgence, pointing out that “apparently you can’t keep it up and not be mindless.”
   Bowles’s work in undertaking translations from the Moghrebi (one of the languages spoken in Morocco) into English may have suggested to him the use of nonlinear narrative structures and techniques, as explored in A Hundred Camels in the Courtyard. Given that he regarded the writing process as an excursion into the unconscious, he felt that the use of kif had been an unfailing aid to him. He explained that “the kif is simply the key which opens a door to some particular chamber of the brain that lets whatever was in there out. It doesn’t supply the matter. It liberates whatever’s in, that’s all.” Bowles’s kif stories represent perhaps the clearest link between his writing and that of the Beats, in whose work cannabis figures prominently as a source of insight. From William S. Burroughs’s junky and naked luncH, to allen ginsberg’s Howl and jack kerouac’s on tHe road, the benign and revelatory effects of marijuana are celebrated. Indeed, not only did these authors write about marijuana, but they frequently used the drug as an aid in their writing. Similarly, the interest of many Beat writers in interior states, including dreams and visions, and in the intuitive mind and spontaneous, instinctual life of “primitive” people, has a counterpart in Bowles’s fiction. Such interest is anticipated in Bowles’s novel Let It Come Down (1952) and is confirmed in the kif stories collected in A Hundred Camels in the Courtyard.
■ Bowles, Paul. Without Stopping. An Autobiography. New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1972.
■ Ebin, David, ed. The Drug Experience. New York: Grove Press, 1965.
■ Hayter, Alethea. Opium and the Romantic Imagination. Berkeley, Calif.: Faber & Faber, 1968.
■ Stewart, Lawrence D. Paul BowlesThe Illumination of North Africa. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1974.
   Birgit Stephenson

Encyclopedia of Beat Literature. . 2014.

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