Disorienting America’s Maghreb,
From Casablanca to the Marrakech Express
by Brian T. Edwards
Reviewed by Stephen M. Levin
Brian T. Edwards’ recent book Morocco Bound contributes to an expanding literature on the durable links between travel, Orientalism, and imperialism. By limiting his focus to the Maghreb, Edwards at once affirms the central tenets of Edward Said’s landmark work and demonstrates the need to examine Orientalism within the context of specific national imaginaries. Following Said, Edwards argues that discourse on North Africa from official, literary, and critical arenas nearly always entail a misrecognition - that is, it invariably evokes an episteme inflected by Cold War policy, the ethnocentrisms forged in colonialism, and the assimilative capacity of the prevailing cultural metaphors of the United States. Yet the dense intertextuality of writing on Morocco, Tangiers, and Algeria in the postwar period provides an opportunity to assess the inception and distinctive features of American Orientalism in an emerging geopolitical context and to consider the diverse personal and political motivations behind American interest in the Maghreb.
Edwards task is mainly twofold: to show how American representations of the Maghreb were nearly all inflected in some way by coldwar geopolitics and to recuperate from any monolithic reading of colonial representation those travelers and writers who experimented with complex narrative styles in order to capture the productive - and frequently disorientating - encounter between local culture and emerging globalization. For most writers, the misrecognition of the Maghreb entails a kind of “turning away,” which Edwards seems to regard as a consequence of cultural translation. The experimentalists—such as Paul and Jane Bowles—struggle to overcome such a turning away by staging in their work a disavowal of national identifications and the very impossibility of translation.
Edwards begins his analysis in November 1942, when the entry of United States troops into North Africa prompts a flourish of popular representations of the region; the opening chapter surveys the complex ways this discourse turns a blind eye to material social and historical realities. General George Patton, for example, relies on familiar and mythic referents—Arabian Nights, the Bible, the Silk Road with Marco Polo, and a Hollywood soundstage. Journalist Ernie Pyle imagines Morocco as an extension of the American West, which proves disappointing to him in light of his longing for something more exotic. A United States army newspaper in Algiers portrays Maghrebis as passive spectators, thereby inhibiting “recent resistance to French colonialism” (57). The film Casablanca canonizes many of these false perceptions by barely acknowledging the presence of Moroccans and by depicting the city as lying “outside modernity.” Therefore, it is immune to racial prejudice and political conflict. Edwards describes the film as “the paradigmatic example of American Orientalism” (71).
Yet, Orientalism is not the prison-house of discourse that some interpreters have argued it to be. Edwards reminds us that Said draws a clear distinction between institutions and representation, and the bulk of Morocco Bound focuses on writers who struggle mightily against the grain of official pronouncements, public opinion and, significantly, literary criticism - outside the apprehension of prevailing Orientalist categories. Edwards shift registers throughout, moving back and forth between examples of the Cold War rhetoric that framed most Western attempts to understand the Maghreb and the examinations of key writers who have been analyzed and misunderstood in those terms.
In the case of Paul Bowles, critics have not been particularly kind. American critics have tended to regard his long tenure in North Africa as escapism that prevented him from fulfilling his literary potential; some Moroccan critics, on the other hand, have seen him as a colonialist who favored English over Arabic, opposed the political efforts of the nationalists, and exemplified a Western lifestyle (the qualm here is mainly with his sexuality, as opposed to local values). Edwards seeks to rescue Bowles from these Manichean readings and, instead, suggests that Bowles’ work reflects the unique social milieu of Tangier, where Bowles lived most of his life, first arriving in 1947 and residing there until his death in 1999. Edwards describes the culture of Tangier, an international zone until 1956, as a “queer megalomania” a place where official policies reflected United States efforts to promote an image of “abundance” over the imagined austerity of state-sponsored communism (147), but also where writer and artist communities drew from a rich plurality of languages and vibrant cross-cultural exchange. Over the course of his residence in Tangier, Bowles acquired a notion of home as something that always remains tentative. In his writing, homelessness becomes a state for which one strives, even if at great personal cost, rather than a condition to which one is condemned. As Edwards observes, travel is depicted by Bowles as a “departure from the national episteme” or an “escape from national identification (80, 95). As a detached observer of the French and American presences in Morocco, Bowles most famously portrays his characters in The Sheltering Sky as seeking release from the subjective limits of national identification. Yet, such an achievement does not necessarily lead to a more authentic engagement with local culture; in fact, it more likely leads one to a sort of subjective void or symbolic death.
