In this new anthology, editor Martin Rose collates accounts of various travellers through the centuries, but it skims the surface rather than being genuinely educational, writes Lucy Scholes
Book review: A Morocco Anthology: Travel Writing through the Centuries
Ali Bey el Abbassi was a Spaniard from Barcelona, born in 1767, who claimed he was a descendant of the Abbasid caliphs. He made his name as an explorer and spy in the Islamic world, travelling and behaving in every way as a Muslim, who visited Morocco between 1803 and 1805. Although he was apparently ultimately denied Muslim burial when he passed away in Damascus in 1818 because a cross was found on his person.
On 23rd June, 1803, he crossed the Strait of Gibraltar – a mere fourteen miles, Martin Rose, A Morocco Anthology’s editor, points out, but in every other way a gulf between two completely different worlds.
El Abbassi sailed into Tangier, “the gateway” of Morocco for Europeans in the era before air travel. Rose describes it as a “strange and perhaps unique place,” one that for 23 years in the late seventeenth century was actually in the possession of the English crown, having been part of Catherine of Braganza’s dowry when she married the English monarch Charles II in 1661.
During this period of English occupation, there was a “half-hearted” attempt to develop it into a great British trading port, well positioned as it is at the mouth of the Mediterranean, but attacks from the Moors ultimately scuppered these grand plans and the British garrison eventually withdrew. Though not before blowing up the large and very costly harbour mole previously constructed, the act of which was supervised by none other than the famous diarist Samuel Pepys, who had long served in the British Admiralty. Unsurprisingly, Pepys kept a record of his time in Tangier, though as Rose points out, compared to the writer’s more famous earlier work, it’s rather “dry”. Indeed, in the sections Rose chooses for inclusion here, there’s only the bare minimum in the way of local colour. Pepys describes “how blue” the “remote hills” look as the sun goes down in the evening, “as I have seen them painted,” he writes, “but never believed them natural.” Then there’s the camp of Moors he spies through his “long glass,” who “look almost like ghosts,” he surmises, “all in white.”
Pepys might not have been impressed by Morocco, but just over a hundred years later, el Abbassi’s first impressions of the same country tell a different story.
“The sensation which we experience on making this short passage for the first time, can be compared only to the effect of a dream,” he writes of the crossing to Tangier. “Passing in so short an interval of time, to a world absolutely new, and which has not the smallest resemblance to that which we have quitted, we seem to have been actually transported into another planet.”
Of all the writers whose work appears in A Morocco Anthology, el Abbassi is the only one identified as Muslim, but even he’s writing as an outsider. Rose – who was director of the British Council in Morocco until 2014, during which time he wrote a blog about his travels in the country, Mercurius Maghrebensis, and is now a visiting fellow at the Alwaleed bin Talal Centre for Islamic Studies at the University of Cambridge – has collated what he refers to as “classic writing” about Morocco.
He’s well aware of how the country is often seen. “Morocco,” he writes in his brief introduction, “provides the visual vocabulary of Hollywood, with Moorish ‘keyhole’ arches defining Aladdin’s Baghdad and every other film version of the Arab Orient. It is astonishing how often our writers refer to The Arabian Nights, which had nothing of course to do with Morocco at all.” He makes these observations, but does little to push beyond the simplicity of these writers’ descriptions of Oriental othering.
To be fair, the point of this book is not to engage critically with what’s been written about the country. Rather, it exists as a compendium of extracts. Split into seven sections – the first short section deals with Morocco more generally, the four imperial cities, “where, in pre-colonial days, the Sultan’s peripatetic court settled for days, weeks, or months at a time on its constant travels around his huge realm,” then each have a chapter of their own: Fes, Marrakech, Meknes, and Rabat; Essaouira, the port of Marrakech, also gets its own section, though as Rose explains, “today it is probably at least as famous in its reincarnation as Astapor, the city on Slaver’s Bay in Game of Thrones”; as does the non-imperial city of Tangier.
Although the writers he includes all originally hail from Western shores, this isn’t to say they’re only writing from the point of view of that of an adventurer merely passing through.
There’s Emily Keene, Shareefa of Ouazzane, an English governess in Tangier who was apparently “swept off her feet” by the Grand Sheikh of Ouazzane, Hadj Ahmed ben Abdesslam, “Morocco’s leading hereditary saint and a notable drunkard,” whom she married in 1873, and then remained on in Tangier for 50-odd years after his death in 1892, until her own in 1941.
The American writer, composer and translator Paul Bowles, who lived in Tangier for more than 40 years, where he wrote his famous North African-set novel The Sheltering Sky. And the wonderfully named Budgett Meakin, the editor of the country’s first newspaper, The Times of Morocco, which was founded by his father in 1884.
There are delightful tidbits of information and evocative descriptions found therein, but ultimately A Morocco Anthology is more a curiosity than genuinely educational.