What’s a travel book? It’s a question that’s been argued over for centuries. The American writer Paul Bowles (1910-1999), author of The Sheltering Sky, gave his answer in an essay, “The challenge to identity”, published in 1958. “For me,” he wrote, “it is the story of what happened to one person in a particular place, and nothing more than that; it does not contain hotel and highway information, lists of useful phrases, statistics, or hints as to what kind of clothing is needed by the intending visitor. It may be that such books form a category which is doomed to extinction. I hope not, because there is nothing I enjoy more than reading an accurate account by an intelligent writer of what happened to him away from home.”
Bowles wrote those words 11 years after arriving in Tangier, where — though he carried on travelling — he would live for the rest of his life. He wrote extensively about the city, in non-fiction as well as in novels and short stories, and helped to shape outsiders’ views of Morocco. So was he accurate about place and people? Hisham Aidi, a native of Tangier who met Bowles, and even ran literary tours of “Paul Bowles’s Tangier”, has been reassessing the man and his work for The New York Review of Books.