In Morocco by Edith Wharton


Making her way to Morocco just as World War I ended is impressive by itself; that Edith Wharton managed to see as much as she did and to write about it with great erudition is remarkable. She stayed in Paris during the war and made herself so useful helping refugees, the injured, and the unemployed that she was given the country's highest honor in 1916. This book was published in 1919 and somehow she managed to finish her Pulitzer Prize winning novel The Age of Innocence in 1920. 

She begins by expressing dismay at the limited amount of time she could be in the country and the difficulty of moving around due to the war conditions. It should be said she was also limited by her outlook which strongly and openly supported colonialism. She couldn't say enough about the salutary influence of the French, in particular, Governor General Lyautey and his wife. Still, there are her beautiful descriptions and her social observations.

She ends one chapter with this interesting take on one aspect of the social structure:

As in all Oriental countries the contact between prince and beggar, vizier and serf is disconcertingly free and familiar and one must see the highest court officials kissing the hem of the sultan's robe and hear authentic tales of slaves given by one merchant to another at the end of a convivial evening to be reminded that nothing is as democratic in appearance as a society in which the whole structure hangs on the whim of one man.

She tells about a visit to the Sultan's favorites in his harem of "fairy tale" girls in their teens with "little brown hands fluttering out like birds from their brocaded sleeves." She describes their clothing including "the complicated structure of the headdress. Ropes of black wool were plaited through the hair, forming at the back a double loop that stood out above the nape like the twin handles of a vase….On each side of the red cheeks other braids were looped over the ears hung with broad earrings of filigree, set with rough pearls and emeralds or gold hoops and pendants of coral and an unexpected tulle ruff like that of a Watteau shepherdess framed the round chin above a torrent of necklaces, necklaces of amber, coral, baroque pearls hung with mysterious barbaric amulets and fetishes." Intrigued by the image of Watteau painting shepherdesses wearing tulle ruffs, I did a little searching online and found that Watteau (1684-1721) did paint people wearing ruffs, but I didn't see any that were shepherdesses. However, a comic opera called The Madcap Duchess opened on Broadway in 1913 and some characters were referred to as Watteau Shepherdesses.

She visited the harem of a successful merchant and found women dressed in "rich but sober" clothing with "dignified dowdiness." There wasn't much conversation as "there are few points of contact between the open air occidental mind and beings imprisoned in a conception of sexual and domestic life based on slave service and incessant espionage….All these colorless, eventless lives depend on the favor of one fat tyrannical man, bloated with good living and authority, himself as inert and sedentary as his women."

And then there's the slavery. She describes a visit with a man who fought valiantly with France during the war. She noticed a girl of six or seven who watched each movement of the kahid. Though he never spoke to her or looked at her, she divined his least wish, "refilling his teacup or passing the plates of sweets or removing our empty glasses in obedience to some secret telegraphy on which her whole being hung." She describes him as an enlightened man who seemed to have assimilated the best of European culture, "yet when I looked at the tiny creature watching him with those anxious, joyless eyes, I felt once more the abyss that slavery and the seraglio put between the most Europeanized Mahometan and the Western conception of life."

I have truly loved the three books of her fiction that I have listened to (The House of Mirth, The Age of Innocence, and The Custom of the Country).

Edith Wharton, In Morocco, originally published in 1919, 290 pages (I listened to the audiobook). Available at the UVa library, the public library (as a downloadable ebook), and from Amazon.

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