In Morocco, by Edith Wharton

December 18th, 2010

Title page of Edith Wharton's 'In Morocco'In anticipation of our trip to Morocco in a few days, I checked to see what guides and histories I could find in the Internet Archive. The most interesting was Edith Wharton’s 1920 book, In Morocco. The first two thirds of In Morocco recount a trip Wharton took there soon after the end of the First World War.

She went as the guest of the French Governor General of the protectorate, Hubert Lyautey, which entitled her to VIP privileges, including her own car and driver and ready access to military assistance when she needed it. Wharton sings his praises as a military genius and wise administrator, though her evidence for the former is a bit hard to swallow.

When the First World War broke out, Lyautey refused to abandon Morocco and return with his troops. In Wharton’s words, “The loss of Morocco would inevitably have been followed by that of the whole of French North Africa outright to Germany at a moment when what they could supply — meat and wheat — was exactly what the enemy most needed.” She trumpets his success in securing Morocco against what were, at most, minor attempts at incursions by Berbers and Mauritanian tribesmen with a little encouragement from Germany.

Lyautey’s support allowed Wharton to gain as much access as a Western woman could to the inner circle of Moroccan nobility, including spending a few hours in the family chambers of Sultan Yusef in the Imperial Palace in Rabat. And there is color aplenty for those who like their travelogues rich in description, such as this one of the busy passageways of Fes el Bali:

Then the populace closes in again, so quickly and densely that it seems impossible it could ever have been parted, and negro water-carriers, muffled women, beggars streaming with sores, sinewy and greasy “saints,” Soudanese sorcerers hung with amulets made of sardine-boxes and hares’-feet, longlashed boys of the Chleuh in clean embroidered caftans, Jews in black robes and skull-caps, university students carrying their prayer-carpets, bangled and spangled black women, scrofulous children with gazelle eyes and mangy skulls, and blind men tapping along with linked arms and howling out verses of the Koran, surge together in a mass drawn by irresistible suction to the point where the bazaars converge about the mosques of Moulay Idriss and El Kairouiyin.

Or this of the lavish parade of fealty to the Sultan, part of the celebration of Eid al-Adha:

The Sultan, pausing beneath his velvet dome, waited to receive the homage of the assembled tribes. An official, riding forward, drew bridle and called out a name. Instantly there came storming across the plain a wild cavalcade of tribesmen, with rifles slung across their shoulders, pistols and cutlasses in their belts, and twists of camel’s-hair bound about their turbans. Within a few feet of the Sultan they drew in, their leader uttered a cry and sprang forward, bending to the saddle-bow, and with a great shout the tribe galloped by, each man bowed over his horse’s neck as he flew past the hieratic figure on the grey horse.

Again and again this ceremony was repeated, the Sultan advancing a few feet as each new group thundered toward him. There were more than ten thousand horsemen and chieftains from the Atlas and the wilderness, and as the ceremony continued the dust-clouds grew denser and more fiery-golden, till at last the forward-surging lines showed through them like blurred images in a tarnished mirror.

The last third of the book is devoted to long and dull chapters on Moroccan history and Moroccan art and architecture. While Wharton displays considerable empathy, an essential ingredient in her success as a novelist, as well as a deep knowledge of Western and Arab art, it’s only too apparent that little she saw truly inspired her. In every city she visits she notes the many signs of the neglect and decay of much of Morocco’s cultural heritage, despite attempts at restoration by the French government. In her eyes, Morocco in 1919 was a civilization that had been in decline for centuries and only the intercession of France could prevent that from becoming irreversible.

There are, as one would expect, many aspects of In Morocco that show its age and the limitations of the privileged perspective of its author. But, as Laila Lalami noted in a short item about In Morocco in her blog earlier this year, “What strikes me about these contrasts [between the degraded Moroccans and the virtues of their French occupiers] is not that they are outmoded, but rather the opposite: the same images, the same tropes are still to be found in travel writing or reportage about Morocco today.”

There are numerous editions of In Moroccoavailable from publishers specializing in print-on-demand editions of books in the public domain, but spare a tree and CO2 emissions and just download a copy from the Internet Archive: http://www.archive.org/details/inmorocco00wharuoft.


In Morocco, by Edith Wharton
New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1920

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