George Orwell was admitted to a hospital in England on March 15, 1938. It was suspected that he was suffering from tuberculosis, the malady that would later cut his life short at the age of 46. His doctors told him that it would be best for him to spend the following winter in a warm climate.
Orwell and his wife, Eileen Blair (Orwell’s real name was Eric Arthur Blair), were in dire financial straits. The drudgery and faint humiliation of a writer’s existence, today as in his time, was captured brilliantly by Orwell in much of his work. His dryly comic essay “Confessions of a Book Reviewer” springs particularly to mind.
Orwell and Eileen had to rely on a loan of £300 from an anonymous donor in order to finance their trip to Morocco. Orwell knew that the identity of his creditor was the novelist L.H. Myers and, after Orwell’s death, Myers’ estate was repaid from the proceeds of “Animal Farm.” The couple arrived in Marrakech on September 14, 1938. By the time they set sail again from Casablanca, on March 26, 1939, Orwell had written his novel “Coming Up for Air,” which was published shortly after his return to England.
Orwell religiously chronicled his experience in Morocco, which at that time was under the control of the French Protectorate. His essay “Marrakech,” a distillation of his “Morocco Diaries,” was published around Christmas, 1939.
Orwell was a passionate critic of all forms of imperialism and made no exception in his excoriation of French colonial rule.
Orwell was a passionate critic of all forms of imperialism and made no exception in his excoriation of French colonial rule. One of the qualities of Orwell that made his political writing so powerful was his unique desire to understand the appeal of the ideologies he opposed, in order to combat their symptoms in himself and others. He famously wrote that the essential characteristic of the free intellect was “the power of facing unpleasant facts,” and strove to live up to this standard in his writing about Morocco.
Orwell does not only attack the hypocrisy and brutality of the French regime but explores and criticizes the imperialist attitudes that he himself had internalized. Much of his language is grating to the modern ear, but an unmistakable solidarity with the victims of imperialism underlies Orwell’s writing about Morocco, just as it had in Burma and elsewhere. “When you see how the people live, and still more how easily they die, it is always difficult to believe that you are walking among human beings,” he wrote. “All colonial empires are in reality founded upon that fact.”
If European imperialism has a central myth, it is this: We are civilized and they are not. From the outset, Orwell hints at his own impulses of this kind – the essay opens with an account of a funeral procession that passed him in the street, temporarily distracting the flies from his lunch. “What really appeals to the flies is that the corpses here are never put into coffins, they are merely wrapped in a piece of rag and carried on a rough wooden bier on the shoulders of four friends,” he writes. “When the friends get to the burying-ground they hack an oblong hole a foot or two deep, dump the body in it and fling over it a little of the dried-up, lumpy earth, which is like broken brick. No gravestone, no name, no identifying mark of any kind.”
The tone of Orwell’s Marrakech diaries is largely descriptive – he offers little in terms of moral judgment of Moroccan society itself. He is a mere observer. It is unclear, therefore, whether he is aware of the reason why traditional Moroccan burials do not involve ornate gravestones that distinguish one tomb from another. “While the family is supposed to be able to recognize the tomb, it shouldn’t be decorated with plants, precious stones, and so on, since everyone is equal in death,” a Moroccan friend of mine told me. “Nowadays, more elaborate gravestones are more common but, traditionally, modesty and simplicity are the rule.”
Furthermore, the body that Orwell saw would not need to have been placed in a coffin, due to the Islamic tradition of interring a person’s body before sundown on the day they died. When one understands these things, Moroccan burial practices do not appear to be less civilized than those of Europe. Indeed, it could be argued that they are more so.
“Every line of serious work that I have written since 1936 has been written, directly or indirectly, against totalitarianism and for democratic socialism.”
In 1946, Orwell wrote: “Every line of serious work that I have written since 1936 has been written, directly or indirectly, against totalitarianism and for democratic socialism, as I understand it.” This radical spirit is present in “Marrakech,” where it informs a satire of the capitalist system and of the imperialist ideology that remains poignant to this day. “All people who work with their hands are partly invisible, and the more important the work they do, the less visible they are,” Orwell observed, adding that the colonial mindset has the power to render a worker almost entirely invisible if he or she does not have white skin.
“It is only because of this that the starved countries of Asia and Africa are accepted as tourist resorts,” he continued. “No one would think of running cheap trips to the Distressed Areas [of England]. But where the human-beings have brown skins their poverty is simply not noticed. What does Morocco mean to a Frenchman? An orange-grove or a job in Government service.” A cynic who wished to update this list for the modern day might add English teacher, NGO worker, or freelance journalist to the opportunities available to the descendants of empire.
While aspects of Orwell’s Morocco are recognizable in the Marrakech of today, the city has seen profound changes in the 80 years since the author penned his account. Perhaps the most dramatic of these has been the exodus of the Jewish community.
In Orwell’s time, the Marrakech Medina boasted Morocco’s largest Jewish quarter. Known as the Mellah, (which derives from the Arabic word for salt market) the quarter was home to up to 25,000 Jews, despite being only around 18 hectares in area. Today, the Jewish population is reduced to under 200, largely as a result of the mass emigration throughout the 1950s and 60s that followed the creation of the state of Israel.
No less biting than Orwell’s critique of European colonialism was his dry mockery of the antisemitism he encountered in Marrakech.
No less biting than Orwell’s critique of European colonialism was his dry mockery of the antisemitism he encountered in Marrakech, which he recalls was at least as prevalent among the Europeans as among the Arabs. The author highlighted the most peculiar characteristic of antisemitism – the idea of Jews as simultaneously superior and inferior, as living like vermin while running the world.
Orwell’s acid analysis of this absurd contradiction is captured in an interaction with a resident of Marrakech, which he recorded in his diary:
“’The Jews! They’re the real rulers of this country, you know. They’ve got all the money. They control the banks, finance – everything.’
‘But,’ I said, ‘isn’t it a fact that the average Jew is a laborer working for about a penny an hour?’
‘Ah, that’s only for show! They’re all moneylenders really. They’re cunning, the Jews.’
In just the same way, a couple of hundred years ago, poor old women used to be burned for witchcraft when they could not even work enough magic to get themselves a square meal.”
“A good job Hitler isn’t here,” Orwell mused, adding: “Perhaps he is on his way, however.” This prophecy was to be fulfilled within four years.
Throughout his work, Orwell staked his hopes on the power of ordinary people.
“If there is any hope,” Winston Smith, the protagonist of “1984,” reflected: “it lies with the proles.” Throughout his work, Orwell staked his hopes on the power of ordinary people, be they imperial subjects or citizens of a totalitarian state, to throw off their chains.
Towards the end of his Morocco diaries, Orwell recalls an encounter with a company of Senegalese troops from the French imperial military, being led by white officers. Ever self-reflective, the experience prompted a question, which the author put both to himself and to the reader.
“[There is] one thought which every white man (and in this connection it doesn’t matter two pence if he calls himself a Socialist) thinks when he sees a black army marching past,” he wrote. “‘How much longer can we go on kidding these people? How long before they turn their guns in the other direction?’”
This question, and many like it, might still be asked today.