The Western Imagination of Morocco

Why at this late hour would The New York Times want to recycle Paul Bowles’ racist fantasies of Morocco?

Shepherd in rural Morocco. Image credit Scott Wallace for the World Bank via Flickr (CC).

The temperature was easily 90 degrees as Mohamed wrapped my head with a long blue chech…” begins a recent New York Times travel piece on Morocco by Paris-based journalist Seth Sherwood. Then, just a few paragraphs in, Sherwood reverently cites Paul Bowles, the American expatriate writer who dominates Western literary imagination of Morocco. Sherwood cites Bowles to set up a passage about the “silence” of the Sahara as the entry point for his narrative. Throughout the piece, it is as though the Morocco that Bowles wrote about decades ago was frozen in time and place. “At nearly every stop,” writes Sherwood, “I encountered the ghost of Bowles himself.” He even openly discloses to a local that he came to Morocco only because of Bowles’ novel The Sheltering Sky.

The Saharan winds first blew through my life 20 years ago when I was in graduate school. They stirred from the pages of “The Sheltering Sky,” Paul Bowles’s existential 1940s novel of the unraveling lives of three Americans traveling in the North African desert … In the succeeding years, I nurtured the same dream as the sheltered mountain girls whose tale forms the thematic filament of “The Sheltering Sky”: to visit the desert, to climb the highest dune, to drink tea in the Sahara.

Since around World War II, Morocco became the window into the “Orient” in the dominant American discourse, which translated into other forms of knowledge production, including literature. Brian Edwards argues, “Since the late nineteenth century, the Maghreb has been one of the most familiar locations of the American exotic and one of the places to which filmmakers and novelists turned often for tales of ‘Oriental’ splendor and decadence.”

Bowles is no fresh voice: he first traveled to Morocco in the 1930s, before returning to the country in 1947 and deciding to settle there as a long-term resident, years before Morocco would gain independence from France. After Morocco attained independence, Bowles became the most prominent US citizen living in Morocco, and someone whose statements were widely circulated and repeated as insight.  In his New York Times travel piece, Sherwood misses a unique opportunity to critique and juxtapose Bowles’ construction of Morocco during the late twentieth century with the Morocco of today.

In his writings, Bowles recycled a number of Cold War and racist tropes about Morocco; whether politics (gullible to Soviet Communism) or hygiene (“The Moroccan, educated or otherwise, simply does not believe in germs”), among others, so it is shocking to see him uncritically act as lodestar for Sherwood.

Instead, Sherwood perpetuates Bowles’ fantasy of Morocco by recycling old clichés and treating Morocco and its inhabitants as if the only major change that took place over the past few decades is a greater Hollywood presence (Morocco is a sought after stand-in movie location) and a wider gastronomical selection in restaurants. Rather than letting the Morocco that was and is guide Sherwood, he spends his time actively seeking the Morocco that existed in Bowles’ mind and writings.

And much like Bowles’ own writings were widely circulated, Sherwood uses the New York Times as a platform to reduce Morocco to a “kaleidoscope of centuries-old souks, dusty colonial-era outposts, livestock markets, and luxury restaurants.” Besides this massive historical abbreviation, he highlights a town where he “found a strange cinematic world of biblical episodes, Buddhist masters and James Bond villains.” And there, Morocco is confounded, both in space and time, to nothing more than a reification of the distant past and the hyper-reality of Hollywood productions.

Sherwood’s slightest attempts at nuance are also lost in the factual blunders, such as his conflation between djellabas and caftans. For example, he describes “Berbers” as “the fair-skinned inhabitants of North Africa who predate the seventh-century Arab invaders and still compose most of southern Morocco’s population.” While it has been widely agreed upon that the term “Berbers” is derogatory and Amazigh is the more accepted term to identify the indigenous inhabitants of North Africa, the racial description of Imazighen as “fair-skinned” is flat out wrong and racist. This statement completely disregards the history and presence of black Imazighen who have not only inhabited Morocco for centuries but the whole region, including Mauritania, Western Sahara, Mali, Algeria, Libya, and Tunisia.

Finally, the Orientalist fixation on the desert is a major theme in Bowles’ writing, something that Sherwood constantly cites as a reference. Bowles wrote in Travels: “The Sahara is a continent within a continent – a skeleton, if you like, but still a separate entity from the rest of Africa which surrounds it (126).” The characterization of the desert as a “separate entity” attempts to delineate non-existent rigid borders and transcribe an abstract Orientalist imagination unto reality, which resonates with General Lyautey’s colonial urban planning policies in Morocco’s major cities.

The most worrying aspect of Sherwood’s piece is that even in 2015, years after Bowles’ racist and Orientalist quips have been published he remains a source and guiding voice for travelers to Morocco.

That and that the New York Times thought it would be okay publishing this sort of thing.

Further Reading