On a hot day in Mid-July in the district of Charf-Souani in Tangier at the Cafe du Paris, sits a man who is the last living link to the Beat Generation of the 20th Century. Puffing on a cigarette, between sips of coffee, Mohammed Mrabet looks around, somewhat longingly and somewhat at peace. He is now 83. He is illiterate and yet known to be one of the greatest storytellers of Morocco.
The story of Muhammad Mrabet, writer and painter, began in the mid-twentieth century when his hometown Tangier was the centre of the earth. In 1957, the city served as the creative capital to people of all professions. Bankers, writers, smugglers all arrived in droves, all enjoying the freedom of a unique city.
It was from here that a young Mrabet would flee at the age of 11 and never look back. He would do odd jobs to sustain himself, until at the age of 20 he took up work at Tangier Inn House. The little hotel was the rendezvous of many of the writers of the Beat generation. It was here that he would meet the composer and author Paul Bowles. But first he would mix with Beat legends. Allen Ginsberg, William S. Burroughs and Truman Capote all frequented the hotel and had at some point been served drinks by Mrabet, who would listen to the guests, piece together what he heard and add in life experiences of his own. His life as a storyteller – once legendary trait of the Moroccans – began.
While waiting at a party one evening, Mrabet was drawn to Jane Bowles, wife of Paul, looking forlorn, alone and, quite frankly, bored to death. He responded by telling her one of his stories. She was mesmerised by his ability and urged her husband to meet this young man. It was something that would change Mrabet’s life forever. Bowles was central to the Beat generation in Tangier. All the writers that had visited did so to mingle in his company.
Mrabet would grow close to Bowles, serving as his right hand man and travel companion. ‘‘I told Paul I had many stories,” he told the Washington Post. “He gave me a huge machine with a microphone attached. I went inside the room and narrated for hours.”
The relationship would go on for years until Bowles death in 1999. Robert Briatte, Bowels biographer would note, “Mrabet was always there. He always had something to say and Paul recognised this endless reservoir of stories in him. To Paul, Mrabet was an artist and a great writer. Bowles was his passport to Europe and the states, where the two would travel and mingle with the major players of global publishing.
They had published entire novels together. Love with a Few Hairs, the first in 1967 published in London. The Lemon came shortly after with international acclaim. These publications would make Mrabet recognised as one of the best known North African authors. Not bad for a guy who can’t really read or write.
While undoubtedly glorious times, Mrabet’s recollection of that period now is very different. The great storyteller doesn’t, as you might expect, live off royalties from his publications with Bowles. Instead, he feels more than a little cheated by the hand fate ultimately dealt him “It’s true”, he continued to the Washington Post, “I never received my royalties for my books from Americans. All that money went into Pauls bank.”
Thankfully, his career as a painter was something that Bowles also helped him with, and which sustains him to this day. His colourful work with felt tip and ink drawings has seen him become a rather sought after artist – particularly in Europe.
Unfortunately, his story-telling appears something lost into the ether.
In his autobiography, Look And Move On, Mrabet recalled of his stories, “Some were tales I had heard in cafes, some were dreams, some were inventions I made as I was recording, and some had actually happened to me.” His stories differ, some are humorous, some tragic, they would focus on culture tensions. Each of them would transport the listener through the little gullies of the city that is only known by those who have the city in their veins.
And while Mrabet’s name may still be known across Europe, he’s hardly known in his own city. He walks through the streets and not even a handful of the people would know that he was once the darling of Tangier. “I don’t have any value in my country,” he laments. “They don’t know who I am.” But sustained by his art, Mrabet still narrates tales to those willing to lend an ear in the cafes of Tangier.