By Mohamed Bella
Rabat – Morocco has always captured the attention of western literati. Throughout history, numerous prolific western writers have flocked to Morocco to find spiritual and intellectual inspiration among the peoples of a diverse land. Here are ten writers who harnessed their individual experiences while in the Kingdom of Morocco to create timeless literary works.
1. Paul Bowles
An American expatriate, Paul Bowles is a writer whose name is intimately associated with Morocco and North Africa. It was in an apartment on the fourth floor of Immeuble Itesa in Tangier where Bowles lived and wrote several novels, short stories, poems and essays. His literary works were an inspiration that lured other prominent writers to explore Morocco. In his essay, “The Worlds of Tangier,” Bowles wrote, “beginning with the first day and continuing through all the years I have spent in Tangier, I have loved the white city that sits astride its hills, looking out across the Strait of Gibraltar to the mountains of Andalucia.”
Bowles’ preeminent novel, The Sheltering Sky, was written in Tangier in 1949. The story of existential malaise among young American voyagers is considered a landmark of modern literature. It was later adapted to film by Academy Award Winner Bernardo Bertolucci in 1990.
For half a century, Bowles explored, crisscrossed and trekked throughout Morocco. In Baptism of Solitude, Paul Bowles discussed his trip to the Moroccan Sahara: “Immediately when you arrive in the Sahara, for the first or the tenth time, you notice the stillness. An incredible, absolute silence prevails outside the towns; and within, even in busy places like the markets, there is a hushed quality in the air, as if the quiet were a conscious force which, resenting the intrusion of sound, minimizes and disperses sound straightaway.”
2. Juan Goytisolo
The Anti-Orientalist Juan Goytisolo is regarded as Spain’s second most prominent writer after Miguel de Cervantes. “Juan Goytisolo is one of the Cervantes Prize winners who most closely identified with the author of Don Quixote,” said Spanish Culture Minister Inigo Mendez de Vigo during the Cervantes Awards Ceremony in 2014.
Although Spanish by birth, Juan Goytisolo later declared that he was from Marrakech’s Jemaa el Fna Square, and pledged allegiance to Marrakech’s people as he called them, “My tribe.” From his seat in Café France in Jemaa el Fna, Goytisolo felt inspired and mesmerized by the storytellers, snake charmers, magicians, musicians and acrobats. Goytisolo’s passionate attachment to and affiliation with the renowned Jemaa el Fna square culminated in its declaration as a world heritage site by UNESCO in 2001. A part of “the intangible cultural heritage of humanity.”
3. Tennessee Williams
Tennessee Williams is a Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright, and is regarded as one of America’s primary playwrights of the 20th century. While on vacation in Morocco, Williams wrote Cat on A Hot Tin Roof, a play that won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama. Tangier’s Petit Socco, a mythical square in the city’s medina, was Williams’s most utopian space in Morocco.
4. William S. Burroughs
The “outlaw” William S. Burroughs, or “El Hombre Invisible” (the invisible man) as people in Tangier called him, is one of the central figures of the Beat Generation that found refuge in Morocco. Inside room no. 9 in El Muniria motel in Tangier, Burroughs wrote his best-selling book, Naked Lunch. During his time in Tangier, Burroughs wrote, “Tangier is one of the few places left in the world where, so long as you don’t proceed to robbery, violence, or some form of crude, antisocial behavior, you can do exactly what you want.”
5. Edith Wharton
Edith Wharton was the first woman to win the Pulitzer Prize for her novel, The Age of Innocence. It was later adapted to film in 1993 by Academy Award Winner Martin Scorsese and starred Daniel Day-Lewis and Michelle Pfeiffer. Pre-winning the Pulitzer for fiction in 1921, Wharton paid a visit to Morocco in 1917, at the invitation of General Lyautey. In Morocco, Wharton immersed herself in the diverse culture, the intriguing history and the splendor of the Moroccan landscape.
In her book entitled, In Morocco, Wharton wrote that “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.” Wharton found the Moroccan architecture and its intricate ornaments a feast to the eye; “to visit Morocco is still like turning the pages of some illuminated Persian manuscript all embroidered with bright shapes and subtle lines.”
6. George Orwell
7. Jack Kerouac
In his book Desolation Angels, he documented his trip with other original core members of the Beat Generation in Tangier. In one of the chapters entitled, “Passing Through Tangier,” he wrote, “Majoon is a candy you make with honey, spices and raw marijuana (kief)…A tremendous high giving vent to many colored sensations like, ‘Notice the delicate white shade of those flowers under the tree’…Man, that hasheesh in Bull’s room – and it’s amazing how American pot smokers have gone around the world by now with the most exaggerated phantasmagoria of gooey details, hallucinations actually, by which their machine-ridden brains though are actually given a little juice of the ancient life of man, so God bless pot.”
8. Esther Freud
Esther Freud is another writer that paid a visit to Morocco, but only as a young child. The daughter of British painter Lucian Freud, and great-granddaughter of Sigmund Freud, embarked on a bohemian journey through Morocco with both her sister and hippie free-spirited mother in the 1960s.
In her autobiographical novel, Hideous Kinky, Freud depicts the dazzling and unconventional life of her mother as she went wherever Morocco’s wind took her. Freud wrote,”My first big journey was when I was four, to Morocco, where I lived until I was six, and wrote about [in Hideous Kinky]. For the rest of my childhood I felt I had a secret, exotic, colorful Moroccan life inside me that nobody else in gray, rainy England understood. It affected me in another way: I spoke a muddle of English, French and Arabic, but couldn’t write until I was 10. I thought that stories and tales I’d heard in Morocco were more magical than putting letters in a certain order. I think they politely called me ‘vague’.”
9. Jean Genet
The controversial French author, Jean Genet, is one of the many writers that chose Morocco for permanent residence. His rebellious creative writing flourished while in Morocco. The “Thug of Genius,” as Simone de Beauvoir called him, embraced Morocco as his final resting place. When Genet died in Paris in 1986, his body was taken back to Larache, Morocco, where he was buried. Jean Genet loved Morocco and was largely indebted to the country and its people.
10. Mark Twain
Mark Twain is an American author who is well known for his novel of high literary merit, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. He is another great writer who traveled to Morocco to gain creative inspiration.
In his travel book, The Innocents Abroad, Twain wrote of Morocco,“Tangier is the spot we have been longing for all the time…We wanted something thoroughly and uncompromisingly foreign—foreign from top to bottom—foreign from center to circumference—foreign inside and outside and all around—nothing anywhere about it to dilute its foreignness—nothing to remind us of any other people or any other land under the sun. And lo! In Tangier we have found it…I am glad to have seen Tangier—the second-oldest town in the world.”
Today, various parts of the country, big and small, are still a representation and a testament to the accounts and adventures of many important Western authors who traveled to Morocco, discovered its many mysteries, and found creative inspiration.