“Death is always on the way, but the fact that you don’t know when it will arrive seems to take away from the finiteness of life. It’s that terrible precision that we hate so much. But because we don’t know, we get to think of life as an inexhaustible well. Yet everything happens a certain number of times, and a very small number, really. How many more times will you remember a certain afternoon of your childhood, some afternoon that’s so deeply a part of your being that you can’t even conceive of your life without it? Perhaps four or five times more. Perhaps not even. How many more times will you watch the full moon rise? Perhaps twenty. And yet it all seems limitless.”
― Paul Bowles, The Sheltering Sky
There are allusions throughout the novel that emphasize how finite life really is despite the illusion of everlasting. When I first stumbled upon Paul Bowles’ novel The Sheltering Sky on the bottom shelf of an office coffee table in the bustling city of Kumasi, Ghana, I had no idea that I would embark on a mental journey through the (Sahara) desert of life and find myself strangely, maybe very strangely, identifying with the characters.
Spoiler alert for anyone interested in reading the book… The story takes place after WWII in French West Africa. Two American travelers and one tourist find themselves journeying across the Sahara from Algiers, not knowing how long they will stay in each city, acting as if time does not exist. Continue reading “Stable Instability” »
I happened to glance down at the book on the shelf underneath the coffee table. The pages were weathered, its front cover a portrait of a giant desert sand dune. I opened the first page of Paul Bowles’ novel The Sheltering Sky and was riveted by the first paragraph. Suddenly I couldn’t hear the bustling outside the open office door. The rickety cars passing by on the barely paved street became silent and I didn’t notice the dust and immense heat floating into the office. It takes a true work of carefully crafted art to absorb my entire being like that and I somehow knew the second I found the treasure that it would be one of those life-changing books.
I had only a few days left in Ghana when I started the book but the Ghanaian Light for Children director Mike told me I could keep it. The story took place just after WWII in the deserts of North Africa where three American travelers found themselves in a symbolic land of pure psychological terror. As I fervently read each page, it was just me and the author, Mr. Bowles, along with the fascinating characters of his imagination. There’s something special about starting a book about Africa while you’re in Africa. In fact, it had happened to me each time I visited the continent, and always toward the end of my stay. I had no part in the matter, the books seemed to fall in my lap. I remember the first one clearly, while in Kenya in 2006 I came across A Distant Grief by Kefa Sempangi, a Ugandan who had survived under the reign of Idi Amin. The true story was incredibly moving, the words and the account leaving a mark on my life forever. The second time in 2007 was The Last King of Scotland by Giles Foden, another story that took place in Uganda under Idi Amin but this one was fiction. Foden’s perspective helped shape my own. In 2012 I came across The Media and the Rwanda Genocide. It was in my journalism prime and the book opened my eyes in ways I had never known. All of these books somehow met me exactly where I was, both physically in Africa and mentally in whatever place in life I happened to be at. I should have expected a book to show up in Ghana, but each of these instances had been unexpected. Continue reading “Tourists and Travelers” »
Life is amazing. Nothing ever happens the way one imagines it is going to. One realizes that most clearly here; all your philosophic systems crumble. At every turn one finds the unexpected.
– Lieutenant d’Armagnac, The Sheltering Sky by Paul Bowles
One morning we took the tro-tro bus across the city to a preschool for street children that was run by the Catholic Church. The children were homeless, their parents living on the streets of Ghana’s cities. We were asked to paint one of the walls inside the building. I mentioned the idea of making a giant map of the world which was unanimously approved. With a pencil I sketched the continents freehand from my memory, standing on top of a chair to reach the ceiling. At first, the project looked like a nonsensical mess but later it would be honed into a masterpiece. Continue reading “The Grand Portrait” »