A similar longing to escape the fetters of nationality permeates the work of William Burroughs, whose residence in Tangier Edwards argues has been downplayed by critics as a crucial influence on his work. Edwards asserts that Burroughs’ masterwork Naked Lunch has too often been perceived as a post-Beatnik account of addiction and recklessness, and that critics have failed to grasp Burroughs’ “prophetic sense of globalization” (161). Naked Lunch like the work of Paul Bowles, explores the possibility of travel serving as a source of subjective life. Burroughs claims that he wished to escape his assumed identity as an “imperialist” and saw the “liminal position of exile” as a place one inhabits until future geopolitical relationships become open to versions of selfhood less dependent on nationality (170). Burroughs offers a sharp critique of the “anal economy” of modern capital and a utopian vision; Edwards call him a “poet of future arrangements” (183). Like Bowles, he remains critical of Moroccan nationalist movements and nationalist violence, and one wonders if Edwards might be romanticizing the oppositional force of Burroughs’ stance. If, as Fanon suggests, nationality constitutes a necessary step to independence, the utopian turn toward future arrangements still seems another way to turn away from local political realities.
The discussion of Jane Bowles provides an opportunity for Edwards to underscore a key insight his book makes as a whole: namely, the distinction between postmodernism and deterritorialization. Whereas postmodernism stresses the creative potential of the interplay of races, cultures, and nations, the literature of deterritorialization portrays a “self going to pieces” (216). Edwards considers at length the collaborations between Jane Bowles and Mohammed Mrabet, which he argues again should be regarded as “Tangerian works” (242). These works have confounded critics because they cannot easily be categorized as original work or as translation and, so, do not fit neatly into any national tradition. Indeed this work calls attention to the impossibility of translation, or what we might call the incommensurability of cultural difference. If Jane Bowles seeks to represent in her work as a nomadic conception of selfhood through her increasingly fractured narratives, she also suggests that such a space can be very difficult to inhabit. Her work suggests a view of subjectivity as a negated a selfhood that one lives in constant repetition. Yet, as Edwards notes, such an existential view constitutes a more ethically sound approach to globalization than mere expropriation.
Jane Bowles’ perception of the irreducible gap between two cultures—and in fact two peoples—contrasts sharply with the experience of “hippie Orientalism” described by Edwards in his last chapter. For the vagabond travelers of the late sixties and early seventies, Morocco offered not an opportunity to strip the self of layers of national identification but a chance to escape from the “messy world” at home— especially the United States war in Vietnam (255). These “hippies” saw immersion in the culturally unfamiliar as way to stabilize the self. Edwards takes to task the work of anthropologists of this era—notably Vincent Crapanzano, Paul Rabinow, and Clifford Geertz—for their complicity in the reducing Morocco to a “text” for Western consumption. Edwards shows again that this “overenthusiasm” for the exotic constitutes a sort of negation of the political realities of the Maghreb—first of the struggle against colonialism and then of the resistance to United States intervention in the region to assure strategic opposition to communism.
Edwards’ book punctuates for us the many ways that cultural representation sidesteps power relationships, particularly in the Middle East. If the literary experiments he examines do not leave us with a clear impression that travel can offer a viable vantage point for self-fashioning or for cultural critique, they do at least point to the tenacity of national identifications in any constitution of selfhood and in any critique of global geopolitics.
Edwards, Brian T. Morocco Bound: Disorienting America’s Maghreb, From Casablanca to the Marrakech Express, Duke UP, 2005.