Book: Edith Wharton in Morocco

In Morocco
by Edith Wharton

Overripeness is…the characteristic of this rich and stagnant civilization. Buildings, people, customs, seem all about to crumble and fall of their own weight: the present is a perpetually prolonged past.  To touch the past with one’s hands is realized only in dreams; and in Morocco the dream-feeling envelops one at every step.

Edith Wharton, novelist and friend of author Henry James, came late to her writing career but was a traveller from an early age, prompting her to comment in later life “perhaps, after all, it is not a bad thing to begin one’s travels at four.”

Wharton was born into a wealthy family in 1862.  Following the American Civil War, her family moved to Europe, travelling between France, Spain and Italy before returning to New York when the Franco-Prussian war broke out.  

Wharton later married a wealthy Boston banker in 1885 with whom she travelled around Europe for several months each year.  At the end of the 19th century, the Whartons’ travels focused on Italy but switched to France in the early part of the 20th century.  Their travels included a four-month yacht cruise on the Aegean in 1888 which Wharton wrote about in The Cruise of the Vanadis.  

It was only in her 40s that Wharton turned seriously to writing after the publication of her first successful novel The House of Mirth.  In addition to fiction, Wharton wrote seven travel books. After her separation and divorce, Wharton moved to France where lived until her death in 1937.   

edith-wharton

In her introduction to Edith Wharton Abroad, a collection of Wharton’s travel writing, Sarah Bird Wright notes that Wharton’s travel writing is shaped not only by her extensive reading and learning but also a “dislike of architectural restoration” and a “preference for “parentheses” of travel instead of the “catalogued riches of guidebooks””. She also observes that, like William Dean Howells, Wharton was a traveller before she was a writer.    

Relatively late in her travelling career, in 1917 and while Europe was still engulfed by the First World War, Edith Wharton toured Morocco by car at a pivotal moment in that country’s history:

the brief moment of transition between its virtually complete subjection to European authority, and the fast approaching hour when it is thrown open to all the banalities and promiscuities of modern travel.

Overshadowing In Morocco is the sense that Wharton is glimpsing a country that is changing and disappearing.  Wharton sees that a combination of French improvement to Morocco’s railways and roads together with the resumption of normal Mediterranean passenger traffic after the war will open Morocco up to “the great torrent of ‘tourism'” and all the “banalities and promiscuities of modern travel”.

whartons-journey-in-morocco

Starting her journey in Tangier, Wharton is keen to get away from the familiar “dog-eared world of travel” she finds there and instead immerse herself in the souks and harems of old Morocco.

Wharton visits Rabat and Sale, Volubilis (the only sizeable Roman ruins so far discovered in Morocco) and also Meknes, where she recalls the reign of Sultan Moulay-Ismael whose architectural achievements are overshadowed by his use of slaves in their construction among whom were Christians captured by Barbary pirates.

Wharton moves on to “many-walled Fez” where she vividly describes the descent through its souk to the tomb of the city’s founder, Moulay-Idriss and the Almohad mosque of El Kairouiyin.  

Wharton describes the markets and souks of Fez and Marrakech and also the Djemaa el- Fna with its storytellers, snake-charmers and dancers, concluding that there “can be no more Oriental sight this side of the Atlas and the Sahara.” 

Wharton also describes visits to Moulay Idriss, where she witnesses a blood rite dance, as well as the Saadian tombs in Marrakech, both places firmly on modern travellers’ itineraries but to which foreigners then had only recently been permitted access. 

Wharton portrays Morocco as a country of constant change, instability and even as a shifting concept.  She describes the flows of Almoravid, Almohad, Saadian, Merinid or Hassanian invaders as they wash across the country, each leaving their mark on Morocco’s architecture and history.  

With shifts in power Wharton notes the shifting borders or areas of control, in a region bounded by the Giralda tower in Seville to the Koutoubya tower in Marrakech and beyond the desert to interior Africa.  

Wharton also describes the abandoned and decaying buildings which, made of plaster and rubble, “do not die in beauty like the firm stones of Rome”

Everywhere behind the bristling walls and rock-clamped towers of old Morocco lurks the shadowy spirit of instability. Every new Sultan builds himself a new house and lets his predecessors’ palaces fall into decay; and as with the Sultan so with his vassals and officials. Change is the rule in this apparently unchanged civilization, where “nought may abide but Mutability.

