Dusty Books: Edith Wharton – In Morocco

Published in 1920, I just had to read this account by a woman who traveled Morocco directly after the First World War by car. One of the very first sentences of the journey bristles with an all too familiar excitement, even though Morocco is the the subject of so many guide books today:

To step aboard a steamer in a Spanish port, and three hours later to land in a country without a guide book, is a sensation to rouse the hunger of the repletest sight-seer (p.8)

Books like Wharton’s do their bit to rouse that hunger, but also satisfy it many ways. Even if an old travel book may speak from an era, culture or ideology as foreign to the reader as the destination is to the author. Morocco is all over my book shelf, but between those pages I can still visit her Morocco, bobbing along without a guidebook beyond what she calls “the familiar dog-eared world of travel” – isn’t that a wonderful image?

For Tangier swarms with people in European clothes, there are English, French and Spanish signs above its shops, and cab-stands in its squares; it belongs, as much as Algiers, to the familiar dog-eared world of travel – and there, beyond the last dip of “the Mountain,” lies the world of mystery, with the rosy dawn just breaking over it. The motor is at the door and we are off. (p.10)

Not only does she describe sights in places like Rabat, Volubilis (fans of Asterix, there you can still walk on a paved road where Roman chariots once thundered), Meknez and Fez; she also takes the reader into her vehicle so that the narrative bounces and grunts along with the motor in the dust. Amper soos die bonsende kamera agter die ruite van die voertuie in die dokumentêre televisiereeks Voetspore, voer haar beskrywing die leser padlangs deur die landskap:

After leaving the macadamized road which runs south from Tangier one seems to have embarked on a petrified ocean in a boat hardly equal to the adventure. Then, as one leaps and plunges over humps and ruts, down sheer banks into rivers, and up precipices into sand-pits, one gradually gains faith in one’s conveyance and in one’s spinal column; but both must be sound in every joint to resist the strain of the long miles to Arbaoua, the frontier post of the French protectorate. (p.10)

Gain faith in your spinal column! When I travel, I like to read books set in the place where I’m going. But long after a journey, a book can also take you back. Wharton’s description of her first sight of Rabat, made me sit upright, because not only does she conjure up a sight that I saw, she manages to bring back the feel of the air and the smells and the cool mist – that mist that rubs out the edge of a continent into a hazy bit of light blue sky:

To the gates of both the Atlantic breakers role in with the boom of northern seas, and under a misty northern sky. It is one of the surprises of Morocco to find the familiar African pictures bathed in this unfamiliar haze. Even the fierce midday sun does not wholly dispel it – the air remains thick, opalescent, like water slightly clouded by milk. One is tempted to say that Morocco is Tunisia seen by moonlight.(p.14)

I’ll leave her descriptions of the desert and the desert light for another time when I return to this book. But next time you travel, try to read something really old about the place you are going to or that you’ve been to: You may find a travel companion whose typewriter used some of the words on you touch screen to draw the same filter you used on your Instagram over the moment you re-encounter in a dusty book.