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Moroccan Gardens, Roads and Dungeons

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by Joe Ambrose, Literary Editor for outsideleft.com
originally published: March, 2005
Morocco has long been a honey pot or stimulus for artists as diverse as the Stones, Matisse, and Mark Twain
by Joe Ambrose, Literary Editor for outsideleft.com
originally published: March, 2005
Morocco has long been a honey pot or stimulus for artists as diverse as the Stones, Matisse, and Mark Twain


Writing about Morocco is tough. The country is a complex contradictory melting pot of peoples. It's a sizeable chunk of Africa with an entrenched, not to mention loaded, power elite. It isn't the comic book semi-comatose backwater of popular mythology, an image celebrated in vintage B&W movies like Casablanca. Moroccans are tough to deal with but well worth the effort involved.

Using the place as a conveniently exotic literary backdrop is an adult writing task. Paul Bowles and the Spanish writer Juan Goytisolo are two Western writers who managed to get under its skin. It has long been a honey pot or stimulus for artists as diverse as the Stones, Matisse, and Mark Twain.

The American writer Edith Wharton went there in 1917 and spent a month speeding through the country in a military vehicle provided for her by the French colonial administration. Writers are known for their arrogance and self-confidence but Wharton was clearly in a league all her own. Doing a whole book about Morocco on the back of such a cursory inspection seems preposterous. Each of the major cities is worth at least a month, and the rural hinterland is, to this day, complex, impenetrable, and extraordinarily rewarding. Wharton was nothing if not industrious - she liked to do a book a year and the appearance of In Morocco in 1920 coincided with the publication of her best known novel, the Pulitzer Prize-winning The Age of Innocence.

She was a diligent hack and left behind a hard working description of the physical state of the country in 1917. I'm not sure that she got to spend quality time with any real Moroccans, and the purpose of her book was to endorse the French occupation and subjugation of a turbulent people. She went to look at Djemma El Fna - the Square of the Dead - in Marrakesh but didn't wander amongst the musicians, dancers, soothsayers, and deviants. Instead she stood on the balcony of the French administrative HQ and studied the "natives" from a distance.

The book is dedicated to, and full of puff pieces about, General Lyautey, the French administrator who ran the place as a personal fiefdom. I guess Lyautey didn't do a bad job, as imperialist dogs go, but Wharton's propagandistic celebration of his empire-building achievements is sickening. In addition to planning some still-attractive art deco town centres, Lyautey introduced gay sex tourism to Morocco. Sex tourism, along with heroin, undermines and eviscerates Moroccan life to this day.

I.B. Tauris, who've done this new edition of In Morocco, are well respected publishers of Arab and Islamic books. It seems odd that they didn't get someone, perhaps a Moroccan, to contextualise this period piece with an introduction or afterword. Wharton pointed out that her account of the country would probably be the last one written before tourism changed the place forever. This is true, and remains the book's claim to legitimacy.

Gavin Maxwell was a British Intelligence-related adventurer whose last book, Lords of The Atlas, is the most entertaining possible ramble through the complicated history of Morocco's warlords, kings, torturers, and romantics. This is not necessarily a book that serious historians would regard as being "reliable" but that doesn't distract from the ripping yarn that Maxwell tells. He borrowed heavily from the fanciful memoirs of an earlier Morocco expert, Walter Harris, and depended on tall tales that he picked up during numerous field trips to the country.

The Glaoua family wreaked havoc across the length and breath of Morocco between 1893 and 1956. Enemies were chained and thrown into murky dungeons, never to see the light of day again. As late as 1953 the Glaoua were mounting the severed heads of foes on the gates of their palaces. Their authority derived from their wealth and from their ability to strike terror into enemy hearts.

Maxwell, who in another incarnation was a noted animal lover, was also a shark fisherman. He displayed a decidedly shark-like taste for gore and blood lust in Lords of The Atlas. For all its garish drama it's a book that captures - just like Paul Bowles captured - the dark violent aspect of Moroccan life. Not all that much has changed since the Glaoua family went into decline and exile. Working class youths die in stabbing affrays all the time - a friend of mine was stabbed six times and died outside his parent's home, aged 27. The current Royal Family, who eventually defeated the Glaoua, remain fond of interrogation, arrest, and disappearance. There is a state of the art interrogation centre outside Rabat which has been round-the-clock busy since the War on Terror began.

The cover of this pleasing edition features a good painting by Jacques Majorelle whose Jardin Majorelle in Marrakesh in a living breathing work of art maintained these days by Yves Saint Laurent, who owns the place and who sometimes lives in the adjacent mansion.

These books are available from Amamzon.com,
In Morocco (Ecco Travels) by Edith Wharton. (Published in the UK by Tauris Peake Paperbacks)
Lords of The Atlas by Gavin Maxwell, (Eland)

see more stories from outsideleft's Culture archive »»

Joe Ambrose
Literary Editor

Joe Ambrose has written 14 books, including Chelsea Hotel Manhattan and The Fenian Reader. Joe is currently working on his next book, Look at Us Now - The Life and Death of Muammar Ghadaffi, which is an expanded version of a story first published in the anthology CUT UP! Visit Joe's website for all the latest info: JoeAmbrose.co.uk.


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