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The Sheltering Sky

Do you know the way to Agadez? El Ga’a or Ain Khrorfa? We didn’t, well, not till we saw The Sheltering Sky. That’s cause all are place names for locations that exist simultaneously in the North African worlds of the Bernardo Bertolucci film. There’s at least three: the Google Maps world of exact longitude and latitude, the literary world of Paul Bowles and its gorgeously presented cinematic cousin.

Tourists, or travelers, if you prefer, inspired by the movie will have a hard time retracing Kit and Port’s steps through the stunning landscapes of Morroco, Algeria and Niger. And don’t worry if you feel lost, it’s only normal, unless you‘re a Berber guide. It isn’t Kansas, and good luck finding something more different.

Making matters more complicated, in typical artistic fashion, the three worlds are incongruous and overlap only sometimes. Paul Bowles admitted that although the setting of his masterpiece was inspired by real places, he chose not to use their corresponding names. Same goes for Bernardo Bertolucci. No matter, the explorer’s instinct will guide us, and remember, it isn’t the destination, it is the journey that counts. But if you make it to Timbuktu, turn back, because you’ve missed the exit.

African port of entry—Tangiers, Morrocco. The North African St. Tropez, if you believe Travel and Leisure, and home of a very long list of notable expatriots, including painters Henri Matisse and Eugene Delacroix, Malcolm Forbes, and after World War II, a ridiculous amount of beats and spies. Situated on the Atlantic side of the Strait of Gibraltar, Tangiers also served as a setting for William S. Burroughs’ Naked Lunch and Jack Kerouac’s Desolation Angels.

But, if Bowles is to be believed, Kit and Port began their existential African journey in Mediterranean Oran, Algeria, about half the distance to Algiers from Tangiers. Makes sense, considering Port is a composer, and polyglot Oran is famous for being the cradle of Raï music. Either way there’s only one direction towards the Sahara of the later part of the film—South.

To reach the seductive Sahara ones must first cross the dramatic Atlas mountains passing maybe through the Draa Valley and into the “door of the desert”, Ouarzazate. Often the starting point for excursions into the Sahara, Ouarzazate is also home to one of the world’s largest film studios, Atlas Studios, where several major motion pictures have been filmed. The area is also famous for its numerous kasbahs, including UNESCO World Heritage Site Ait-Ben-Haddou, seen in scenes of The Sheltering Sky.

Ourazazate is also the right place if you’re looking to hitch a ride on a tran-saharan caravan into Niger with some Tuareg nomads. Just ask Kit. The accompanying featurette included in the The Sheltering Sky DVD boasts that the film is the first feature to have been shot in the country. Few films crews have reached Niger, and the scenes filmed there offer a rare glimpse into the relatively unknown land.

It is there that a hungry and desperate Kit collapses at the market among an angry crowd before her “rescue”. The anthropological value of the market scene is astounding; viewers are treated to a National Geographic-like presentation of the region’s different peoples. One can also see one of the mud mosques unique to this area of Africa—a fascinating architectural achievement. Unlike Kit, maybe you don’t have to go back. The whole of sub-saharan Africa lies just beyond.

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  • Terry

    October 18, 2010

    Sorry to be pedantic but there is no ‘s’ on Tangier.
    Loved the film (which led me to the book – brilliant!)
    Travelled round Morocco a lot in the mid 1970’s. This
    film brings it all back – just love it!
    Enjoyed the informative article – Many Thanks – Terry

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