This week, I am living out a century-old prediction of Edith Wharton. In 1917, my Gilded Age doppelganger asserted that she was on “…a 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” (vii-viii).
Yes, I agree. There is a certain unoriginality in sites that tourists see and a concomitant mixing, somewhat indiscriminate, of cultures, personal expectations and economic capacities.
Nearly 12 million foreign tourists will visit Morocco in 2019, 102 years after Wharton’s prediction. This week, I let the Ministry of Culture count me as one of them.
It is exhausting to be a tourist, especially in Marrakesh.
I am in this southern city with my husband Mark, who knows little about Morocco or, in truth, any country besides the US.
Mark visited Morocco once before, seven years ago, a disaster. That time, I inserted him into what was then my daily life.
He stayed at my très petit house in the Casbah des Oudaya in Rabat. The shower was over a squat toilet. You balanced carefully as you washed to avoid falling in the hole where you defecated. It was a hot July, and there was no air conditioning. Mark got sick to his stomach, and he was feverish. My doctor in Rabat—who, as I told Mark, knew the local microbes better than anyone—prescribed a medication that Mark didn’t recognize. Mark balked when his google search revealed the US had yet to authorize its use, and most countries reserved it for incontinent cattle. For three days, he slept on a narrow banquette. He finally felt well enough to move to a five star hotel in Casablanca and wait for his plane to the US.
This time, I arranged the luxury experience due a Western tourist. We are staying in fancy hotels. We are eating at expensive restaurants. And we are being shuttled from city to city by private drivers. This time, we coast through the bled, Morocco’s rural hinterland, gazing at locals through the windows of a black van clearly designated for purposes “touristiques.”
In Marrakesh, we stay at Riad El Fenn. It is expensive, and people with access to celebrities stay there (i.e., not the celebrities themselves, but you are getting very, very close to fame and money).
At 11 am this morning, Mark and I left the choreographed calm of Room 14 and headed to the Saadian Tombs, a key site in my literary pilgrimage tracing Wharton’s journey to Morocco.
This dynastic mausoleum dates to the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Its architectural elements include the engraved stucco and woodworking for which Morocco is celebrated. It also consists of a series of twelve marble pillars.
The importation of Italian building material belies colonial narratives of isolation from the international arena. Wharton promotes colonialism by recounting how “cut off from civilizing influences, the Moslems isolated themselves in a lonely fanaticism.” She perceives the Saadian Tombs as an anomaly, for “Who can have conceived, in the heart of a savage Saharan camp, the serenity and balance of this hidden place?”
Intent on seeing this monument, I walked from Riad El Fenn to the Saadian Tombs. Google maps indicated this trip would take twenty minutes, but I felt like it took an hour or more.
I led Mark out onto the busy sidewalk, navigating the early morning crowds of local residents engaging in morning errands. We passed through dingy sidewalk cafés filled with Moroccan men drinking coffee and looking out on the busy streets before them. As I passed the Koutabia mosque and approached the Djema El Fna plaza, I avoided eye contact with street peddlers selling cheap trinkets, like that small scimitar or a necklace of colored beans. I passed the caliches with overworked horses and buried a desire to advocate on their behalf. I crossed the road, dodging aggressive blue taxis and scooters. And I kept walking, ignoring the noise, the traffic, and seemingly thousands of others like me out seeking a touristic experience.
Mark and I made it to the Saadian Tombs, but by then I did not have the energy to enter. There was a long line of people waiting to see the historic monument, which was prohibitive. When I took a moment to catch my breath in a patch of shade, yet another tour bus emptied out.
The tourists immediately began to shoot photos of themselves and their immediate surroundings. These surroundings consisted of a small square surrounded by some boutiques, and beyond it a road lined with everyday shops selling meat or hardware. As I began to watch the tourists being tourists, I engaged in meta-tourism, a study of tourists who want to see the sites cultivated and choreographed for their viewing pleasure.
Mark looked at me as I discretely photographed those taking photographs. “Don’t you want to go in, Stacy,” he asked.
“I can’t,” I responded. “I am too tired, and I don’t have the energy to jostle against hundreds in a small space just to take a photo of something that I can find as easily on a postcard.”
I had left Riad El Fenn with the intention of seeing something that Wharton had described. Instead, I have wound up experiencing what Wharton predicted would one day be determined as “the banalities and promiscuities of modern travel.”