A Distant Episode
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A Distant Episode is a famous and acclaimed short story by Paul Bowles. It was first published in the Partisan Review (January-February, 1947) and republished in New Directions in Prose and Poetry, #10, 1948.
The story is a fictional account of a Professor of linguistics (likely an ethnic and national French citizen) traveling through what is likely Morocco in the late 1940s. The nation is never, however, specifically mentioned and the cities that are referred to appear to be entirely fictional. Only references to local languages and tribes (especially the Reguibat and Ouled Nail) suggest that the events take place in Morocco, Algeria, or possibly Western Sahara.
Extremely short, the piece is a study of many things, most notably the cultural divisions between Europe and the North African Islamic world, the role of language (emphasized viscerally) in defining identity and narration, and the various and shifting natures of cultural supremacy.
Among twentieth century short stories, it has a strong reputation and is a favorite of authors such as Tobias Wolff and Jay McInerney. Francine Prose mentioned Bowles's work and A Distant Episode specifically as some of the strongest short fiction work of the twentieth century.
The Professor is visiting the town of Ain Tadouirt (a fictitious city) ostensibly to reacquaint with an old acquaintance and to do some base academic work studying the regional dialects of "the warm country". (The Professor appears to be specialized in Arabic language.) When his friend cannot be found (and is later revealed to have died), the Professor clumsily attempts to find his way around the town. He tries to engage with the qaouaji of the old cafe, but repeatedly and inadvertently insults him with his cultural aloofness. The Professor finally requests to buy some novelty camel-udder boxes. This offends the qaouaji but the Professor reasserts his position offering him money. The qaouaji leads the Professor through the desert night and ultimately into the hands of the Reguibat.
At this point, the story takes a sharp narrative turn. The Professor is beaten badly and has his tongue cut out. He is turned into a toy of amusement for the Reguibat who cover him in metal and make him dance and mumble incoherently. The narration loses all of the Professor's perspective and gains all of the Reguibat people's. The Professor is deprived of human contact, language, or standard treatment for a year.
In the final act, the professor is sold, refuses to perform for his new owner, and escapes after the new owner kills a Reguibat for cheating him. Deliriously, he runs past a French soldier, out of the village and into the desert beyond. After taking a pot-shot at the professor for luck that purposely misses, the soldier watches him disappear over the horizon.