I am in a plane heading to Casablanca.   Seated behind me, four compatriots loudly discuss their vacation plans across the aisle separating them.  I note three European-Americans and one Asian-American. I recognize something of myself in them. Like me, they are middle-aged travelers who would look right at home in the Connecticut’s shi-shi Fairfield County, where I grew up.

My seatmates represent a small subset of the 10 million tourists who annually visit Morocco.  Since I started studying Edith Wharton’s travelogue In Morocco, I have become interested in images of this North African kingdom.  I wonder what captures the American imagination 100 years after Wharton’s journey.  So, I shamelessly eavesdrop on their conversation.

They talk of their plans to go to the desert and sleep in tents, like real Saharan nomads.  

Wharton, too, associated North Africa with sensual images of nomads and deserts.  Wharton’s biographer Hermoine Lee explains, “the French romanticizing of Africa and the Orient, with which she was so imbued, made much of the ancient mystery of the desert and its people.”  Wharton eagerly read the book The Immoralist before going to Morocco, a gift from its author André Gide.  She informed him, “his evocations of the desert were whetting her appetite.”

But I have tread the same ground as Wharton and so know that she remained in the temperate Mediterranean and semi-arid climates, despite her claims to the contrary in In Morocco.   Wharton instead enacted a common Western ecological fantasy in which she imagined herself “desert motoring.”  She used this term as she traveled from Tangier, a port on the Mediterranean Sea, to Rabat, a coastal city only 135 miles southward.  Her ecological fantasy colored her understanding of a people who, she imagined, “breathe of Timbuctoo and the farthest desert.”

In fact, Wharton never traveled further than Marrakesh, which she deems a “savage Saharan camp.”  This city, then and now one of Morocco’s imperial cities, is situated north of the snow-capped Atlas Mountains, in what would be deemed the Sahelian regions of the desert.  But Wharton’s assertion that she traveled in the Sahara Desert has often been uncritically accepted.

I would like to muse for a minute upon the American fascination with Arab desertscapes.   US literature and other works have long conveyed fantasies about desert Arabs.  My mother recently sent an old primer, thinking I’d want to see the page describing the “Letter C.”  To teach the digraph “ck,” children memorized this poem:   

A camel had an Arab on his back.
A camel had an Arab on his back.
The Arab sat
upon his hump—
Bump, bump, bump.
A camel had an Arab on his back.

Published in the 1960s, this schoolbook may have been in my own kindergarten classroom.  Children—many now about the same age as the tourists seated behind me—would have peered at the accompanying illustration and seen an Arab riding his camel in a sandy desert terrain with a pyramid as the sole backdrop.  The red bow on the camel’s tail effeminizes the sharp-nosed Arab. His garb is a mish mash of traditional clothing from different areas of the world. He wraps a keffiyah from the Arabian Peninsula around his head. His pretty pink cape resembles a North African burnous.  The bright blue sirwal, or harem pants, are of Indian origin. And the pointy red slippers deliver an Arabian Nights aesthetic.

Such schoolbooks surely contribute to the decision of today’s tourists to seek to satisfy the Western fantasy of living in the desert “just like a nomad.”  A campsite established by Nomad Travel is, ironically, a permanent fixture in the Sahara Desert. It is located one and a half hours from Merzouga…by camel.  This company promises clients that they will “head towards the home of a nomad family with whom you will spend some time and share your second night.” Wilderness Travel also offers its tourists an opportunity to “meet friendly Berber nomads.”  Americans must be rich to live like a nomad with few belongings. This camping trip costs $5,000 a person.

C:\Users\sholden\Downloads\shutterstock_520637227.jpg

Statistics gainsay ecological fantasies about the Arab world and the nomads who traverse Saharan ergs.  3.3 million people render Casablanca a bustling urban doppelganger of Los Angeles, and 60% of the 35 million Moroccans lives in a large city.  There are more than thirty cities with a population of more than 150,000 people. The rest of the population lives in the small towns and villages.  In the High Atlas Mountains, only fifteen families continue to lead a nomadic life.

According to The Independent, “Only tourism works towards maintaining this vanishing way of life.”          

The four American tourists seated behind me on this flight to Casablanca will doubtless contribute in their own small but significant way to perpetuating an ecological fantasy.   When they return from Morocco, they will report with great excitement about their ride on a disgruntled camel, their trek through a series of sand dunes, and their night under the desert sky in a pimped-out tent.  They will not remember with any clarity either Marrakesh’s modern shopping areas or downtown Casablanca. In other words, the seductive desert fantasy acts as a screen. They are not able to process evidence that contradicts what they, like Wharton, want to see in an Arab land.

Share This