The Sheltering Sky by the American author Paul Bowles is about three American
travelleres; the Moresbys: Port and Kit who are married for twelve years, and their friend
Tunner. Affected by the Second World War, the Travellers make a journey through the
Sahara to escape from the disaster caused by the war. Port, Kit and Tunner first visit Oran, a
city in Algeria. Port is satisfied with his travelling, but Kit is bothered by fear that every weird
event on their journey will lead to death. During this time, Port is seduced by an Arab
prostitute and has sex with her. In Oran, the Moresbys and Tunner encounter the Lyles; an
odd mother and her son Eric. They offer Port a ride in their car to Boussif, leaving Kit and
Tunner to take the train where Kit surrenders to Tunner’s sexual advances.
At Boussif Port and Kit stop to be alone and have personal moment on the top of a ridge in
order to get closer to each other, and to solve their marital difficulties. From Boussif, the
three Americans make their way to Ain Krorfa, the dirty town. At this period, Port tries to get
rid of Tunner and arranges for him to go with the Lyles to Messad. Meanwhile, the Moresbys
go to the small town in Algeria, Bou Noura, where Port discovers that his passport is missing.
Lieutenant D’Armagnac who is the commander of the local military post, finds that Port’s
passport has been sold in Messad and arranges for Tunner to return to Bou Noura with it.
However, Port over comes by fever and insists to Kit to leave for El Ga’a.
The Moresbys go to El Ga’a, the hidden desert town where no one could tell them
anything. Port falls ill with typhoid and can’t even walk. During this time, Kit finds out that a
meningitis epidemic has shut down the only hotel of town. Kit stays with Port in a small
room that serves as infirmary for the French soldiers in Sba. At this moment in the desert,
Port is suffering from a fatal fever and imagining himself destroyed by a large car: he sets
bleeding in the doorway of a candy shop until he awakes to run away from an attacker who is
coming to step into his bowels. Kit is unable to help Port and sneaks into the night to meet
Tunner who is arriving from Bou Noura. That night, Port dies.
After the death of Port, Kit wanders in the Sahara and is picked up by a travelling caravan.
She becomes the lover of Belqassim who marries her and imprisons her in his house where
she turns into a sexual victim by the young Belqassim and an old companion. Kit is later
dressed as an Arab boy in order to trick Belqassim’s wives. Kit spends the majority of her
time sleeping in a dark room using sleep in order to remain mindlessly content. After a while,
the wives discover that Kit is a girl and hit her badly, but later help her to escape from
Belqassim. Eventually, Kit is saved and brought to Oran where Tunner is waiting for her, but
by now she has fallen into madness. The novel ends with Kit wandering into the streets
towards an unknown destiny.
The main characters in The Sheltering Sky ; Kit and Port, are describing themselves as
Travellers and not Tourists. They consider the Tourist as someone who hurries back home at
the end of a few weeks, while the Traveller may not come back at all. Another difference
between the Traveller and the Tourist is their particular thoughts of their culture. That means
that the Tourist accept his own culture without question, while the Traveller compares it with
the Other and refuses those elements he does not like. There is a connection between Bowles
and Port : Bowles has always tried to escape from the damages caused by the war and Port
also hopes to find inspiration in the Sahara. Moreover, the marital problems and secrets
between Port and Kit simulate those between Paul and Jane. Bowles himself considers The
Sheltering Sky as an autobiographical novel from memory. He also wrote the greatest part of
the story while travelling through the Sahara.
On the other hand, the Sahara is described in The Sheltering Sky as a trick, a strange
landscape that has the power to destroy the Western Traveller who comes to it unprepared.
The Sahara is also represented in the novel as a dry landscape where there is nothing to
protect man except the shining sky ( Bowles. 1978: 251 ). Furthermore, the North African
desert seduces Port and Kit who want to explore life outside the limits of Western choking
morality, culture and social conventions. The Sahara provides an appropriate area for the
essential self-examination that Bowles’s Western characters show themselves to it ( Bowles.
1978: 101 ). The Sahara also shows that there is neither protection nor security anywhere
because happiness and security have been destroyed by the Second World War.
Much of the suffering of Port’s fate is caused by his failure to determine the results of his
own actions. Firstly, Port is seduced by a beautiful Arab prostitute named Marhnia who tells
him the sad story of the three dancers: Outka, Mimouna and Aicha who where in love with a
handsome Targui, and went to drink tea with him in the Sahara but eventually died. Another
example of Port’s experiences is his try to have sex with a blind Arab girl. These experiences
almost lead to his death. This is linked to port’s attitude which is not based on love and
stability, but on a narcissistic desire of forbidden experiences ( Bowles. 1978: 28 ).
Secondly, Kit like Port’s observation of natives is ambiguous. She either meets dirty
natives or beautiful ones. On her journey, Kit feels excited and fascinated by the natives of
the Sahara especially those who are feminised by their use of Kohl and Veils and who are
linked with the Oriental woman. Kit later becomes isolated, she is no more fascinated by
Tunner or attached to Port. Kit also becomes liberated when Port dies and is free to go her
own way towards her fated oblivion. Kit’s fate leads to the alienation of emotional fantasy
that the Sahara has long inspired. Port dies because he came to understand himself and Others
but has nothing to learn, and Kit begins her learning through a journey full of distress and
suffering. The Moresbys destiny is tragic. The couple is a paradox, it appears at the same
time as a symbolic couple in which each member is dependent on the other ( Bowles. 1978:
100 ). Kit’s attitude towards life is completely opposed to that of Port. She is simply terrified
by the silence and emptiness that deeply touch Port ( Bowles. 1978: 100 ).
Generally, The Sheltering Sky explains the meeting of the two different cultures which
are: the modern logical Western way of life and the eternal sensual and savage Saharan one.
It is also about the negative effect of the Oriental Islamic culture on Port and Kit. Port for
instance goes by an old Arab is captured by an idea that the man is affected by an infection
disease. On the other part, Kit is also caught by two native figures ; Belqassim and Amar,
who has the same desire and who use her sexually. Since this Alien world is full of violence
whose people are animals and not human beings, Kit raped without mercy in the presence of
Belqassim and his partner.
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