Thursday, September 1, 2016


In 1917, American author Edith Wharton (1862-1937), accompanied by the American diplomat Walter Berry and a large retinue of servants, traveled through Morocco "from the Mediterranean to the High Atlas, and from the Atlantic to Fez" (Wharton, In Morocco). When I think of Edith Wharton, the first things that come to mind are her short novel Ethan Frome and the longer, more tedious novel The Age of Innocence, which won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1921.  I also think of her as a socialite and the belle of the American literary world during the early 20th century.
Photo: Edith Wharton Restoration/New York Times
I don't think of her as a travel writer, but she was. 

Wharton describes her month-long journey to Morocco at the end of World War I in detail in In Morocco, which can be considered the first tourist guidebook for the area, at least the first written in English. Interestingly, our Moroccan adventure followed roughly the same route as Wharton's, beginning on the North Atlantic coast, motoring to Fes, winding through the Atlas Mountains, and then settling in Marrakech at the end of lots of driving.

In 1917, Morocco was "foreign" in every sense of the word, but that was about to change. Wharton notes, "Hardly has the Rock of Gibraltar turned to cloud when one's foot is on the soil of an almost unknown Africa. . . . The air of the unforeseen blows on one from the roadless  passes of the Atlas. . . . [I made] my quick trip at a moment unique in the history of the country; 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. Morocco is too curious, too beautiful, too rich in landscape and architecture, and above all too much of a novelty, not to attract one of the main streams of spring travel as soon as the Mediterranean passenger traffic is resumed. . . .  [N]o one will ever again see Moulay Idriss and Fez and Marrakech as I saw them." Wharton captured the country at the precipice of change.

One year short of a century later, Bob and I felt, somewhat like Wharton, that we were traveling in a country in a tug o' war between the past and the future. One of the places we felt the pull of the past the strongest was in the souks. The deeper we walked into the souks, the further back in time and the farther from the West we seemed to be.

The biggest souk in Marrakech, and one of the biggest bazaars in Africa, is the one attached to Jemaa el-Fna, the city's main square. Before we even got to the souk, however, we dealt with a spill-over of shopping from the souk alleys into the square. A few steps from the square's perimeter, carts on wheels suddenly appear in front of unsuspecting strolling tourists. 

A string of juice carts doesn't have to track down buyers; plenty of folks come to them in search of freshly-squeezed orange juice:

The closer one gets to the souk, the more crowded it gets:

This Cubist mural marking one of the entries into the souk seems a bit out of place:

Different areas of the souk focus on different goods. We were always happy to spend a few dirhams in the olive stalls:

We also loved the dates and figs:

Further into the Marrakech souk, we did see a few of the craftsmen (always men), hard at work at their sewing machines:

The first time I saw one of these shoe displays, I knew I had to have a pair. How is it that I came home without new shoes? We have to go back!

This man with the backwards baseball cap is pushing a cart loaded with nut-based confections. He'll stop and slice off a chunk for anyone who wants to pay.

This shop wasn't technically IN the souk--we saw it on our way home--but it's too wonderful not to include here. Just what I want: a purse made from old Michelin tires!

Booths of leather goods did not interest Bob much, which cramped my shopping style:

You got it right, Edith.

I had to stay close to Bob. With my terrible sense of direction, I would have been lost in ten minutes in this labyrinth. No matter where we are in the world, Bob always seems to know where he is.

Scarves like these are ubiquitous in tourist areas all over the world, but something about the way they are displayed in Morocco draws the eye.  And by the way, why didn't I buy that pillow on the lower left? I love it!

I had already purchased one of the Moroccan "silk" table runners, so wonderfully lustrous, in Fes:

Looking at these pictures makes me want to go back with an extra empty suitcase.

Although we spent parts of two days in this souk, it definitely wasn't enough time. I hope someday we will be able to again get lost in its crowded, tangled, cacophonous corridors.

I need some Moroccan slippers.

"In the bazaars . . . people meet and mingle: cattle-dealers, olive-growers, peasants from the Atlas, the Souss and the Draa, Blue Men of the Sahara, blacks from Senegal and the Soudan, coming in to trade with the wood merchants, tanners, leather merchants, silk-weavers, armourers, and makers of agricultural implements. Dark, fierce, and fanatical are these narrow souks of Marrakech. . . .  One feels at once that something more than the thought of bargaining--dear as this is to the African heart--animates these incessantly moving throngs. The Souks of Marrakech seem, more than any others, the central organ of a native life that extends far beyond the city walls into secret clefts of the mountains and far-off oases where plots are hatched and holy wars fomented . . . ."  (Wharton, In Morocco)

Written in 1917 and published in 1920, In Morocco is Edith Wharton's travel journal of her month-long drive in a military vehicle all over what was, at the time, a relatively unknown North African country. While she revels in the beauty of the landscapes and the architecture, she also spouts the racial and sexual cliches and biases of her era, gushes over the virtues of the French occupation, and lets her feminism loose as she expresses her distaste for the oppression of Moroccan women. It's a worthwhile travelogue, but it's also a great period piece that details the early 20th century attitudes of the West towards African cultures.
Wharton covers the following topics:
I. Rabat and Sale
2. Volubilis, Moulay Idriss and Meknez
3. Fez
4. Marrakech
5. Harems and Ceremonies
6. General Lyautey's Work in Morocco (the French Colonial Administrator)
7. A Sketch of Moroccan History
8. Note on Moroccan Architecture


  1. Fun. Love your adventures into literature.

  2. These markets are wonderful. I'm impressed (and disappointed) that you resisted so many things--who wouldn't want a tire purse????

  3. I loved blowing up the picture of the man at his (relatively modern) sewing machine, and see his thread holder: a homemade one, looped up over the shelf bracket and back to the large spool of thread. I'm with you on the empty suitcase--I loved so many things in your pictures!