Under Foreign Skies

 – for Ana – I’ll see you in Morocco in a year, insha’Allah!

I think not getting it is getting it.

There seem to be two dichotomies operating in Paul Bowles’ The Sheltering Sky. The first is between Westerners and Western culture on the one hand, and a largely unnamed, native culture of Morocco on the other. We follow this class of cultures through the eyes of Westerners, with the ‘other’ culture remaining unnamed, vague, present but ill-defined. This is a deliberate tactic on the part of the narrator, keeping the other culture as foreign and distant as possible, so as to point out the chasm between the two sides. Neither the characters nor the narrator seem to want to bridge the gap between the two cultures, it simply remains as is.

By the time we get to see the world from the other side, from the other perspective (and even then we only see it conditionally), we lose ourselves. Following Kit, as the reader does, into the desert, into the native, Arab world, we, like Kit, switch sides somewhere along the way. This seems to me to be the function of Ms. Ferry’s character at the very end. Her bewilderment and disdain at meeting Kit is indicative of how far Kit and the reader have come. Ms. Ferry is us, the Western perspective, untouched by the experiences of the book.

By then, however, both Kit and the reader have gone native, emerging back into a no longer familiar world completely shell-shocked. This sets up the second dichotomy of the novel. As I was finishing the last few pages of the novel, I felt repelled by the familiarity of the real world around me. The people on the street in front of me were almost as strange to me as Ms. Ferry was to Kit. The other dichotomy then is between the world and the novel. Although I was perplexed, I was fully engrossed in the novel to such an extent that at its conclusion I felt uncomfortable it was over, uncomfortable at suddenly having to go back to dealing with the real world. Not only are the two cultures incommensurate, but the world of the novel and the real world are as well.

From the moment Kit wanders into the desert in the third section of the book, I kept asking myself as the reader, where are we going with this? None of it made any sense: neither her motivations, nor her actions. Nor did the actions of natives become any less opaque. And in addition to walking into the real desert, Kit is walking us into a cultural desert. The order of planned out cities, luxurious hotels and interpersonal interactions loaded, even saturated with meaning – all of this disappears when she wanders off. From then on we are in a space stripped of all cultural meaning, symbols and signals without significance, nothing but the sun and shifting dunes. But at the end, when Kit meets Ms. Ferry we realize that the desert, just like in the narrative, has become populated, cities emerge, order and meaning created – but the order is different, and different enough that we are not sure we want to leave it for the one waiting to take us back. And when it does take us back, after the crossing and crossing back, the episode in the desert seems no clearer. The novel closes and we find ourselves again able only to see the familiar world, the other side from which we just emerged just as mysterious as before the plunge. This is the only thing to get, that we can’t get the other side.

The other side becomes as foreign as the disorder beyond the sky. The sky, the metaphysical limit of the world, it turns out, is inside the head and is the outer limit of cultural order and meaning. If the sky were to tear, it would turn a world of meaning into a desert, and break everything down into particles, grains of sand that form a meaningless sea of shifting dunes.

It is a little unforgiving to try and assess the extreme cultural relativism that pervades this book. We are reading about a world twice unfamiliar to us. For one, the upper middle class American tourist that existed until the late forties in Europe and North Africa is no more. The luxury, time and distance from the native culture that could have been bought with a relatively modest amount of American dollars is foreign to most readers today. Secondly, we live in a world that through its globalism and shouting the virtues of multiculturalism simply refuses to acknowledge the possibility that cultures could be different enough to be unable to speak to each other. The very idea that cultures cannot be translated, cannot be fused into something common or new or third is rejected out of hand in our politically correct world.

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