In The Sheltering Sky by Paul Bowles, I see an irony in the way that Kit feels like she is embracing life in the desert. After her husband’s death, Kit leaves Tunner behind and flees into the Sahara. She says she feels like “Life was suddenly there, she was in it, not looking through the window at it” (241). Up until this point, she had been traveling as a sort of tourist with Port. Now that she’s lost one of her traveling companions and left the other, she suddenly feels this revelation that she is fully immersed in life here. The ability to view life in another country from the outside is a sort of privilege that citizens of the colonizing countries have. They have the ability to cross borders and stay in a place that they do not consider their home. Kit’s in a remote city and has lost her husband to disease. For her to suddenly feel like a part of existence now glorifies the entrapment that most disease-fearing citizens of Sbâ might feel. Kit’s narrative gives me the impression that Sbâ broke her a little bit. This thought is more of a mental breakdown than a revelation.
This can be seen in her relationship with the men whom she travels with through the Sahara. When her desert traveling companions rape her, Kit considers them with affection. The people are abusing her and she doesn’t acknowledge it. When she asks Belqassim why he let another man sleep with her, he calls her “habibi,” a term of endearment. (268) He talks as if he has affection for her too, even though he treats her like property. This is a sort of reversal of roles for the main characters: Port always treated every city they traveled to before Sbâ as if it was placed there for his own entertainment, creative muse, and enlightenment. He spoke of these places with affection, but picked and chose parts of each place that he liked and rejected all other aspects of it. Kit is now the object of these travelers’ entertainment, though they claim that she is their habibi. She feels helpless to stop them because “even had they had a language in common, [they] could never understand her” (267). For someone who has become so in tune with life in the Sahara, she can’t understand people who arguably would be more in tune with this life.
Kit then claims that “with the heavy tan she had acquired during the past weeks she looked astonishingly like an Arab boy. The idea amused her” (272). The ability to blend in perfectly in a foreign town is a cosmopolitan fantasy that Kit hasn’t let go of. She talks as if a tan is the only noticeable physical feature of Arab boys. Her naïveté is still there, as it was before Port’s death. She just tries to believe that Port’s death has awakened her ability to somehow be one with the land and its people. More than anything, Kit is suffering from a period of trauma caused by recklessly traveling from city to city. She only sees it as a moment of clarity and oneness with life because she can’t accept that otherwise she would be completely lost.