In 1920, the American novelist Edith Wharton published the first guidebook of Morocco written in English. Now, 100 years on, “In Morocco” still has a lot to say, both about the country itself and about the role it plays in the “western” imagination.
Wharton wrote the book from notes she made during the First World War, as she rode through Morocco on a French military transport. The restrictions of the war meant that Wharton had only a month in the country, but she managed to take in such diverse locations as Tangier, Rabat, Moulay Idriss, Fes, and Marrakech.
In some ways, “In Morocco” relies on a kind of orientalism, painting the country as it exists in much of the western imagination – exotic and unknowable. Yet it would be unfair to dismiss the work’s account on these grounds. Like many great books, “In Morocco” lives on its internal contradictions – its author is undoubtedly a colonialist of sorts and yet she writes about Morocco with a sense of genuine fascination that would certainly improve the supposedly more “enlightened” travel writing of today.
From the outset, Wharton presents Morocco as a land yet unspoiled by the outside world. At first glance, this may appear to restate a common orientalist fallacy – that western cultures undergo change, development, and improvement, whereas “the orient” is “authentic,” that is, pure and fixed in time.
Yet there is more to it than this cliché might suggest. Wharton was writing at a time that truly was peculiar in the history of the region – the interlude between the Morocco of centuries past and the Morocco of today, which is a country fully incorporated into the global economic and increasingly monocultural system. Wharton describes the period as “a moment unique in the history of the country; that brief moment of transition between its virtually complete subjection to European authority, and the fast approaching hour when it is thrown open to all the banalities and promiscuities of modern travel.”
This idea of Morocco as a nation in “transition” is a common one.
This idea of Morocco as a nation in “transition” is a common one. A term that is sometimes acidly thrown around in the country is “resilience in inertia” – the idea that the only thing that stays the same in Morocco is that it always feels like everything is about to change. This produces a dialectic that underpins much of the writing about the country. The transition is always just around the corner.
Wharton visited Morocco in a time when European civilian visitors were rare. She wrote with extreme apprehension about what she feared might happen to the Kingdom with its inevitable exposure to something called “tourism,” a term she puts in quotation marks as it was not then in common use. It is clear that Wharton foresaw the swarm of European tourists that would descend upon Morocco once its borders were opened, and it is a prospect she regarded with abject horror.
In 1919, she wrote: “Morocco is too curious, too beautiful, too rich in landscape and architecture, and above all too much of a novelty, not to attract one of the main streams of spring travel as soon as Mediterranean passenger traffic is resumed. Now that the war is over, only a few months’ work on the roads and railways divide it from the great torrent of ‘tourism;’ and once that deluge is let loose, no eye will ever again see Moulay Idriss and Fez and Marrakech as I saw them.”
There is no denying the prescience of these words. Most of us who hail from Europe have had the unedifying experience of sitting with some bore who grossly overestimates his understanding of the world because of the amount of tourism he has done. “Yeah, I’ve done Indonesia,” he might say. “I’ve done Japan – lovely place, I’ve done America, done South America – didn’t like it, done India…” What on earth he means by having “done” these places is unclear, but what is clear is that there is no point in asking.
“In spite of the incessant efforts of the present French administration to preserve the old monuments of Morocco from injury, and her native arts and industries from the corruption of European bad taste, the impression of mystery and remoteness which the country now produces must inevitably vanish with the approach of the ‘Circular Ticket,’” Wharton continues. Again, the phrase “Circular Ticket” is rendered in inverted commas, conveying both the novelty of the concept and the author’s disgust. One can almost feel her shudder as she penned these words, echoing across the century. I am glad, for her sake, that she never lived to see the advent of the “package holiday.”
There is a paradox that runs right through the core of “In Morocco:” the clash between Wharton’s broadly colonialist attitudes and her genuine interest in the history and people of Morocco.
There is a paradox that runs right through the core of “In Morocco:” the clash between Wharton’s broadly colonialist attitudes and her genuine interest in the history and people of Morocco. This juxtaposition is the exact reverse of the paradox that infects much of modern travel writing, which tends (often cynically) to employ the language of cultural sensitivity while essentially being aimed at the chap who sits in a London pub, droning on about the places he has “done.” Such a traveler is supposed to buy his budget airline ticket, get in, and get out. He is one who hears, but does not listen, who looks (and maybe #Instagrams) but does not see. The logical culmination of all of this is a phrase I once overheard in a Marrakech bar, words that will be with me until my last breath: “How do you say ‘Jäger Bombs’ in Arabic?”
