Riad Villa Blanche is a time capsule dating to the era when Edith Wharton visited Morocco. At that time, Morocco was a Protectorate of France, and Hubert Lyautey its Resident General.
Lyautey’s reign ended in 1925, and Morocco has been independent since 1956. But a reproduction of a romanticized painting of Lyautey adorns the wall of this boutique hotel in Agadir.
As a historian, I am curious to know why the man most closely associated with Morocco’s subjugation is casually placed among so many other images of Morocco in the 19-teens and 1920s.
Riad Villa Blanche seems at first glance a welcome change from the chain hotels along the beach promenade of this resort town. The hotel opened eight years ago, and its owners—French I was told by one local, a Moroccan Jew from France by another—designed it as a palatial courtyard house from another century.
The ground floor consists of a spa as well as a shishi bar and restaurant. Rich locals and savvy tourists eat there on weekend nights. Twenty-eight guest rooms line the corridors of the first and second floors, all arranged around a courtyard that opens to the sky. The corridor leading to the rooms has beamed ceilings, iron railings, and stucco lintels. The detailed designs provide a weighty sense of architectural tradition.
Preservation of the past, however, is always a problematic endeavor, and one must ask what past in particular do the owners seek to promote?
The furnishings too invite guests to step back in time. Preservation of the past, however, is always a problematic endeavor, and one must ask what past in particular do the owners seek to promote? What sells to touristic clientele today?
My room is on the second floor. There is a small salon there with an antique desk. Black and white photos line the walls of the corridor around the courtyard, images that harken back to the 1920s. There are French troops walking past the adobe walls of an unidentified medina, or precolonial old city. There is Sultan Moulay Yousef, whom the French installed as a figurehead ruler at the start of Morocco’s French Protectorate (1912-1956).
And there, the sun reflecting on its glass casing, is a reproduction of a painting of Hubert Lyautey, whom Edith Wharton so admired. She described him as a protector of colonized peoples with a “sympathetic understanding of the native prejudices and a real affection for the native character.”
In the painting, Lyautey is in full regalia. His military medals on display, he perches on a rickety bamboo chair. He throws his left arm confidently back, a proprietary gesture. There is a cup of coffee on the wooden stool before the officers. Lyautey and his companion dominate the scene, which appears to be a traditional courtyard house with tiled floor and delicately painted green wooden doors behind them.
And so, the furnishings of this hotel glamorize a problematic era in Moroccan history, to say the least. When the French set up this colonial system, they replaced one ruler for his more malleable brother, setting up a system of indirect rule. Under the pretense of partnership, the French extracted men and resources for their own devastating wars and exploitive economic endeavors. The French often exoticized Moroccans in order to maintain the premise that they required Western tutelage.
In assessing a colonial mindset, the anthropologist Renato Rosaldo coined the term “imperialist nostalgia.” This disparaging term signifies Europe’s apologetic desire to salvage an imagined and illusory precolonial culture that it destroyed through the economic and political dislocation wrought by its own intervention. In the 1920s, at the height of colonialism, the French were “longing for an irretrievably lost time.”
In Morocco, colonial administrators forced Moroccans to live in premodern medinas. Wharton boasted of the French decision to from the accoutrements of modern urbanism. “Native towns,” she wrote, “shall be kept intact, and no European building erected within them.” Although promoted as respect for local building traditions, French nostalgia highlighted the modernizing superiority of a foreign colonizer vis-à-vis backward natives.
Today, Riad Villa Blanche and other hotels in Morocco suggest that “Nostalgia for Imperialism” has replaced “imperialist nostalgia” as a dominant cultural discourse. Tourism is a new form of foreign intervention. Western expats remodel courtyard houses, pimp them out to create luxury restaurants and hotels. They adorn them with the visual trappings of the colonial era, thus becoming a nostalgic paean to imperial domination.
This humiliation of Moroccans—whether deliberate or subconscious—is evidenced in the scantily clad photo of an adolescent Amazigh woman from the late-nineteenth or early-twentieth century. The photo was in my room, facing the bed, a 10” X 15” sepia-toned image. The young woman wore an old style headband with coins, a stark contrast with her long French-style pearl necklace wrapped so tightly around her neck it seemed to choke her. The photographer pulled her sheer top down low enough to expose her right nipple. Her eyes looked toward some vast expanse in the distance, vacantly, or so it seemed to me.
Nostalgia for imperialism denigrates Moroccans and cheapens their past.
Nostalgia for imperialism denigrates Moroccans and cheapens their past. What message does this image send to guests at the hotel, who probably don’t stop to consider the subliminal messages sent via the art on the walls. What do the staff of the hotel think of the promotion of Lyautey and the exploitation of Moroccan woman whose life changed under his rule? In the US, a photo of a woman physically exposed—especially if she is within a racially charged social and political dynamic—would not fly. But in Morocco, at this hotel and other ones, it seems to be regarded as no more than a cute relic of the past.
Moroccans and Westerners must begin to hold up this nostalgia for imperialism under a microscope, much as they might a new and dangerous virus, and finding an antidote must be a priority.