BookMarks: 'Their Heads Are Green and Their Hands Are Blue'

bookmarks craig storti darla deardorff faces are blue heads are green morocco paul bowles travellers Apr 15, 2022

Their Heads Are Green and Their Hands Are Blue by Paul Bowles and
The World Council on Intercultural and Global Competence

This month in BookMarks we have a dual agenda: one is to review a book, of course, and the other is to introduce you to an organization. And we are excited on both counts. 

First the book: Their Heads Are Green and Their Hands Are Blue: Scenes from the Non-Christian World by Paul Bowles.

I’m not sure what took me so long to get around to Paul Bowles, especially as one of BookMarks’ founding principles is to introduce readers to books that transcend their genre (in this case, travel writing) and become truly intercultural.  And if any book falls into that category, it’s Their Heads…

Paul Bowles is better known as a novelist and Morocco-phile. His three, rather dark novels—The Sheltering Sky (made into a film), Let It Come Down, and The Spider’s Web—are all set in Morocco, along with many of the pieces in the book reviewed here. Bowles was one of those people who was born in the wrong country, in the sense that he did not feel especially at home or that he belonged in America—he dropped out of UVA to go live on the Left Bank—but nor does he feel he belongs anywhere else either. He lived longer in Morocco (in the medina in Tangiers) than any other place, eventually settling there after WW II. But even when he writes about Morocco, it is necessarily as an outsider, which is doubtless what makes him such an alert and sensitive observer of culture.

Confirmed expatriate and astute traveller that he was, Bowles knew that meeting people, ideally as different from him as possible, and trying to understand them was the real value of travel. “If I am faced with the decision of choosing to visit a circus and a cathedral, a café and a public monument, or a fiesta and a museum,” he writes, “I am afraid I shall normally take the circus, the cafe, and the fiesta.”

Their Heads includes essays set in Turkey, Ceylon (as it was then called), India, Algeria, Central America, and most notably in North Africa, where Bowles makes recordings of the music of the indigenous peoples of the Rif and Atlas Mountains for the Library of Congress. And just when you start to feel like you’ve been to one too many countries, he stops for a moment and presents a charming essay called ‘All Parrots Speak.’

Not sure if this book is your cup of tea? Read the first paragraph:

“Each time I go to a place I have not seen before, I hope it will be as different as possible from the places I already know.  I assume it is natural for a traveller to seek diversity, and that it is the human element which makes him most aware of difference.  If people and their manner of living were alike everywhere, there would not be much point in moving from one place to another.  With few exceptions, landscape alone is of insufficient interest to warrant the effort it takes to see it.  Even the works of man, unless they are being used in his daily living, have a way of losing their meaning, and take on the qualities of decoration.  What makes Istanbul  worthwhile to the outsider is not the presence of the mosques and the covered souks, but the fact that they still function as such.  If the people of India did not have their remarkable awareness of the importance of spiritual discipline, it would be an overwhelmingly depressing country to visit, notwithstanding its architectural wonders.  And North Africa without its tribes, inhabited by, let us say, the Swiss, would be merely a more barren California.”

And it only gets better after that. If you like this book, all of Bowles’ travel writings have been collected in Travels: Selected Writings 1950-1993. And that title? It’s from The Jumblies by Edward Lear:

Far and few, few and far,

Are the lands where the Jumblies live,

Their heads are green, and their hands are blue,

And they went to sea in a Sieve.



The World Council on Intercultural and Global Competence

Our other agenda this month in BookMarks is to introduce SIETAR folks to The World Council on Intercultural and Global Competence which, according to its website ( is “a global non-profit non-governmental organization dedicated to connecting researchers and practitioners across disciplines, sectors, languages and countries to advance the knowledge, research and praxis of intercultural competence globally in the pursuit of a more peaceful world.”

Instead of just paraphrasing the site, we thought we’d do a brief interview its founder, Darla Deardorff,  to round out our introduction.

Can you describe how this idea came about? You must have seen a gap that needed filling or something that was missing? 

When I was engaged in my doctoral research on intercultural competence, I saw that each discipline seemed to have its own researchers and practitioners engaged with intercultural competence within that discipline but they were looking at ICC within a disciplinary vacuum without connecting with others beyond that discipline.  I saw a  need for ICC researchers in particular to be able to connect with each other across disciplines.  Then, when doctoral students from different places around the world began contacting me, I wanted to find a way for them to connect with each other as well as me, thus leading to my founding the Council, which is now a community of over 2000 globally.

What’s the nicest thing you can imagine someone saying about the ICCG? 

That the World Council connects those around the world and has a huge ripple effect in ultimately building a more peaceful world. 

You are an intercultural author, so we’d also like to ask two of our standard author questions: What is one of the most significant, most memorable cross-cultural experiences you have had?  Wow, there are several: Being in the Soviet Union during the Cold War and being so warmly welcomed by our "enemy", being tear-gassed in Istanbul—and the kindness of strangers.

If you could pass on only one insight/one lesson learned to others about crossing cultures, what would you say? Seek first to understand, including listening for understanding, not for response or judgment.