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Of course, this is not entirely fair. For every group of sunburnt, wheezing package-holiday-goers, traipsing around the Medina in the midday sun, too miserable even to feign interest or enjoyment but too afraid of seeming uncultured to admit they want to go home, there are a good handful of outsiders who arrive in Morocco with their eyes open, prepared to tolerate unfamiliarity, and eager to learn.
Nor have Wharton’s fears about the death of Morocco’s cultural heritage been entirely realized. “Within a few years,” she wrote, “far more will be known of the past of Morocco, but that past will be far less visible to the traveler than it is today.” There is no denying that, for many round-trippers, it is perfectly possible to spend one’s time in Morocco being almost entirely insulated from the history and culture of the country. And yet this is not the experience of the average visitor.
In the century since Wharton came to Morocco, the country’s heritage has not been damaged by tourism nearly as much as she expected. Recall her prediction that “no eye will ever again see Moulay Idriss and Fez and Marrakech as [she] saw them.” Well, yes and no. The three places Wharton chose as examples for this prophecy are indicative both of the prescience and the limitations of her views.
Wharton crossed the threshold of Moulay Idriss just one year after the first Europeans were allowed to enter the hill-top citadel. The “thrum-thrum of earthenware drums and a curious excited chanting of men’s voices” that greeted Wharton and her party would not be recognized by modern visitors. Wharton spoke of entering Moulay Idriss with a sense of foreboding, an emotional response that could not be less appropriate to the laid-back welcome one can expect today.
On the other hand, the white streets of the modern Medina of Moulay Idriss would be entirely recognizable to Wharton – the town epitomizes the authentic continuity with which the Moroccan state has maintained the country’s cultural heritage sites. The magnificent view from Moulay Idriss takes in the distant ruins of the Roman city of Volubilis, which is also immaculately preserved. What is more, the drums and dancing that Wharton described so vividly were the celebrations of the feast day of the Hamadcha sect, a ritual which continues, in a small way, to this day.
Marrakech, which in many ways embodies Morocco’s sense of perpetual transition, has undergone enormous changes over the last century. The city, now surrounded by Golf courses and luxury resorts, boasts a high-end nightlife scene to rival most of the world. International celebrities are known to frequent the city and the local teenagers are as likely to be seen in McDonald’s as in the mosque.
A striking example of the changes since Wharton’s time is the famous Jewish quarter in the heart of the Medina, the Mellah. During the early 20th Century, the Mellah was home to some 25,000 Jews, crammed into an area of just 16 hectares. 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.
The Mellah is a quintessential example of Morocco’s commitment to preserving tradition.
Yet, in other ways, the Mellah is a quintessential example of Morocco’s commitment to preserving tradition. The district has recently undergone an impressive restoration at state expense – the original names of the streets and town squares have been restored, with the full renewal costing around US$20 million. This demonstrates more than merely an attachment to tradition, but also an emphasis on the cultural inclusion of marginalized groups. The restoration of the Jewish quarter comes at a time when Morocco has moved to recognize its Amazigh cultural heritage and its language, Tamazight – a formalized collection of Berber dialects spoken since before the Arab conquest – as an official language.
Every site that Wharton wrote about in Marrakech – from the Bahia and Badi Palaces, to the Agdal Gardens, to the Saadian Tombs – remain more or less as she saw them. Furthermore, recent years have seen historical buildings and traditional quarters in many other cities restored to their former styles. As for Fes, which is arguably the true cultural capital, the past is still visible without even scratching the surface. A casual stroll through the labyrinth streets of the city’s cavernous Medina is enough to reveal multiple histories, from the Almoravids to the Almohads, from the Merenids to the French Protectorate.
Edith Wharton dreaded that this sense of history, “which now greets the astonished traveler, will gradually disappear, till at last even the mysterious autochthones of the Atlas will have folded their tents and silently stolen away.” As beautifully phrased as they are, her worries did not come true. In spite of the hordes of the dreaded “tourists” that continue to flock across the Mediterranean, the day that Wharton feared – the day when the old Morocco would be lost forever – is still yet to come. Morocco is still waiting for the great transition.