Wharton clearly views the French and, in particular, General Lyautey’s governorship of Morocco as enlightened and perhaps, underlining a departure from the past, as permanent and stable.  In one sense then, although the French represent another wave of invaders to have crossed the desert and administer Morocco, their coming marks a change from the normal pattern and the arrival of modernity. 

No more will the invading or controlling power knock down and rebuild.  No more will Morocco’s old buildings fall into ruin.  New buildings are to be constructed outside of the old towns and Wharton praises the “incessant efforts of General Lyautey’s administration to preserve the old monuments of Morocco from injury, and her native arts and industries from the corruption of European bad taste.”  

Conscious that she is visiting a guidebook-less country, Wharton adds to her personal impressions, outlines of the country’s history and architecture.  Modestly, she claims that the chief merit of these outlines is their absence of originality, having drawn their content from other works that she lists.  She also devotes a chapter to describing her experiences of harems in Rabat, Fez and Marrakech. 

Although, in her original preface of 1919, Wharton expresses concern at the prospect of increased tourism to Morocco, in the preface to a new edition in 1927, Wharton is pleased to note that Morocco has retained “nearly all the magic and mystery of forbidden days”, despite its popularity as a destination and the improvements to its accessibility and its conveniences, concluding that: 

To visit Morocco is still like turning the pages of some illuminated Persian manuscript all embroidered with bright shapes and subtle lines.”  

Some of Wharton’s other travel books (some of which are available to download for free and legally at The Internet Archive or Project Gutenberg) are: 

 

Photo essay: Urbanistan, a street photography project

UrbaniStan is a street photography project that explores the urban environment of the developing world. The project aims to demonstrate that ‘urban’ in the developing world does not necessarily mean modern and to draw the attention of the general public to the slowly declining social values that are sinking under increasing pressures of modernisation. 

Excellent photo essay from Maptia and Slovenian photographer, Matjaž Krivic.

Breathtaking in its scope and with beautiful images, this gallery of 80 images of urban life around the world is a visual feast for any travel lover.  

 

The photos in this gallery are the result of Krivic’s many years’ globe-trotting in Asia, Africa and the Middle East but they are much more than simply a collection of postcard images of famous places.  

Although many of the locations are well known, Krivic captures a different angle and gives them a personality whether it is of boys playing volleyball on the streets of Thula in Yemen, Jaipur primary school pupils having a maths lesson, a boy studying at a medrassa in Mali or people at work, play or prayer around the world.  

 

Matjaž Krivic has been travelling and photographing the world for 22 years.  According to his website, he focusses on poorer parts of the world “characterised by traditions, social unrest and religious devotion…the marginal world – the voices of the neglected”.

Intimate, spontaneous and striking, this is a gallery to get lost in, to wonder not only at the places themselves but also at the people who live there and the lives they lead. Inspiring and thought provoking. 

More of Matjaž Krivic’s work can be found on his website (www.krivic.com), on Instagram (@krivicmatjaz) or on Twitter (@matjazkrivic) and if 80 photos aren’t enough and you want to see more of the Urbanistan photos, look here.  

 

 

Book: Wind, Sand and Stars by Antoine de St-Exupéry

Wind, Sand and Stars
by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry
Penguin Classics (first published in 1939)

We tasted the gentle excitement of a well planned celebration and yet we were infinitely destitute. Wind, sand and stars. Austere even for a Trappist. But on that poorly lit patch, six or seven men who possessed nothing in the world but their memories were sharing invisible riches.

In his NYRB review of Stacy Schiff’s biography of St-Exupéry ($), Al Alvarez reminds us that air travel was not always “just another tribulation we endure in the name of impatience” which involved dashing to airports, endless queuing and anxieties about whether there will space in the overhead bins for your carry on bag (tip: pack less).  

Alvarez recalls that those who flocked to watch early aviators were in awe of the strangeness of flying, the bravery of the airmen and the sheer miracle of mechanical flight.  In its early days, flying was the “point at which engineering intersects with the imagination.”  He notes that the French were “particularly susceptible” to poetic hyberole associated with the romance of flying. Antoine de Saint-Exupéry was one of those Frenchmen. 

St-Exupéry was primarily a writer of fiction (Night Flight and Flight to Arras as well as The Little Prince) but Wind, Sand and Stars is St-Exupéry’s lyrical exposition of his fascination with flying.  He  expresses his delight for the new machines with a child like enthusiasm albeit tempered with caution (we are “barbarians still enthralled by our new toys”).  Although he cares about the aesthetics of modern machines (“Perfection is attained not when there is nothing more to add, but when there is nothing to take away”) he is careful to emphasise that the machines themselves not the point:

The aeroplane is a means, not an end.  It is not for the plane that we risk our lives.  Nor is it for the sake of his plough that the farmer ploughs.  But through the plane we can leave the cities and their accountants, and find a truth that farmers know.

The truth St-Exupéry is seeking is purposeful living.  In Wind, Sand and Stars he aims to grab us by the shoulders while there is still time and urges us to live.

He begins by conveying the experience and sensations of early flight.  Peter Hausler, writing in Post Road Magazine observes that the most gripping chapters are those describing “the harrowing dangers faced by early aviators.”  The physical exertion and mental toll endured by St-Exupéry and other Aeropostale pilots is vividly conveyed.  Their work opening up the the first air mail routes was extremely dangerous.  The pilots were exposed to the elements and had to feel their way through storms, flying blind without the technology available to modern pilots.   

Wind, Sand and Stars contains atmospheric passages about preparing for night flights. The calmness, mundane routines and exchanges that precede the excitement and danger.  There are elegies for lost comrades. the elation of being in the desert and treading on ground which nothing but celestial debris has touched and the famous crash landing in the Libyan desert which almost resulted in his death.

Despite the risks, St-Exupéry writes about those flights with a child’s love of fairy tales. He encounters strange lands, castles and forbidden kingdoms where mountains are castle ramparts and pilots are dragon-slaying knights.   

St-Exupéry struggled with the idea of being confined by regular urban life with its stifling rituals, suburban trains and people living an ant-like existence with their freedom reduced to Sundays.  Notwithstanding the dangers of his profession St-Exupéry was happy because he had at least tasted freedom (“breathed the wind of the sea”).

Some men stay closeted in their title shops.  Others travel with urgency on a necessary road.

Wind, Sand and Stars is a manifesto then, for love, friendship, courage, humility, freedom, responsibility; for recognising what is of true value and seizing life.  Its message is not that to live we must fly.  It is that we should not allow ourselves to to ossify or spend our lives in pursuit of things which have little meaning: 

When we work merely for material gain, we build our own prison […] If I search among my memories for those whose taste is lasting, if I write the balance sheet of the moments that truly counted, I surely find those that no fortune could have bought me.

It is an inspiring book which diagnoses the malady yet also prescribes the remedy:  

What saves a man is to take a step. And another step.
It’s that same first step repeated.

For further reading, see this article by Daniel Buck in the magazine of the South American Explorers Club: 

Book: Mark Twain’s Innocents Abroad

The Innocents Abroad, or the new Pilgrims’ Progress
by Mark Twain

Published in 1869

The gentle reader will never, never know what a consummate ass he can become, until he goes abroad.

Innocents Abroad was Mark Twain’s first travel book and also his best-selling book during his life time.   A travel writing classic, it features in Conde Nast Traveler’s 86 Greatest Travel Books of All Time and World Hum’s list of 100 Most Celebrated Travel Books.   

The details of the trip are well known.  In 1967, just two years after the end of the American Civil War, Twain joined a group of 60 or so other passengers on a tour of the Mediterranean (“a pleasure excursion” and “picnic on a grand scale”).  The voyage was to be undertaken on the paddle steamship, the Quaker City.  Decommissioned following service in the Civil War, the Quaker City had been refitted “with every necessary comfort” including a library, musical instruments and even a printing press so that the passengers could print their own newsletter.  

Innocents ABroad USS_Quaker_City

The trip lasted about 5 months.  It took a fortnight to reach Gibraltar from the US and Twain reports (not without apprehension at the anticipated boredom) that it would take several weeks to steam back to the US from the Eastern Mediterranean; a long time to spend on a boat about 75 metres in length.   

In the remaining four or less months, the ‘Pilgrims’ packed in an impressive amount, taking in (among other places) Tangiers, Paris, Milan, the Italian lakes, Florence and Rome, the Black Sea ports of Sebastopol (for some Crimea battlefield tourism), Yalta and Odessa before heading to the Holy Land which was the ultimate goal of the trip.  

The only thing more impressive than the number of places visited by the Pilgrims was Twain’s output.  Twain’s $1,250 fare for the voyage was paid by The Daily Alto California.  In return, he sent the San Francisco paper over 50 letters which it published and which later formed the basis of the 600 plus page book Twain wrote after his return in 1868.    

Twain Innocents Abroad

From the outset Twain makes it clear that he is not writing an earnest and reverent travel book, calling it a “record of a pleasure trip” and he proceeds to rail against travellers, travel pretences, foreigners and foreign places and also travel writers.

Twain is unsparing of Parisian barbers, tour guides, European use of soap, Turkish baths and, of course, ‘our friends the Bermudians’ as well as a great many other things he encounters.  He professes to be sated by walls of paintings and is sceptical of tourists who express wonder at the Last Supper and instead claims to be more interested in turnpikes, depots and boulevards of uniform houses because he understands them and is not competent to act as a guide to Europe’s art treasures for his readers (“I make small pretense of showing anyone how he ought to look at objects of interest beyond the sea—other books do that, and therefore, even if I were competent to do it, there is no need.”)  Twain’s humour is, for the most part, gentle and aimed at deserving targets.  Only occasionally is he biting or more cruel but his wit is invariably delivered with perfect timing.  

The innocents abroad: or, The new Pilgrim's progress. By Mark Twain. Uniform title: Prospectus Publication info: Hartford, Conn. : American Publishing Co., [1869] Special Collections Copies Material Location PS1312 .A1 1869ca RAREBOOK Special Collections SC-BARR-STThrough his observations and humour, Twain encourages the traveller to look for things which interest him rather than simply those things noted in guidebooks or travel books.  

Twain mocks different traveller types, from the Oracle who bores his fellow travellers with knowledge gleaned from guidebooks and passed off as learned, the Old Travellers who brag and “prate and drivel and lie”, the consummate ass who dresses in local fashion and feigns a foreign accent and the Vandal who inscribes his name on monuments.  He makes fun of their insularity, ignorance and innocence.  While his own innocence may be feigned, Twain also turns his pen on himself, confessing to be variously, a “consummate” and “egregious” ass.

He reserves special mention for travel writers who “heated their fancies and biased their judgment”, turning out “pleasant falsities” either to be popular or to deceive or who slavishly emulate other authors.  Twain is critical of his fellow Pilgrims who ‘smouch’ their opinions about places from those books so that they “will tell of Palestine, when they get home, not as it appeared to them”, but as it appeared to writers of travel books.

Innocents Abroad is therefore an exercise in suggesting to the reader “how he would be likely to see Europe and the East if he looked at them with his own eyes instead of the eyes of those who traveled in those countries before him.”   

Although referred as a travel writing classic, in its railing against traveller types, travel pretences, foreigners and foreign places as well as travel writers, Innocents Abroad could in some ways be considered an anti-travel writing classic. With his repeated comparison of foreign sights with the US, Twain also gives the impression of someone who would almost have rather remained at home. Nevertheless, it is clear he is ‘pricking bubbles’ and ‘exploding humbugs’ of travel, not least those who slavishly adhere to guidebooks and express wonder and delight on cue. 

In common with other serialised Nineteenth Century books, at times Innocents Abroad seems a little lengthy, but is almost always enjoyable.  Twain meanders at some points of the Holy Land excursion when recalling his bible history, but even those chapters contain some excellent passages and anecdotes.

Some contemporary reviews of Innocents Abroad are available on line here and include WD Howells’ review for the Atlantic, and also a spoof review written by Twain himself.  

Innocents Abroad is available download for free in a variety of electronic formats at Amazon, Project Gutenberg, or the Internet Archive.

If you like the sound of this, you might also be interested in Labels by Evelyn Waugh.